Rossetti is closely associated with Pre-Raphaelitism—an artistic and literary movement that aspired to recapture the vivid pictorial qualities and sensual aesthetics of Italian religious paintings before 1500—but was equally influenced by the religious conservatism and the asceticism of the Church of England. Scholars have found in her poetry an enduring dialectic between these disparate outlooks as well as an adeptness with a variety of poetic forms. Since the 1970s, feminist scholars have also noted that Rossetti's writings include subtle critiques of nineteenth-century society's treatment of women. It is recognized that Rossetti was no radical feminist—in fact she explicitly rejected the idea of women's suffrage. However, her work does explore relationships between women, the restrictions imposed upon women, the difficulties facing the female writer, and gender ideology. Some critics also argue that her religious verse offers new readings of the Christian scriptures with a uniquely feminist understanding and that her work in general offers a critique of the treatment of women in her age despite the fact that she did not overtly challenge the social order.
Rossetti was born in 1830, four years after her exiled, Italian father 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 the age of eighteen, Rossetti began studying the works of the 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, also a devout Anglican. 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.
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, Laura and Lizzie. The two are taunted by goblin merchants to buy luscious and tantalizing fruits. Though Lizzie is able to resist their coaxing, Laura succumbs. The narrator details Laura's increasing apathy and Lizzie's efforts to save her sister. The poem has been variously interpreted as a moral fable for children, an erotic lesbian fantasy, an experiment in meter and rhyme, and a feminist reinterpretation of Christian mythology. Two other well-known poems in the same volume, "After Death" and "Remember," meditations on death and the afterlife, have also been interpreted by some feminists as subversive texts despite their seemingly complaisant surfaces. The title poem of The Prince's Progress, and Other Poems (1866), Rossetti's second major collection, relates a prince's physical, moral, and spiritual journey to meet his bride. In 1874 Rossetti published a collection of prose for children, Speaking Likenesses. The title story of the book, which consists of three fantasy stories told to five sisters by their aunt, has been viewed by some critics as an exploration of the suppression of sexuality in girls. Another volume of children's prose, Sing-Song (1872), has been seen as a critique of patriarchal and authoritarian family values. Although earlier critics saw Rossetti's devotional verse as exploring humanity's relationship with God and the nature of life in the after-world, feminist scholars have also noted the way in which the poet revises scripture in feminine terms. The sonnet sequence "Monno Innominanta," included in A Pageant, and Other Poems, has traditionally been regarded as a celebration of Rossetti's denial of human love for the sake of religious purity, but feminist thinkers have also seen it as an attempt by the artist to present a portrait that is distinguished from male depictions of herself. Rossetti's later prose works include Time Flies (1885), which offers for each day of the year a passage designed to provoke spiritual reflection, and the biblical commentaries Seek and Find (1879), Letter and Spirit (1883), and The Face of the Deep. Rossetti's work of juvenilia Maude: A Story for Girls (1897) was written in 1850 but only published after her death. The autobiographical text about the spiritual search of a fifteen-year-old girl offers insights into Rossetti's introspective adolescence.
Critics generally consider Rossetti's poetry superior to her later nonsecular prose works but observe that much of her most highly regarded verse was also inspired by her deeply held religious beliefs. Faulted by some critics for an alleged indifference to social issues, she is praised by others for her simple diction, timeless vision, and stylistic technique; some critics have claimed further that Rossetti offers in her work a subtle social critique despite its surface conventionality. Early assessments of the poetry and prose focused on the poet's reticence and renunciation of this world in favor of the afterlife, but some late-twentieth-century critics have argued that there are multiple layers and hidden meanings to Rossetti's texts that show a deep and complex concern with women's issues. Much contemporary feminist criticism has focused on "Goblin Market," especially its eroticism and the exploration of the relationship between the two sisters in the story. Critics have noted too that the imagery and language of economics and commerce in the poem comments on the role of women and their literature within the Victorian economy. The poem has also been read as a religious allegory of the Fall and Redemption revised in feminist terms. Rossetti's other poetry and prose has also been reassessed by feminist scholars. These critics acknowledge that Rossetti held conservative views on many issues but claim that a deeper analysis of her work shows her to be uncommonly radical, particularly in her attempt to understand and critique the deeper realities of religion and literature and re-present them in terms that resonate with the female reader.