Christina Rossetti Poetry: British Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1906

Christina Rossetti, often thought of as a religious poet, became the major woman poet of mid-Victorian England with the publication of Goblin Market, and Other Poems in 1862. Her only true “competitor,” Elizabeth Barrett Browning, had died a few months earlier. “Goblin Market,” the introductory poem of the volume, has...

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Christina Rossetti, often thought of as a religious poet, became the major woman poet of mid-Victorian England with the publication of Goblin Market, and Other Poems in 1862. Her only true “competitor,” Elizabeth Barrett Browning, had died a few months earlier. “Goblin Market,” the introductory poem of the volume, has remained her most famous work and illustrates her mastery of the lyric.

“Goblin Market”

Because much of her lyric poetry is oriented toward children, “Goblin Market” is often classified as a children’s poem. Even though the characters in the poem are young girls and goblins with fairy-tale associations, the poem is actually an allegory of temptation and redemption meant for adult reading. Rossetti’s common theme of the need for renunciation is prevalent, though in the disguise of whimsical child’s play. The poem produces a grotesque comic effect, supported by irregular meter and cumulative cataloging. The tempting fruit of the goblins, described in Rossetti’s typical sensual manner as “sweet to tongue and sound to eye,” causes Laura to succumb, desiring more, only to discover that her pleasure is terminated.

Lizzie acts as the savior. Like Christ, she goes into the grove of the men selling their wares and offers to buy some, only to discover that they really want her, not her penny. Although she suffers much physical abuse, the evil people are “worn out by her resistance,” and she returns home jubilant with her penny in hand, able to comfort Laura with the assurance that one can find happiness without the temptations of pleasure. Later, when both girls have married, they are able to relate to their daughters in didactic fashion how one can avoid the pitfalls of the evil world.

Rossetti’s strong visual imagination aligns her with the Pre-Raphaelites’ interest in painting. Although she did not paint, Christina had a painter’s eye: The love of colors, particularly gold, rose, violet, blue, and green, and the delight in decorative detail inform her lyrics. Her eye often sees unexpected analogies. In “Goblin Market,” for example, she compares Laura’s arched neck to a swan and a lily, both natural phenomena, but also to a vessel being launched, a rather startling comparison somewhat in the vein of the seventeenth century Metaphysical conceits. In fact, several critics have alluded to her love for seventeenth century poets, especially George Herbert and Henry Vaughan.

“The Prince’s Progress”

In addition to her lyrics, Rossetti wrote a great deal of narrative verse, characteristically on the theme of lost or frustrated love. Most of these love-narratives are romantic and otherworldly; when Rossetti does attempt realism, especially in describing marital love, her images are pale and flat. One of the longer narratives, “The Prince’s Progress,” developed out of a lyric of 1861; Rossetti expanded it at her brother’s suggestion to provide a title poem for her next volume of poetry. Much like the tale of Edmund Spenser’s Red Cross Knight, this poem is the story of a princess waiting to be rescued by a prince.

The prince waits in his palace for a full month before leaving to meet his bride. When he finally hears the call, prompted by allegorical voices that represent fleeting time, he discovers that the journey will not be easy. It will be another Pilgrim’s Progress. His first delay is the typical temptation of a beautiful maiden who keeps him as Dido detained Aeneas. Following his release, the prince finds himself in a nineteenth century wasteland with a blight lurking in the darkening air, “a land of neither life nor death.” Here he discovers a cave with an old hermit who gives him the “Elixir of Life,” but the elixir is insufficient. When he eventually leaves the cave, he is again diverted by self-indulgence, and when he finally arrives at his bride’s door, he finds that she is dead, her body being prepared for burial. The poem is an interesting narrative in the vein of medieval romances, but it is obviously allegorical. The prince is admonished by the narrator, “You waited on the road too long, you trifled at the gate.” The poem is permeated with ironies and allegorical symbolism proclaiming the vices of procrastination.

“From House to Home”

“From House to Home” is another long narrative, allegorical in character, with lost love at the center. It tells of a variety of states of being. In the first of these states, the narrator is living in an earthly paradise: a castle of transparent glass set against a background of stately trees and pastures full of swift squirrels, singing birds, and leaping lambs. The young lady is called away by a male “angel.” Day and night she seeks for him to no avail—he has vanished. Eventually she has a vision of a marvelously beautiful woman who is suffering the usual tribulations of a pilgrim on an allegorical journey. The martyred woman stands on ground with budding flowers, but every flower has a thorn and galls her feet. Cruel laughter and clapping hands remind the reader of the ways of danger and rebuke in life. The martyred one can be read here as both the archetypal man or woman in search of love and the Christian Church attempting to extend its love to others.

Two of the narratives reveal sides of Rossetti’s personality that most of her poetry does not demonstrate. One of these, “A Royal Princess,” suggests political interests. The poem is about an imagined political situation. A highborn heroine is sympathetic toward the suffering masses who threaten a revolt against the kingdom, and she determines to descend from her secluded, protected palace to help them.

“The Lowest Room”

In “The Lowest Room” (a poem that Dante Gabriel Rossetti did not like) there is an evident implication that, bound by society’s rules, women must be passive and must play given roles in life. Again, there are two sisters in the poem, but unlike those in other works, only the ideal sister is here rewarded with husband and child. The ideal one is described in feminine language; the other one, less attractive, dreams of Homer’s soldiers. Masculine voluptuousness affects her. In projecting such a contrast, Rossetti implies that women in her society are told how to dress, how to act, and how to be successful. There is little room for individuality. The final acceptance of this less attractive female, the speaker of the poem, places her in the role of the typical passive woman waiting for her turn without being able to help in creating it.

“Maiden Song” and “The Iniquity of the Fathers, upon the Children”

Another narrative that takes a critical view of social conventions is “The Iniquity of the Fathers, upon the Children,” in which an unmarried woman who has a child is tormented by the community. The only justice, the narrator concludes, is that all are “equal in the grave.” On the other hand, Rossetti’s narrative style can show a fairy-tale naïveté, as in “Maiden Song,” a tale of three sisters, Meggan, May, and Margaret, all of whom desire husbands. The first two take the first man who comes along, afraid they will be like Margaret sitting at home singing and spinning. Margaret’s patience, however, is amply rewarded; she wins the king of the entire country for her husband.

Devotional poems

Rossetti’s strong religious faith supported her during continuing illnesses, and she began to give most of her attention to writing devotional material. Her first poetry had shown her strong family affection and her religious feelings, particularly the sentiment of renunciation. The later poems (such as “A Novice,” “A Martyr,” and “I Have Fought a Good Fight”) continue to focus on renunciation. The first is a flight from the world into the calm of the cloister; the latter two praise the eager laying down of life for the glory of God. Actually, religious ardor colors most of Rossetti’s thoughts and results in much oversimplified verse echoing common platitudes about devotion. A poem such as “Whitsun Eve,” however, illustrates poetic maturity, blending the love of God and the love of the beauty of creation. All that is pure in nature is pressed into the service of the one shining lamb.

Dualism

An interesting aspect of Rossetti’s style is her use of the Victorian motif of two voices, so prominently associated with Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poetry. The Victorian world attempted to synthesize the Romantic values of the early nineteenth century with the classical theories of order and restraint more prominently displayed in the eighteenth century. From this attempt came a strong clash of values and great personal frustration. Adding to this problem was the growth of the industrial world and the increase in scientific knowledge. Rossetti’s dualism establishes the concept of a universe based on a conflict of opposites, as in “Life and Death,” “Twice,” “Today and Tomorrow,” and “Two Parted.”

“Two Parted” deals with one true lover and one betrayer. Ironically, the betrayer in this case is the woman. “Today and Tomorrow” creates a dichotomy of living life to the fullest on the one hand and wishing to die on the other. “Life and Death” begins with a negative statement about life’s bitterness, juxtaposing the good things of life with the unpleasant. “Twice” uses the counterpoint of the narrator’s offering her heart while the man suggests that her heart is not ripe. In the narrative poems, this technique is carried out through the use of two opposing characters. Lizzie and Laura of “Goblin Market” illustrate the dualistic motif; in “Maiden Song” the conflict is between two plain sisters and the beautiful Margaret. This dualism is also apparent in Rossetti’s religious poems, where there appears to be a confrontation between different views of salvation or different moral attitudes. A great number of traditional opposites are used here—time and eternity, earthly misery and heavenly bliss—demonstrating the torment of a trapped soul longing for escape. One such poem, “This near-at-hand,” stresses the antithesis of Heaven and Earth.

The religious poems often describe a destructive end that results from the speaker’s being torn between duty and desire. Sometimes the choice appears to have been made in error, and when it is, it seems to have arisen from weakness or beguilement. So choice itself becomes destructive; there is no solution; life is an absurdity. Even when the speaker is not caught in a personal dilemma, the poem repeats the impression that the world, as Matthew Arnold suggests in “Dover Beach,” is a place of uncertainty, a virtual wasteland, a “darkling plain” where ignorant armies fight by night.

In the midst of all this dualism, the reader is left with the impression that Rossetti is earnestly searching for unity but cannot find it. In the secular love poems, she goes so far as to suggest that perhaps as ghosts, removed from the flesh, lovers could achieve such a unity. In the religious poems, her solution is, of course, union with God through Christ in death. Needless to say, much of her poetry reflects the struggle in her own life to find some solution to the paradox, irony, and bifurcation that life in general repeatedly offers. Rossetti’s poetry reveals a dual personality: one side reflecting Pre-Raphaelite traits of fictional effects and sensual imagery, often set in a dream world; the other reflecting the assurances of her orthodox faith.

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