Christina Rossetti

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(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Christina Rossetti 1830-1894

(Also wrote under the pseudonym Ellen Alleyn) English poet, short story writer, and prose writer. See also Goblin Market Criticism.

Rossetti is ranked among the finest English poets of the nineteenth century. Closely associated with Pre-Raphaelitism—an artistic and literary movement mat aspired to recapture the vivid pictorial qualities and sensual aesthetics of Italian religious painting before the year 1500—Rossetti was equally influenced by the religious conservatism and asceticism of the Church of England. Scholars find in her poetry an enduring dialectic between these disparate outlooks, as well as an adeptness with a variety of poetic forms.

Biographical Information

Rossetti was born in 1830, four years after her father, an Italian exile, settled in London and married Frances Mary Polidori. Demonstrating poetic gifts early in her life, Rossetti wrote sonnets in competition with her brothers William Michael and Dante Gabriel, a practice that is thought to have developed her command of metrical forms. At age eighteen, Rossetti began studying the works of Italian poet Dante Alighieri, who became a major and lasting influence on her poetry, as evidenced in her many allusions to his writing. As a young woman, Rossetti declined two marriage proposals because her suitors' failed to conform to the tenets of the Anglican Church. Rather than marry, she chose to remain with her mother, an equally devout Anglican. Rossetti's poetic production diminished as she grew older and increasingly committed to writing religious prose. A succession of serious illnesses strongly influenced her temperament and outlook on life; because she often believed herself close to death, religious devotion and mortality became persistent themes in both her poetry and prose. In 1871 she developed Graves's disease and, though she published A Pageant, and Other Poems in 1881, she concentrated primarily on works of religious prose, such as The Face of the Deep: A Devotional Commentary on the Apocalypse, published in 1892. That same year she was diagnosed with cancer; she died two years later.

Major Works

Rossetti's first published poem appeared in the Athenaeum when she was eighteen. She became a frequent contributor to the Pre-Raphaelite journal The Germ, which her brother Dante Gabriel founded. The title poem of her first collection of poetry, Goblin Market, and Other Poems (1862), relates the adventures of two sisters who are tempted by the fruit of the goblin merchants of Elfland. The poem has been variously interpreted as a moral fable for children, an erotic fantasy, and an experiment in meter and rhyme. In 1874 Rossetti published a collection of prose for children, Speaking Likenesses. The book consists of three fantasy stories which are told to five sisters by their aunt. The title poem of The Prince's Progress, and Other Poems (1866) relates a prince's physical, moral, and spiritual journey to meet his bride. Rossetti's later volumes of poetry consist primarily of reprinted poems from her first three volumes and other sources. The first authoritative collection of her work The Poetical Works of Christina Georgina Rossetti (1904), was edited by her brother William and contains most of Rossetti's highest esteemed and frequently studied works. Rossetti's devotional verse explores humanity's relationship with God and the nature of life in the afterworld. It also celebrates Rossetti's denial of human love for the sake of religious purity, as in the sonnet sequence "Monna Innominata," included in A Pageant, and Other Poems. Time Flies: A Reading Diary (1885), offers for each day of the year a thought or passage designed to provoke spiritual reflection. In The Face of the Deep, Rossetti explores, verse by verse, the entire Book of the Revelation of St. John. Throughout Rossetti's verse and prose, the themes of isolation and unhappiness recur.

Critical Reception

Critics generally consider Rossetti's poetry superior to her later nonsecular prose works but...

(The entire section is 59,937 words.)