Historical Context

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While the Rossetti family was gaining prominence in literary and artistic circles throughout England, Queen Victoria was in the early years of her long reign over the country, lasting from 1837 until her death in 1901. Because the Victorian era spanned much of the nineteenth century, it encompassed some of the greatest changes the world had witnessed up to that time. Foreign trade agreements, cultural expansion, the Industrial Revolution, widespread civil unrest, and a profusion of creative outlets all represented the social and political atmosphere of the times. This era also encompassed two prominent “ages” that occurred in the 1800s—the Age of Liberalism (1826–1850) and the Age of Imperialism (1875–1900). The former was characterized by social class battles and an effort by millions of citizens to secure a more democratic government, and the latter established empires for countries who were able to dominate small nations and gain control of world markets and raw materials. While emerging middle classes throughout the world struggled for greater recognition and independence, large governments exerted their imperialistic powers over weaker nations. Under Victoria, Great Britain expanded its colonial holdings in Africa and, in 1877, the queen was made Empress of India, thereby strengthening Britain’s presence in Asia.

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The term “Victorian” often carries a negative connotation because the queen to whom it refers was a rather dowdy, pretentious woman who gave new meaning to extremely high—and often hypocritical—moral standards and proper conduct, especially for women. In spite of Victoria’s title of Queen of Britain, she allowed her prime minister and other male members of Parliament to run the government. Victoria believed a woman’s place was in the home, and during her reign, women took over the duties of running their households, spurred on by the establishment of many clothing and home furnishings retailers. But Queen Victoria was also widely respected for her strength of character and tact, and her reign was the longest in European history, except for King Louis XIV of France. Under her rule, Britain saw unprecedented industrial and commercial prosperity, and several reform acts enfranchised the new middle class and the working class, as well as millions of new voters. Legislators passed humanitarian laws that eliminated some of the worst abuses in workplaces, and, toward the end of the century, the labor party grew strong, a regular civil service was established, and more children had greater opportunities to receive an education.

The Rossetti children were not poor, but the family did suffer financial hardship after the death of the father in 1854. Everyone pitched in to find various sources of income, the most successful being William Michael, who was employed by the Excise Office and also made money as a literary journalist. It was his income that supported the Rossetti family throughout much of the mid-nineteenth century. Having established the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848, Dante Gabriel and other members of the movement were viewed by the well-schooled, formal artists and critics of the time as impertinent young men who wanted to make a name for themselves by rebelling against the cultural norm. The “norm” in question was that established more than three centuries earlier by Raphael who suggested proper guidelines for paintings, such as one-seventh of the canvas should be in bright light and one-third in shadow, and the human figures used as subjects should represent ideal beauty. The Pre-Raphaelite movement began small but its influence was widespread in the art world, as well as the literary. The return to more natural subjects and less structured canvases paved the way for the loose, informal creativity that took hold in the mid-1800s and can still be seen today.

Literary Style

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The Sonnet
In Victorian England and centuries prior, writing poetry meant writing with formality, adhering to a specific line length, rhyme scheme, meter, and so forth. The sonnet is one of the most popular styles of formal verse, and there are two main types of sonnets—the Shakespearean (English) and the Petrarchan (Italian). In its structure, “Remember” most closely follows the Petrarchan style, named for the Italian poet Petrarch Francesco (1307–1374) who made it popular. This type of sonnet contains fourteen lines, divided into an octave (the first eight lines) and a sestet (the last six lines). Usually, the octave acts as a kind of rising action, presenting a question, vision, or desire that becomes the subject of the poem. The sestet is typically the resolution section, providing an answer to the question, bringing the vision into full view, or satisfying the desire expressed in the octave. A Petrarchan sonnet generally follows the rhyme scheme a-b-b-a-a-b-ba for the first eight lines and c-d-e-c-d-e for the final six.

Rosetti’s “Remember” follows precisely the Petrarchan rhyme scheme for the octave, but offers a slight variation in the sestet, which rhymes c-dd- e-c-e. One cannot be certain why the poet strayed from the usual form, and perhaps it was simply because she liked the sound of it better this way. Some speculation has also suggested that rhyming lines 12 and 14 gives greater emphasis to the poem’s ending, in which the speaker’s final decision is revealed. As far as the use of the octave and sestet to present typical Petrarchan dilemma and resolution is concerned, this sonnet also runs off course, especially in the sestet. Rather than expanding on the idea of remembrance presented in the octave or bringing a satisfying closure to the speaker’s assumed last request, the final lines in “Remember” speak of even grimmer “darkness and corruption” and jump from remembering to forgetting. As such, Rossetti’s poem shows mastery of the formal style, but also demonstrates how slight deviations can provide greater impact for the work.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Dombrowski, Theo, “Dualism in the Poetry of Christina Rossetti,” in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 14, No. 1, Spring 1976, pp. 70–76.

Harrison, Antony H., Christina Rossetti in Context, University of North Carolina Press, 1988, p. 21.

Keane, Robert N., “Christina Rossetti: A Reconsideration,” in Nineteenth-Century Women Writers of the English-Speaking World, edited by Rhoda B. Nathan, Greenwood Press, 1986, pp. 99–106.

Rosenblum, Dolores, Christina Rossetti: The Poetry of Endurance, Southern Illinois University Press, 1986, p. 209.

Rossetti, Christina, The Complete Poems of Christina Rossetti, Vol. 1, edited by R. W. Crump, Louisiana State University Press, 1979, p. 37.

Smulders, Sharon, Christina Rossetti Revisited, Twayne Publishers, 1996, p. 125.

Further Reading
Jones, Kathleen, Learning Not to Be First: The Life of Christina Rossetti, St. Martin’s Press, 1992. This biography of Rossetti is comprehensive and easy to read. It takes a sensitive look at the poet, based on the humble, pious, and selfless life she lived.

Lootens, Tricia A., Lost Saints: Silence, Gender, and Victorian Literary Canonization, University Press of Virginia, 1996. Lootens presents an interesting look at how and why many Victorian female writers were thought of as “saints,” often at the expense of seeing them for who they really were. With such chapter titles as “Poet Worship Meets ‘Woman’ Worship” and “Canonization of Christina Rossetti,” this book is a good read for those who want a better grasp of the environment in which Victorian women wrote and lived.

Rossetti, Christina, The Letters of Christina Rossetti, edited by Antony H. Harrison, University Press of Virginia, 1997. Reading the correspondence that Rossetti sent to her family and friends is beneficial in understanding the poet’s mindset. The letters confirm her devout Christian faith and help the reader understand why she would have written poems with themes of imperfect love, religion, and death.

—, A Pageant and Other Poems, Roberts Brothers, 1881. Original copies of this book are likely to be housed in “rare books” sections of libraries and must be read there. However, later editions are available, and it is worth the read, especially for the “Monna Innominata” (Unnamed Lady) sonnet sequence.

—, Selected Prose of Christina Rossetti, edited by David A. Kent and P. G. Stanwood, St. Martin’s Press, 1998. Any reader who is seriously interested in understanding Rossetti’s poetry and the perspective from which she wrote should read her prose as well. This book provides generous excerpts of both her short stories and religious writings, along with helpful introductions, publication histories, and synopses of the entire works. In general, Rossetti’s prose is more revealing of her powerful intellect and keen perception of theological issues than her poetry is.

Compare and Contrast

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  • 1850s: American social reformer and feminist Amelia Jenks Bloomer initiates “bloomer” fashion when she starts wearing full-cut pants under skirts. Bloomers enable women to move more freely and comfortably than did petticoats.

    Today: Just about anything goes in the world of fashion for women—from conservative business suits and low heels to revived mini-skirts and tall black boots to the ever-present blue jeans, sweat shirts, and sneakers. “Bloomers” are an option, not a must, for some.

  • 1850s: Florence Nightingale takes London nurses to the battlefields of the Crimean War, a conflict pitting Britain, France, and Turkey against Russia when the latter tries to advance into Turkey. Nightingale organizes a barracks hospital in a war that will claim more lives through disease than combat.

    Today: Women still make up the great majority of the nursing field, but they are also increasing their numbers as physicians. Approximately twenty-five percent of doctors today are women, and forty-three percent of all medical students are female.

  • 1850s: The first Women’s Rights Convention in the United States, led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, opens at Seneca Falls, New York in 1948. In 1953, seventy-three women present a petition to the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention urging women’s right to vote.

    Today: The League of Women Voters, begun in 1920 as an advocate for citizen education, has seen its numbers steadily decrease over the years, mostly because women are more concerned about juggling careers and family responsibilities and young adults are not particularly interested in civic participation. Ironically, though, the number of women voters has been higher than their male counterparts for the past two decades.

Media Adaptations

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Visit the “ArtMagick” web site at http://www. artmagick.com/index.asp (last accessed August, 2001), a “virtual museum displaying paintings and poetry from art movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries” (for example: romantic, symbolist, Pre-Raphaelite and art nouveau). The site includes dozens of paintings by the Pre- Raphaelites, as well as twenty poems by Christina Rossetti.

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