Christina Rossetti

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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,...

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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.

Lynda Palazzo (Essay Date Fall 1997)

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SOURCE: Palazzo, Lynda. "The Poet and the Bible: Christina Rossetti's Feminist Hermeneutics." The Victorian Newsletter 92 (fall 1997): 6-9.

In the following essay, Palazzo argues that in her religious prose Rossetti attempts to recover for the woman reader the hidden realities in the Christian scriptures and thus that her hermeneutics are feminist.

With the anniversary of Christina Rossetti's death in 1994, there has been renewed interest in her work, with an entire volume of Victorian Poetry devoted to her poetry and prose, revealing a perceptive and sometimes subversive intelligence at work. However, critical accounts of her theology are still very few, and even fewer those which examine the theology of her devotional prose. One of the more promising articles in the volume, Linda Petersen's "Restoring the Book: The Typological Hermeneutics of the PRB," after an exciting introduction suggesting a reaction in Rossetti's theology against the "subtle yet insistent cultural exclusion of women as active readers of, and writers about, the sacred scriptures" (212) ultimately disappoints by neatly sidestepping the devotional prose and engaging with Rossetti's poetry instead. The reader is left without a confirmation of Rossetti active herself as reader and interpreter of the sacred text. Rossetti is indeed an active participant in the theological developments of the last century, and her approach, imaginative and intuitive rather than "scientific," is closely linked to the religious controversies of her time. She recognizes the potential of controversial developments in nineteenth-century Anglican theology, and although always careful to avoid overstepping the bounds of what she considers legitimate enquiry, develops a method of scriptural interpretation which satisfies both her intellectual need for an imaginative and transformative encounter with a living text, and her personal need as a woman to interpret and understand a "masculine" text.

An earlier article by Joel Westerholm comes nearer to showing Rossetti's active engagement with the scriptural text, especially in his discussion of her response to gender issues. However, he has not placed her satisfactorily within the context of Victorian Anglican theology and consequently is unable to determine the method of her operation. Her "authority" in fact comes from the knowledge that she is working within a rapidly expanding, although at times controversial, field. More credit must be given the SPCK than to assume that they were unaware of any "serious and scholarly biblical interpretation" (14) in her work. There is no evidence either that "in prefaces and editing the church tried to place her back in the contexts it found acceptable" (16). The editing of her work by the SPCK appears to have been minimal (see note 4). The Anglican Church in the nineteenth century was surprisingly open ended and Rossetti's close friendship with such figures as the fiery R. F. Littledale would have kept her up to date with the latest controversies, It is not, as Westerholm suggests, her courage we need to admire, although she certainly had that, but the razor sharp intellect and vision that identified in contemporary theological developments the potential for feminine and feminist theology.

Rossetti's place, in terms of method, is amongst the post-Coleridgeans such as J. H. Newman, Isaac Williams, to whom she acknowledges a debt in the prefatory note of Seek and Find, and Benjamin Jowett, in his "On the Interpretation of Scripture." There is evidence in Seek and Find and Letter and Spirit of a lively interest in controversies such as those that followed the publication of Essays and Reviews.1 Like Jowett, she was fascinated by metaphor and symbol, and the role of the imagination in relation to the scriptures. The methodology of both in fact foreshadows some of the most important developments in modern hermeneutical study, for example Paul Ricoeur in his use of metaphor.

Possibly her earliest attempts at biblical commentary, her unpublished notes on Genesis and Exodus,2 show her moving away from the popular typological orientation, towards an evaluation of the figurative power of language. As does Coleridge in his "Statesman's Manual," Rossetti notes the potential of metaphor and symbol in the opening up of the text to a multiplicity of interpretations, reader-based interpretations, which make the Bible live in the contemporary mind, as "living educts of the imagination" (29).

She remarks on a marginal comment for Genesis 2:22:

Margin "builded he a woman: opens the whole subject of the Church born & built from our Lord's side. Also consider His parallel with Adam casting in His lot with his lost bride. "Yet without sin." Also the female cast out of sin? Is it so?

Rossetti is aware of the standard typological association, Eve, type of the Church as bride of Christ, but her focus is on the metaphor "builded," which highlights the tension between God's creation of Eve and the physical building of the church. She is allowing the metaphor to open up imaginative access to a whole series of possibilities, ending with a daring suggestion in her use of "cast out" that Eve's sin had its origin in the sinful flesh of Adam from which she was made.

Her comment on the use of the word bow" found in Genesis 9:13 indicates again that she is exploring the way metaphor gives access to meaning through association with the familiar in the mind of the reader: "13. "My bow"—would this suggest bow and arrows as an antedeluvian mode of hunting, & thus familiar and intelligible?" (see note 2). The author's reference to "bow," Rossetti suggests, is chosen specifically because it would facilitate an imaginative connection between the text and the vocabulary of the familiar, thus establishing meaning.

George Landow sees the "deformation" of the popular type into allegory, symbol or correspondence as characteristic of high church exegetes like Keble and Pusey (59), but Rossetti's agenda is different from that of the great Tractarians. She certainly learnt from Keble, and even in later years continued to use her copy of his Christian Year, but even her youthful illustrations to his poems in this volume show a very different sensibility from his. Diane D'Amico in a discussion of these illustrations draws our attention to, on the one hand, Rossetti's subjective reading of Keble, "responding to, if not looking for, what in the poetry of The Christian Year would serve to mirror her own hopes and fears," and on the other to her use of the feminine figure "when we would expect to see a male figure as the subject of an illustration" (37). More important in terms of her theology, we also see that her choice of emphasis does not correspond to Keble's own. In her illustration of Keble's "Fifth Sunday after Epiphany" she fixes upon a few words only from the epigraph from Isaiah 59: "your iniquities have separated between you and your God." She interprets these in a literal sense, cutting them off momentarily from their immediate referent, and then reproduces them in a figuration of her own: a medusa-like demon, reminiscent of her own "The World," obscures the figure of Christ on the cross. The resulting image, despite its childish characters, is unsettling and provoking. Her brother William Michael noted in his memoir to her Poetical Works the "very literal manner" with which she was wont to construe the biblical precepts" (liv), but this was not, as he perhaps thought, the consequence of a closed mind. Rather, it was her fascination with words, and the pictures they conjured up in her imagination. Her method here is as follows: focus on the surface meaning, once the word has been given symbolic or metaphorical status, allows it to be imaginatively transferred from its original context to become active in the individual mind, producing a corresponding metaphor. Benjamin Jowett describes a similar action in his comments on the use of symbol and imagination when he speaks of "the doubling of an object when seen through glasses placed at different angles" (381). In a bolder step than he himself would have dared, the correspondences of Keble's sacramental universe have been transferred to the words of scripture. Language itself has become sacrament. Rossetti follows Jowett (and Coleridge), as she "read[s] scripture like any other book" (338), with "an effort of thought and imagination requiring the sense of a poet was well as a critic … demanding much more than learning a degree of original power and intensity of mind" (384). It is an opening up of the mind to the text, an empathy which probes the "is" and "is not"3 of each metaphor.

Rossetti is aware of a tendency to devalue the text in biblical study and has harsh words to say in Letter and Spirit about those who denigrate the face value of scripture: "We protrude mental feelers in all directions above, beneath, around it, grasping, clinging to every imaginable particular except the main point" (85). She is not, as her brother thought, falling into the trap of literalism, nor is she naively adhering to the idea of "common sense" linguistic transparency. We need to grasp the surface of the text, its literal value, in order to have access to meaning. Even so the mind is waylaid by the need to translate into fact, to prove physical truth or falsity: "What was the precise architecture of Noah's Ark?" Rossetti quotes, "Clear up the astronomy of Joshua's miracle.4 Fix the botany of Jonah's gourd. Must a pedestal be included within the measurement of Nebuchadnezzar's 'golden image'" (86-87).

Rossetti's final volume of devotional prose, The Face of the Deep, an exegetical commentary on Revelation, is particularly interesting in that we see Rossetti working directly on the scriptures. The title itself, taken from Genesis 1:2, proclaims its revaluation of the individual word as an access point to personal revelation. Her prefatory note proposes a search of the surface of the sacred text: "If thou canst dive, bring up pearls. If thou canst not dive, collect amber. Though I fail to identify Pardisiacal 'bdellium,' I still may hope to search out beauties of the 'onyx stone'" (7).

The metaphorical nature of the individual word allows her, through grasping its "surface," to glimpse the theological referent, and then as an interpreter, to substitute another "metaphor" taken from her own experience. She begins her commentary by opening her mind and imagination to the language of the text, appropriating words or phrases from it which have called up echoes from her own experience—words which orthodox biblical commentaries may in the past have considered unimportant. Then in her text she restores, not the words themselves, but the figures they have produced in her own mind.

For example in Revelation 1:1 from the phrase "must shortly come to pass" she appropriates the word "shortly," which has a pivotal function, allowing her to include herself in an expanded text: "'Things which must shortly come to pass.'—At the end of 1800 years we are still repeating this 'shortly'" (9). It was this "shortly" for John, "the channel, not the fountain head" of Revelation, and it is still "shortly" for the present generation. But Rossetti doesn't attempt to define the word in her commentary, or explain its meaning; rather she explores the tension between the totally opposite poles it represents. The word has become metaphoric, the figurative sense pointing to a barely glimpsed divine meaning which in turn challenges the literal, forcing the reader to find ways in which such meanings can co-exist, realigning the self as the word becomes productive in the imagination.

Particularly important to Rossetti is the capacity of such a method to satisfy her own need as a woman working in a field almost exclusively dominated by men. The Face of the Deep is not addressed exclusively to women, but the frequent use of the address "we women" suggests that, especially in her description of the female figures, she has her female readership in mind. Certainly some of the more prominent figures in Revelation are examined in terms of gender distinction, becoming patterns which Rossetti is able to trace in her own world. Her comment on the "woman clothed with the sun" of Revelation 12:1 is perhaps the best known of these, as it fits well with the "lowest place" theme of her poetry: "she has done all and stands; from the lowest place she has gone up higher … triumphantly erect, despite her own frailty" (310). But Rossetti's definition of this frailty gives us more than an echo of her poetry. It is physical weakness, certainly, the lot reserved for women, "unlike the corresponding heritage of man" (310), but is also Eve's punishment for intellectual daring. Rossetti's description of Eve's intellectual sin has the characteristics of her own objections to contemporary Biblical controversy, but the interpreter of the text is female: "Not till she became wise in her own conceit, disregarding the plain obvious meaning of words, and theorising on her own responsibility as to physical and intellectual results, did she bring death into the world" (310).

Protagonists who stand ranged on each side of the gender divide give Rossetti the opportunity to provide guidance in male-female relationships, and there are no doubts as to where her sympathies lie. The outcome on earth of the "war in heaven" of Revelation 12: 7 comes perilously close to a war between the sexes, the newly delivered woman fleeing from the pursuing flood of the (male) dragon. But she avoids the simplistic and uses such generalizations only to highlight important issues for her woman readers.

Rossetti's hermeneutic can be defined as a feminist one in the way she attempts to recover for the woman reader those hidden or suppressed realities of the text. She accepts with humility the feminine implications of even that most loathsome of creatures, the whore of Babylon, whom she admits as "illustrating the particular foulness, degradation, loathsomeness, to which a perverse rebellious woman because feminine not masculine is liable," but her scrutiny picks out the relationship between the whore and the (male) beast upon which she is seated. Since the sacred text is inspired5 and therefore active "to teach us somewhat we can learn, and in a way by which we are capable of learning" (23), a physical detail of this nature may be considered symbolically and interpreted within the personal circumstance of the reader: "If she removes he is the motor; she is lifted aloft to the extent of his height; her stability depends on his. In semblance he is her slave, in reality her master" (399). In the discussion which follows, on the misuse of physical force, there is an ill disguised bitterness:

As yet, I suppose, we women claim no more than equality with our brethren in head and heart; whilst as to physical force, we scout it as unworthy to arbitrate between the opposed camps. Men on their side do not scout physical force, but let it be.


She thus is able to foreground sections of the text which may have seemed irrelevant to earlier commentators, but which in her own discourse gain meaning. The "kings of the earth" for example, the seducers of Babylon, regret the fall of the whore, but as Rossetti points out, "Adam seems not to have found one word to plead for Eve in the terrible hour of judgement" (418). We are reminded here of her comment from the Genesis notes, "Also the female cast out of sin?" and her anguished "Is it so?" Cast from the flesh of Adam, Eve's sin is derived from his, but he shows no compassion for her in her suffering. As Rossetti moves her meditation to her own day, the corrupt seducers of Babylon assume contemporary identity:

Now they are the wicked who stand callous amid the fears, torments, miseries of others; not investigating human claims … not heeding the burning questions of their day, neighbourhood, nay sometimes their own hearths.


But it will not always be so. "Society" Rossetti claims, "may be personified as a human figure whose right hand is man, whose left woman.… Rules admit of and are proved by exceptions. There are left-handed people, and there may arise a left-handed society!" (409).

In what she perceives as a world blind in the main to the suffering of women, Rossetti derives comfort from the feminine identity of the Church and its relationship to Christ. In her response to Revelation 19:7 she illustrates the love between Christ and the Church by a revaluation of Christ's own relationship with women; his love, acceptance and consolation, defending her use of this literal interpretation of the feminine identity of the Church, "because it is so lovely a privilege to have stood really and truly in some direct relation to Christ that it may well take precedence of aught figurative" (434). Adding imaginative and emotional detail she fills in the feminine mindset, finally bringing her discourse into the present where womankind "comes forth from the thousand battlefields … beds of weariness, haunts of starvation, hospital wards, rescue homes, orphanages …" (436).

As Revelation draws to a close and St. John returns to address the Churches, as at the beginning, Rossetti allows the words of St. John to span the centuries and become directly meaningful to her own discourse. His warning in Revelation 22:18-19, "If any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life," elicits the response "O Lord, if I myself have fallen into either deadly error against which Thou here testifieth: 'I acknowledge my transgressions'" (548), and for the reader Rossetti adds, "if I have been overbold in attempting such a work as this, I beg pardon" (551).

Rossetti's method has enabled her to bridge the gap between a text increasingly under fire as inaccurate, irrelevant and incomprehensible6 and the average Victorian sensibility, bewildered in a world fast becoming "modern" at the end of the century. In this she is forward looking to Karl Barth, to Gadamer and to modern hermeneutical trends, but she looks past them also, in her exploration of feminist hermeneutics, which a hundred years later seeks to liberate the Biblical text from participation in the oppression of women, through, as Schneider terms it, an "integral interpretation … engaging it in such a way that it can function as locus and mediator of transformative encounter with the living God" (197).


  1. See for example my discussion of the two volumes in "The Prose Works of Christina Rossetti."
  2. They were probably written some time before Seek and Find. See Packer (330) and Palazzo (62). I am indebted to Mrs. Joan Rossetti for the notes on Genesis, and to Professor Diane D'Amico for help in tracing their whereabouts. See also Palazzo 89, notes 17, 18, 20, and Appendix A, for a reproduction of the notes.
  3. Schneider (29). Sandra Schneider uses modern developments in the study of hermeneutics, especially in relation to the use of metaphor, to facilitate a feminist interpretation of the scriptures.
  4. Joshua's miracle in particular must have caught her imagination as she attempted to publish a more detailed comment on it in Seek and Find. The SPCK [Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge] rejected the passage, but otherwise the editing of the manuscript appears minimal. See Palazzo Appendix B.
  5. The nature of the inspiration itself was a controversial topic of the period. Rossetti is closest in her treatment of inspiration to the method of Isaac Williams and his Apocalypse and Genesis.
  6. Attacks on literalism, although useful in correcting the worst excesses of fundamentalism, ultimately tended to devalue the language of the text, for example Matthew Arnold's classification of the words of scripture in his God and the Bible as expendable "husks" (156).

Works Cited

Arnold, Matthew. God and the Bible. Ed. R. H. Super. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1970.

Coleridge, S. T. "The Statesman' Manual." Lay Sermons. Ed. R. J. White. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972.

D'Amico, Diane. "Christina Rossetti's Christian Year: Comfort for 'the weary heart.'" Victorian Newsletter No. 72 (Fall 1987): 37-41.

Jowett, Benjamin. "On the Interpretation of Scripture." Essays and Reviews. London Parker & Son, 1860; Greg International, 1970.

Landow, George. Victorian Types, Victorian Shadows. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980.

Packer, Lona Mosk. Christina Rossetti. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1963.

Palazzo, Lynda. "The Prose Works of Christina Rossetti." Unpubl. Diss. U of Durham, 1992.

Petersen, Linda. "Restoring the Book: The Typological Hermeneutics of the PRB." Victorian Poetry 32, 3-4 (Autumn-Winter, 1994): 209-27.

Rossetti, Christina. The Face of the Deep. London: SPCK, 1892.

——. Letter and Spirit. London: SPCK, 1883.

——. The Poetical Works of Christina Rossetti with memoir and notes by William Michael Rossetti. London: Macmillan, 1904.

——. Seek and Find. London: SPCK, 1897.

Schneider, Sandra M. The Revelatory Text. New York: Harper San Francisco, 1991.

Westerholm, Joel. "I Magnify Mine Office: Christina Rossetti's Authoritative Voice in Her Devotional Prose." Victorian Newsletter No. 84 (Fall 1993): 11-17.

Williams, Isaac. Apocalypse with Notes and Reflections. London: Rivington, 1852.

——. The Beginning of the Book of Genesis, with Notes and Reflections. London: Rivington, 1861.

Margaret Reynolds (Essay Date 1999)

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SOURCE: Reynolds, Margaret. “Speaking Un-likeness: The Double Text in Christina Rossetti’s ‘After Death’ and ‘Remember’.” Textual Practice 13, no. 1 (1999): 25-41.

In the following essay, Reynolds explores the complexity and subversive nature of Rossetti’s poetry, despite its surface simplicity.

Small though not positively short, she might easily be overlooked but would not easily be forgotten.

Christina Rossetti, Maude: Prose and Verse (1850)1

Indifferent to language, enigmatic and feminine, this space underlying the written is rhythmic, unfettered, irreducible to its intelligible verbal translation; it is musical, anterior to judgement, but restrained by a single guarantee: syntax. Julia Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language (1974)2

Once upon a time, Christina Rossetti was simple. Her brother William Michael says that he ‘cannot remember ever seeing her in the act of composition’. He admits that this is strange given that he and his younger sister were ‘almost constantly in the same house’ from the date of her birth up to the year 1876, some forty-six years, woman and girl. Nevertheless, William Michael declares authoritatively that Rossetti’s methods of composition were artless and unselfconscious:

Christina’s habits of composing were eminently of the spontaneous kind. I question her having ever once deliberated with herself whether or not she would write something or other, and then, after thinking out a subject, having proceeded to treat it in regular spells of work. Instead of this, something impelled her feelings, or ‘came into her head’, and her hand obeyed the dictation. I suppose she scribbled lines off rapidly enough, and afterwards took whatever amount of pains she deemed requisite for keeping them in right form and expression.3

In spite of never having seen her at it, William Michael knows perfectly well how Christina writes and why. Or rather he knows perfectly well how girls write and why. They get taken over by something to do with feeling and then they take dictation. And they do it secretly. They live in the public eye, always accessible to family scrutiny— ‘almost constantly in the same house’—and yet, like Jane Austen alerted by the creaking drawing-room door, like Barrett Browning thrusting her manuscript scraps under the cushions, like Christina’s own Maude ‘slipping out of sight some scrawled paper’, the practice of writing is hidden away, kept secret and separate from the performance of social engagement.4

Just as when, where and how Rossetti wrote her poems were hidden from her brother, so what she wrote was equally obscured. Partly, Rossetti herself made it that way. At an early age Rossetti developed a scrupulous manner which led to her brother teasing that ‘she would soon become so polite it would be impossible to live with her’.5 The hard-bound surface hides the vulnerable self. In a similar way Rossetti’s own manuscript notebooks were elaborately tidy; William Michael refers to her ‘extremely neat but … rather timid and formal script’ and to her ‘usual excessive neatness of caligraphy [thus]’.6 Manners maketh the woman and by her hand you shall know her; for if Rossetti herself built up these defensive surfaces, her two brothers, and William Michael in particular in his later role of editor and literary executor, successfully obscured Rossetti further by creating a polished veneer which reflected back his own image of the woman poet. His 1904 edition of Rossetti is the main culprit here, neatly controlling the reader’s interpretation of the poems by putting them all under individual headings described as ‘Some leading themes, or keynotes of feeling, in the poems of Christina Rossetti’. These are: Personal experiences and emotions; Death; The aspiration for rest; Vanity of vanity; Love of animals; Winter; The loveliness of the rose.7

William Michael’s list betrays his terms. His sister was a woman. Her poems must be feminine, so feminine he will make them. A particular nineteenth-century feminine which makes lyrical utterance into autobiography; death, especially her own death, into the ideal ‘most poetical topic’8 for a woman poet; and all rounded off with devotional themes and subjects drawn from the nursery and the boudoir. The surface, the public image, once again intrudes and the real Rossetti is hidden from view. She is, like her own Maude, ‘easily overlooked’.

This is a parable about what has also happened to her poetry. Scrupulously polite, excessively neat, redolently feminine, Rossetti’s poetry is none the less ‘not easily forgotten’. This is true most obviously in the fact that, in spite of having spent much of the twentieth century labelled as a ‘minor lyric voice’9 Rossetti has yet managed to hold on to her popular appeal. More than that, recently critics have begun to attribute Rossetti’s unforgettableness to her ‘scandalous’ tendencies, to her ‘capacity to unsettle’, and to the ‘instability’ of her texts.10 Dualism, doubleness, repetition, alterity, have long been noted as prime influences and techniques in Rossetti’s poetry, but, in fact, that double model is often the very essence of the disturbing quality which marks and which so richly empowers Rossetti’s writing. Isobel Armstrong writes of the Victorian double poem, ‘The simpler the surface of the poem, the more likely it is that a second and more difficult poem will exist beneath it’.11 If the surface Rossetti is neat, polite and ‘simple’, the hidden Rossetti underneath, the one William Michael never saw at work, is perverse, caustic and complex.

The two sonnets ‘After Death’ and ‘Remember’ were both composed in 1849, ‘After Death’ on 28 April and ‘Remember’ on 25 July. Both were written out by Rossetti in the same manuscript notebook, now in the Bodleian, and the two poems appeared consecutively, ‘Remember’ first, then ‘After Death’ in the 1862 edition of Goblin Market and Other Poems. Both poems are very well known, much reprinted and, especially in the case of ‘Remember’ , much loved. And yet, while they often receive honourable mentions in Rossetti criticism, very little sustained attention has been given to them.12


The curtains were half drawn, the floor was
And strewn with rushes, rosemary and may
Lay thick upon the bed on which I lay,
Where thro’ the lattice ivy-shadows crept.
5 He leaned above me, thinking that I slept
And could not hear him; but I heard him
‘Poor child, poor child:’ and as he turned
Came a deep silence, and I knew he wept.
He did not touch the shroud, or raise the fold
10 That hid my face, or take my hand in his,
Or ruffle the smooth pillows for my head:
He did not love me living; but once dead
He pitied me; and very sweet it is
To know he still is warm tho’ I am cold.13

‘After Death’ already suggests its two-sidedness in its title. There was a life, now there is death (and continuing life), and the one state will be measured against the other. Whether or not this is a ‘real’ death is open to question. Generally, and because Rossetti so insistently returns to a landscape beyond the grave where a speaking self still feels and knows and haunts the living, it is taken that Rossetti’s speaker here is dead and laid out prior to burial. In fact, linguistically speaking, all the phrases the poem uses, ‘dead’, ‘slept’, ‘shroud’, ‘cold’, could be used, as they conventionally are, as synonyms, euphemisms or exaggerations for some other state dramatically declared to be a death in life.14

The shifting context of Rossetti’s poem is suggested by the physical scene setting in the first four lines. The curtains are ‘half drawn’; the floor is ‘strewn’, that is, partly covered, with rushes; ‘rosemary and may’ lie on the bed, and presumably, on her, the poet-speaker. Everything is half covered, both revealed and concealed, not light, nor dark, but both at once. And this is confirmed in the fourth line where ‘thro’ the lattice ivy-shadows crept’. The lattice, as Catherine Maxwell rightly says, along with the rushes and the detail of the flowers on the bed, situates the poem within a mock medieval tradition of the enclosed lady, the ‘high-born maiden’ invoked by Tennyson in ‘The Lady of Shalott’ and by Browning in ‘Porphyria’s Lover’.15 But in its simplest descriptive image it also points to the black and white criss-cross, that is, double and contradictory, the half seen, half hidden that is the literary essence of the poem. And, ‘thro’ the lattice ivy-shadows crept’.

This line is, literally, creepy. While the half seen, half hidden is economically set up in the first lines, there is also a clear sense of barriers crossed, division broken down, laws of place transgressed. The outside world has come into the inside, death has invaded life (or vice versa), and the seen/not seen of the ‘lattice’ is no protection. ‘Ivy-shadows’ creep (crept/creep/crypt) from the outside to the inside … and on the inside … , what happens? ‘He leaned above me, thinking that I slept / And could not hear him’. Close juxtaposition of words and phrases in Rossetti is never accidental. The shadows creep through, and ‘He’, now introduced into the poem’s consciousness for the first time, ‘he’ leans above ‘me’ in a privacy where he (wrongly) believes himself unobserved and where, consequently, he believes it unnecessary to constrain or curb himself.

We don’t know who this ‘he’ is, but there is a hint. In this secret space, unobserved, ‘he’ says, ‘Poor child, poor child’. Now doubleness and reciprocity, meaning one term by saying another, are trademarks in Rossetti poems. Maxwell has a good stab at this by pointing out that the trick is to turn this apparently conventional term around. If he calls her ‘child’, then what does she call him? The answer is ‘Father’. Maxwell (correctly) positions the poem in the confessional mode, deduces (correctly) that this must be a privileged male given that he is permitted a private interview with a woman alone in her bedroom, puzzles (incorrectly) over who such a man can be ‘with no familial or projected familial ties’—and comes up with the ingenious suggestion that this ‘he’ is a priest.16

It’s easier than that, of course, and worse than that. The absent term here, the one that cannot be spoken out but only gestured at, is the name of Father. And why is the word unsaid? Because the act of naming would name more than the father, for it would label the argument of the poem too; fix its ‘meaning’ too overtly. In Lacan’s terms the ‘nom-du-père’ represents the Law of the Father which marks out the border between culture and ‘nature abandoned to the law of copulation’.17 Those borders, those barriers, are all broken down in this poem and the key term which fixes the (new?) knowledge of transgression is left out. In the silences of the poem, through the opposition of one term (child) which obliquely spells another term (father), the semiotic signals its coded message from within the body of the text, while the law of the symbolic remains written on its skin. That the meaning conveyed by Kristeva’s semiotic is associated with the child’s pre-Oedipal stage contact with the mother’s body is significant here. The speaker in this poem may indeed be a ‘child’ (‘Poor child, poor child’) and the poem may speak at a moment of transition on to the Oedipal phase. The rhetoric in ‘After Death’ is ‘artless’, childlike, uncomplicated, apparently naive, and from within that ‘innocence’ a message spells itself out. The poem refuses to name the father, and in that absence, that silence, a new knowingness marks the entry into the symbolic. Maud Ellmann says that ‘For Lacan … incest is bad grammar’. The taboo against it is ‘identical with an order in language’.18 Rossetti’s poem, so grammatically precise, so coolly ordered, leaves out the naming to keep her grammar and syntax intact.

But everything else is breached. It is never quite clear in this poem who is the active party. The speaker seems passive (‘dead’), but she speaks, and, quite possibly, what she speaks is the secret of her desire. The transgression in this poem may be mutual. Or it may be one-sided, with either party constructing a scene of illicit desire. The sestet of the poem, where one would expect to find some change in theme, argument or mood, hots up the sense of anxiety and threat of or the desire for transgression. ‘He did not touch the shroud, or raise the fold / That hid my face, or take my hand in his, / Or ruffle the smooth pillows for my head.’ It begins with a negative, ‘He did not’. But language works in linear progression and functions as explained by de Saussure and endorsed by Lacan only on differences, for there are no positive terms. So we can only go about the process of imagining the negative here by first conceiving the action to be negated. We are invited to imagine him doing exactly all these things: touching the shroud, raising the fold to expose her face, taking her hand… . If he does not actually carry out these actions—and we are only told so once, so that we are inclined to forget the negative as the list goes on—he still could do them, might do them, might long to do them. As the speaker might long for them to be done. ‘He did not … ruffle’ the pillows so that they are no longer ‘smooth’ but some implied ‘different’ term. Rough? Roughed up? Both are suggested by the assonance in spite of the apparent transparency of ‘ruffle’. Like Emily Dickinson’s poem ‘He fumbles at your soul’ Rossetti’s sonnet places us in a readerly discomfort. We know ‘He did not’ do these things on this occasion. But has he done them before? Might the speaker wish for him to do them? By prioritizing the negative the poem invites us to imagine some surprise, or regret, in the speaker’s voice, some assumption that the familiar pattern will be, could well be, repeated yet again.

The obscure sense of invasion that governs the opening section of the poem is made very strong here. A should-be-externalized object intrudes disturbingly into a discrete space. In this particular context the room is first invaded, and then the garments, wrapping up, closing off, protecting, identifying (‘the fold that hid my face’) the very body of the speaker, are all twitched aside by linguistic sleight of hand. In Rossetti’s language ‘differences’ are all, and the pull between the said and the not-said is always making spaces filled with meaning.

Or a space where meaning can be thrown out.

In Kristeva’s account of the processes of abjection, she includes a story about ‘The improper / unclean’, where the subject spits out something which she loathes, but which none the less she has ingested, either under duress or out of some improper desire. This spitting out of the alien matter is painful, terrible, an abjection towards death, but it paradoxically emphasizes and confirms the individuality of the self: ‘During that course in which “I” become, I give birth to myself amid the violence of sobs, of vomit.’19

Kristeva’s language sounds extravagant beside Rossetti’s reflecting surfaces, but it suggests something of what is being thrown out, abjected in Rossetti’s poetry. In ‘After Death’ (and in ‘Remember’ ) Rossetti’s speaker spits out an ‘unclean’ which weighs into her silences. What she has to say is unpalatable. With a violence which she none the less controls and keeps secret, she throws up a truth about dominance, about power, about sex relations and about transgression. Like the bulimic who exercises control over her body and her self-image by puking up all that she judges redundant, ugly, not herself, Rossetti’s verse throws up the weight of her message. And, like the bulimic, she does it in secret, for the story is in code, not on the public surface, hidden away in a privacy of silence.

And yet even in this ‘involuntary’ spasm there may be a positive process of self-creation. For in the process of throwing up this waste, this secret and unnecessary meaning, the speaker/poet/ Rossetti, otherwise hidden from view, does become ‘I’, gives birth to a speaking assertive self at the cost of imagining her own ‘death’.

In the last three lines of ‘After Death’ Rossetti’s ‘I’ becomes an ‘other’ separating herself from the father who ‘names’ her (‘Poor child, poor child’) but whom she dare not name. We are told that ‘He did not love me living’. How anyone who reads nineteenth-century literature, with its many iconic female corpses, can take this at face value baffles me. He did not love me. Maybe true, but doubtless he used me, controlled me, ignored me, or perhaps he even hated me. And once ‘dead’—as opposed to alive, vital, demanding, assertive, self-directed—then certainly he may ‘pity’ me. Just as Porphyria’s lover pitied her, as Lancelot pitied the Lady of Shalott, as the Duke pitied his Last Duchess, as Dickens pitied Little Nell, as Hardy pitied Tess.

So he pities me … ‘and’ … Rossetti’s speaker here uses ‘and’ notice. Not ‘but’ or ‘yet’ or ‘still’. Her conjunctions, like everything else, are telling. ‘And’ means that the sentiment which follows, her sentiment, her feeling, expressed for the very first time in the poem, has some direct connection to what went before—that is, his ‘not loving’ her, but now weeping and ‘pitying’ her. She does not feel this in spite of what he feels, has felt about her, but because of it. And what she feels is pleasure … cruel, ‘cold’, dispassionate pleasure. A pleasure which is ‘sweet’ with all the erotic and physically realized sensuality (food- and sex-wise) that the word can bear.

In her reading of ‘After Death’ Maxwell is troubled by the ‘perversity’ of ‘sweet’ here, and rightly so. She points out that its freakish insistent power is connected to the fact that the words ‘warm’ and ‘cold’ in the last lines, descriptions of each of the poem’s protagonists’ respective positions—he is now ‘warm’ and she is ‘cold’—might function as synonyms for ‘emotionally susceptible’ and ‘emotionally detached’.20 This is the right track, but there is more, much more here. As Isobel Armstrong has shown, ‘warm’ and ‘warmth’ in Rossetti’s vocabulary very often carry connotations of an intense erotic.21 In ‘After Death’ , he— the man who invades, breaks laws, enters in—‘still is warm’. If anything, he is even hotter than before, the restraint of ‘He did not’ pushing at the boundary of suggestion hinting that now, more than ever now, in a moment of intense but rigidly policed desire, would he like to do the things he once did or wished to do. But now she, the speaker, is ‘dead’ and another taboo, perhaps stronger and yet more deliciously tantalizing than the one she fails to name, denies and bars. And the effects of his thwarted taunted desire are ‘sweet’ for the speaker. Now, at last, she is ‘cold’— calculating, detached, in charge, indifferent, cruel—a dominatrix whose power of denial, or acquiescence, is indeed ‘sweet’.

‘Perverse’ the poem is, not least because the ‘pére-version’ it uncovers and deconstructs is written over with a new text that asserts ‘I’. But only if the reader sees. Or rather, only if the reader hears. For Rossetti’s readers have to listen to her talking poem and to analyse the hidden traumas described. In the meantime they return as compulsive repetitions.

Listen to what she says in ‘Remember’ .


Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you planned:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.22

The first question to ask is then: remember … what?

Of course, the answer looks like ‘me’. ‘Remember me’ is repeated three times in the first eight lines and the title of the sonnet is often mistakenly given as ‘Remember Me’. But it’s a Rossetti trick. As the poem moves on to the sestet the instruction to ‘remember’ appears twice, but in neither case is it made clear exactly what may, or may not, be remembered there.

‘Remember’ looks like a love poem. But then that might mean that we have already made assumptions about who is speaking to whom which aren’t actually in the text. Apart from the fact of a woman’s name as author why do we take it that this is a woman speaking? Because, in de Beauvoir’s terms, ‘He is the Subject, he is the Absolute— she is the Other’.23 The (supposed) listener/man in this poem is obviously someone out there in the world doing things, he is ‘one’; she, the speaker/woman, is clearly ‘Other’—she doesn’t have an independent existence beyond this relationship. She is anxious that he should remember her (and she goes on about it so much that the implication is that he won’t), so that she will exist.

The active/passive opposition set out in this poem further implies a feminine signature. Cixous’ ‘Sorties’ diagram lines up activity, along with sun, culture, day, father, head, logos, with the masculine principle, while the feminine principle lines up with passivity, moon, nature, night, mother, heart, pathos.24 The ultimate passivity for women, enacted so often in Rossetti’s poems, explicit in ‘After Death’ and hinted at in ‘Remember’ , is death. Not that there’s any reason here to explain why this speaker is about to die. The referent is absent, but presumed, because the condition of (assumed) femininity includes the condition of passivity and death. ‘The silent land’ is pretty vague, and ‘the darkness and corruption’ not much better, but none the less the idea of this speaker being about to die is quite acceptable in our cultural positioning; women die, men mourn; it’s a classic literary trope and one that Rossetti exploits to the full.

So. The nice version of this poem goes: ‘Please remember me when I’m dead, but on the other hand, if it’s going to make you unhappy to remember me, then I love you so much (“For if the darkness and corruption leave / A vestige of the thoughts that once I had”) that I’d rather that you did forget about me so that you can be happy.’

It is true that this reading is in the poem. But it’s not the only one. As Angela Leighton has observed, ‘Behind Rossetti’s “Aesthetic of Renunciation” it is possible to discern an alternative aesthetics of secrecy, self-containment, and caprice’.25 And the clue to the capricious reading lies in the verbs. The first verb to appear is the odd construction applied to the speaker, ‘… when I am gone away’. That the verb here is ‘to be’ used in the present tense to convey a future idea, and without any active verb construction—like ‘When I have gone away’—applied to the speaker, makes the sentence feel oddly passive. By contrast in the opening octet the listener is given active verbs lining him (it/they/she) up with the masculine principle and making the listener the dominant party. ‘When you can no more hold me by the hand’ … so he does the holding; ‘I half turn to go yet turning stay’ … so she makes a move away, but doesn’t quite manage that bid for independence; ‘when no more day by day / You tell me of our future that you planned’ … our future? that you planned? … so she didn’t have a say in it; ‘It will be late to counsel then or pray’ … OK, is that what he does all the time? Goes on at her giving advice and asking her to do things?

The way these verbs work means that this speaker manages, almost secretly, subtextually, to reveal that the he-listener is the chief actor in their relation. In life she, the speaker, is ‘use-value’26—he uses her for whatever agenda it is that he has in mind, personal or social, and she has no say in anything. (Except, of course, through the medium of the poem.) He acts and she is acted upon.

Just as he acts and she is acted upon in ‘After Death’ . Interestingly, in both poems the same image, the same idea of action, appears. In ‘Remember’ the speaker looks towards the day ‘When you can no more hold me by the hand’. In ‘After Death’ the he-presence in the poem does not ‘take my hand in his’. It’s a resonant absence—or presence. The father takes the child by the hand; the lover takes the beloved by the hand; patriarchy takes a hand and she is taken, wherever this père-verted discourse is organized.

What about the pretty end then? ‘… if the darkness and corruption leave / A vestige of the thoughts that once I had’. What thoughts are these? Thus far, they all seem to be cross, fed-up thoughts about how he is bullying her and lecturing her. Maybe then these are the thoughts which will get left behind, the traces, like fossils left on the face of the earth. And maybe the ‘darkness and corruption’ here is not death (as in the nice version), but the darkness and corruption of her anger, her distress, at his conventional use of her. No wonder then that he should ‘forget and smile’ because, maybe, just maybe, what is going on here is not that she wants him to forget so that he can be happy because she loves him so much, but that if he remembers, and really remembers the truth, then he will be sad. And the implication is that so he should be, because he’s going to realize what a shit he’s been all along. ‘Better by far’ does not sound much like a generous valedictory wish any more; it sounds like a curse, a threat, a bitter promise which is perverse and ‘sweet’ and cruel in the mouth of the vengeful speaker.

Once upon a time, Christina Rossetti was simple.

But Christina loved games, puns, parodies and secrets, and while William Michael and so many later readers have mooned over the ‘brokenhearted’-ness of her poetry, Rossetti has played a joke.27 Self-effacing, hidden, secret, behind, underneath, are words that are often associated with Rossetti, yet what goes on in that underneath still needs excavation. The curiously throw-away reference to an evolutionary context that appears in ‘Remember’ may provide a model. ‘Darkness and corruption’ may, after all, be the troubled present, the nineteenth century itself, the period of Rossetti’s own lived life, fraught with personal and social prohibitions which make indirect speaking necessary. But still in that place a trace may be left of the individual life, of the moment of becoming ‘I’, a vestige of (self) creation.28 Others coming after, remembering Rossetti, will be able to read the trace of the hidden life beneath the cover story.

Not that the one excludes the other. ‘After Death’ and ‘Remember’ both have (at least) two readings. In each case a subversive text is inscribed within a complaisant poem, but they are simultaneously compatible. The double frame of reference in both poems makes them work like the many paradox pictures of Victorian popular entertainment. One example, published in Germany in the 1880s, is called ‘My Wife and My Mother-in-law’. Look at it one way and it’s a beautiful young woman, looked at another and it’s an ugly old hag. But they are both there and they are both true and there is no rivalry between them.

In 1856 Christina Rossetti wrote a story about a picture called ‘The Lost Titian’. It tells the story of Gianni, a colleague and rival of Titian in Renaissance Venice. Gianni is a successful and popular painter, but his life and his methods are suspect, and his position is threatened by Titian’s preeminence, soon to be confirmed by the unveiling of his latest masterpiece. One night, in an apparently friendly game of dice, Titian, drunk with wine and success, stakes his newly created work—and Gianni wins. Jealous of the Master’s fame, Gianni daubs over the picture with coarse pigments, and then, on the blank surface, he paints ‘a dragon flaming, clawed, preposterous’. Falling from favour and beset by debt, Gianni’s creditors move in, but even Titian himself does not recognize his own painting. To Gianni’s horror, the dragon is none the less claimed by another creditor who takes a fancy to its gaudy show and sets it up as an inn sign. Gianni spends the rest of his life trying to paint a new dragon which will be received in satisfactory exchange, but to no avail. So when Gianni dies, still silent, Titian’s masterpiece remains hidden, lost forever. Or perhaps not quite lost.

Reader, should you chance to discern over wayside inn or metropolitan hotel a dragon pendent, or should you find such an effigy amid the lumber of a broker’s shop, whether it be red, green or piebald, demand it importunately, pay for it liberally, and in the privacy of home scrub it. It may be that from behind the dragon will emerge a fair one, fairer than Andromeda, and that to you will appertain the honour of yet further exalting Titian’s greatness in the eyes of a world.29

The double texts of Rossetti’s poems are the other way round of course. Underneath the ‘fair one’ with her smooth surface is a ‘preposterous’ dragon who none the less is an Andromeda waiting to be unchained. And when that cruel-perverse-Rossetti-dragon is revealed, it will contribute to Rossetti’s greatness: ‘Reader … in the privacy of home scrub it …’.

In the privacy of ‘home’ the ‘unheimlich’ will be uncovered.30 ‘Uncanny’ is a word often associated with Rossetti’s poetry and it’s a right word. As a good Victorian daughter and sister Rossetti is always at home—‘almost constantly in the same house’. And yet her poetry is ‘unheimlich’ because it speaks, and it says more than it means. Rossetti wrote in secret and she wrote secrets. Not necessarily her own, but everybody’s secrets. Her poetry is our talking-cure. Her protagonists speak, confess, tell.31 In their nightmares and their dreams they compulsively repeat the traumas of desire and loss. Her dead women are the corpses who have fallen (cadaver/cadere) and lost themselves in decay, but they paradoxically project (abject/throw out/ throw up) a hidden self, a vital self, in the process. Squeezed in between, or out between, the spaces in the text is the secret message, written ‘in white ink’ which seeps and oozes through the page.32 In Kristeva’s terms the semiotic speaks through, or beyond, or out of, the symbolic. The symbolic in Rossetti is always that ‘excessively neat’ surface held together by the decorum of the ‘single guarantee: syntax’. But ‘underlying the written’, and quite as meaningful, even more powerful, is the silent speaking space, ‘enigmatic and feminine … rhythmic, unfettered, irreducible to its intelligible verbal translation … musical, anterior to judgement’.33

But you have to listen hard. At the centre of both ‘After Death’ and ‘Remember’ there is a silence. In ‘After Death’ there ‘Came a deep silence’ just before the speaker lets out the second bitter text. In ‘Remember’ the speaker projects herself into a time when she will be gone away ‘into the silent land’ and her second bitter text might be remembered. But it has, mostly, been forgotten, or rather, not heard. In the double texts of Rossetti’s poems her ‘two lips’ may speak together but they may also mumble into silence.34

Yet I suspect Rossetti herself knew this well enough. Her ‘conciseness’ could lead to ‘obscurity’, and that state of obscurity, of being hidden from view, of being overlooked, probably appeared to her an inevitable condition of her status as a Victorian woman who was also a poet.35 In her prose story ‘Speaking Likenesses’ (1874) Rossetti tells a tale about feminine acquiescence and propriety. Flora dreams about a tea-party where a game called ‘Self-Help’ is invented to be played by a group of grotesque children where ‘The boys were players, and the girls were played (if I may be allowed such a phrase)’.36 The bodies of the boys here are spiky—‘One boy bristled with prickly quills like a porcupine’—or they are sharply angled, or covered in fish-hooks. The girls, on the other hand, are gelatinous, oozing, slidey, fluid, and liable to be rubbed away: ‘One girl exuded a sticky liquid and came off on the fingers; another, rather smaller, was slimy and slipped through the hands.’37

Rossetti’s girls, slimy and liable to slide away, prefigure Irigaray’s account of the ‘mucosity’ and flow in a ‘feminine syntax’.38 They also anticipate Kristeva’s account of the irony in the critic’s slippery task of fixing meaning. ‘It is’, she writes, speaking of Freud’s economy of laughter in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, ‘a discharge with two meanings between sense and nonsense’.39

Rossetti’s work, then, may be distinctively feminine after all. Like the girls in her story, her poetry slips through the fingers. And this is Rossetti’s joke. That she will always slip away, dissolve, evaporate, disappear, and the poor critic will be left juggling the remnants of surface and subtext, attempting to ‘coagulate an island of meaning upon a sea of negativity’.40 If the semiotic is ‘the nonsense woven indistinguishably into sense’41 then Rossetti’s nonsense story makes sense and the surface-sense of her best-loved poems may be nonsense. For they secrete a secret which ‘might easily be overlooked’ but which will ‘not easily be forgotten’.


1. Christina Rossetti, Maude: Prose and Verse, ed Rebecca Crump (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1976), p. 30.

2. Julia Kristeva, ‘Revolution in poetic language’, trans. Margaret Waller, in The Kristeva Reader, ed. Toril Moi (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986), p. 97. Kristeva is paraphrasing Mallarmé’s description of the semiotic rhythm in language as she finds it in his ‘La Mystérè dans les lettres’.

3. William Michael Rossetti, Preface to New Poems of Christina Rossetti Hitherto Unpublished or Uncollected, ed. W. M. Rossetti (London: Macmillan, 1900), pp. xii-xiii.

4. See J. E. Austen-Leigh, ‘A Memoir of Jane Austen’, in Persuasion, ed. D. W. Harding (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1965), pp. 339-40. For Elizabeth Barrett Browning see Alexandra Sutherland Orr, Life and Letters of Robert Browning (London: Macmillan, 1908), p. 202, and Robert Browning to Leigh Hunt, 6 October 1857, The Correspondence of Leigh Hunt, ed. Thornton Hunt (London, 1862), Vol. 2, p. 266. For Rossetti’s Maude see Maude: Prose and Verse, p. 29.

5. William Michael Rossetti, ‘Memoir’ of Christina Rossetti, in The Poetical Works (London: Macmillan, 1904), p. lx.

6. William Michael Rossetti, Preface to New Poems of Christina Rossetti, p. ix and his Prefatory Note to Maude (1896) in Maude: Prose and Verse, p. 79.

7. The Poetical Works of Christina Georgina Rossetti, with Memoir and Notes by William Michael Rossetti (London: Macmillan, 1904), pp. xliii-xliv. The most amusing example of William Michael’s wilful rehabilitation here is his listing of ‘Goblin Market’ under the heading ‘Love of Animals’.

8. ‘… death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world’; Edgar Allen Poe, ‘The philosophy of composition’ in Essays and Reviews (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1984), p. 19. For a comprehensive study of this theme in the nineteenth century see Elisabeth Bronfen, Over Her Dead Body: Death Femininity and the Aesthetic (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992). Bronfen includes a chapter on Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his reification of the dead Lizzie Siddall.

9. Stuart Curran, ‘The lyric voice of Christina Rossetti’, Victorian Poetry 9 (1971), pp. 287-99.

10. Isobel Armstrong, ‘Christina Rossetti: diary of a feminist reading’, in Women Reading Women’s Writing ed. Sue Roe (Brighton: Harvester, 1987), pp. 117-37; Steven Connor, ‘Speaking likenesses’: language and repetition in Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market’, Victorian Poetry 22 (1984), pp. 439-48; Angela Leighton, Victorian Women Poets: Writing Against the Heart (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester, 1992), pp. 129-63. See also Isobel Armstrong, Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics and Politics (London: Routledge, 1993), pp. 344-67.

11. Isobel Armstrong, Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics and Politics, p. 324. Armstrong’s analysis of the ‘deeply sceptical’ form of the Victorian double poem is important to my readings here. I also acknowledge Jerome McGann’s influential essay on the techniques in Rossetti’s poetry which ‘test and trouble the reader by manipulating sets of ambiguous symbols and linguistic structures’. Jerome McGann, ‘Christina Rossetti’s poems: a new edition and revaluation’, Victorian Studies 23 (1980), pp. 237-54, and Angela Leighton’s chapter on Rossetti in Victorian Women Poets: Writing Against the Heart (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester, 1992), pp. 118-63. Other works that deal with the idea of doubleness in Rossetti’s work include Winston Weathers, ‘Christina Rossetti: the sisterhood of self’, Victorian Poetry 3 (1965), pp. 81-9; Theo Dombrowski, ‘Dualism in the poetry of Christina Rossetti’, Victorian Poetry 14 (1976), pp. 70-6; Helena Michie, ‘“There is no friend like a sister’: sisterhood as sexual difference’, English Literary History 52:2 (summer 1989), pp. 401-21; Mary Arseneau, ‘Incarnation and repetition: Christina Rossetti, the Oxford Movement and Goblin Market’, Victorian Poetry 31 (1993), pp. 79-93.

12. The two poems are treated briefly in Dolores Rosen-blum’s Christina Rossetti: The Poetry of Endurance (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986), pp. 129 and 209-10. More recently Catherine Maxwell has dealt with one in ‘The poetic context of Christina Rossetti’s “After Death”’, English Studies 76:2 (1995), pp. 148-55. While I would agree with and extend some of her propositions, especially in relation to its placing within the context of works by Tennyson and Browning, her reading comes only tentatively at the dark, wilful perversity which is at the centre of the poem and which, in my opinion, explains its peculiar power to attract, and more insidiously, to repel.

13. The Complete Poems of Christina Rossetti, ed. Rebecca Crump (Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1979-1900), Vol. 1, pp. 37-8.

14. The idea of the fallen woman, especially the raped woman as ‘dead before death’ has its most powerful example in Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1747-49), but it was an image that continued well into the nineteenth century and which is to be found, for instance, in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth (1853) who actually attempts suicide, and in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh (1856 (1857)), where Marian Erle repeatedly describes her rape as a ‘death’ or ‘murder’ (VI, 769-71, VI, 812-19) and says that she cannot now return to respectable life and marriage because she is unable to ‘get up from my grave, / And wear my chin-cloth for a wedding-veil’ (IX, 387-97). See Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh, ed. Margaret Reynolds (New York: Norton, 1996), pp. 203, 204 and 297.

15. Catherine Maxwell, ‘The poetic context of Christina Rossetti’s “After Death”’, English Studies 76:2 (1995), pp. 145-50.

16. Maxwell, ibid., pp. 145-6.

17. Jacques Lacan, Ecrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (London: Tavistock, 1977), p. 67.

18. Psychoanalytic Literary Criticism, ed. Maud Ellmann (London and New York: Longman, 1994), p. 16, quoting Jacques Lacan, ‘The function and field of speech and language in psychoanalysis’, in Ecrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (London: Tavistock, 1977), p. 66. I suppose I must (resignedly) make it clear here that just as Lacan’s ‘nom-du-père’ or the symbolic father is clearly differentiated from any idea of the real father, so the ‘father’ that I find in this poem is related only to the symbolic function and, perhaps tangentially, to Victorian patriarchy, but it is not necessarily related to any real father including Christina’s own. I should also add that as so often in unsanctioned liaisons between family members the bond of silence that grows up might also conceal a compliance or desire on both sides. The speaker’s recognition of a desire that is taboo might also place this poem at the moment of entry into the symbolic where such feelings, previously inchoate, are named and categorized for the first time.

19. Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982) pp. 2-3.

20. Maxwell, op. cit. (1995), p. 154.

21. Isobel Armstrong, Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics and Politics (London: Routledge, 1993), p. 359.

22. The Complete Poems of Christina Rossetti, Vol. I, p. 37.

23. Simone de Beauvoir, Introduction to The Second Sex (1949), trans. H. M. Parshley in New French Feminisms, ed. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron (Brighton: Harvester, 1981), p. 44.

24. Hélène Cixous, ‘Sorties’ from The Newly Born Woman (1975), trans. Ann Liddle in New French Feminisms, p. 90.

25. Angela Leighton, ‘“When I am dead, my dearest”: the secret of Christina Rossetti’, Modern Philology 87 (1990), p. 376. Quoting Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination (New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 1979), pp. 549-54.

26. Luce Irigaray, This Sex which is Not One (1977), trans. Claudia Reeder in New French Feminisms, p. 105.

27. ‘Touching these same verses, it was the amazement of every one what could make her poetry so brokenhearted as was mostly the case …’, Christina Rossetti, Maude: Prose and Verse, p. 31.

Angela Leighton makes the point that Christina Rossetti’s secret was that there was no secret, and that ‘At the heart of this unremittingly lovelorn poetry, there is a freakish freedom of purpose and meaning. Over and over again, Rossetti makes a joke of the predictably tragic monotony of love’; Leighton, “‘When I am dead my dearest: the secret of Christina Rossetti’, Modern Philology 87 (1990), p. 379.

28. I suspect that Rossetti’s use of ‘vestige’ in ‘Remember’ owes something to the title of Robert Chambers’ Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation which was published in 1844. Vestiges included an interesting passage about the loss of the individual life (as opposed to the race) which may be recalled by Rossetti’s close juxtaposition of and punning on the word ‘once’: ‘… if the darkness and corruption leave / A vestige of the thoughts that once I had.’ Like Tennyson, Rossetti made contemporary evolutionary theory into a subject for poetry. ‘It is clear, moreover, from the whole scope of the natural laws, that the individual, as far as the present sphere of being is concerned, is to the Author of Nature a consideration of inferior moment. Everywhere we see the arrangements for the species perfect; the individual is left as it were, to take his chance amidst the mêlée of the various laws affecting him.’ See Chambers, Vestiges (1844), p. 377, quoted in The Poems of Tennyson, ed. Christopher Ricks (London: Longman, 1969), p. 910.

29. Christina Rossetti, ‘The Lost Titian’, in Commonplace and Other Short Stories (London, 1870), p. 161. Angela Leighton makes a similar point: ‘this image of the double painting, the secret masterpiece below and the vivid decoy above, also expresses something of Rossetti’s own art; its moral nonsense, whether goblins, crocodiles or dragons, its obliqueness and disguises and, above all, its secret meanings which have been forever concealed, forever lost’; Angela Leighton, Victorian Women Poets: Writing Against the Heart (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester, 1992), p. 158.

30. Freud’s explanation of how the word ‘unheimlich’, or uncanny, derives from the word ‘heimlich’, homely or familiar, is in his 1919 essay on Hoffman’s ‘The Sandman’; ‘The “Uncanny”’, The Standard Edition of The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth, 1953-74), Vol. XVII, pp. 217-56.

31. From Studies in Hysteria (1893-95) on, Freud construes the process of psychoanalysis as one which begins with a therapeutic confession—hence Anna O.’s designation of his ‘talking cure’. That the analysand has to talk, to shape stories about the self, to confess, makes psychoanalytic literary criticism a peculiarly appropriate tool for reading Rossetti’s intimate and telling poems. That readers are so willing to act as analyst is partly connected to what Foucault describes as a ‘metamorphosis in literature’ which takes place in the nineteenth century and where literary texts are no longer seen as fictions, but as a ‘confession’ extracted ‘from the very depths of oneself, in between the words’. See Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984), p. 59.

32. Hélène Cixous, ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’, trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, in New French Feminisms, p. 251. Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter and Carolyn Burke (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1985), p. 134.

33. Julia Kristeva, ‘Revolution in poetic language’, trans. Margaret Waller, in The Kristeva Reader, ed. Toril Moi (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986), p. 97.

34. Luce Irigaray, ‘Sexual difference’, in The Irigaray Reader, ed. Margaret Whitford (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), p. 175.

35. ‘Perhaps the nearest approach to a method I can lay claim to was a distinct aim at conciseness; after a while I received a hint from my sister that my love of conciseness tended to make my writing obscure, and I then endeavoured to avoid obscurity as well as diffuseness.’ Christina Rossetti to an anonymous admirer, 1888, in the Troxall Collection at Princeton University Library; quoted in Antony H. Harrison, Christina Rossetti in Context (Brighton: Harvester, 1988), p. 10.

36. Christina Rossetti, Speaking Likenesses (London: Macmillan, 1874), p. 36.

37. Ibid., p. 28. The sexualized character of the boys’ and girls’ physical characteristics have been noticed by Roderick McGillis: ‘these two games … reveal a deep fear of sexual violence and a disturbing disrespect for humanity’; in ‘Simple surfaces: Christina Rossetti’s work for children’, in The Achievement of Christina Rossetti, ed. David A. Kent (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1987), p. 227, and by Julia Briggs, ‘The symbolism of the boys with their projecting quills or hooks and the sticky, slippery women [thus] is disturbingly sexual’, in ‘Women writers and writing for children: from Sarah Fielding to E. Nesbit’ in Children and Their Books, ed. Gillian Avery and Julia Briggs (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), p. 17.

38. Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which is Not One, p. 134.

39. Julia Kristeva, ‘How does one speak to literature?’, in Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, ed. Leon S. Roudiez, trans. Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine and Leon S. Roudiez (Oxford: Blackwell, 1981), p. 109.

40. Ibid.

41. Maud Ellmann, Psychoanalytic Literary Criticism (London: Longman, 1994), p. 25.

Principal Works

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Goblin Market, and Other Poems (poetry) 1862

Poems (poetry) 1866

The Prince's Progress, and Other Poems (poetry) 1866

Commonplace, and Other Short Stories (short stories) 1870

Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book (children's stories) 1872

Speaking Likenesses (juvenilia) 1874

Seek and Find (religious prose) 1879

Called to be Saints: The Minor Festivals Devotionally Studied (religious prose) 1881

A Pageant, and Other Poems (poetry) 1881

Letter and Spirit (religious prose) 1883

Time Flies: A Reading Diary (religious prose) 1885

The Face of the Deep: A Devotional Commentary on the Apocalypse (religious prose) 1892

Verses (poetry) 1893

New Poems (poetry) 1896

Maude: A Story for Girls (juvenilia and verse) 1897

The Poetical Works of Christina Georgina Rossetti (poetry) 1904

The Complete Poems of Christina Georgina Rossetti: A Variorum Edition, 3 vols. 1979-90.

Primary Sources

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SOURCE: Rossetti, Christina. "Dream Land." In Goblin Market and Other Poems, p. 17. New York: Dover, 1994.

In the following poem, originally published in 1862, Rossetti meditates on the restfulness and peace of a woman's death and her afterlife, which are familiar themes in much of her verse.


Where sunless rivers weep
Their waves into the deep,
She sleeps a charmèd sleep:
Awake her not.
Led by a single star,
She came from very far
To seek where shadows are
Her pleasant lot.

She left the rosy morn,
She left the fields of corn,
For twilight cold and lorn
And water springs.
Through sleep, as through a veil,
She sees the sky look pale,
And hears the nightingale
That sadly sings.

Rest, rest, a perfect rest
Shed over brow and breast;
Her face is toward the west,
The purple land.
She cannot see the grain
Ripening on hill and plain;
She cannot feel the rain
Upon her hand.

Rest, rest, for evermore
Upon a mossy shore;
Rest, rest at the heart's core
Till time shall cease:
Sleep that no pain shall wake,
Night that no morn shall break
Till joy shall overtake
Her perfect peace.

Title Commentary

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"Goblin Market"


SOURCE: Shurbutt, Sylvia Bailey. "Revisionist Mythmaking in Christina Rossetti's 'Goblin Market': Eve's Apple and Other Questions Revised and Reconsidered." The Victorian Newsletter 82 (fall 1992): 40-44.

In the following essay, Shurbutt argues that in "Goblin Market" Rossetti revises traditional Christian myths to produce feminist readings of the Fall and the Redemption.

The notion of a woman writer attempting to offer an alternative version to the patriarchal explanation of being is not new: from Amelia Lanier to Virginia Woolf, women writers have attempted to amend traditional Western myth with its misogynist overtones, especially biblical myth so much a part of our Western ethical system. Sometimes blatantly overt (as in Lanier's apology for Eve, Nightingale's declaration of a female Christ or Elizabeth Cady Stanton's dream of a revisionist Woman's Bible), sometimes subtly muted (as in Shelley's retelling of paradise lost in her famous Gothic novel), women writers have sought to revise or reconstruct the patriarchal myths that influence our ethical values and limit the vision of individual possibilities.

Alicia Ostriker evaluates the terrain of myth and the process of revisionist mythmaking in this way: "At first thought," she says, "mythology seems an inhospitable terrain for a woman writer." Juxtaposed to the conquering gods and hardy heroes, "we find the sexually wicked Venus, Circe, Pandora, Helen, Medea, Eve, and virtuously passive Iphigenia, Alcestis, Mary, Cinderella. It is thanks to myth we believe that woman must be either 'angel' or 'monster'" (316). However, emendation of this highly polarized and often negative mythic portrayal of woman has long been an intriguing possibility for women writers. "When-ever a poet employs a figure or story previously accepted and defined by culture, the poet is using myth, and the potential is always present that the use will be revisionist: that is, the figure or tale will be appropriated for altered ends, the old vessel filled with new wine, initially satisfying the thirst of the individual poet but ultimately making cultural change possible" (317). In the case of revisionist mythmaking, Ostriker continues, "… old stories are changed, changed utterly, by female experience, so that they can no longer stand as foundations of collective male fantasy. Instead … they are corrections; they are representations of what women find divine and demonic in themselves; they are retrieved images of what women have collectively and historically suffered; in some cases they are instructions for survival" (316).

An example of the more subtle revisionist process can be seen in the lines of one of Victorian literature's most discussed and intriguing poetic tales, Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market." While the poem has generated a variety of critical interpretation—from the traditional explanation of the divided self struggling against an over-wrought libido to Rossetti's positing of a "covert (if ambivalently) lesbian world" (Gilbert and Gubar 567) to the poem as paradigm for a nineteenth-century version of anorexia nervosa (Cohen) and finally to the quasi-Freudian interpretation of the story as "conflict between oral sadism and the reality-testing anal stage" (Charles 149)—what Freudians and feminists alike tend to forget, however, are the deeply religious implications of the poem. Indeed, as Dolores Rosenblum writes in a 1982 article in Victorian Poetry: "In a sense … all Rossetti's poetry is deeply religious, concerned always with the relation of this world to the next" (33). It is this aspect of "Goblin Market" that I wish to focus upon, but not in the traditional or orthodox sense, rather as Rossetti's conscious attempt to revise traditional Christian myth in order to produce an alternative, "feminist" reading to the two most fundamental stories in Christian lore—the fall of humankind from grace and our redemption through the blood of Christ. It is pointedly significant that this devoutly religious poet has her female Christ figure say in the redemptive climax of the poem: "Eat me, drink me, love me" (l. 471).

That Rossetti, whom biographers have portrayed as a model of pious devotion, indeed, whose posthumous poems were altered by brother William Michael "to make them more saintly still" (Auerbach 113), should attempt consciously or unconsciously anything so rebellious in nature as revisionist mythmaking might seem incongruous; however, even her "saintliness" has been established as slightly unorthodox. As Catherine Musello Cantalupo has stated in her evaluation of Rossetti as a devotional poet, she was "no strict typologist" (275). And Ellen Moers, who calls Rossetti one of "the greatest religious poets of the nineteenth century," comments specifically on the unique unorthodoxy of "Goblin Market" (103).

In a work so filled with religious imagery and overtones, something is slightly out of kilter in its pious presentation of one sister's effort to save the other from slipping into concupiscent sin. At the moment when the devout sister Lizzie offers herself as a sacrifice for the other, says Moers, "it is the most eloquent, most erotic moment in the poem" (103). But this combination of eroticism and Christian imagery, itself not extraordinary if viewed in a Pre-Raphaelite context, is not the only puzzling aspect about the poem: there appears within the work a conscious effort to turn biblical and Miltonic myth, with its misogynistic intent, into heroic affirmation of the female, Christ-like principle of loving self-sacrifice and creative self-assertion through rebirth or resurrection.

As early as 1956, in an article entitled "The Feminine Christ," Marian Shalkhauser discussed "Goblin Market" as a "Christian fairy tale in which a feminine cast of characters is substituted for the masculine cast of the Biblical sinredemption sequence" (19). Shalkhauser associated Rossetti's two sisters, Laura and Lizzie, with Adam/Christ figures in a sacrificial drama in which "a feminine Christ redeems a feminine mankind from a masculine Satan" (20). In 1979, Gilbert and Gubar noted Rossetti's use and exploitation of Miltonic imagery, but they viewed such exploitation merely in terms of a "lesson in renunciation" (573), an affirmation of the patriarchal ideal of "angel in the house"; they were perhaps shortsighted in failing to see the ultimate power and expression of active autonomy communicated in Rossetti's revisionist myth-making.

One must free oneself from the traditional, patriarchal interpretation of self-sacrifice as ultimate expression of feminine submission, in order to understand the implications of the sisters' uniquely empowering act of renunciation. Despite Rossetti's seeming acceptance of "woman's place" as defined by a nineteenth-century patriarchy, she appears to have rejected the idea that female self-sacrifice was necessarily indicative of weak-minded submission. Indeed, Diane D'Amico has written of Rossetti's attempt to elevate the female principle and self-sacrifice to deific proportions, with Mary, Eve and Mary Magdalene serving in her writing as "a sort of feminine triptych" (175). D'Amico goes on to explain that Rossetti believed that woman had suffered "difficulty and pain" in her relationship with man as defined by the Judeo-Christian mythic scheme: "Even in the case of Adam and Eve, Rossetti did not overlook the verse in Genesis (13:12) in which Adam seems quite willing to let Eve take all the blame: 'The meanness as well as the heinousness of sin [says Rossetti in Letter and Spirit (84)] is illustrated in Adam's apparent effort to shelter himself at the expense of Eve'" (180-81). However, if "Genesis told her of Eve's weakness and shame," continues D'Amico commenting on Rossetti's devotional prose piece The Face of the Deep, "Revelation told her of woman's ultimate strength and glory" (191).

The biblical and Miltonic overtones in Rossetti's poem are obvious as the story of the Eve-like Laura's fall is unfolded. Captivated by the seductive call of the satanic goblin men, who appropriately slink, crawl, and slither their way into her consciousness (ll. 70-76), Laura/Eve succumbs to their serpentine enticement and yearns to partake of their luscious and lascivious fruit. Like Milton's serpent before being cursed by god to slither forever legless, the goblin men are "whisttailed" creatures, full of "airs and graces," whose honeyed words seduce the feckless Laura/Eve. The fruit with which they accomplish their seduction, like Milton's biblical fruit is rife with sexual and creative implication as well as with the power which forbidden knowledge affords. The vivid words Rossetti employs to describe the fruit and, most important, uses in Laura's own description of her voluptuous feast are rich with Pre-Raphaelite color, the details as brilliant as a Burne-Jones painting:

What melons icy-cold
Piled on a dish of gold
Too huge for me to hold,
What peaches with a velvet nap,
Pellucid grapes without one seed;
Odorous indeed must be the meed
Whereon they grow.… (ll. 175-81)

The goblin men are purveyors not only of sexual liberation and bacchanal pleasures but of creative liberation as well; they hold the keys to the masculine world of creative activity and knowledge. Laura purchases their fruit with her golden lock, an obvious sexual gesture, and in clipping her lock, she trades her chastity for access to the male world of artistic and sexual freedom:

Stronger than man-rejoicing wine,
Clearer than water flowed that juice:
She never tasted such before,
How should it cloy with length of use?
She sucked and sucked and sucked the more
Fruits which that unknown orchard bore,
She sucked until her lips were sore. (ll. 130-36)

Rossetti's lines pulsate not only with sexual implication but with the suggestion that Laura's hunger, that her oral craving, goes beyond mere sexual fulfillment; the hunger here is also for knowledge and creative expression, for poetic articulation as well as for carnality. Laura is utterly lost in her sensual abandonment, in the awakening she experiences, and as her words vividly record, she is well able to articulate what she has experienced. Having tasted the forbidden fruit, she becomes God-like in her knowledge and in her ability to create, and, like the artist, she brilliantly portrays for sister Lizzie a portrait of her pleasure feast (ll. 164-83).

However, just as Milton's God feared Adam and Eve's gaining knowledge after tasting the fruit of paradise and cast them out of Eden, the goblin men reject Laura in her new-found knowledge. She too is cast aside and no longer privy to their call to come and feast. She is now a threat—a woman with creative and sexual knowledge, a rival; and like the doomed Jeanie, another willful lass seduced, she is condemned to pine and languish, never again invited to taste of the goblin men's fruit. Unfortunately, having tasted of masculine freedom and knowledge, Laura will forever be dissatisfied with the mundane world of womanly cares and duties; her common-day sphere of kneading dough, churning butter, and whipping cream holds little fascination now; she is as weary-worn and care-ridden as that primal pair banished from paradise and fallen upon a world of tears and pain (ll. 293-98), a world dulled by the postlapsarian shadow.

In her recently published study of Rossetti's poetry, Christine Rossetti and the Poetry of Discovery, Katherine Mayberry has recognized the creative self-assertion prominent in Rossetti's portrayal of the fallen sister Laura: "Permeating the verse is a sense of the poet's breathless inebriation with the process of writing. The proliferation of words, rhythms, metaphors, and similes suggests an artist reveling in her creativity, whose love of her craft, like Laura's love of the fruit, is insatiable" (90). Laura's discovery of knowledge and creative self-expression is the narrator's discovery:

The narrator's apparent enchantment or intoxication with the tools of her art allies her with the wayward Laura, who experiences a comparable inebriation with the goblins' beautiful, abundant fruit. In Laura, Rossetti has produced a natural poet-figure—a character possessing all the impulses and instincts necessary, though not always sufficient, for the creation of art [i. e. her Eve-like curiosity, her instinctive attempt to give literary form to her experiences, and her richly "poetic language"].


Rossetti's version of "paradise regained," the second half of the poem, is unique in that she presents a female Christ figure who offers much more than merely an aesthetic of renunciation and self-sacrifice, the traditional feminist interpretation of the second half of the poem (Gilbert and Gubar 572). The sacrificial action of Lizzie can more appropriately be viewed as a positive act of defiance and, on Rossetti's part, as revisionist mythmaking.

Taking a silver penny with which to purchase the forbidden fruit for Laura, Lizzie/Christ seeks the goblin men herself. The imagery Rossetti associates with Lizzie at this point is the same traditionally associated with Jesus Christ; it is also imagery which fills the Pre-Raphaelite canvas—the lily (Dante Rossetti's "Ecce Ancilla Domini," Collins's "Convent Thoughts," Hughes's "The Annunciation"), the beacon (Hunt's "The Light of the World), the besieged city (ll. 409-21). Fearlessly, Lizzie faces the taunting goblin men, devilish in their wicked supplication:

Full of airs and graces,
Pulling wry faces,
Demure grimaces,
Cat-like and rat-like,

[They] squeezed and caressed her:
Stretched up their dishes. (ll. 337-40, 349-50)

The protean forms the goblin men assume are those traditionally associated with Satan: cats, rats, wombats, magpies. As Lizzie confronts this raffish crew, she remains steady, unyielding to their persecution; and in conquering temptation and the flesh, she purchases redemption for her sister, as Christ in his passion bought redemption for fallen humankind. The mythical Christian imagery in the poem at this point is unmistakable:

White and golden Lizzie stood,
Like a lily in a flood,—
Like a rock of blue-veined stone …
Like a beacon left alone …
Like a royal virgin town
Topped with gilded dome and spire
Close beleagured by a fleet
Mad to tug her standard down. (ll. 408-10, 412, 418—21)

Lizzie's is no mean or cowardly act of submission, but one of defiance and action; it is a decisive act of will, and in the face of her strength the goblin men slink and slime their way back into the dark recesses of the earth, back into the primal depths of their origin (ll. 437-46). And Lizzie, having bargained for the "fiery antidote" (l. 559) to her sister's malaise, returns to Laura and, bruised and dripping with the sticky goblin pulp, charges her sister to embrace her, indeed to "Eat me, drink me, love me" (l. 471). With heroic self-sacrifice, she has purchased salvation for her sister, and the redemption she offers pulsates with eucharistic imagery.

Overcome with the magnitude of her sister's sacrifice—"Lizzie, Lizzie, have you tasted / For my sake the fruit forbidden?" (ll. 477-78)—Laura embraces her sister and accepts the offer of redemption. In so doing, she exorcises her demon spirits, and the act of a woman's tasting the forbidden fruit assumes heroic rather than sinful dimensions:

Swift fire spread through her veins, knocked at her
Met the fire smoldering there
And overbore its lesser flame. (ll. 506-08)

At length, Laura swoons, and in symbolic death finds rebirth and salvation: "Life out of death … Laura awoke as from a dream" (ll. 524, 537).

The sisters go on to become mothers, teachers and story tellers, celebrating the heroic actions of Lizzie and the principle of sisterhood (ll. 543-67). At the end of the poem, the world they inhabit is one curiously absent of men, yet it is a creative world, a world of wisdom and knowledge that the sisters pass on to their children. In her remaking of Miltonic and biblical myth, Rossetti appears to legitimize the creative spirit of the nineteenth-century female, god-like in her ability to create life though seldom sanctioned the freedom to create art.

The sisterhood that Rossetti's poem celebrates is one not only reminiscent of the "Amazon" legends of Greek myth but also similar to those science fiction fantasies of the twentieth century, where female heroes bigger than life create a sister-hood and inhabit a heroic world without men. Perhaps such a sisterhood would seem especially appealing to someone like Rossetti, an individual both disenfranchised and powerless, and allowed little part in "brotherhood." One rather imagines Rossetti, fascinated and deeply interested in the work of her brother and other Pre-Raphaelites, feeling occasionally the intruder, the outcast, perhaps the work of art (as model) but never the artist (see "In an Artist's Studio"). Jerome Bump has written of the irony of Rossetti's exclusion from the "brotherhood": "The first literary victory of the Pre-Raphaelites was the publication of GoblinMarket and Other Poems, and it was written by the member they excluded" (323). The extent of Rossetti's pain at such exclusion can only be guessed at; certainly, her poetry reveals a longing for fulfillment of heroic potential, though it might not be in precisely the same mode or fashion as that of her male siblings. In "The Lowest Room" she questions:

Why should not you, why should not I
Attain heroic Strength?

Who dooms me I shall only be
The second, not the first? (ll. 15-16, 19-20)

Rossetti's interest in the concept of sisterhood has been explored by Dorothy Mermin, who notes the poet's work with fallen women, her wish to be an Anglican nun (a goal her sister Maria achieved in 1873), and her interest in joining Nightingale's core of female nurses bound for the Crimea (115). Mermin also speculates that Rossetti's fascination with the concept of a female Christ, not a totally novel idea in the nineteenth century, is due to the influence exerted on her by Nightingale, who writes in Cassandra, "The next Christ will perhaps be a female Christ" (112). Certainly, Rossetti's Lizzie follows precisely the mythic/heroic paradigm of a Christ or a Dante or a Buddha—the only variation in this version of the separation, the journey, and the return with redemptive powers is that Rossetti's hero (her Christ) is cast in female guise.

Far from being an affirmation of the angel in the house, typical interpretation of Rossetti's poem, "Goblin Market" is revisionist mythmaking in a variety of ways. Here are certainly angels, but they are by no means passive and sacrificial. Rather, both Lizzie and Laura are strong-willed women who defy the nineteenth-century male version of creative and sexual prerogatives, exclusive to a single sex. When Laura/Eve succumbs to the goblin fruit, she is affirming her sexuality, her creativity, and her right to be an intellectual being; in so doing, she intrudes upon the male domain, becoming a threat and thus deemed worthless and no longer privileged to hear their call or share their fruit. Gilbert and Gubar have characterized the goblin fruit and Laura's fall in this way: "Rossetti's 'pleasure-place' is thus quite clearly a paradise of self gratifying art, a paradise in which the lines of 'Goblin Market''s masculine fruit-merchants are anticipated by the seductions of the male muse …" (571). Yet, in the final analysis, the implication Gilbert and Gubar clearly find for "Goblin Market" is both anti-self and anti-artist for the female; "like Laura and Jeanie," they say, "Rossetti must learn to suffer and renounce the self-gratifications of art and sensuality" (571). There is, however, little suffering and less renouncing suggested in the final lines of the poem; indeed, the sisters' lives portend not only paradise regained but that Blakean version of "paradise" achieved through experience and testing. As for the sisters'—and Rossetti's—renouncing art and creativity, such is hardly the case. Indeed, what renunciation there is in the poem is uniquely empowering and in itself revisionist, for the sisters do not renounce sexuality or artistic expression on their own terms (after all, the conclusion presents full-blossomed women with children, women who carry on a tradition of storytelling and wisdom teaching, modes of artistic expression traditionally associated with the female world and only in recent years legitimized as "real" art); rather, theirs is renunciation of sexuality and artistic expression as defined by the goblin men, by patriarchal tradition.

Katherine Mayberry has written that for Rossetti creating poetry was "a tremendously powerful act, serving as an alembic through which all that was painful or confusing could be rendered beautiful and intelligible.… Through the poetic act, Rossetti could recast the unsatisfactory conditions of her temporal existence into beautiful and permanent experience" (109). One might conclude, as well, that in her choice to create, to be a poet, Rossetti went so far as to revise the "myth," the story of her own life: "Even the conditions of being a poet wrought a reinterpretation of the circumstances of Christina Rossetti's own life, changing her singleness from a misfortune into a professional requirement; as with the heroines of her ballads, Rossetti's spinsterhood was a condition that ultimately fostered autonomy, strength, and creativity" (109).

In some respect, what Rossetti was doing in such poems as "Goblin Market," "Repining," "The Lowest Room," "Moonshine," and "The Heart Knoweth its Own Bitterness" was what Carolyn Heilbrun calls "writing a woman's life." Heilbrun stresses the importance in women's lives of literature and myth and how, for the most part, women's "stories" have been written by men and the patriarchal myths and traditions which mold us all: "We can only retell and live by the stories we have read or heard. We live our lives through texts. They may be read, or chanted, or experienced electronically, or come to us, like the murmurings of our mothers, telling us what conventions demand. Whatever their form or medium, these stories have formed us all" (37). At the conclusion of "Goblin Market," Rossetti presents women themselves narrating to their children their story, creating their own myth; and their story follows the pattern of Christ in its loving self-sacrifice and religious intent, though the roles are recast, revised, with the principal players women.

Dorothy Mermin has written that "religious belief," for Rossetti, "both curbed her ambition and offered escape from the restrictions imposed by her sex" (116). Though one might question whether her religious beliefs did indeed curb Rossetti's ambition, there is little doubt that Victorian women like Christina Rossetti provided themselves with a means of empowerment by their devotion to a religion of renunciation and self-sacrifice. Though a Nietzsche might not have seen the possibility of power through self-sacrifice, a host of nineteenth-century women found active and positive possibilities in following the paradigm provided through Christ's passion—certainly, Rossetti sensed the power of the myth and the appeal of revision of that myth to achieve her own sense of heroic self-fulfillment.

Works Cited

Auerbach, Nina. Woman and the Demon: The Life of a Victorian Myth. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1982.

Bump, Jerome. "Christina Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood." The Achievement of Christina Rossetti. Ed. David A. Kent. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1987. 322-45.

Cantalupo, Catherine Musello. "Christina Rossetti: The Devotional Poet and the Rejection of Romantic Nature." The Achievement of Christina Rossetti. Ed. David A. Kent. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1987.

Charles, Edna K. Christina Rossetti: Critical Perspectives 1862-1982. London: Associated UPs, 1985.

Cohen, Paula. "Christina Rossetti's 'Goblin Market': A Paradigm for Nineteenth-Century Anorexia Nervosa." University of Hartford Studies in Literature 17 (1985): 1-18.

D'Amico, Diane. "Eve, Mary, and Mary Magdalene: Christina Rossetti's Feminine Triptych." The Achievement of Christina Rossetti. Ed. David A. Kent. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1987.

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.

Heilbrun, Carolyn G. Writing a Woman's Life. New York: Ballantine, 1988.

Mayberry, Katherine J. Christina Rossetti and the Poetry of Discovery. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1989.

Mermin, Dorothy. "Heroic Sisterhood in Goblin Market." Victorian Poetry 21 (Summer 1983): 107-118.

Moers, Ellen. Literary Women. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.

Ostriker, Alicia. "The Thieves of Language: Women Poets and Revisionist Mythmaking." Feminist Criticism: Women, Literature and Theory. Ed. Elaine Showalter. New York: Pantheon, 1985. 314-38.

Rosenblum, Dolores. "Christina Rossetti's Religious Poetry: Watching, Looking, Keeping Vigil." Victorian Poetry 20 (Spring 1982): 33-49.

Shalkhauser, Marian. "The Feminine Christ." Victorian Newsletter 10 (Autumn 1956): 19-20.

Further Reading

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Addison, Jane. "Christina Rossetti Studies, 1974-1991: A Checklist and Synthesis." Bulletin of Bibliography 52, no. 1 (March 1995): 73-93.

Biographical sketch and extensive bibliography of writings about Rossetti from 1974 to 1991.


Battiscombe, Georgina. Christina Rossetti: A Divided Life. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981, 233 p.

Focuses on the conflict between the outward calm of Rossetti's life and her internal emotional turmoil.

Marsh, Jan. Christina Rossetti: A Literary Biography. New York: Viking Penguin, 1995, 640 p.

Complete, feminist interpretation of Rossetti's life.


Adlard, John. "Christina Rossetti: Strategies of Loneliness." Contemporary Review 221, no. 1280 (September 1972): 146-50.

Analysis of "Goblin Market" focusing on the adult themes of the poem.

Armstrong, Isobel. "Christina Rossetti: Diary of Feminist Reading." In Women Reading Women's Writing, edited by Sue Roe, pp. 115-37. Brighton, England: Harvester Press, 1987.

Discusses Rossetti's place in the literary canon from a feminist perspective.

Bald, Marjory A. "Christina Rossetti." In Women Writers of the Nineteenth Century, pp. 233-66. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1923.

Discusses the literary sources of Rossetti's poetry and examines her use of symbol, allegory, myth, and dream.

Bloom, Harold. "Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828), Christina Rossetti (1830-1894)." In Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds, pp. 433-39. New York: Warner Books, 2002.

Comparison of aspects of Rossetti's verse with that of her brother, the poet-painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Bristow, Joseph. "'No Friend Like a Sister'?: Christina Rossetti's Female Kin." Victorian Poetry 33, no. 2 (summer 1995): 257-82.

Examines the conflicted nature of sisterhood in Rossetti's work.

Charles, Edna Kotin. Christina Rossetti: Critical Perspectives, Selinsgrove, Pa.: Susquehanna University Press, 1985, 187 p.

Reviews and explains the scholarship and criticism of Rossetti's works from 1860 to 1982.

D'Amico, Diane. Christina Rossetti: Faith, Gender and Time. Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 2000, 200 p.

Examines the role that Rossetti's faith and gender had on her writing.

Flowers, Betty S. "'Had Such a Lady Spoken For Herself': Christina Rossetti's 'Monna Innominata'." In Rossetti to Sexton: Six Women Poets at Texas, edited by and introduced by Dave Oliphant, pp. 13-29. Austin: University of Texas at Austin, 1992.

Suggests that Rossetti needed to distinguish her "self" from the fictional versions of women created by Dante, Petrarch, and her brother.

Forman, H. Buxton. "Christina Gabriela Rossetti." In Our Living Poets: An Essay in Criticism, pp. 231-53. London, England: Tinsley Brothers, 1871.

Early critical assessment of Rossetti as a significant contributor to "real poetry" and the history of female literature.

Garlitz, Barbara. "Christina Rossetti's Sing-Song and Nineteenth-Century Children's Poetry." PMLA 70, no. 3 (June 1955): 539-43.

Discusses Sing-Song in relation to other nineteenth-century children's poetry.

Gilbert, Pamela K. "'A Horrid Game': Woman as Social Entity in Christina Rossetti's Prose." English 41, no. 169 (spring 1992): 1-23.

Provides representative examples of Rossetti's neglected longer prose works, including Maude and Speaking Likenesses, and shows how Rossetti critiqued the treatment of women during her era despite the fact that she did not challenge the social order.

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. "The Aesthetics of Renunciation." In The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, pp. 539-80. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979.

Examines the work of Rossetti and that of other female poets, including Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf, in the context of the argument that women writers have experienced difficulty in sustaining an image of themselves as poets.

Harrison, A. H., guest editor. Victorian Poetry: Centennial of Christina Rossetti, 1830-1894 32, no. 3-4 (autumn-winter): 1994.

Special edition of the journal devoted to Rossetti.

Holt, Terence. "'Men sell not such in any town': Exchange in Goblin Market." Victorian Poetry 28, no. 1 (spring 1990): 51-68.

Examines the language and metaphors about economics in "Goblin Market," arguing that the discourse of the marketplace is designed to stress that the market is not the province of women.

Maxwell, Catherine. "The Poetic Context of Christina Rossetti's 'After Death'." English Studies 76, no. 2 (March 1995): 143-55.

Offers a close reading of "After Death" that attempts to identify the work's literary merits and not merely understand it in terms of the author's biography or status as a woman.

Melnyk, Julie. "The Lyrical 'We': Self-Representation in Christina Rossetti's 'Later Life'." Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies 11 (fall 2002): 43-61.

Analysis of the poem "Later Life" that demonstrates one way that Christianity enabled Rossetti to write poetry within and against the Romantic lyric and to find a more satisfying representation of the self.

Palazzo, Lynda. "Christina Rossetti's 'Goblin Market': The Sensual Imagination." Unisa English Studies 26, no. 2 (September 1988): 15-20.

Considers "Goblin Market" to be the work of a poet attempting to solve problems caused by the change from Romantic to Victorian values.

——. Christina Rossetti's Feminist Theology. London: Palgrave, 2002, 184p.

Depicts Rossetti's prose as foreshadowing later feminist theories.

Parker, Emma. "A Career of One's Own: Christina Rossetti, Literary Success and Love." Women's Writing 5, no. 3 (1998): 305-28.

Argues that the themes of loss and longing in Rossetti's work relate less to love than to her ambitions and anxieties as a writer.

Rosenblum, Dolores. "Christina Rossetti: The Inward Pose." In Shakespeare's Sisters: Feminist Essays on Women Poets, edited by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, pp. 82-98. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979.

Explores a "doubleness" of opposing themes in Rossetti's poetry, which the Rosenblum contends resulted from the restrictions of being a woman in Victorian England.

Senior, Claire. "Maiden-Songs: The Role of the Female Child in Christina Rossetti's Speaking Likenesses." Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies 11 (fall 2002): 62-94.

Discusses the suppression of sexuality and energy of girls in Rossetti's work.

Sickbert, Virginia. "Christina Rossetti and Victorian Children's Poetry: A Maternal Challenge to the Patriarchal Family." Victorian Poetry 31, no. 4 (winter 1993): 385-410.

Examines Rossetti's construction of parenthood and childhood in her children's poetry.

Smulders, Sharon. "Woman's Enfranchisement in Christina Rossetti's Poetry." Texas Studies in Literature and Language 34, no. 4 (winter 1992): 568-88.

Argues that much of Rossetti's poetry from the 1850s and 1860s explores the question of women's place in society and literature.

Wiesenthal, Christine. "Regarding Christina Rossetti's 'Reflection'." Victorian Poetry 39, no. 3 (fall 2001): 389-406.

Explores the indeterminacy and doubleness of Rossetti's poem "Reflection," which the critic says is a critique of gender ideology.

Woolf, Virginia. "I Am Christina Rossetti." In Collected Essays, pp. 54-60. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1967.

An essay originally written in 1930 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Rossetti's birth that offers a positive assessment of the poet's work.


Additional coverage of Rossetti's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 51; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vol. 4; British Writers, Vol. 5; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 35, 163, 240; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors and Poets; DISCovering Authors, 3.0; Exploring Poetry; Literature and its Times Supplement, Ed. 1; Literature Resource Center; Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vols. 2, 50, 66; Poetry Criticism, Vols. 10, 14; Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2; Something About the Author, Vol. 20; Twayne's English Authors; World Literature Criticism; and Writers for Children.


Rossetti, Christina (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)