Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1301
The sister of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Christina Rossetti began writing poetry in her early teens. Her verse, always simple, pure, direct, never lost some of the childlike and direct quality evident in her earliest work. Indeed, she later wrote a nursery rhyme book (SING SONG), full of pleasant and sharp little rhymes for children. She even included a rhymed alphabet, containing six or eight onomatopoetic references for each letter. Her skill and facility in light verse can be seen in the lines like the following from “An Alphabet”:
K is a King, or a Kaiser still higher;K is a Kitten, or quaint Kangaroo.L is a Lute or a lovely-toned LyreL is a Lily all laden with dew.
Her deftness in children’s verse and in slight lyrics lasted throughout her poetic career.
Christina Rossetti is, however, far more frequently remembered for her religious or devotional poetry. Living in partial seclusion with her family (primarily with her mother until the latter’s death in 1886), Christina Rossetti saw little of the London around her but lived intensely within her own private world of religious contemplation and meditation. Her poetry, the product of inward contemplation rather than a weapon for a public cause like that of the Pre-Raphaelites, was most frequently devotional. Her themes were faith and the peace of the eternal spiritual life.
Her religion was not theological or doctrinal, however, in the manner of many Victorians, for she concentrated on simple faith and applied her simple and pure lyrics to celebration of that faith. In this simple faith, Jesus being the object of much of her devotion; she wrote a number of poems on the incidents in His life and used Good Friday and the Resurrection as a subject for several of her best poems. In devoting her poems, the products of her faith, to Jesus, she idealized the peace that the individual could find in his dedication to Christianity and the life of the spirit. She seemed, often, to picture herself as humble and unworthy, to long for the peace of eternal rest without ever being sure she could obtain it. She made religion a haven, frequently in her poetry presenting religion as a resting place from the cares of a troubled life. This theme, along with her simple diction, is evident in the following passage from “I Do Set My Bow in the Cloud”:
Then tell me: is it not enoughTo feel that, when the path is roughAnd the sky dark and the rain cold,His promise standeth as of old?When heaven and earth have past awayOnly His righteous word shall stay,And we shall know His will is best.Behold: He is a haven-rest,A sheltering-rock, a hiding place,For runners steadfast in the race;Who, toiling for a little space,Had light through faith when sightgrew dim,And offered all their world to Him.
This passage illustrates many of Miss Rossetti’s frequent attitudes: the darkness and difficulty of this world, usually portrayed in wintry images; the sense of God’s promise to man emanating through all human experience; the idea of the “sheltering-rock,” the haven of faith in which the poor human being could “hide”; the sense that religious faith, without question, is more important for man than are any of his own attempts to see and understand the world about him.
In her devotional poetry she frequently presents simple images of nature through which she demonstrates her devotion. Flowers, the coming of spring and hope, the simple natural details of the world around her, form the pattern of images through which her faith is conveyed. The fields and the meadows, like her simple reflections, all demonstrate the power of God and man’s necessary faith in the mercy and forgiveness of Christ. The most common symbol in her poetry is the rose. Standing for a kind of spiritual beauty, an emanation of the spirit of Christ, the rose figures centrally in her work. Roses are, in a poem like “Three Nuns,” the flowers planted in paradise, the sure indications of the existence of divine love. The rose is also, in this and other poems, the symbol of purity, of a virginal and spiritual beauty that emanates from the divine. In addition, the rose is often solitary, blooming alone in a dark and wintry landscape. As a figure of solitary beauty, the rose becomes an emblem for faith and virtue in the midst of a dark and corrupt world.
Christina Rossetti’s faith was not simply a private matter. In her poetry she demonstrated a great deal of concern for her family and her small circle of friends, and she included them in her poetic requests for the blessings of a merciful Christ. Many of her poems mark family occasions: birthday greetings, valentines to her mother, hopes that her talented brothers could find the peace and rest latent in the true faith. Sometimes she questions her worthiness for salvation, although she generally concludes that Christ is sufficiently merciful to receive her in paradise. In these poems she often comments on the vanity of worldly ambition and the folly of man’s pride. Although she humbly includes her own inclination to judge others as one of the most damning of sins, she often speaks out against those less faithful to the divine spirit than she, giving her work qualities of precision and sharpness.
Not all of Christina Rossetti’s verse is religious or devotional. She can be light and witty; some of her early epigrams have the flavor of Jane Austen’s quiet, civilized, cutting comments. She also wrote a few satirical poems, like one called “The P.R.B.” which begins:
The two Rossettis (brothers they)And Holman Hunt and John Millais,With Stephens chivalrous and bland,And Woolner in a distant land—In these six men I awestruck seeEmbodied the great P.R.B.D.G. Rossetti offered twoGood pictures to the public view;Unnumbered ones great John Millais,And Holman more than I can sayWilliam Rossetti, calm and solemn,Cuts up his brethren by the column.
Some of this sharpness and directness also appears in the poems she wrote about neighboring farm girls. These poems sometimes begin with a simple characterization or a simple account of the circumstances in which the farm girl lived. From this point, the writer goes on, as in “Margery,” to demonstrate that the unhappy girl should not have been so obvious in letting her boy friend know that she loved him, or she may urge the simple farmer to speak up and tell his love. These poems have a direct, homely quality of easy and unpretentious diction. If they frequently add a didactic tag that spoils them for modern ears, the moral is also kept in the language and the area of concern in the poem. Wit and homely common sense distinguished much of Christina Rossetti’s nonreligious poetry, an indication that her observation of the world around her was as sharp, though restrained, as her allegiance to the world of spirit was thorough and genuine.
Praised in her own time for the clarity and sweetness of her diction as well as for the purity of her faith, Christina Rossetti was widely read, although not widely imitated, for she introduced little in the way of technical innovation or a new area of poetic subject matter. Faith is often more bitter in the twentieth century, and the simplicity of her faith seems remote and unworldly to many contemporary readers. Yet the simplicity of her diction and the ability to state a perception with ease and grace and point are still qualities that endear this writer to many modern readers. Although her public is not wide, it is faithful and appreciative.
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