Notes on Christina Rossetti

Source: ‘The Victorian Web’

(40,000 words)
Christina Rossetti : 1830-1894


Christina Georgina Rossetti, one of the most important women poets writing in nineteenth-century England, was born in London December 5, 1830, to Gabriele and Frances (Polidori) Rossetti. Although her fundamentally religious temperament was closer to her mother’s, this youngest member of a remarkable family of poets, artists, and critics inherited many of her artistic tendencies from her father.

Judging from somewhat idealized sketches made by her brother Dante, Christina as a teenager seems to have been quite attractive if not beautiful. In 1848 she became engaged to James Collinson, one of the minor Pre-Raphaelite brethren, but the engagement ended after he reverted to Roman Catholicism.

When Professor Rossetti’s failing health and eyesight forced him into retirement in 1853, Christina and her mother attempted to support the family by starting a day school, but had to give it up after a year or so. Thereafter she led a very retiring life, interrupted by a recurring illness which was sometimes diagnosed as angina and sometimes tuberculosis. From the early ’60s on she was in love with Charles Cayley, but according to her brother William, refused to marry him because “she enquired into his creed and found he was not a Christian.” Milk-and-water Anglicanism was not to her taste. Lona Mosk Packer argues that her poems conceal a love for the painter William Bell Scott, but there is no other evidence for this theory, and the most respected scholar of the Pre-Raphaelite movement disputes the dates on which Packer thinks some of the more revealing poems were written.

All three Rossetti women, at first devout members of the evangelical branch of the Church of England, were drawn toward the Tractarians in the 1840s. They nevertheless retained their evangelical seriousness: Maria eventually became an Anglican nun, and Christina’s religious scruples remind one of Dorothea Brooke in George Eliot’s Middlemarch : as Eliot’s heroine looked forward to giving up riding because she enjoyed it so much, so Christina gave up chess because she found she enjoyed winning; pasted paper strips over the antireligious parts of Swinburne’s Atalanta in Calydon (which allowed her to enjoy the poem very much); objected to nudity in painting, especially if the artist was a woman; and refused even to go see Wagner’s Parsifal, because it celebrated a pagan mythology.

After rejecting Cayley in 1866, according one biographer, Christina (like many Victorian spinsters) lived vicariously in the lives of other people. Although pretty much a stay-at-home, her circle included her brothers’ friends, like Whistler, Swinburne, F.M. Brown, and Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll). She continued to write and in the 1870s to work for the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. She was troubled physically by neuralgia and emotionally by Dante’s breakdown in 1872. The last 12 years of her life, after his death in 1882, were quiet ones. She died of cancer December 29, 1894.


The publication of Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market and Other Poems in 1862 marked the first literary success of the Pre-Raphaelites. This heralded a form of poetry which had no lack of readers. Rossetti often found herself caught between the claims of worldly passion and celestial faith – this schism was central to her life and her poetry and may have its origin in the tension between her Italian and English ancestry.

In her early years she spent much time with her grandfather in the country which allowed her to be exposed to nature and the wilderness. These themes are recurrent in her poetry. Ironically, she spent most of her life in gloomy London houses. She was healthy as a child, but was often ill during adolescence. She was diagnosed with “a kind of religious mania” which was probably psychosomatic in nature.

Rossetti became engaged to James Collinson, a young painter and member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, in the fall of 1848. The engagement was broken off because he converted to Roman Catholicism in 1850. Great things were expected from Collinson, but his contemporaries later refered to him as a ridiculous figure of mediocre talent, likely to go to sleep at the slightest provocation.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti was able to convince Alexander Macmillan to publish three of Chrisina’s poems in Macmillian’s Magazine. One of the poems “Uphill” was the first to receive wide attention and remains one of her finest works. This poem is a parable about salvation, the steep ascent with comfort at the end represented by an inn.

One of Christina Rossetti’s more innovative poems, “The Iniquity of the Fathers Upon the Children,” is a dramatic monologue in which the poet addresses the issue of illegitimate children by imagining that she is one herself. Her desire to address such a subject can be linked to her work for the House of Charity, an institution located in Highgate which was devoted to the rescue of prostitutes and unmarried mothers. She also broadened her poetry with “A Royal Princess” which dealt with starvation, inequality, and poverty. This appearred in an 1863 anthology published for the relief of victims of the Lancashire cotton famine.

Later in her career Rossetti abandoned such overtly political subjects and claimed that “It is not in me, and therefore it will never come out of me, to turn to politics or philanthropy with Mrs. Browning.” In 1871 she wrote two poems about the war between France and Germany, and claimed they derived from sympathy, not political bias.

In 1883 she was asked to write a biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, but declined because Robert Browning did not appear to want to cooperate actively. She did accept a commision to write on Anne Radcliffe, and was excited by the idea of writing about one of her influences as a child. Unfortunately she was forced to give up the plan because she could not gather enough material to write a history that would give her subject credit.


Alison Womble claims that Christina Rossetti’s being educated solely at home demonstrates the way the Victorians allowed girls far fewer educational opportunity than boys, and to an important extent she’s correct: no equivalent of either the public school or the university existed for women until quite late in the century.

Taking this single fact outside the Victorian context, however, greatly distorts Christina Rossetti’s situation and experience. First of all, remember that all her brothers studied outside the home was Latin; they did not attend a university. More important, home schooling is not all that unusual in the biographies of important Victorian authors, male and female. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Robert Browning, John Stuart Mill, and John Ruskin all studied at home, though Ruskin did later go to Oxford; Elizabeth Barrett Browning was by far the finest Greek scholar of them all.

One must also take into account matters of social and economic class. On the one hand, Christina Rossetti had an unusual Victorian childhood simply because she belonged to the more prosperous parts of society that accounted for no more than ten to fifteen percent of the populace. On the other hand, although no publicly supported schooling was long available for most members of the middle classes, some sort of education, usually in the form of Sunday schools, was available to the poor; according to Bruce Rosen, Scotland had educated poor children since 1807. He adds that between a third and a half of English children attended some sort of school in the early part of the nineteenth century.


In 1871 Christina Rossetti contracted Graves’ disease or exophthalmic bronchocele, an illness which would bring her on the verge of death. [see Marsh, 398]. She suffered from it until 1873 and it transformed her both mentally and physically. (“As regard appearance, she looked a ‘total wreck’ in William’s words: her hair fell out, her skin discoloured, and her eyes bulged.” (Marsh, 397.)) When she wrote Sing-Song in 1872 she was 42 years old. Having declined two marriage proposals out of religious reasons — by James Collinson in 1850 (because he reverted to Catholicism) and by James Bagot Cayley in 1866 (probably because he was an atheist) — she must have realised that all possibilities of marriage and thus having children were gone.

Therefore, Sing-Song marks a turning point in both her life and writing. Her life-threatening illness resulted in a look back on her life so far: On the happy childhood she had spend with her brothers and sister in her grandfather’s home Holmer Green. (“The melodious maternal speaking voice of the volume is that of the adult self ‘mothering’ the child within;. . .” (Marsh, 379.)). Also at her longing for a husband and child, which is disguised in the dedication of the book to Cayley’s nephew, and in her deep love for her brother William’s children. (” . .her love was now directed towards William’s children – ‘my children, I may almost say, as none other can be so near to me.” (cited from Marsh, 543.) Both Zaturenska and Marsh interpret Sing-Song as a guise for Rossetti’s longing for a child of her own:

Christina was not well known for her love of children; but the baby to whom the Sing-Song volume was dedicated was the nephew of her beloved Cayley, and for a moment one likes to think she may have thought of herself as holding another baby of the same blood in her arms.” (Zaturenska, 195-196.) “The true inspiration of her nursery rhymes was surely the children she herself would now not have.” (Marsh, 379.).

According to Jan Marsh, “this rediscovery of the child’s viewpoint was necessary, valuable and even healing for Christina.” [382] Throughout her life she had, as Dorothy Mermin points out, turned “rebellion and rage against herself” [79]. Or, as Anthony H. Harrison puts it, turned to “Self-loathing” [77]. He goes on to describe these feelings of dissatisfaction, when he specifies: “Like the other Pre-Raphaelite poets, she was acutely sensitive to life’s inevitable disappointments and losses, as well as to her own unfulfillment” [189]. She had been deeply unhappy, because she loved both Collison and Cayley successively, but could not bring herself to marry somebody who did not share her religious beliefs. Jerome McGann names “sexual frustration” as the cause for this unhappiness [170]. But, with the self-healing process of writing Sing-Song, she said good-bye to that part of her life and left it behind.

She then turned almost exclusively to devotional writing. But it is not a simple deathwish she expresses in her devotional poems. (Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar criticize this attitude of Rossetti’s, which they refer to as “the aesthetics of renunciation” : “Rossetti, banqueting on bitterness, must bury herself alive in a coffin of renunciation” [575]. It is the longing for a ‘new life’ in which she will have all the things she could not have in this life: love and fulfilment.


At first sight, Sing-Song appears to be a normal book of children’s verse. This is a view also mentioned in the Oxford History of Children’s Literature: “At first glance, the poetry of Christina Rossetti might seem slight.” [Hunt, 160]. Maria Verch also supports this idea. She speaks of the “traditionellen Themenkatalog” [125], out of which Rossetti picks her themes for the poems in Sing-Song.

However, one has to consider Rossetti’s position in Victorian society as a woman writer by the time she wrote the book. According to Isobel Armstrong, Christina Rossetti was “marginalized as a woman writer” [47]. Dorothy Mermin supports this view when she states: “For a man writing poetry meant an apparent withdrawal from the public sphere, but for a woman it meant exactly the opposite” [68] As I have discussed earlier, Rossetti was almost certainly sexually frustrated. She denied herself what she desperately longed for, yet, she could not exclude these longings from her poetry. Looking at Sing-Song from this perspective, it becomes clear that Rossetti uses the male genre of children’s verse to reveal her disguised innermost feelings. Gilbert/ Gubar speak of “concealing female secrets within male devised genres and conventions” [Gilbert/Gubar, Madwoman 220] They do portray a similar attitude in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre: “projecting her anxieties into images of orphan children”. Bronte uses her own childhood experiences at Cowan Bridge to describe Jane Eyre’s time at Lowood school. [Gilbert/Gubar, 583] And Dorothy Mermin states the same for Emily Dickinson: “Even more than Rossetti, Dickinson likes to situate her speakers in or beyond the grave, and they characteristically identify with flowers, children, smallness, powerlessness and silence” [77].

Before the Victorian Era, children’s education was dominated by male-written texts and moral instructions, such as Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Blake’s Songs of Innocence. However, Rossetti was by no means the first woman to write for children. Roderick McGillis explains: “even in these childlike verses for and about children, Christina cannot forget the great central themes of her poetry, love, death, and parting” [144]. Moreover, “by using these forms, Rossetti — like many other women writers of the Victorian period who wrote for children – was able to voice her desires and her feminine concerns at once openly and secretly” [229].

The Memory of Her Own Childhood

Sing-Song was partly written in remembrance of Rossetti’s own childhood. It was a happy one, spent with her three siblings, growing up mainly in London. (The four Rossetti children were born in four successive years from 1827 to 1830.) They were educated by their mother, Frances Rossetti, a former governess. Some of the poems clearly echo the education they themselves received:

Seldom ‘can’t’,
Seldom ‘don’t,
Never ‘shan’t,
Never ‘won’t. [431]

This poem shows how Victorian children (including the Rossettis) were taught rules for their behaviour. “Shan’t” and “won’t” were words of refusal one did not expect to hear from a child. Refusal was possible if expressed with the more polite “can’t” or “don’t.” However, even these words were only to be used seldomly. Most of the time children where expected to be obedient to what they were told without the slightest criticism.

Baby cry —
Oh fie! At the physic in the cup:
Gulp it twice
and gulp it thrice,
Baby, gulp it up. [Works 426]

Even today, most small children have to be forced to take medicine. They usually cannot understand why they should swallow something that tastes awful and bitter. They are too small to connect the medicine with their illness. Rossetti beautifully describes the experience in this timeless poem. “Baby cry — Oh fie!” echoes the mother trying to calm down the child with simple mocking words while preparing herself to force the liquid down baby’s throat. She pours the physic into baby’s mouth and then tells it to “gulp it up.” The words “gulp it twice, gulp it thrice” indicate a slight struggle before the procedure is finally done with.

Sing-Song contains a lot of “learning rhymes” [Marsh, 6] to teach children about the world they live in, explaining the seasons (“There is but one may in the year” [Works 430]), the months (“The days are clear” [430]); “January cold and desolate” [432]), how to count (“1 and 1 are 2”) [431], the time (“How many seconds in a minute?”) [431n], the currency (“What will you give me for my pound?”) [437], the colours (“What is pink?”) [432] and the alphabet (“An alphabet”) [433].

But the Rossetti’s childhood was not only spent with learning. Christina also looks back on the happy holidays she spent in her Grandfather Polidori’s home Holmer Green in Buckinghamshire. The Rossetti children spent whole days discovering the landscape around them and the animals that lived there:

Dancing on the hill-tops,
Singing in the valleys,
Laughing with the echoes,
Merry little Alice.

Playing games with lambkins
In the flowering valleys,
Gathering pretty posies,
Helpful little Alice.

If her father’s cottage
Turned into a palace,
And he owned the hill-tops
And the flowering valleys,
She’d be none the happier,
Happy little Alice. [434]

This poem underlines the happiness of Rossetti’s childhood. “Little Alice,” Rossetti’s alter ego spends her childhood “singing,” “dancing’ and “laughing” while walking around in the countryside of “hill-tops” and “valleys.” The first stanza describes Alice’s discovery of the world around her: climbing up the hills and down again to the valleys, coming across natural phenomena like “echoes” — life is like a joyful dance for Alice. In the second stanza Alice is spotting the animals and plants. She plays with the lambkins and enjoys and picks the flowers (probably to give them to somebody). The third stanza concludes that for all the wealth this landscape offers to her, Alice could not be a happier girl if her father owned the countryside. All she needs to be content is the freedom of walking around in nature.

It is probably the freedom and the happiness of those past days that Rossetti most longed for during her illness. A poem like “Fly away, fly away over the sea” [Works 436] seems to be an allegory for her wish to go back to this part of her life where she did not have a care in this world. Throughout Sing-Song Rossetti describes animals, with which, according to Lona Mosk Packer, she felt a “sympathetic bond . . . between Christina and the small creatures such as puppies, kittens and birds” [265]: From the cocks that used to wake the Rossetti’s in the morning (“Kookoorookoo! Kookoorookoo!” [ 426]), to birds (“Wrens and robins in the hedge” [428]), cows (“Brownie, Brownie, let down your milk” [429]), cats (“Pussy has a whiskered face” [434]), dogs (“The dog lies in his kennel” [434]), mice (“The city mouse lives in a house” [433]), to little attractive creatures like frogs and toads (“Hoping frog, hop here and be seen” [433]) and caterpillars (“Brown and furry” [431]).

Lambkins hold a special place in Sing-Song, as a series of poems deals with them: “A frisky lamb, a frisky child” [435], “A motherless soft lambkin” [433] and “On the grassy banks” [429]. As the title of the first poem shows, lambs are likened to children. Like these, lambs have to be cared for and protected. Furthermore, they behave with a childlike innocence. This imagery of lambs symbolising children was applied by William Blake in his Songs of Innocence as well. Lambs and children attract with their innocence which likens them to Jesus. See William Blake’s poem “The Lamb”. Dante Gabriel Rossetti ascribes a Blakean notion to Sing-Song, “alternating between mere babyism and a sort of Blakish wisdom and tenderness” [cited McGillis, 221n].

Finally, a poem like “Hear what the mournful linnets say” [427] acknowledges the fact that there are not only good children in the world. They do not, as another poem demands “Hurt no living thing” [439], but cruelly destroy the birds nest for fun.

The same theme is used for “If the sun could tell us half”. [442] (Both of these poems evoke a similar scene in Anne Brontë’s novel Agnes Grey, in which the protagonist, a governess, in vain tries to stop her pupils from destroying a bird’s nest and is appalled by their cruelty.)


That mentality surfaces repeatedly in her family letters. For instance, to William Michael in italy she wrote (5 February 1887): “It sounds earthly-paradise-like, your sketch of San Remo: but even there it would behove me to feel, Arise ye and depart, for this is not your rest” (FL, 159). just over a year later (10 December 1888) she wrote to her brother, “Beautiful, delightful, noble, memorable, as is the world you and yours frequent, — I yet am well content in my shady crevice: which crevice enjoys the unique advantage of being to my certain knowledge the place assigned me” (FL, 168).

We must, of course, balance our sense of Rossetti’s apparently profound selflessness with the knowledge that she did expect heavenly rewards for her self-denial on earth. In this context, Janet Camp Troxell cites a passage from Rossetti’s Letter and Spirit in which “we get an idea of the compensation she expected to receive for [her various] renunciations: ‘For the books we now forbear to read, we shall one day be endued of wisdom and knowledge, for the music we will not listen to, we shall join in the song of the redeemed. For the pictures from which we turn, we shall gaze unabashed on the Beatific Vision. For the companionship we shun, we shall be welcomed into angelic society, and the communion of triumphant saints. For the amusements we avoid, we shall keep the Supreme jubilee. For the pleasures we miss, we shall abide, and forever abide, in the rapture of heaven'” (Three Rossettis, 148).


Mr. Rossetti was an Italian patriot exiled from Naples for his political activity and a Dante scholar who became professor of Italian at King’s College, London, in 1831. Since Mrs. Rossetti was also half-Italian, the children (Maria [1827-76], Dante, William Michael [1828-1919], and Christina [1830-94]) grew up fluent in both English and Italian. As part of the large Italian expatriate community in London, they welcomed other exiles, from Mazzini to organ-grinders; and although they were certainly not wealthy, Professor Rossetti was able to support the family comfortably until his eyesight and general health deteriorated in the ’40s. Certainly none of the family seems to have been obssessed with money the way that Tennyson was, for instance.


1830.  Born 5 December in London, to Gabriele and Frances (Polidori) Rossetti.
1848.  Engaged to James Collinson, a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood; the engagement is canceled in 1850 when he converts to Roman Catholicism.
1853.  Her father retires, due to his failing health. Christina and her mother attempt to start a day school, which they give up within a year.
1862.  Publishes Goblin Market and Other Poems.
1866.  Publishes The Prince’s Progress and Other Poems. Rejects marriage proposal from Charles Cayley, who “was not a Christian.”
1870.  Publishes Commonplace and Other Stories.
1871.  Publishes A Pageant and Other Poems.
1894.  Dies 29 December
1896.  New Poems published posthumously.

11-minute YouTube Video

[PART  2]


Partly because of her shyness and partly just because she was a woman, Christina Rossetti was never completely a part of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Nevertheless, her Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862) was the first unalloyed literary success the Brotherhood enjoyed, and there is a loose parallel between her fondness for the rhythms of folk songs and the Pre-Raphaelite interest in things medieval. Since she began with such success, both her brother and her publisher were eager that she follow it up at once, but her next volume of poetry, The Prince’s Progress and Other Poems, was not ready until 1866. It sold well, but the critics saw at once that the best poems in it were not quite the equal of the best in her first collection. In fact, “Goblin Market,” one of her first poems, remains her best.

Themes of frustrated love and an understated tension between desire and renunciation characterize her more serious work. Separated lovers often appear in her poems, and regret for life unfulfilled alternates with what one critic calls a death wish. But there is another strain in some of her poetry that can be called Gothic or even macabre–goblins, serpents, wombats, ratels, and lizards turn up in her verses. Growing up, the Rossetti siblings read Crabbe, Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats, to be sure; but they also read with delight Ann Radcliffe (Christina at one time undertook to write a biography of Mrs. Radcliffe but was unable to gather the necessary materials) and Monk Lewis. Consider the following fragment:

I have a friend in ghostland, —
Early found, ah me how early lost! —
Blood-red seaweed drips along that coastland
By the strong sea wrenched and tost.

If I wake he hunts me like a nightmare:
I feel my hair stand up, my body creep:
Without light I see a blasting sight there,
See a secret I must keep.

Virginia Woolf’s appreciation of her strikes the same notes:

Death, oblivion, and rest lap round your songs with their dark wave. And then, incongruously, a sound of scurrying and laughter is heard. There is a patter of animals’ feet and the odd guttural notes of rooks and the snufflings of obtuse furry animals grunting and nosing. For you were not a pure saint by any means. You pulled legs; you tweaked noses. You were at war with all humbug and pretence.

Perhaps she realized that she was unable to write anything better than “Goblin Market,” or perhaps her “failure” to surpass herself is explained by her turn away from poetry to children’s stories and religious materials. Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book came out in 1872, and after 1875 she was very much involved with the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, for whom she wrote several prose works, including Called to be Saints (1876). But she never entirely stopped writing poetry; A Pageant and Other Poems (1881) includes the “Monna Innominata” sonnets, which are among her best.


Jan Marsh’s Christina Rossetti: A Writer’s Life is a biographical account of the melancholy poet who waged “a life long struggle with feminist desires” by constantly attempting to reconcile her own often conflicting ideals towards religion, ambition, familial obligation and the Victorian model of womanhood. Marsh divides her work chronologically into four convenient periods of Christina Rossetti’s life:

Part One: 1830-50,
Part Two: 1850-60,
Part Three:1861-70 and
Part 4: 1871-94.

While Marsh completes a more than adequate job of chronicling both definitively major and seemingly minor events of Christina’s life, her addition of psychoanalytic commentary and stylistic prowess combines with the facts to create a biography that reads as smoothly as novel. Her insistent reference to Gabriel and Frances Rossetti as Mama and Papa, respectively, aid in the creation of a story-like telling of Christina’s life in which each historically relevant figure is transformed into a significant player on the stage of Christina’s life.

Marsh depicts Christina’s adolescent life as the continually developing scene of a precocious young poet who must establish her own identity from those of her three other siblings: Maria, the sometimes domineering yet always supportive older sister, William, a fellow conspirator, rhyming competitor and self-appointed scribe of the family and her equally precocious but far more gregarious brother Dante Gabriel. Marsh successfully illuminates the tremendous influence of the flamboyant painter-poet Dante Gabriel had on Christina. From his introduction of Christina to the artistically stimulating community of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood to his involvement with her failed romance with James Collinson, Dante Gabriel embraced the integral role he played in his sister-poet’s career from the moment he helped Christina publish her first poems in the Athenaeum.

Although Marsh is quick to point out how each family member played a pivotal role in Christina’s development as poet and person, Marsh seems equally adamant in the role that religion played in Christina’s life. While an apparent rejection of John Ruskin seemed to have little to do with religion and more to do with personal preference (in one poem she remarks, “Here’s friendship for you if you like; but love — /No, thank you, John), it was Collinson’s reversion to Catholicism and Charles Cayley’s lack of religion that led to the demise of potential love and matrimony. Marsh also comments, “just as with James, Charles’ unworldliness and lack of sexual presence may have been his most appealing features; for whatever reason, Christina seems to have been frightened by aggressive masculinity.” Such masculine figures existed on the other side of the religious spectrum — Edward Bouverie Pusey and William Dodsworth, contemporary Tractarian preachers, who helped to inculcate Christina’s devotion towards the Anglican church. Their religious zeal may have also established deep seeds of religious guilt that continually surface throughout Christina’s poems and may have played a significant role in her adolescent breakdown, officially diagnosed as “religious mania.”

Perhaps the most significant achievement of Marsh’s full-length study was to psychoanalytically penetrate some probable causes to Christina’s seemingly incessant state of malaise and the repetitive melancholy that surfaced throughout her poetic achievements. Conflating biographical information, letters and writings concerning an untellable secret with her own Freudian analysis of some of Christina’s more nightmarish poems, Marsh posits the notion that the religious mania/breakdown and the subsequent transformation of Christina’s once lively personality into a more saturnine disposition was a result of an experience of sexual molestation. Her father emerges as the most probable culprit. She punctuates her conclusion with annotated references to the dark images of goblins and crocodiles in Christina’s poetry in addition to Christina’s self-mutilation as tell-tale signs of sexual transgression. Christina states, “I, too, had a very passionate temper. On one occasion, being rebuked by my dear Mother for some fault, I seized upon a pair of scissors, and ripped up my arm to vent my wrath.” While Marsh concedes most of her analysis is conjecture, she opens up an entirely new possibility in the attempt to understand such masterpieces as Goblin Market. While Marsh does not deny the conventional references to Christina’s deeply religious sentiment, her close knit relationship with her sister Maria and the social work with prostitutes Christina performed at the St. Mary Magdalene Penitentiary in Highgate as motivations for Goblin Market, she succeeds in establishing that there is much more going on than what Marsh’s own exploration can provide and that there is more to be discussed than what has already been said.

Overall, I found Marsh’s mixture of fact, fancy and poetry a successful interrogation of Christina’s life and writing, although it does seem at times to have linked specific poems too neatly to actual events in the poet’s life. For example, In an Artist’s Studio is seemingly reduced to Christina’s negative response to her brother Dante Gabriel’s relationship with the model Lizzie Siddall. The following poem Song is also conveniently fitted to substantiate one of the many original claims made by Marsh:

When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt forget.
I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on as if in pain:
And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget.

According to Marsh, this poem is poignantly directed to James Collinson, during the early stages of her hesitant love, and “the tender expressions of melancholy seem to reflect something of the current state of her heart.” Other possibilities not explored by Marsh on this specific occasion include the possibility that this, like many other poems, surfaced as responses to the many works she was exposed to from the PRB, such as Dante Gabriel’s “The Blessed Damozel.” In any case, while many of her other poetic selections do seem to have strong correlations with specific biographical events, Marsh’s matter-of-fact narrative almost precludes the consideration of other analytic possibilities and at times detracts from what is an essentially erudite example of scholarship.

Overall, Jan Marsh’s scrupulous documentation and extensive quotations make for a completely thorough biography. Aside from a successful portrayal of Christina Rossetti as a Victorian Poet of significance, its personal style makes it extremely enjoyable reading and allows the reader to see the person of Christina emerge from the poems and life of Christina Rossetti. In its depth, scope, originality and accessibility, Marsh’s biography should prove indispensable to anyone interested in the role of women and writing within Victorian culture.


After the publication of Sing-Song and the recovery from her illness, Christina Rossetti turned almost exclusively to devotional writing. Although Sing-Song marks a good-bye to the possibility of having a child, the longing for a child and husband did not end. Her religious poetry acknowledged these longings and formed an outlet for them. Many of her “poems explore what she saw as the great danger that the Victorian cult of love and marriage posed to the souls of woman.” As a deeply religious woman she was afraid somebody “could come between a woman and her love of God” [Flowers, 165]. After her disappointments with “worldly men,” she now turned to the love of God. Betty S. Flowers points out that “disappointments experienced in those earthy love relationships ostensibly set up as ‘opposites’ to the heavenly one” [169]. However, this love was not only meant in a spiritual but also in a very physical way.

Longings and cravings are ever present in Christina Rossetti’s poetry, especially in poems such as “Goblin market”. How much she struggled with “unfocused dissatisfaction” [Marsh, 191], whose deeper root was sexual frustration, can be seen in a poem like “Roses on a Brier” [132n]:

Roses on a brier,
Pearls from out the bitter sea,
such is earth’s desire
However pure it be.

Neither bud nor brier,
Neither pearl nor brine for me:
Be stilled my long desire;
There shall be no more sea.

Be stilled my passionate heart;
Old earth shall end, new earth shall be:
Be still and earn thy part
Where shall be no more sea.

The speaker of the poem is dissatisfied with “earth’s desire” even if it was “pure.” She compares the desire to wild roses and to pearls. While the roses grow outside the garden and thus may be unprotected, the pearls come out of a “bitter sea,” which might be a metaphor for life. Though both are rare and beautiful, they are also surrounded by a hostile environment. Therefore the speaker refuses both of them in the second stanza. She speaks to herself when she says “Be stilled my long desire/ There shall be no more sea,” then asking her own desire to stop longing for something which she cannot have. “Sea” seems to be a metaphor for the emotional upheavals of life.

The meaning becomes clearer in the third and final stanza. Again the speaker demands her heart to be still. Death (“old earth”) will be a turning point. In heaven (“new earth”) there will be a fulfilment to what the speaker longs for (“earn thy part/where shall be no more sea”). A similar expression of dissatisfaction and frustration is to be found in “The Heart Knoweth its Own Bitterness” [cited from Marsh, 191]: “How can we say ‘enough’ on earth; ‘Enough’ with such a craving heart: “questions the lyrical self and expresses the desire to give herself away “I long to pour myself, my soul,/ Not to keep back or count”. Yet there is also the dissatisfaction with the people around her (“I will not lean on child of man”)

The realisation that she, Rossetti, would not have a child is transformed into a series of poems dealing with plants and their fruitlessness. The imagery of fading blossom and leaves hints at Rossetti’s “fading beauty” [Flowers, 169] as well as on her childlessness. Like a plant who had a beautiful blossom, but did not bear any fruit, Rossetti was very beautiful as a young woman, but now finds herself to be past the age of childbearing without having produced an offspring. In a poem like “Dead before Death” the lines “All fallen the blossom that no fruitage bore,/ All lost the present and the future time” express the feeling of the senselessness of one’s being if it did not bare any fruit (did not have children). This senselessness does not only enclose the present, but also the future. This expresses the doubt that a life that doesnot produce some kind of fruit has any meaning. The lyrical self is “dead before death” and can only be revived in the next life after death. In “Song (Oh roses for the flush of youth)” the lyrical self also declares herself to have “grown old before my time”.

But there is not only the voicing of disappointment. A poem like “A Better Resurrection” marks a turning point, when it states:

. . . My life is like a faded leaf,
My harvest dwindled to a husk,
Truly my life is void and brief
And tedious in the barren dusk;
My life is like a frozen thing,
No bud nor greenness can I see:
Yet rise it shall — the sap of spring,
O Jesus, rise in me. . .”

Whereas the first six lines of this stanza enforce the imagery of fading leaves and life-weariness, the last two mark a transition. The lyrical self has a vision of a new spring that comes with Jesus. Disappointed with the love of man she experienced in her life, Rossetti turns to find a substitute in Jesus Christ. He is both begged and expected to bring forth new life in her. The poem concludes with Rossetti imagining herself to be “a royal cup for him my King,/ O Jesus drink of me.”

In “Long Barren” the lyrical self declares herself to be ‘barren’, but asks the Lord to give her strength “to bring forth fruit to Thee.” In the second stanza this is reinforced in the lines “yet now strengthen me Thou/That better fruit be borne.” In the third and final stanza the lyrical self echoes the biblical “Song of Songs” and turns the poem into a love song to Jesus. (“Thou Rose of Sharon, Cedar of broad roots,/Vine of sweet fruits, . . . “) The poem concludes with a plea to Jesus to give strength to her weak being. (“Feed Thou my feeble shoots”)

Christina Rossetti’s Substitute Love for Jesus

Christina Rossetti’s “unfocused dissatisfaction” had now found a focus and a relief. Rossetti’s turn to devotional writing is depicted by Dorothy Mermin in the following way: “Christina Rossetti stopped trying to rebel: in her devotional writings she finds an appropriate place for a conventional woman’s voice” [79]. Her “desire for Christ, the ideal lover” [Harrison, 78] and “visions of fulfillment in all-embracing love . . in Paradise” [Harrison, 78] helped her to find a new sense of purpose in her life and inspired her to ‘new’ poetry. Taking up the “conventional ‘spousal’ imagery of religious verse, the speaker described as a bride and Christ as the bridegroom, . . .” [Harrison, 77] and mixing it with “appetitive images” [Harrison, 78], Rossetti takes up another male genre (this time devotional writing) and alters it to transport her message of “earthly love’s inadequacy and the impossibility of achieving genuine fulfillment through it” [Harrison, 56] and the exchange of it for the pure love of Jesus Christ who would not hurt her: Christ had become “the ideal lover” [Harrison, 78] and the only one to satisfy her needs. These needs are expressed in the same sensual descriptions that highlight, for example “Goblin Market.”

The desire and lusting for Jesus becomes evident in a poem such as “Like as the desireth the water brooks”, which opens:

“My heart is yearning:
Behold my yearning heart,
And lean low to satisfy,
Its lonely beseeching cry,
For Thou its fullness art. . . . ” [231]

In this poem the lyrical self expresses her “yearning” for Jesus. As the title (taken from a psalm) already indicates, she is longing for Christ as a deer longs for “water brooks.” These water brooks are a place where one is safe. They also deliver water, which is the source of all forms of life on earth. Just as she could not exist without the life-giving water, she could not exist without the life-giving spirituality of Jesus. He is described like a protector, who should “behold” her heart. At the same time he should also “satisfy” this heart, which is begging (“beseeching”) to him, for he is “its fullness,” all this heart needs to be fulfilled.

In “Peace I leave with you” [230] she begs Jesus to “Wrap me up in thy love” and in “Because Thy love hath sought me” [230] she offers him her heart “I lift my heart to thy heart, /Thy Heart sole resting-place for mine. . . “. In “Thy fainting spouse” she uses the “spousal imagery” and describes herself as wife of Jesus:

“Thy fainting spouse, yet still Thy spouse;
Thy trembling dove, yet still Thy dove;
Thine own by mutual vows,
By mutual love. . . .” [230]

The first line describes her to be a “fainting” spouse. The fainting could have two reasons: Either she feels weak in terms of exhaustion, or it is a fainting that is caused by his presence. Yet although she feels weak, she still declares herself to be his wife. In the second line she illustrates herself as “Thy trembling dove.” Dove seems to be used like a pet name between lovers. Again the word “trembling” raises the question for the cause: weakness or (sexual) excitement. In the third line she describes herself to be “Thine own by mutual vows,/ By mutual love.” Her whole being belongs to him. The “mutual vows” evoke the image of a legally sanctioned marriage, whose sole foundation is “mutual love.”

“I Know You Not” [243] again echoes the “Song of Songs,” before expressing her desire as a thirst (“I thirst for Thee, full fount and flood;/ My heart calls thine, as deep to deep”); “Lord, grant me to love Thee” [268n] enlarges this image to “The hungering thirsting longing of my heart”. The longing for Jesus expresses every of her needs and they will be stilled by him: he will quench her thirst, feed her and give peacefulness to her desire.


We can readily trace the philosophical backgrounds of Christina Rossetti’s Christian idealism and the process of renunciation that serves as the climax to many of her best love poems. These backgrounds, which interact complexly in her art, include the works of three of her favorite authors. Platonic, Augustinian, and Dantean ideals are yoked together in most of her love poems, though they prove only partially compatible. The indisputable influence of Plato and Augustine upon Rossetti is made clear by Bellas (Christina Rossetti, 17-19), Packer (Christina Rossetti, 94, 142-43, 195, 231, 259, 316); and W M. Rossetti (“Memoir,” in Works, lxix-lxx).

In discussing the Monna Innominata (chapter 5), I attempt to demonstrate how Dantean literary ideals and ideals of Christian self-perfection operate. Exegesis of several other renunciatory love poems that implement more ostensibly Platonic or Augustinian ideals of love and transcendence suggest the extent to which Rossetti was able to work artistically in several literary-philosophical traditions at once. She apparently ignored the conflicts amon~ these traditions and conflated their sometimes disparate components in order to generate poems whose focus is always the same, ultimately, as that common to the works of Dante, Plato, and Augustine: the drama of a soul whose quest for an ideal of love, beauty, and spiritual perfection impels an impassioned struggle against the temptations to fulfillment offered by this vain world, which is finally renounced in favor of one that transcends it.

In depicting such dramas, however, Rossetti’s concerns with her subject matter are ultimately comprehended within and superseded by aesthetic considerations. Ideals of beauty disclose the “Poet mind” behind the lovers of men and God in her poems. This poet is, finally, a lover of the Beautiful whose artistic activities are sanctioned: 1) by their emulation of God’s own operations in His larger Creation; 2) by the poems’ exemplary, moralizing function for readers susceptible to the same foibles, temptations, and passionate impulses as the central figures in the poems; and 3) we may well speculate, by their purgative and chastening effect upon Rossetti herself, who is volubly sensitive in her letters and poems to the necessity of resisting the temptations of the world and the passions they inspire. Thus, in many of her poems (including the Monna Innominata), art becomes a means of self-instruction, instruction of the reader in worldly vanities, and of revelation, through the poem’s beauty and/or perfection, of God’s immanence as the Power behind all created beauty. (W. D. Shaw approaches, but does not quite endorse, this conclusion about Christina Rossetti’s aesthetics in “Projection and Empathy in Victorian Poetry,” 324-29.)

Very early in Seek and Find Rossetti exposes her Christian Platonism, a learned and intuitive philosophy that implicitly reflects the extent to which her aesthetics agrees with and diverges from that of her brother, Swinburne, and Morris. Using as a text Gen. 1:31 (“God saw everything[96/97]that He had made, and behold, it was very good”), she not only reveals her concept of a comprehensive ideal of Beauty identical with God’s being, but also, by extension, she offers a justification (proleptic of Hopkins’s Christian aesthetics) for her own continuing artistic productions:

A work is less noble than its maker: he who makes a good thing is himself better than it: God excels the most of His excellent creatures. Matters of everyday occurrence illustrate our point: an artist may paint a lifelike picture, but he cannot endow it with life like his own; he may carve an admirable statue, but can never compound a breathing fellow man. Wise were those ancients who felt that all forms of beauty could be but partial expressions of beauty’s very self: and who by clue of what they saw groped after Him they saw not. Beauty essential is the archetype of imparted beauty; Life essential, of imparted life; Goodness essential, of imparted goodness: but such objects, good, living, beautiful, as we now behold, are not that very Goodness, Life, Beauty, which (please God) we shall one day contemplate in beatific vision. (SF,14)

To understand fully the solipsism of much of Christina Rossetti’s poetry — the repeated dwelling on her speakers’ mental states — it is crucial to recognize that she perceived apocalypse and salvation as processes of psychic transformation. The goal was “beatific vision” (as in Blake and Dante), for which her special poems that explore psychological depths and mental potential can be seen as a discipline of preparation.

Rossetti placed Plato foremost among those “wise ancients” who “groped after” God as the comprehensive and transcendent ideal of Beauty. Plato had been the subject of her father’s five-volume Amor Platonica, and Christina herself was such an enthusiastic Platonist that she “lugged down” to Hastings six volumes of his works on her holiday in 1865 (Packer, Christina Rossetti, 195). Indeed, along with the writings of Dante, Augustine, and Thomas à Kempis, Plato’s works provided a cornerstone for the foundation of Christina Rossetti’s entire structure of philosophical, theological, and aesthetic principles. The precepts of these writers were assimilated with typological, Tractarian, and Ruskinian modes of perception in the highly concrete images that dominate Rossetti’s poetry of ideal passions and mental vision. The uniform process of this assimilation is perhaps best understood using a gloss from Walter Pater. In “The Genius of Plato” first published in the Contemporary Review (February 1892), Pater suggestively discussed the “problem” posed by the proliferation of sensory details used by Plato to articulate an ultimately idealistic philosophy (the article was republished in 1895 in Plato and Platonism). Pater’s image [97/98] of Plato is strikingly similar to the image of Christina Rossetti that emerges from her poems:

Plato is one for whom the visible world. . . “really exists” because he is by nature and before all things, from first to last, unalterably a lover. In that, precisely, ties the secret of the susceptible and diligent eye, the so sensitive ear. The central interest of his own youth — of his profoundly impressible youth — as happens always with natures of real capacity, gives law and pattern to all that succeeds it …. The experience, the discipline, of love, had been that for Plato … [involving] an exquisite culture of the senses….

Just there, then, is the secret of Plato’s intimate concern with, his power over, the sensible world, the apprehensions of the sensuous faculty; he is a lover, a great lover, somewhat after the manner of Dante. For him, as for Dante, in the impassioned glow of his conceptions, the material and the spiritual are blent and fused together. While, in that fire and heat, what is spiritual attains the definite visibility of a crystal, what is material, on the other hand, win lose its earthiness and impurity. He who in the Symposium describes so vividly the pathway, the ladder, of love, its joyful ascent toward a more perfect beauty than we have ever yet actually seen, by way of a parallel to the gradual elevation of mind towards perfect knowledge, knew … all the ways of lovers. [Plato and Platonism, 134-36]

Although Christina Rossetti may not have had the sexual experiences of love that Pater insists Plato enjoyed, she clearly “knew … all the ways of lovers,” as is evidenced by her poetry, and as we can infer from her proximity to her brother’s affairs and even from her work with “fallen” women. Still, Rossetti’s approach to the experience of love, from her earliest poems, required the discipline of renunciation, an agonized rather than “joyful” ascent toward realization of the ideal. (Qualified exceptions to this rule, such as “A Birthday,” do appear, of course, but they are rare.) And it is, of course, in the chastening of Platonic process with Christian restraint that the Augustinian backgrounds to her work become relevant.

Lona Packer perceives a parallel between Goblin Market and Augustine’s Confessions, a work she acknowledges as “one of Christina’s early favorites” (142). In it, as in Goblin Market, “fruit … appears as the symbolic inducement to sin…. The plucking of the forbidden fruit is dramatized and symbolized in the famous pear tree incident. As a young lad, Augustine with his comrades steals the ripe pears from the farmer’s tree. For Augustine, this irresponsible act of a mischievous boy represents the first [98/99] free choice of the evil will” (142-43). In one commonplace view, then, Goblin Market can be looked upon as a poetic drama that, through the use of symbols bearing much weight of Christian tradition, instructs readers in the dangers of succumbing to temptation. Temptation in Rossetti’s poem is figured through images extrapolated from Genesis along with renderings of the Fall myth transmitted through centuries of Christian literature, including the highly literary Confessions of Saint Augustine.

But beyond this simple and obvious parallel between Rossetti’s poem and Augustine’s autobiography, there exist a number of methodological similarities between the two, as well as similarities in the very justification for writing; and we can surmise that Augustine’s Confessions provided one source that Rossetti, as a devout Christian, used to support her continued poetic activity. As early as her writing of Maude she recognized the dangers of the poetic vocation for a heroine with strongly religious inclinations. On the one hand, the pursuit of poetic beauty itself could serve as a distraction from higher moral and spiritual endeavors. On the other, success in writing posed a whole constellation of moral problems associated with vanity and ambition. A concern with these obstacles to moral purity and religious devotion appears repeatedly in her poetry. Even in her letters one hears the monitory and self-chastening voice of one tempted by the allure of fame and the attractions of self-reflexive rather than religiously devout works of beauty; see FL, 65, 87, 92, 164. However, just as she found in Dante a model of instruction and a pattern of activity that reconciled amatory, literary, and spiritual impulses, Rossetti discovered in Augustine exemplary subject matter for her poetry, as well as a more rigorously philosophical sanction for her vocation as a writer.

That sanction was actually twofold, justifying a life, as well as a poetry, of renunciation. On the most general literal level, Augustine’s Confessions explains his reasons for renouncing a life of wealth and potential fame for a life devoted to the service of God. But underlying the descriptions of his life of sensual indulgence, worldly ambition, and vain pursuits up to the age of thirty-three is Augustine’s explanation of how his career as a rhetorician, a retailer of words, became transformed into his vocation as a writer and minister, a transmitter of God’s Word. Augustine’s implicit epistemology and his belief in the importance of language in redeeming his fellow man is made clear, in summary, by Marcia Colish, one of the best recent commentators on Augustine:

For Augustine … God creates the world and man through His Word, and He takes on humanity in the Word made flesh so that[99/100]human words may take on Divinity, thereby bringing man and the world back to God. In His redemptive plan, God has already solved for man the problem of His own ineffability. Once joined to God in Christ, human nature is restored in mind and body, and man’s faculty of speech is empowered to carry on the work of Incarnation in expressing the Word to the world. For Augustine, redeemed speech becomes a mirror, through which men may know God in this life by faith. And Christian eloquence becomes, both literally and figuratively, a vessel of the Spirit, bearing the Word to mankind, incorporating men into the New Covenant of Christ, and preparing them through its mediation for the face-to-face knowledge of God in the beatific vision. [Mirror of Language, 35]

In practicing her art of “Christian eloquence” Christina Rossetti was, as we saw in chapter 2, playing an Augustinian role as mediator and “prophet.”

The profound effect of Augustine’s Confessions upon Rossetti’s perception of her vocation appears (to the reader of her work) in other ways as well. (This influence is perceived, it seems, even by students of Augustine. In his classic commentary, Amor Dei: A Study of the Reliqion of St. Augustine, John Burnaby appropriately places Christina Rossetti’s poem “Passing Away” as an epigraph to his chapter, “The Platonist’s Christianity.”) Augustine’s ultimate dissatisfaction with pleasures of the flesh would certainly have buttressed her renunciatory mentality. And from his discussion of sexuality, Christina may well have learned a good deal about the “ways of lovers” that are repeatedly illustrated in her poems. As Colish observes, Augustine quickly realized that the “cult of his own sensations would not yield happiness, for it at once mingled its insatiable sweetness with suspicion, jealousy, and pain. Still, [he] did not abandon or restrain his sexual exploits. The pain of love, he discovered, has its own subjective attractions; as Augustine loved to love, he also loved to grieve” (29).This pattern of fallen behavior — the description of which requires Augustine to dwell upon the beautiful sensations of the world even after he has renounced them — can be perceived in the background of poems by Rossetti like “An Apple-Gathering,” Goblin Market, and “Maude Clare.” Similarly, in her novitiate novella, Maude, Rossetti took up the three moral issues that also preoccupied Augustine in the last stage of his conversion. These include intellectual pride, the desire for worldly fame, and sensuality (42-45). Maude’s struggles with such impulses results in a psychological agony that can be resolved only with her death. Finally, a model and a theological justification for Rossetti’s prose works of biblical exegesis appears in the Confessions. In its last three books Augustine — having renounced his career as a rhetorician in favor of a vocation devoted to “bearing the Word [100/101] to mankind” — undertakes an extensive exegesis of the first chapters of Genesis. Moreover, as Colish observes,

Scriptural exegesis is undoubtedly one of his favorite occupations, filling as it does the vast bulk of his collected sermons as well as a number of treatises and tracts. It is also one of the interests that he illustrates in the portion of the Confessions devoted to his clerical career. The last three books of the Confessions are largely given over to a literal and analogical analysis of the first few chapters of Genesis. This text was evidently one of Augustine’s favorites, or at least one that he considered problematic, for he commented on it on three separate occasions…. In fact, Augustine’s predilection for Genesis has enabled students of his hermeneutical technique to trace his gradual shift from a more to a less figurative type of interpretation. In the books of the Confessions devoted to Genesis, Augustine interprets it literally most of the time and is interested in showing that it may have more than one literal sense. He does not neglect to note the commemorative function of language and the role of the Interior Teacher in the study of the Bible.[68]

Much the same kind of wrestling with the conflicts that arise between literal and figurative interpretations of biblical texts appears in the elaborate (and sometimes strained) exegesis of Revelation in Rossetti’s The Face of the Deep. Revelation engaged her as obsessively as Genesis occupied Augustine, whose hermeneutics Christina Rossetti may well have perceived as a paradigm for her own, not only in The Face of the Deep, but also in her other largely exegetical tracts, Seek and Find and Called to Be Saints. The groundwork for all of these, as well as for her devotional and indeed much of her secular poetry, is Rossetti’s irrepressible belief in the power of God’s Word and the value of renouncing the nonspiritual satisfactions of this world in favor of imitating Christ by mediating God’s Word through her own verbal art.


Christina Rossetti was an extremely devout Christian, and her religious views affect everything she wrote, regardless of topic. In Rossetti’s poetry, God is always present, is always there — sometimes in the foreground, sometimes in the background. Rossetti wrote a great deal of devotional poetry which uses traditional Christian iconography as originally intended — far different from the works of her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, or Swinburne. In these poems, she commonly addressed God directly, and religion claims the majority of the poems’ space. Rossetti’s love poetry, however, explores another topical space — that of human relationships — while still maintaining the religious undertones in the background. For this reason, her love poetry, despite her characteristically restrained and simple style, often has several layers. In fact, for this reason, it is often has more layers than her straight-ahead religious poetry — and it can be particularly interesting to see how Rossetti navigates love and admiration of another human being with her love for God.

In the end, Rossetti’s love for God always trumps the love of another human, but this does not by any means stop the narrators of her poems from having abundant love for other people. On a number of levels, the poem’s narrators restrain themselves with their religious beliefs and avoid falling into the sometimes unnecessary extremes of emotions caused by romantic love. For one, Rossetti predominately expresses an emotional love — and not a sexualized love. In this regard, her conception of romantic love approaches Burne-Jones’s. However, Rossetti, as a woman, certainly does not objectify women by any means, and more impressively, she does not objectify men either. The portrayals of romantic love have an implicit emotional basis, but the narrators always appear aware of an actual, mutually interactive relationship. For the narrator, the other person is there, and this other person’s well-being is important and valuable. It simply cannot be more important than the narrator’s relationship to God.

To elucidate on Rossetti’s conception of romantic love, I will discuss four sonnets from Rossetti’s “Monna Innominata,” a brilliant series of fourteen sonnets. Rossetti wrote and crafted this series under the persona of the unnamed woman spoken to in traditional love poetry. Traditionally, this woman has no voice, and little character — often having few features other than the ones constituting extraordinary physical beauty and presence. But Rossetti imbues this persona with great emotional complexity and makes sure to counter specifically some traditional notions of the woman in love poetry. But aside from creating negative examples of what love is not and uprooting certain stock notions of what comprises love poetry, Rossetti also, in simple but elegant language, conveys what she regards as constituting a real and substantial romantic relationship.

To begin the discussion, in the fourth sonnet, the narrator begins by saying she loved first, but his love “outsoaring” hers, “sang such a loftier song / As drowned the friendly cooings of [her] dove” (The Complete Poems, p. 296), implying a quick but extreme outburst of positive emotion. This leads the narrator to the question: “Which owes the other most?” (p. 296), and she proceeds to deliberate until she decides that “Nay, weights and measures do us both a wrong” (p. 296). The narrator then explains her reasoning:

“For verily love knows not “mine” or “thine;”
With separate “I” and “thou” free love has done,
For one is both and both are one in love:
Rich love knows nought of “thine that is not mine;”
Both have the strength and both the length thereof,
Both of us, of the love which makes us one” [p. 296]

In the narrator’s estimation, love does not exist unless the typical separation of “mine” and “thine” dissolve. For the love to be “free” and “rich,” there must be equity among the partners — brought together “one in love.” They should in some sense act as if one entity, caring for the other as one would do for one’s self.

Nonetheless, in the sixth sonnet, the narrator contextualizes how the relationship with her lover interacts with her relationship with God. The narrator begins:

“Trust me, I have not earned your dear rebuke,
I love, as you would have me, God the most;
Would lose not Him, but you, must one be lost” (p. 297).

Here the narrator tells her lover simply says that God must come first, even above him, but apparently the lover agrees with her. She loves “God the most” as he “would have” her do. Next, the narrator carries on by making some self-deprecating comments of her being “the feeblest of God’s host” (p. 297) and so on. She does this until she returns to explaining how she views the relationships between herself and God, and herself and her lover:

“Yet while I love my God the most, I deem
That I can never love you overmuch;
I love Him more, so let me love you too” (p. 297).

She loves God more than her lover, but she cannot love her lover “overmuch.” For the narrator, she has no need to make a competition between her love of God and that of her lover. The question does not even arise. She assures her lover (who is as devout as she is) of this, and asks him to let her love him as well. Then, she takes the notion even further:

“Yea, as I apprehend it, love is such
I cannot love you if I love not Him,
I cannot love Him if I love not you” (p. 297).

The first claim, that she cannot love her lover without love of God, makes sense fairly immediately. Her love of God upholds her worldview, is her foundation, without which she would have trouble appreciating and loving any part of the world, including her lover. Nevertheless, the last claim, that she cannot love God without loving her lover, may seem contradictory to the statements that came before. The key, however, is that before she says would lose her lover before she lost God, and she says cannot love God without love of her lover. The narrator would have reverence for and hold belief in God no matter what, but if she could not love her lover, her love for God would be diminished as well. In the end, these two loves become complimentary for the narrator — they uphold and keep strong the other.

In the eleventh sonnet, however, the narrator wants to make the extent of her love perfectly clear. The narrator begins somewhat elliptically:

“Many in aftertimes will say of you
“He loved her” — while of me what will they say?
Not that I loved you more than just in play,
For fashion’s sake as idle women do” [p. 299]

People, when reading her lover’s writings, will see how he loved her, but the narrator expects them to evaluate her love with far less generosity. They will think she loved him just “in play,” loving frivolously and uncaringly “as idle women do.” But the narrator says she does care about this so much. She says “Even let them prateÉ” (p. 299). She dismisses these gossipers who did not experience the throes of love and parting and who have “heaven out of view” (p. 299). Instead, the narrator wants understanding from her lover, as she says in the final lines:

“Beyond this passage of the gate of death,
I charge you at the Judgement make it plain
My love of you was life and not a breath.” [300]

If his writings do not express how she loved him back, at least, when dead, before God himself, he should be honest, “make it plain” that her love for him “was life and not a breath.” Her devotion was not some temporary or empty exclamation. It was quite the contrary; it was “life;” it was the entirety of time one has on earth; it was everything one has on earth.

And yet, in the twelfth sonnet, the narrator proves the depths of her affection in a surprising way. She instructs her lover about what he should do, should she die before him:

“If there be any one can take my place
And make you happy whom I grieve to grieve,
Think not that I can grudge it, but believe
I do commend you to that nobler grace,
That readier wit than mine, that sweeter face.” [p. 300]

The narrator believes her lover should be willing to take a new lover, if she dies and should there be someone who “can take” her “place.” She even goes as far as to suggest that this other person could be nobler, wittier and prettier; she is entirely self-deprecating. Later in the poem she gives her rationale:

“For if I did not love you, it might be
That I should grudge you some one dear delight;
But since the heart is yours that was mine own,
our pleasure is my pleasure, right my right,
Your honourable freedom makes me free,
And you companioned I am not alone.” [p. 300]

The narrator continues the idea of herself and her lover being one entity, one heart, even beyond death. If she did not truly love, they could not act as one entity, and she might therefore “grudge” her lover “some one dear delight.” But as they can still regard themselves as one entity, even after death, if her lover is “companioned” then neither of them are “alone.” This selflessness shows little of the narrator’s own ego and proves that she regards the lover’s well-being as truly important.

Overall, these four sonnets establish that Rossetti believed in a multi-layered conception of romantic love, and her portrayals required various angles to match the complexity of her conception. In Rossetti’s view, romantic love simultaneously is equitable, is extremely powerful, requires serious regard for the other’s well-being, and must be tempered, above all else, with a complimentary reverence for God. Rossetti interweaves these strands, as differing as they may be, and manages to create a persona of much belief and integrity, who conveys what, in her estimation, romantic love can and should be.



In “Goblin Market” (1859), Christina Rossetti alludes to the traditional discourse of forbidden fruit and the biblical account of the Fall. She does so both to challenge the decidedly patriarchal perception of women within Victorian culture in terms of sexuality, education and the marketplace and also to reconstruct the Christian idea of redemption. This essay focuses primarily on the question of how female desire should be perceived, the answer depending on who or what forbids the consumption of the fruit: whether it is an immutable Divine Being, or merely the patriarchal society in which Rossetti lived. The ambiguity of the poem shows that Rossetti recognised that this issue was not easy to resolve within the cultural and ideological limitations of her society.

Female sexuality and education were constantly, although paradoxically, linked in Rossetti’s time, so it seems reasonable to assume that in “Goblin Market” she considers both issues. The forbidden fruit undoubtedly refers to female sexuality, as many critics have stated, yet it can also relate to female education and knowledge. After all, it was from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil that Eve ate. The issue for Rossetti is not wholly sexual or intellectual; rather the poem addresses all forms of female desire. This idea is reflected in Barbara Garlick’s statement that within the Pre-Raphaelite movement “forbidden pleasures [were] clearly associated both with wild nature…and the secret delight of books” (109). Furthermore, Diane D’Amico points out that Eve ate the forbidden fruit in order to be like God, which is “prideful, not lustful” (“Eve, Mary and Mary Magdalene” 179), and also that in none of Rossetti’s work is Eve represented as “an evil seductress” (178). On the whole, Rossetti steers away from equating female sexuality with sinfulness, which in itself is a radical move: sexual pleasure was forbidden to Victorian women, for as the passionless angels in the house, they were seen as “too pure and sacred to share in the disgusting lusts that afflicted men” (Karen Armstrong 6). At the same time, they were not to be given the same education as men because it was believed that too much intellectual activity would cause their reproductive organs to malfunction, securing the double bondage of sexuality and the intellect on women.

It is interesting to note that it is Laura — perhaps named after Petrarch’s courtly ideal (Bentley 72) — who becomes the fallen woman, partaking of the forbidden fruit. Karen Armstrong addresses the “angel” myth of woman being “an island of perfection in a dark world” by looking at the way Petrarch’s Laura was affiliated with the Virgin Mary, contrasted with the negative connotations associated with Eve (81). Armstrong speaks of the subversive power of virginity, that defies the idea that a woman needs a man to be whole: “the virginity myth developed the image of the ‘whole’ female body, whose hymen remains unbroken and possessed the innocent ‘integrity’ or wholeness that Eve enjoyed before the Fall” (81). Marina Warner also speaks of the Catholic belief in Mary’s eternal virginity: “Mary was virgo intacta post partum . . . by special privilege of God she, who was spared sex, was preserved also through childbirth in her full bodily integrity” (22). Yet, as Armstrong points out, the virginal ideal also deprives women of their sexuality, an “important and essential part of their nature” (81). I feel that Rossetti attempts to reconcile these two concepts in “Goblin Market.” When Laura eats the fruit, her appetite is insatiable: “I ate my fill,/Yet my mouth waters still” (165-66). Her craving for the fruit becomes like that of an addict, her inability to be satisfied causing her to be completely debilitated. She becomes “listless” (297), and unable to work because her hope of again eating the fruit is destroyed.

Significantly, Rossetti blurs the distinction between the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge and that from the Tree of Life. In the Genesis account of the Fall, after Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, as part of their punishment they are not allowed access to the Tree of Life (Gen. 3:22). However, in Rossetti’s poem, the fruit that Laura can no longer access is the same fruit that was originally forbidden to her. Furthermore, Laura’s “salvation” is actually found in tasting again the juices of the forbidden fruits, although instead of giving her an insatiable appetite as they did the first time, they perform the role of a “fiery antidote” (599), seemingly giving her enough to innoculate her, but not enough to feed her addiction. Essentially, therefore, Laura’s fruit of knowledge and her fruit of life are derived from the same source, obscuring the definition between purity and sin. This image is very different from the biblical view, for Christ said that “A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit” (Matt. 7:18), clearly enforcing a difference between the two “fruits.”

With this resolution, it does not seem possible that Rossetti sets up a straightforward dichotomy of abstention as good and consumption as sinful. It is more a picture of the hope deferred, to which she often refers in her poetry (Blake 2), as becoming a hope lost — women are allowed a portion of knowledge, whether it relates to their to their sexuality or intelligence, but with that revelation they must realise that regardless of their innate gifts or abilities, society will not allow them to reach their potential. As Brad Sullivan points out, Rossetti’s “‘hope’ for meaning and clarity and completeness must be ‘deferred’ until she can escape from the self-destructive cycles of worldly existence” (1). Thus it is possible that Laura’s need for “salvation” is not a result of sinfulness, but of dissatisfaction with her society.

The link between spiritual redemption and social reformation was clearly evident at the St Mary Magdalene house of charity in Highgate, a refuge for fallen women, where Rossetti was a volunteer worker from 1859 to 1870 (Marsh 238). True success in the mission of the home was found in the fulfilment of a twofold purpose: to reform penitent women into “reliable domestic servants” and to make them into active members of the Church of England (240). Marsh goes on to point out the similarities between “Goblin Market” and a story told by the Warden of Highgate, recorded in “A House of Mercy,” an article published in the English Woman’s Journal in 1857. The Warden’s story is about several young women who, like Laura, take forbidden apples from an orchard, which leads them all to violence and death (242). A striking difference between the Warden’s account and Rossetti’s poem is that while the Warden’s fallen women all become racked with guilt, Laura experiences neither guilt nor shame. The source of her emotional turmoil is not regret for her actions but an intensified desire to eat the fruit again. Thus the poem cannot be seen as merely a message of redemption, for that would entail Laura’s feeling that she was morally wrong in acquiring the fruit in the first place. Her cure is necessary, not for her spiritual reconciliation, but for her reintegration into her society.

Further evidence for this idea can be found in the bond between Laura and Lizzie. If Lizzie is a redemptive Christ-figure, it would be necessary for there to be a relational separation between them after Laura eats the fruit, in order to symbolise the separation between God and humankind at the Fall, and this would need to be combined with a sense of shame on Laura’s part. Instead, Laura openly tells Lizzie of the bliss she experienced in eating her fill of the “sugar-sweet . . . sap” of the fruit (183), without compromising their relationship at all. Rather than her confession being followed by a symbolic eviction from the Garden of Eden, in the next stanza Rossetti writes of the closeness, almost co-mingling of the sisters:

Golden head by golden head,
Like two pigeons in one nest
Folded in each other’s wings,
They lay down in their curtained bed:
Like two blossoms on one stem,
Like two flakes of new-fall’n snow,
Like two wands of ivory
Tipped with gold for awful kings.
Moon and stars gazed in at them,
Wind sang to them lullaby,
Lumbering owls forbore to fly,
Not a bat flapped to and fro
Round their nest:
Cheek to cheek and breast to breast
Locked together in one nest. [184-98]

This image is clearly not of purity foiling sinfulness, as would be expected in a traditional rhetoric of redemption, but more along the lines of what D’Amico sees in Rossetti’s religious works: “Mary, the mother of God, and Mary Magdalene, the sinner, stood together at the Crucifixion. Therefore the disobedience that had cost Eve Eden need not cost her heaven” (“Eve, Mary and Mary Magdalene” 175). This idea suggests a spiritual and moral equality between what is holy and what is redeemed. Yet I see Rossetti’s image as even more radical, since even before a price has been paid for Laura’s redemption, there is no relational discord between what can be seen as arguably divine nature and human nature: the two sisters remain equal in spite of Laura’s apparently immoral act. Therefore, although Lizzie does play the role of a Christ-figure, it is not for Laura’s spiritual redemption, as it is quite evident that her spiritual position — identified through her relationship with her sister — is never lost.

It appears, then, that Rossetti is not necessarily condemning the consumption of the fruit as sinful, but rather she questions whether to do so would be profitable. This interpretation ties in with St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: “all things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any” (I Cor. 6:12). It is quite possible that Rossetti considered this verse in her attitudes toward fallen women, as well as her general perspective on life: she looked for the eternal rewards of heaven, rather than the temporal rewards of earthly life. The goblins play a deceptive role, enticing Laura into a corruptible sense of fulfilment — corruptible because it cannot last; she can only buy the fruit once, but she does not realise this until after she has eaten it, and she thus falls under its power. The goblins cry of “come buy, come buy” throughout the poem seems to reflect the biblical trope of referring to the acquisition of heavenly rewards in terms of purchasing:

Ho, everyone that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread? and your labour for that which satisfieth not? [Isa. 55:1-2]

The Book of Revelations echoes this idea: “I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fires, that thou mayest be rich” (Rev. 3:18). Within this discourse of buying and selling, it is easy to see the produce of the goblins as the corruptible, temporal rewards of earthly life that should be passed over, not because they are necessarily bad, but because there is something better to seek, something that will satisfy where the goblin fruit cannot: the eternal, incorruptible rewards of heaven. This idea relates to Christ’s words: “provide yourselves bags which wax not old, a treasure in the heavens that faileth not, where no thief approacheth, neither moth corrupteth” (Luke 12:33).

Rossetti’s attitude toward unconventionality and social outcasts is significant, for she seems to encourage an ideology of acceptance rather than judgment. As D’Amico says regarding Rossetti’s involvement at Highgate, “we can assume that since Rossetti was involved in a cause that sought to reform these women, even return them to the family structure, she must have believed a fallen woman need not forever be a social outcast” (“Equal Before God” 69). This attitude is a decided move away from the unforgiving dominant one in her society, as seen in “A House of Mercy,” which emphasises the evils of sexual pormiscuity. In “Goblin Market” Rossetti argues that “fallen women are not only streetwalkers and sinners but also loving sisters” (Leighton, Victorian Women Poets 137). She promotes social acceptance, for Laura is able to live a “normal” life in the end, becoming a respectable wife and mother, whereas in Rossetti’s society, a woman once “fallen” could not regain respectability. Rossetti seems to be saying that if a perfect God can accept these women, society, which is itself imperfect and corruptible, should also accept them. This idea directly relates to her attack against inequality in The Face of the Deep: “saints are ready to receive all sinners: all sinners are not ready to receive saints” (185).

Although the spiritual state of the fallen woman is important to Rossetti, it does seem as though she concerned herself equally, if not more so, with the way society deals with such women. Instead of ostracism, society is encouraged to sacrificially embrace them as Lizzie embraces Laura. The message of the poem therefore becomes just as much for the “Lizzies” in Rossetti’s society as the “Lauras.” As Marsh says, the poem was simple enough for the uneducated girls at Highate but also appropriate for the “more sophisticated listeners schooled in religious exegesis…such as the staff at Highgate” (243). The redemption portrayed in “Goblin Market,” then, is not so much spiritual as social.

In challenging the interpretation of “Goblin Market” as representative of fallen women acquiring a Christian salvation, I do not mean to remove the distinct spiritual implications of the text. The poem continually alludes to Revelation 10:10 — “And I took the little book out of the angel’s hand and ate it up; and it was in my mouth sweet as honey: and as soon as I had eaten it, my belly was bitter.” There are references to Laura being a “sweet-tooth” (GM 115), and to the fruit being “Sweet to the tongue” (30) and “Sweeter than honey” (129). Yet when Laura tastes the juices the second time, they are no longer sweet: the fruit is “like honey to the throat/But poison in the blood” (554-55). She clearly argues that although the fruits of pleasure — whether they are sexual, intellectual, or otherwise — may seem sweet, they can, in fact, be destructive. However, this does not necessarily define the fruit as an issue of sinfulness but of social morality. Consequently its lack of acceptability is defined by culture, not by a Divine Being. The imperfect society of Victorian England forbid such items to women, and therefore the consumption of these fruits brings destruction within that particular society.

Although Rossetti in working at Highgate would not have questioned the immorality of prostitution, she might have empathised with the continued ostracism of these women that occurred even after they had been “reformed,” especially in relation to the double standards in nineteenth-century society regarding female sexuality and marriage. D’Amico suggests that Rossetti did not see much difference between the woman who sells herself in marriage, who does not marry for a genuine love, and the woman who has sexual experience before marriage because she is fooled by the promises of human love. Both are guilty of placing the things of earth before God. [“Equal Before God” 77]

Furthermore, as stated earlier, Rossetti also refers at times to knowledge and education by the rhetoric of forbidden fruit; thus it seems reasonable to conflate the issues of sexuality and education within “Goblin Market,” understanding the poem to be less specifically related to fallen women, and more generally related to the Woman Question. It is significant that lack of education ties in succinctly with the perception of sexual promiscuity in women during the Victorian Age, as paradoxical as that idea seems in light of the fears of over-education causing reproductive dysfunction. The education these women were required to have, however, was not the academic education available to men, but moral education: “the girls at Highgate…were perceived to have the moral immaturity of children, unable to curb their appetite or temper” (Marsh 243). In “Goblin Market,” Laura and Lizzie have both been morally educated to not even “peep at goblin men” (49), let alone to enter into an economy of exchange with them. Yet Laura is “curious” (69), seeking experience and knowledge beyond the limits imposed upon her.

The problem with the fruit in “Goblin Market” is expressed by Laura herself: “Who knows upon what soil they fed/Their hungry thirsty roots?” (44-45). In looking at the fruit as knowledge, this could refer to dangerous, unorthodox philosophies, which Rossetti evidently feared: “it is wiser to remain ignorant than to learn evil. . . . It is better to avoid doubts than to reject them” (FD 38). This rejection of intellectual discovery also relates to women not being able to exceed the boundaries of the private sphere. Laura seeks to trespass this boundary willingly, and Lizzie does so reluctantly, yet regardless of motivation, they both go beyond society’s imposed limitations.

Lizzie might not actually taste the fruit, but she does take its juices upon herself, deriving pleasure both from her “sacrifice” and from her ability to withstand the goblin men, rather than from the fruit itself. Lizzie succeeds in her purpose — to “save” her sister — but she remains unsullied. Her achievement is long-lasting, while to taste the fruit is a transient experience. At the same time, it is still Lizzie, not Laura, who is perceived to be unfeminine. Laura fits into a feminized category as a fallen woman, but Lizzie refuses to conform: she is not an angel, for she seeks to buy the fruit, but neither is she prostituted, for she refuses to taste it. Her refusal to consume the fruit causes the goblins to attribute unfeminine qualities to her: “One called her proud,/Cross-grained, uncivil” (394-95); yet her purity remains evident: “White and golden Lizzie stood,/Like a lily in a flood” (408-409).

Lizzie’s subversiveness in seeking out the goblins is justified both through her reluctance and her sense of self-sacrifice. She is compelled to act in order to promote freedom for women within her society by confronting the goblins — and consequently the patriarchal system of ostracism. The resolution of the poem reflects Rossetti’s apparent ambivalence in regard to womanhood. The “willed confusion of fallen and unfallen” (Leighton, “Laws” 235) in “Goblin Market” shows that Rossetti was evidently torn between realising how blatantly her society seemed to disregard the biblical precedence for forgiveness and acceptance and actually being able to function effectively as an individual within that society. As D’Amico suggests, Lizzie is not the “pure unfallen sister” who saves the fallen woman (“Equal Before God” 70); neither does she function as the pure “opposite” of her sister — “the virginal woman is not set before the reader as an ideal” (76). Laura and Lizzie both eventually appear to conform to their expected roles as wives and mothers, yet in telling their children of the goblins, the moral of the story is not a warning against approaching strange men or sampling forbidden fruits, but a valorisation of female solidarity. The absence of any patriarchal figure or influence is conspicuous in the final image, giving the impression of a cloistered existence. The women become pure, but not virginal; and most significantly, they do not express any regret for their rebellious past.

Even more importantly, during Laura’s feverish deliverance from the seductions of the fruit, the question is put: “Pleasure past and anguish past,/Is it death or is it life?” (GM 522-23) Laura’s reaction to the antidote is as full of passion as her previous insatiable appetite for the fruit, but once the antidote has worked, she falls into a comatose state, from which Lizzie is uncertain that she will recover. Laura’s pulse is “flagging” (526), and Lizzie watches through the night, feeling for her sister’s breath (527). Although Laura awakes “as from a dream” and “laugh[s] in the innocent old way” (537-38), she is a much more subdued, shadowy figure than she was at the beginning of the poem. Isobel Armstrong refers to Laura’s recovery as a “second innocence” (54), which is a revealing idea, for Laura does not recover her initial innocence, which emphasised absolute freedom:

Laura stretched her gleaming neck
Like a rush-imbedded swan,
Like a lily from the beck,
Like a moonlit poplar branch,
Like a vessel at the launch
When its last restraint is gone. [GM 81-86]

The portrayal of her “second” innocence is remarkably different, in that it is restricted to her outward appearance, giving no sense of the freedom and life she expressed before. She is redeemed because she seems outwardly to fall into line with what society expects of her: she appears passionless, and seeks no pleasure for herself. Yet beneath the apparently innocent sweetness, there lies a tantilising (sic)  tone in Rossetti’s language: “Her gleaming locks showed not one thread of grey,/Her breath was sweet as May/And light danced in her eyes” (540-42). Laura’s innate passion cannot be denied, still reflected in the light dancing in her eyes, but it is carefully contained. It could be argued that while Laura awakes physically from her fever-induced coma, she does not fully recover spiritually or emotionally, as that very essence of her being — her overt passion — is not seen again. She is permitted the “fruit of her womb” — that is, her children — but not the fruit of her mind or her sexuality.

The implications of eating forbidden fruit are ambiguous in “Goblin Market,” just as Rossetti’s view is ambiguous concerning the role and status of women in her society. She addresses the restrictions placed on women, using biblical examples to reveal that these restrictions are incongruous with the will of God. In “Goblin Market” in particular, she pulls down the ideological boundaries of femininity, allowing women to escape from the extremes of classification: an angelic Virgin Mary, devoid of sexuality, or an Eve, punished for seeking knowledge. Rossetti puts her unswerving hope in Christ and heaven for the restoration of her society; a hope perhaps exemplified by the unconditional love Lizzie shows in both “saving” and accepting her sister.


Christina Rossetti’s “Monna Innominata”
By Benjamin Balter

Christina Rossetti’s “Monna Innominata” was first published in 1881, the same year in which Dante Gabriel’s The House of Life appeared in its entirety. Therefore, it is tempting to read Christina’s sonnet sequence as a response to her brother’s. Indeed, in brief prose introduction to the sonnets, Christina refers to a male literary tradition of the glorification of women. However, as Christina indicates, these women “have come down to us resplendent wich charms, but (at least, to my apprehension) scant of attractiveness.” In other words, though the physical beauty of women idealized in sonnets such as those which comprise The House of Life is painstakingly chronicled, these women rarely receive the opportunity to speak directly to the reader. Therefore, they have “charms,”but no “attractiveness,”since it is impossible to reconstruct the mutual attraction between these “donne innominate”and their male admirers. “Monna Innominata” is an explicit attempt to correct this ludicrous literary tradition. Therefore, Christina proposes a hypothetical situation in which a woman who “shares her lover’s poetic aptitude””speaks for herself.”

However, it is impossible to read “Monna Innominata” as merely Christina Rossetti’s incarnation of her brother’s female literary creations, for there are important thematic differences between the two works. The most dramatic difference is that while The House of Life focuses on love which is attained and later regretted, “Monna Innominata” concentrates on unattained, though not unrequited love. In her preface, Christina deliberately sets forth a situation in which the lovers of her sonnets face “a barrier between them”which is “held sacred by both, yet not such as to render mutual love incompatible with mutual honour.” Some literary historians have deduced from this statement that Christina Rossetti is herself the “”Monna Innominata””of her sequence; they have assumed that the sonnets recored Christina’s love for Charles Cayley, whom she decloned to marry because of differences in their religious views. Though this attribution may or may not be literally true, it is nonetheless evident that denial and longing are crucial to the project of “Monna Innominata”. Indeed, through a comparison of herself to Elisabeth Barrett Browning, Christina suggests that a sense of unfulfilled desire is more important to her project than even poetic talent. Or had the Great Poetess of our own day and nation only been unhappy instead of happy, her circumstances would have invited her to bequeath to us, in lieu of the “Portugese Sonnets,”an inimitable “donna innominata”drawn not from fancy, but from feeling.

While Christina undoubtably recognizes Browning’s great talent, she nevertheless suggests that Elizabeth Barrett’s happy marriage to Robert Browning, has necessarily robbed her poetry of a certain “feeling”and has allowed her to embrace the “fancy”of a male-dominated tradition of sonnets. Christina’s focus on denial and deferred gratification is reflected immediately in her syntax. The first sonnet begins:

Come back to me, who wait and watch for you:
Or come not yet, for it is over then.

This expression of self-inflicted denial finds expression in an astounding number of negative constructions throughout the sonnets. The narrator constantly describes images of “not remembering,””not waking,”and ultimately “not living.” This constant negation results in “Monna Innominata”‘s beginning at a point which surfaces only halfway through The House of Life; namely, the narrator discovers that her longing to achieve love results in an actual death wish. Whereas Dante Gabriel arrives at this dilemma by demonstrating a breakdown in far-flung and chaotic symbolism, Christina deduces her death wish with ruthless logic, and precise Biblical references.

The first two sonnets describe a woman’s waiting for her beloved to arrive. In the first sonnet, the narrator is torn between her desire to see her beloved, and the desire not to see him, since a meeting would necessate the pain of parting. The logical crux of her dilemma finds expression in the lines:

Howbeit to meet you grown almost a pang
Because the pang of parting comes so soon.

Since she is unable to unable to reconcile the pain of denial with the pain of separation, the narrator attempts to seek refuge in the memories of her beloved. However, as she quickly discovers, human memory is fallible, and she cannot completely call to mind her first meeting with her beloved. Her natural implicit human limitations have betrayed her; this is illustrated by the constant nature imagery throughout the second sonnet, as decayed memories are portrayed as changing seasons

If only I could recollect it, such
A day of days! I let it come and go
As traceless as a thaw of bygone snow.

Since her memory is unreliable, the narrator next attempts to find consolation in her dreams. Whereas memory is figured as completely natural and human, dreams have supernatural powers. In the second sonnet, the narrator laments that she has failed to “mark the budding of [her] tree that would not blossom yet for many a May;”the fact that she has not remembered to mark the budding of the tree does not alter the time when it will blossom. However, in the third sonnet, dreams have the power to change natural phenomena.

In happy dreams I hold you full in sight,
I blush again who waking look so wan;
Brighter than sunniest day that ever shone,
In happy dreams your smile makes day of night.

Dreams undoubtably have the power to accomplish what human memory and will cannot. Therefore, the narrator quite logically concludes.

If thus to sleep is sweeter than to wake,
To die were surely sweeter than to live,

Tho’ there be nothing new beneath the sun.

Therefore, in the first three sonnets Christina sets up the tension which must be resolved in the remaining sonnets; like Dante Gabriel, Christina seeks to discover a transcendent meaning for human life which can embrace desire, despair, and death.

While Dante Gabriel accomplishes this task through an ever-increasing reliance on the human spirit, Christina instead turns to the Bible for much of her symbolism and meaning. Unlike Dante Gabriel’s scattered, incontextual use of the bible, Christina appropriates the Bible in conventional, though creative ways. This reliance on Christian faith allows Christina to conceive of a situation in which, to paraphrase her preface, mutual desire is not imcompatible with mutual denial. This brilliant manipulation of Christian theology is most evidence in the tenth sonnet. The sonnet begins with the lines:

Time flies, hope flages, life plies a wearied wing;
Death following hard on life gains ground apace;

Clearly, human life is subject to inevitable death. This is demonstrated by the above lines, as well as frequent references to decay, loss, and death; but more important, these lines draw on the imagery of the previous sonnets, in which love and fulfilled desire are associated with the seasons of summer and spring. Just as summer inevitable turns to fall, and then to winter, love and desire eventually and naturally give way to death and decay.

Surprisingly, Christina does not reject death, but rather seems to believe that an acceptance of death is crucial to the “faith”that “outruns”death. As the eleventh sonnet makes clear, desire is proven only after it has withstood the test of death, and been removed from earthly temptations. Christina uses these beliefs to form a concrete plan of action. She tells her beloved:

Let us go fall asleep, dear friend, in peace:
A little while, and age and sorrow cease;
A little while, and life reborn annuls
Loss and decay and death, and all is love.

The reference to “falling asleep,”is, of course, a reference to death which Christina has reappropriated from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins. Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable. But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead (1 Cornithians 15:17-20). In addition, her choice of the phrase “sleep in peace”is an almost direct translation of the Latin benediction requiescat in pace. Therefore, the narrator is suggesting that she and her beloved engage in a sort of suicide.


Christina Rossetti’s poetry predominantly concerns her longing for Heaven, both as an end in itself and as an escape from the Earth that she denigrates. Quite clearly, she does not share her brother’s enthusiasm for sensuality and materiality, but at the same time, she describes human experience as limited to the domain of materiality. The question we must ask, therefore, is how her poetry can use Heaven as its thematic center while lacking an appropriate vocabulary to characterize Heaven. As I shall argue, her occasional attempts to use matter to describe Heaven directly tend to cast their own validity into question, so instead she describes Heaven as the negation of Earth. This is not the real relationship of Heaven and Earth, however, for “God’s presence antedates what else hath been,” (“Later Life, 24:7); that is, Heaven should be the standard against which Earth is to be viewed, but our limitations force us to conceive of things backwardly.

“Paradise” conventionally depicts Heaven by means of earthly beauties that are said to exist in Heaven in superlative, perhaps even incomparable, forms. The first three stanzas are variations on this theme. The speaker claims to have perceived the earthly forms of flowers, rivers, and bird songs in Heaven. Having thus connected Heaven and Earth, the speaker then exalts Heaven by denigrating the earthly versions; earthly flowers are “faint,” and the nightingale “cold,” in comparison with their Heavenly equivalents. Ultimately, the objects that seemed to link Heaven and Earth demonstrate how great the difference between them is.

Starting with the fifth stanza two possible interpretations of the poem, and its view of Heaven, diverge from each other. Perhaps Rossetti intends a straightforward depiction of Heaven as an alternate physical space, more beautiful but at least comparable; however, I suggest that she may instead be suggesting the limitations of such a view, implying that Earthly and Heavenly experience are in fact incommensurable. Because the speaker is still in some ways limited by her human form, she cannot truly experience Heaven, even in her dream state; she “looked, but scarce could look within,” (34). The lines ending the stanza, “Eye hath not seen, nor ear hath heard, nor heart conceived,” (39-40) a quotation from 1st Corinthians 2:9, can be read in two ways. One could take these lines as expressing an accidental proposition, a claim that although that an eye or ear could theoretically perceive such things, there does not happen to be anything on earth quite so marvelous. However, on a stronger yet equally plausible reading; eyes and ears not only “hath” not perceived such things, they cannot. That these things cannot even be “conceived” suggests that they are not even the kind of thing that could be perceived, and that the earthly forms are merely analogous to divine forms.

In the final stanza, the speaker describes her longing for the eternal experience of Heaven.

I hope to see these things again,
But not as once in dreams by night;
To see them with my very sight.

These lines further develop the divergence discussed above. What is the difference between seeing “as once in dreams” and seeing “with my own sight”? In support of a straightforward reading, one could point out that, for one thing, dream experience is only momentary, whereas the real experience is eternal. This distinction implies that the two experiences differ merely in duration, not in quality. Another possible distinction is that in dreams we generally see things confusedly or dimly, as “through a glass, darkly,” (1 Cor. 13:12) so to speak, whereas in death the speaker will be clear-sighted, although she will still be seeing essentially the same things. It seems unlikely, however, that the speaker could have been so moved by experiences that were less vivid then those of her mundane waking life.

If, on the other hand, we conceive of the speaker using “sight” metaphorically to describe a spiritual sensibility unknown to us, the difference between seeing Heaven as in a dream and seeing it “with my very sight,” that is, through spiritual rather than material faculties of perception, becomes more profound. The dream vision does not present us with a photograph of what we can expect of Heaven, but rather a reflection of Heaven’s radiance expressed in the highest terms that we can understand, terms which ultimately point to their own inadequacy.

Similarly, Christina Rossetti’s yearning for Heaven in “De Profundis” uses the concept of spatial distance to express the speaker’s emotional and spiritual relationship to Heaven, which is paradoxically both near and far. The speaker immediately expresses her impatience with earthly life:

Why is heaven built so far,
Oh why is earth set so remote?

In the lines following, she develops the metaphor of spatial distance between heaven and earth:

I cannot reach the nearest star
That hangs afloat.
I would not care to reach the moon,
One round monotonous of change;
Yet even she repeats her tune
Beyond my reach.

There are two ways to think of these lines. First, one could simply say that, as far away as the stars and the moon are, Heaven is still much farther beyond them. In this sense, the “nearest star” is a standard for judging distance; we know it to be light-years away, yet even if one could reach it, she would have made almost no relative progress towards heaven. However, if Rossetti simply meant that Heaven is extremely far away, a better standard would have been to use the farthest star, rather than the nearest. The choice of the “nearest star” suggests a spiritual aspect to the distance between Earth and Heaven. Heaven is always present in her thoughts, an immediate prospect rather than some forgettable abstraction. Because the distance between Heaven and Earth is spiritual rather than simply spatial, Heaven can be very near despite the tremendous gap (death) that lies between it and Earth. In other words, the very use of spatial standards to describe the relation between Earth and Heaven ends up demonstrating how ineffectual those standards are.

The fourth stanza clarifies the nature of the speaker’s spiritual distance from Heaven. She is “bound with fleshly bands, / Joy, beauty, lie beyond my scope,” asserting that her materiality is the restraint that prevents her from reaching Heaven. Materiality is a limit for the speaker, determining what she can, and more importantly, what she cannot experience (joy and beauty). By naming these unknown experiences, the speaker is not actually describing Heaven (how can she describe the beauty of Heaven if beauty lies beyond her scope?) but merely gesturing towards it. The last lines replace the expectation of a direct description of Heaven, which has been prohibited by the limit of the “fleshly bands,” with the immediate experience of hope. Like the “nearest star,” hope is a reality for the speaker, even though it does not provide any real content to the idea of the hoped for Heaven. Hope provides the bridge between the unknowable Heaven and her personal consciousness; it allows her to “strain [her] heart” towards something that she cannot intellectually know.

The above analyses of these poems show Christina Rossetti prima facie presenting Heaven and Earth as two states separated by a gap that can only be crossed by death but which are not essentially different from each other. If this were the case, both states would either be generally material states, or a comparable mixture of matter and spirit. As I have argued, however, a closer reading challenges the view of Heaven as material, and suggests that even in terms of spirit the two states are not comparable. In “Later Life” Rossetti shows that Heaven is logically and temporally prior to Earth, and is more real than Earth, but because she can only do so from a worldly, human perspective, she can therefore only depict Heaven in relation to Earth.

The speaker in “Later Life” primarily depicts herself as looking away from life, or perhaps more accurately looking through life to see what lies beyond. She continually “consider[s] what this life we lead / is not, and is” (Sonnet 25, 1-2) always first noticing what it “is not,” seeing it as unreality, as the negation of Heavenly perfection. Similarly, her claim that “this life we live is dead for all its breath,” (Sonnet 26, 9) reverses the usual relation of life and death and finds meaning in a realm outside of, and inaccessible from, her experience. The speaker’s continual disparagement of the world would amount to nihilism, except that she believes in something beyond the world, something that is not the world. Her disgust for the worldly is expressed to such an extent that she almost seems to be looking forward to Heaven because it is not Earth than because it is Heaven. For example, in the seventeenth sonnet, she refers to a spiritual feeling as “something this foggy day, a something which / is neither of this fog nor of today,” (1-2). Her excitement seems to arise more from the fact that this feeling is not of the world, then from the fact that it is Heavenly; after a short reverie about a “pleasant pebbly strand so far away” (6) her thoughts return to her present situation, as she complains “I am sick of where I am and where I am not,” (9).

The eleventh sonnet focuses upon the divine presence in mortal experience, and the positive relationship between the speaker and Heaven. As with the hope of the speaker in “De Profundis,” this divine presence has little content, but serves as a guide towards the spiritual path.

And gracious promises half understood,
and glories half unveiled, whereon to set
our heart of hearts and eyes of our desire;
uplifting us to longing and to love,
Luring us upward from this world of mire,
Urging us to press on and mount above
Ourselves and all we have had experience of.” [ll. 7-13]

These “promises” and “glories” seem to have more content than hope alone, since they are at least “half understood” and “half unveiled,” but they are still intended to draw the soul towards Heaven, rather than to give an accurate representation of it that can be conveyed through poetry. The emphasis on this passage is upon action, on the glories “uplifting,” “luring,” and “urging us to press on.” The final line above reiterates the theme of matter and human experience as limitations that must be surpassed, rather than as means to greater knowledge or fulfillment.

Having provided, in the eleventh sonnet, a way for the matter-bound human to have at least the concept of Heaven and some sense of hope, the speaker proceeds, in the twenty-fourth sonnet, to explain the attitude the human should then take towards Heaven. She begins by arguing that although the speaker is necessarily trapped within the material world, she can be connected to Heaven through her heart, as the speaker of “De Profundis” uses hope as a means to be near to Heaven. However, it does not seem that she can take as much immediate solace from this, because rather than “catch[ing] at hope,” (“De Profundis,” 16) she must “send [her heart] before [her]” (Sonnet 24, 1).

“The wise do send their hearts before them to
dear blessed Heaven, despite the veil between;
The foolish nurse their hearts within the screen
of this familiar world, where all we do
or have is old, for there is nothing new;

That the heart is sent “despite the veil” suggests that the speaker will be to some degree separated from her heart, because she still cannot have experience of anything beyond the veil. Even this great accomplishment of the wise cannot provide any sort of grace on Earth, but can only prepare the way towards Heaven. As a result, the speaker is left in a state of unpleasant anticipation, of “weary impatience with [her] lot!” (Sonnet 17, 13). The most solace this new attitude can offer is that it allows the heart to remain undivided, whereas the foolish heart “hankers after Heaven, but clings to earth,” (11).

Having considered the treatment of Heaven in these sonnets and in the two poems discussed above, we can give a more complete account of Christina Rossetti’s conception of the relation between matter and spirit. Rossetti does not attempt to fuse and blend the material and spiritual, to paraphrase Pater. Spirit alone is what is important; Heaven is prior to Earth and human experience both in time and in being (as, for instance, Plato saw the material world as only a reflection of a higher world of forms). Heaven alone, with all matter cast away, is Rossetti’s desire. However, as long as she is alive as a human, she can only experience that which her human body and faculties allow her to. Human experience may be nothing but fog, shadow, vanity, or a dream, but it is the only form of experience we can possible have in this life. She does not exalt the power of poetry to manifest the spiritual by means of the material, but uses the material because it is all she has access to. If, however, the speaker is truly limited to the material in her experience, she would not even be able to form the notion of Heaven. Therefore, Rossetti introduces the concepts of hope and of the half seen promises and glories given by God; we might say, furthermore, that the whole dream vision of “Paradise” may be an example of the glories. Because these glimpses of the divine exist in human experience, they cannot truly express the nature of the divine, and therefore tend to be devoid of explicit content, yet they instill a sense of purpose and direction into otherwise aimless lives. They direct the person to “send their hearts before them” to Heaven and to renounce the world, although they will still have to live in the world and will still be denied experience of the divine. Thus, Christina Rossetti presents the material and the spiritual realms as radically separate, even incommensurable, but provides a limited mechanism by which, in life, we can look forward to crossing the gap, and in death, we can escape our “fleshly bands.”



In her recent biography of Christina Rossetti, Georgina Battiscombe quite properly describes the poet as “soaked … in the Dante legend” (129). More expansively, Lona Packer has explained that “as Christina grew older, she recovered from the notion that Dante, as [her father’s] special possession, was a noxious feature of adult life…. Although she herself was to write several prose studies of Dante, more important is the pervasive Dantean influence on her poetry, an influence recognizable both in her conceptions and the poetic techniques she used to express them. The Dantean imagery and symbolism for the Dantean religious ideas may be found throughout her work” (14). Rossetti herself acknowledged in 1892 that “perhaps it is enough to be half an Italian, but certainly it is enough to be a Rossetti to render Dante a fascinating centre of thought” (FL, 49). Almost a decade earlier, when preparing “Dante. The Poet Illustrated out of the Poem” for Century Magazine, she wrote to Edmund Gosse in order to defend her use of Cayley’s translation of the Divine Comedy rather than Longfellow’s more popular one. In her letter of 30 January 1883, she explained that Cayley’s translation adheres “to the … ternary rhyme of the original poem, [and] has gone far towards satisfying an ear rendered fastidious by Dante’s own harmony of words” (30 Jan. 1883, Ashley Manuscripts, British Library. Quoted Packer, 360).

Indeed, apart from the inescapable Dantean preoccupations of her entire household, we know that Rossetti began serious study of Dante in 1848 (Bell, 16); that as early as 1850 she had the opportunity to read at least portions of Cayley’s translations of the Divine Comedy when posting them to William Michael (FL, 15); that she initiated (but never completed) a project to assist with the Rev. Alexander B. Grosart’s edition of [142/143] Spenser’s complete works by tracing allusions to Dante and Boccaccio in Spenser; and that she read Cayley’s translations of Petrarch in proof during September 1878 (FL, 76-77). Bell suggests that Rossetti began her work assisting Grosart in 1855, but the effort probably came later. Grosart’s ten-volume Spenser did not appear until 1882-84 (Christina Rossetti, 36). Her erudition in the troubadour traditions out of which Dante’s and Petrarch’s works arose was indicated in small ways: for instance, in a letter to William Michael she revealed knowledge of the obscure fact that “a golden violet … was a provenÇal prize for poetry” (FL, 145).

The profound influence of Dante upon Christina Rossetti is, of course, neither a surprising nor a singular phenomenon. For all the Pre-Raphaelite poets, but especially for the Rossettis, Dante was a literary precursor whose importance to their art can be compared only with that of Milton to the art of the Romantics. But Dante influenced writers of all stripes during the century — sometimes enormously, as in the cases of Blake, Carlyle, and the Rossettis, and sometimes to a lesser extent, as with Keats, Tennyson, Swinburne, and Arnold. Like all writers of major influence, Dante was adapted to the particular purposes of those who alluded to him. Among Victorian writers this process of adaptation is especially clear, and differences between those aspects of Dante’s poetry admired by mainstream Victorians — such as R. W. Church, Thomas Carlyle, and William Gladstone — and those emphasized by the Pre-Raphaelites, but especially by Christina Rossetti, reveal the full extent to which the Rossettis, Swinburne, and Morris can be looked upon not only as “the last Romantics,” but also as harbingers of aestheticism in ways that their contemporaries were not.

Two aspects of the Divine Comedy especially appealed to typical Victorian readers: what they perceived as its gothic structure, and the manifest feelings of alienation shown by its author. These characteristics of the poem were admired by R. W Church, the popular dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, who had studied under John Keble at Oxford. In an essay on Dante written in 1850 this important religious leader reveled in the gothic eclecticism of the Divine Comedy, exhibiting a familiar aspect of Victorian taste. He extolled Dante’s masterpiece,

abnormal, so lawless, so reckless of all ordinary proprieties and canons of feeling, taste and composition. It is rough and abrupt; obscure in phrase and allusion, doubly obscure in purpose. It is a medley of all subjects usually kept distinct: scandal of the day and transcendental science, politics and confessions, coarse satire and angelic joy, private wrongs, with the mysteries of faith, local names and habitations of earth, with visions of hell and heaven. [Quoted in Friedrich, Dante’s Fame Abroad, 339. To simplify references to Victorian commentators on Dante, all future citations for such commentary will be cited in the text as Friedrich.] [143/144]

The immense diversity of characteristics that Church emphasized inevitably remind us not only of the expected eclecticism of the Victorian drawing room, but also of most of the basic elements of “gothic” which Ruskin later elaborated in his chapter “The Nature of Gothic” from The Stones of Venice (1853). Church showed sensitivity to Dante’s “savageness” “changefulness’ ” “naturalism” “grotesqueness'” and “redundance.” Church also found oddly attractive the extreme degree of alienation suffered by Dante, with which many Victorians could identify. (For two standard discussions of the sense of alienation that pervades Victorian literature and culture, see Houghton, Victorian Frame of Mind, esp. 77-89; and Johnson, Alien Vision of Victorian Poetry [full text in VW].)

Such alienation is the focal concern of Dante Rossetti’s poem, “Dante at Verona.” Church described such alienation, in Dante’s case, as the “price and counterpoise” of greatness. Dante was “solitary and companionless” in his “visionary world.” He thought and wrote “as a friendless man-to whom all that he had held dear was either lost or embittered” (Friedrich, 339). Thomas Carlyle saw such alienation from lesser men as inevitable for the prophet-poet: “Dante burns as a pure star, fixed there in the firmament, at which the great and high of all ages kindle themselves” (Friedrich, 303).

Several crucial elements of Dante’s greatest work, as extensions of the alienated great man, especially appealed to Carlyle, and these, too, reflect paramount concerns in Victorian literature and Victorian society at large. Carlyle profoundly admired the moral earnestness of the Divine Comedy and especially of the Purgatorio: “There is no book so moral as this, the very essence of Christian morality! … [We see in Dante] one great mind, making of himself, as it were, the spokesman of his age, and speaking with such an earnestness and depth that he has become one of the voices of mankind itself, making his voice to be heard in all ages” (Friedrich, 301). Moreover, that voice in the Comedy is inexorably sincere, Dante’s magnum opus being “the sincerest of all Poems.” Carlyle found sincerity to be the primary “measure of worth” in the work: “It came deep out of the author’s heart of hearts; and it goes deep, and through long generations into ours” (Friedrich, 302). For Carlyle, a characteristic of Dante’s work even more poignant than his earnest morality and sincerity, however, is the elegiac tone of his poem. Beneath the surface of Carlyle’s commentary is the dolorous yearning for lost ideals, the remorse for failed potential that literary Victorians inherited from the Romantic poets and that pervaded the literature of Victoria’s reign, existing in tension with its utilitarian faith in progress. Carlyle pronounced Dante “great above an in his sorrow!” (Friedrich, 301).

Other aspects of Dantean thought were attractive to William Gladstone, who felt a kinship with Dante in political principles, but he valued Dante’s religious precepts still more highly. In a letter written near the end [144/145] of his life, Gladstone expressed the enormous debt he felt to Dante’s work as a kind of magister vitae. He described the “supreme poet” as “a ‘solemn master’ for me” and explained that “the reading of Dante is not merely a pleasure, a tour de force, or a lesson; it is a vigorous discipline of the heart, the intellect, the whole man. In the school of Dante I have learnt a great part of that mental provision … which has served me to make the journey of life up to the term of nearly seventy-three years” (Friedrich, 322). Gladstone actually translated touchstone passages from the Divine Comedy,.and one of his favorites — presumably a source of moral as well as ontological instruction — was the speech of Picarda, daughter of Simone Donati, in Paradisio 3. Speaking to Dante, she explains how in heaven,

Within the will Divine to set our own
Is of the essence of this Being blest,
For that our wills to one with his be grown.
So, as we stand throughout the realms of rest,
From stage to stage, our pleasure is the King’s
Whose will our will informs, by him imprest.
In His Will is our peace. To this all things
By Him created, or by nature made,
As to a central Sea, self-motion brings. [Friedrich, 321]

Dante’s paradisal ideal of loving union between man’s will and God’s provided a goal to be pursued by Gladstone, one that probably often reinforced the prime minister’s faith in the moral rectitude of his political actions as well as his social endeavors.

From Church, Carlyle, and Gladstone — a fairly representative sampling of influential Victorian readers of Dante — we can generalize about the uses to which the less avant-garde contemporaries of the Pre-Raphaelites put Dante. The crucial values they perceived in or projected upon the Divine Comedy derive from the poem’s eclectically varied form and content, a feature reminiscent of gothic architecture. But those values also clearly hinged upon their sensitivity to the profound and inescapable feelings of alienation incurred by men who attempt great work in the world. Dante’s typical Victorian readers admired his intense sincerity of tone (for them a facet of all profoundly earnest moral endeavors), his great poems undercurrent of sorrow that laments and foreshadows fallen experience, and his serious celebration of the providential ways in which God designed the world and operates within it to align man’s will with His own.

The emphases we find in Church, Carlyle, and Gladstone upon these [145/146] elements of Dante’s vision of the world differ substantially from the values extrapolated by the Pre-Raphaelites from Dante. One such value was Dante’s self-conscious concern with literary traditions and genealogies, and their importance to him in pursuing and perfecting his art. As a corollary to this, and equally important, was the Pre-Raphaelites’ obsessive concern with the great Italian poet’s transposition of erotic passion to a spiritual object and condition. In “Dante, an English Classic,” Christina Rossetti describes the central movement in Dante’s work as one in which “the lost love of earth is found again as one higher, lovelier and better loved in paradise” (201). This movement begins for Dante in the Vita Nuova and culminates in the Paradisio. It is therefore appropriate that Dante Rossetti’s first extensive published work included a meticulous translation of Dante’s first major literary enterprise.

In his preface to the first edition of The Early Italian Poets (1861) Dante Rossetti broaches (but does not subsequently pursue) a discussion of those areas of his life in which literary culture subsumes biography. He begins the penultimate paragraph of his preface with the statement that “In relinquishing this work, . . . I feel, as it were, divided from my youth.” He explains: “The first associations I have are connected with my father’s devoted studies [of Dante], which, from his own point of view., have done so much towards the general investigation of Dante’s writings. Thus, in those early days, all around me partook of the influence of the great Florentine; till, from viewing it as a natural element, I also, growing older, was drawn within the circle” (3). Significantly, when this “only contribution” of Rossetti’s “to our English knowledge of old Italy” was revised and reissued in 1874, it was also retitled as Dante and His Circle, suggesting that Rossetti had by then achieved a more powerful awareness of his position within the historically expanded circumference of Dante’s circle of influence. After having published his own first volume of poems in 1870, Rossetti could implicitly acknowledge that throughout much of his creative life he saw himself and his own work as an extension of a literary tradition that his namesake had redefined and perpetuated.

Similarly Christina Rossetti, near the end of her fife, wrote to her brother William of “all too late … being sucked into the Dantean vortex” (FL, 188). This remark appears at the conclusion of some brief statements about Canon Moore’s volume, Dante and His Early Biographers, and is perplexing because Christina Rossetti had throughout her life been surrounded and influenced by Dante scholars. The comment nonetheless reflects her sense of inadequacy as a commentator on the great poet whose life and works had absorbed such an enormous amount of her family’s [146/147] intellectual energy. Up to 1892 her attention to Dante had been primarily imaginative rather than scholarly, and her anxieties on that score are enunciated very early in her second major essay on Dante, “Dante. The Poet Illustrated out of the Poem,” (1884). She explains that,

If formidable for others, it is not least formidable for one of my name, for me, to enter the Dantesque field and say my little say on the Man and on the Poem; for others of my name have been before me in the same field and have wrought permanent and worthy work in attestation of their diligence. My father, Gabriele Rossetti, in his “Comento Analitico sul’ Inferno di Dante” (“Analytical Commentary upon Dante’s Hell”), has left to tyros a clew [sic] and to fellow-experts a theory. My sister, Maria Francesca Rossetti, has in her “Shadow of Dante” eloquently expounded the Divina Commedia as a discourse of most elevated faith and morals. My brother Dante has translated with a rare felicity the “Vita Nuova” . . . and other minor (political) works of his great namesake. My brother William has, with a strenuous endeavor to achieve dose verbal accuracy, rendered the Inferno into English blank verse. I, who cannot lay claim to their learning, must approach my subject under cover of “Mi valga … il grande amore” (“May my great love avail me”), leaving to them the more confident plea, “Mi valga il lungo studio” (“May my long study avail me”). [566-67; see also comments on Christina as student of Dante]

This passage elucidates Christina Rossetti’s perspective on that engrossing tradition of love poetry that began with the troubadours and culminated in the works of Dante and Petrarch. It was a tradition that deeply influenced Dante and Christina Rossetti, and with which all of the Rossetti children felt compelled to deal in their literary efforts, each of them reading and assimilating Dante as both a literary father — that is, an authenticating authority — and as a liberator of the imagination. As the two preceding quotations make clear, for all four Rossettis the culture of Dante was inescapable. It affected their values, their patterns of thought, their emotions, and their spiritual lives. The ambiguous title of Maria Rossetti’s A Shadow of Dante appropriately reveals the range of influence Dantean literature had, especially on Dante and Christina Rossetti; as a great poet, but also as a representative of a tradition, he provided the enabling conditions for their art.10 As early as 1867, she wrote in her first essay on Dante, “Dante, an English Classic,”: “Viewing the matter of nationality exclusively as one of literary interest, now in this nineteenth century when it is impossible to be born an ancient Greek, a wise man might choose not unwisely to be born an [147/148] Italian, thus securing Dante as his elder brother, and the ‘Divina Commedia’ as his birthright” (200). It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Rossetti introduces what may be her most fascinating love poem, the Monna Innominata, with a preface that identifies a point of origin and the literary backgrounds for the Monna Innominata sonnets, but that also does a good deal more. (See Appendix for the complete text of the preface and poem sequence.) It raises a whole constellation of questions concerning matters of literary historicity, as well as the intertextual qualities, and therefore the full range of meanings, displayed by Christina Rossetti’s love poetry.

As we know, she began to write poetry dealing with the problems of attaining fulfillment in love at an age far too young for it to have originated from her own emotional experience with a man; rather it must have come from the “Poet mind,” that is, from aesthetic and emotional responses to fundamentally literary experience. Rossetti’s apparent familiarity with the troubadours — “a school of less conspicuous poets” — once again belies assumptions that she was virtually ignorant of most nonreligious literature produced before the nineteenth century. We might well infer some familiarity on her part with medieval romances and lyrics, which were probably of interest to her close friend, Charles Cayley (the translator of Dante), and which were being fervently researched at the British Museum during the various periods of Christina’s own work there in the 1870s and 1880s. Moreover, the last paragraph of her preface reconfirms her faith in “the Poet mind” the ability of the creative imagination to appropriate all materials — especially, in this case, literary mythologies — in order to generate works of art that extend and develop those mythologies.



In examining Christina Rossetti’s religious “divergence from the Pre-Raphaelite type,” Edmund Gosse begins where most modern critics end when they attempt to deal with the issue. Such critics follow the pattern established by W.J. Courthope, who in 1872 wrote a lengthy and historically significant essay entitled “The Latest Development in Literary Poetry: Swinburne, Rossetti, Morris.” Christina Rossetti, whose first two volumes of poetry had by this time been long in print, is conspicuous here by her absence. Courthope excludes her from his treatment of this school of “literary poets” because in describing the common characteristics of Swinburne, Rossetti, and Morris he focuses upon their “antipathy to society” the “atmosphere of … materialistic feeling [that] pervades the poetry of all three,” their “atheism,” their use of love as a theme with an “esoteric signification” and the poetic representation of beloved women not so much in the tradition of “the sainted lady of Dante,” but rather “as the models of the painter’s studio” (“Latest Development in Literary Poetry,” 63). Courthope altogether ignores discussion of verbal play, the play with literary and iconographic traditions, and the experimental, often radical poetics that characterize Pre-Raphaelite poetry, especially that of Swinburne and Christina Rossetti.

Courthope’s description of Pre-Raphaelite poetry excludes the work of Christina Rossetti because of his emphasis on the brethren’s clearly subversive or antiorthodox traits. He perceives them as a disquieting avant-garde. Although, as we shall see, social subversiveness (but of different kinds) is a characteristic common to both Christina Rossetti’s verse and that of the other poets, even an emphasis upon the less superficial and more essential traits of Pre-Raphaelitism I have already discussed would have compelled Courthope to number Christina Rossetti, along with   Swinburne,   Morris, and   Dante Gabriel Rossetti, among these new “literary” [36/37] poets (see, for instance, the persuasive case McGann makes for such a view (NER, 241-47). Beyond the caustic social criticism Courthope apparently ignored in Christina Rossetti’s work, many of its formal characteristics and moral arguments can be perceived — and indeed were perceived by some of her contemporaries — as a manifestation of new, avant-garde tendencies arising in Victorian poetry during the second half of the century.

The distinctive characteristics of Pre-Raphaelite poetry were, as I have shown, clearly described by their contemporaries and have been further cataloged by modern students of the movement. In addition to Hunt, see especially Lang (preface to The Pre-Raphaelites); Fredeman (introduction to “Pre-Raphaelitsm and “The Pre-Raphaelites”); Buckley (introduction to The Pre-Raphaelites); and Rees (introduction to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1-16). More important, however, than any mere listing of the components of Pre-Raphaelitism, at least to the student of nineteenth-century cultural change, is developing an awareness of the special and highly self-conscious ways in which the Pre-Raphaelites simultaneously looked backward and forward in the framework of literary history. They revived aesthetic precepts they perceived as common to medieval and Romantic modes of imaginative expression. In revising these, they prefigured subsequent (aestheticist and modernist) modes that built upon and emerged from the revisionist poems the Pre-Raphaelites themselves generated. The Rossettis, Morris, and Swinburne thus constitute an avant-garde not primarily because they intentionally subverted contemporary values, but rather because their subversiveness resulted from a compulsion to disregard the topical so that they might pursue a transcendent order of beauty and experience which was figured in the phenomenal world and recorded in medieval and Romantic literature, but which resisted the constraints and limitations that any predominant concern with the immediate and the topical imposed.

What finally distinguishes the Pre-Raphaelite poets — as an avant-garde rebelling through revisionist reworkings of particular traditions in the artistic and literary past — from their contemporaries, is the timelessness of their work. Their obsession with mutability largely enforces upon them a withdrawal from active life and from the moral, social, political, and “modernist” psychological issues with which the work of their literary contemporaries was preoccupied. These issues were central, for instance, to the “novels with a purpose” of the day; to the poetry of alienation written by Arnold, Browning, and Tennyson, who often used settings from the past to facilitate commentaries upon present-day issues; and, of course, to the even more irrepressibly topical prose works of Ruskin, Carlyle, Arnold, and — in the moral and religious spheres — Newman. Although almost all of the major works written by these canonical writers have the power to transcend their topical subject matter, they frequently originated from contemporaneous concerns and events in a way that work by the Pre-Raphaelites does not appear to have done.

[37/38] In a surprising number of ways the poetry of Christina Rossetti, unlike the work of these writers, fits the avant-garde pattern that generally characterizes Pre-Raphaelite art and poetry and that the aesthetes, beginning with Pater and extending through Yeats, seized upon as providing an essential background to and basis for their own work. Like Walter Hamilton and John Dixon Hunt, Renato Pogglioli acknowledges without complication the evolution of Pre-Raphaelitism (as an avant-garde movement) into aestheticism, noting simply “the message handed down by the Pre-Raphaetite Brotherhood to the aesthetic movement at the fin de sièle” (Theory of the Avant-Garde, 226-27). As we shall see in chapters 4 and 5, however, Rossetti’s poetry does, even through its avant-garde strategy of withdrawal, obliquely provide a critique of the false values and false premises of topical work by her contemporaries. Moreover, the religious element of Rossetti’s poetry, rather than conflicting with its avant-garde tendencies, uniquely contributes to them. Herbert Sussman quite correctly argues that “paradoxically it was the Ruskinian aim of reviving sacred art and restoring the high moral position of the artist that thrust the [Pre-Raphaelite] Brotherhood, within the cultural situation of mid-Victorian England, into modernist strategies and an avant-garde artistic role.” Sussman further maintains that “it is the continuation of these avant-garde methods and of an avant-garde position, rather than similarities of style and subject matter” that constitutes “the essential link” between the two generations of Pre-Raphaelites (“Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood,” 7). It was, of course, Christina and Dante Gabriel — as poets of the first brotherhood and as exemplars of avant-garde aesthetic values and poetic procedures — who provided models for Morris, Swinburne, and the more peripheral second-generation poets. Perceptions of the link between the sacramental, Ruskinian aims of the first brotherhood and the ostensibly aestheticist predispositions of members of the second brotherhood are reinforced when we recall that, before their conversion to art by Rossetti, both William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones had intended to become priests.

If we keep clearly in mind the paradoxical relations between the revivalist, sacramental, and medievalist concerns of the Pre-Raphaelites on the one hand, and their innovative, avant-garde stylistic and formal procedures on the other, we can more fully understand the extent to which the work of Christina Rossetti is truly Pre-Raphaelite. Not only does her verse have in common with other Pre-Raphaelite poetry the characteristics cited by her contemporary reviewers, but it also pursues formal and stylistic novelty, as is particularly clear to modem readers of poems like Goblin Market. (As Sussman explains, “the Brotherhood self-consciously engaged in the familiar avant-garde strategy of defamiliarization through radical stylistic innovation” in order to “restore intensity to the perception of familiar subject matter” [ibid., 8]). Indeed, one crucial paradox of Pre-Raphaelitism — its use of tradition to create an art novel for its time — is as visible in the styles the poets experiment with and the poetic forms they employ as in their subject matter. (The other paradox crucial to the movement, as I have indicated, is its use of the sensuous to figure the noumenal.) While introducing new, symbolist stylistic techniques and reversing or countering their readers’ expectations through the use of ex- [38/39] tremely intense imagery or diffuse syntax, the Pre-Raphaelite poets also assiduously attempt to revive archaic literary forms such as the ballad and the sonnet sequence.

Such procedural dichotomies are, of course, conspicuous in the work of Christina Rossetti as well as in the poems of Morris, Swinburne, and her brother. Sussman notes the stylistic innovativeness of Swinburne and Morris but not their revival of old forms (“Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood” 8-9). Rossetti’s sonnet sequences, Monna Innominata and Later Life, and her numerous ballads exist in tension with her formally novel children’s poems and works like Goblin Market. Her intertextual use of traditional forms is often revisionist and self-reflexive as well. The extremely self-conscious artistry of her sonnets, for instance, suggests that she, like her brother, believed that the very form of the love sonnet had, as its tradition developed, acquired an aura, an ambience, and a symbolic value that might be used perceptibly to redirect and even subvert the values traditionally associated with it. In her experiments with form, however, Christina Rossetti surpasses her brother and approaches the radical innovativeness of Swinburne; on this subject, see Bump, “Hopkins, Christina Rossetti, and Pre-Raphaelitism,” 5-6. In practice both of these Pre-Raphaelite poets might be seen to foreshadow a precept basic to the aestheticist poets of the 1890s and first expressed in radical form by Walter Pater in 1873. In his essay “The School of Georgione,” Pater asserts a vital tenet of art for art’s sake: “That the mere matter of a poem, for instance, its subject, namely, its given incidents or situation … should be nothing without the form, the spirit, of the handling, that this form, this mode of handling should become an end in itself, should penetrate every part of the matter: this is what all art constantly strives after, and achieves in different degrees” (106).

In 1893, the year before Christina Rossetti died, Edmund Gosse made a critical pronouncement that reflects the aestheticist vogue of admiration for the purely formal accomplishments of her poetry. By that time Gosse’s exalted regard for her was shared by many prominent poets and critics, among them A.C. Swinburne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Richard La Gallienne, Oscar Wilde, Arthur Symons, Lionel Johnson, and Theodore Watts-Dunton. Gosse described Rossetti as a writer severely true to herself, an artist of conscientiousness as high as her skill is exquisite…. [She is] one of the most perfect poets of the age — not one of the most powerful, of course, nor one of the most epoch-making, but … one of the most perfect.” Gosse insists that she is “a writer to whom we may not unreasonably expect that students of English literature in the twenty-fourth century may look back as the critics of Alexandria did toward Sappho and toward Erinna. [211-12]

Almost two decades later, Ford Madox Ford went so far as to canonize Christina Rossetti at the expense not only of her brother, but also of Arnold, Tennyson, and the Brownings. Ford [39/40] concluded definitively, “Christina Rossetti seems to us to be the most valuable poet that the Victorian Age produced.” (Critical Attitude, 179).

Such commentaries by Gosse and Ford demonstrate the advancement of Christina Rossetti’s reputation since her first systematic sallies as a poet into the public sphere. By 1859, with the help of Dante Rossetti, she had begun quietly searching for a commercial press to publish a volume of her poems. One of Dante Rossetti’s first steps was to submit them to John Ruskin for evaluation. Ruskin’s stodgy response is still notorious, but it is of special interest because, as we have seen, the aesthetic modes of Christina Rossetti’s verse are largely Romantic and typological: precisely Ruskinian, in fact. In November 1859 Ruskin wrote back to Dante Rossetti that his sister’s poems

are full of beauty and power. But no publisher — I am deeply grieved to know this — would take them, so full are they of quaintness and other offences. Irregular measure (introduced to my great regret in its chief willfulness by Coleridge) is the calamity of modern poetry. The Iliad, the Divina Commedia, the Aeneid, the whole of Spenser, Milton, Keats are written without taking a single license or violating the common ear for metre; your sister should exercise herself in the severest commonplace of metre until she can write as the public likes. Then if she puts in her observation and passion all will become precious. But she must have the Form first. [Rossetti, Ruskin, 258-59]

That Ruskin did not find the aesthetic underpinnings of Rossetti’s verse familiar is both startling and intriguing, although his typically condescending attitude toward women may well have prevented him from looking beneath the surfaces of her poems. Further, apart from Goblin Market, we cannot know which poems he was given to read. As Janet Camp Troxell has observed, the only previous explanation for Ruskin’s remarks “is that Ruskin felt it was damaging to Gabriel to have another Rossetti in the market” (Three Rossettis, 30-31). Similarly, Ruskin’s rigid, traditional standards of poetic excellence did not allow him to appreciate the formal perfection of Rossetti’s poetry that Gosse, Swinburne, Hopkins, and Wilde, for instance, so greatly admired. Nor is it surprising that the flexibility and pluralism of post-structuralist directions in critical discourse nearly one hundred years after their time have begun to reinvigorate an interest in the formal experimentations, the semiotic play, and the prosodic sophistication of Rossetti’s poetry. The trend was begun (albeit grudgingly) by Stuart Curran with his 1971 acknowledgment of Rossetti as “an introspective and serious craftsman.” Curran especially admired her “willingness to grapple with form” and “her most consistently remarkable poetic attribute,” her “facility in rhyming and fit [40/41] ting thought into poetic form without a trace of awkwardness” (“Lyric Voice of Christina Rossetti,” 289, 293). Only since 1979, however, has intensive formal and prosodic analysis of Rossetti’s poetry begun to enhance our perceptions of her technical virtuosity. Crump’s edition of her poems and Jerome McGann’s description of Rossetti as “a great craftswoman” have led the way (NER, 240).

Subsequent commentators have disclosed and analyzed with special clarity Rossetti’s careful use of anaphora, the density of her language, the typically “dialogic form” of her lyrics, and her highly sophisticated metrics, including the use of “restricted phrasal emphasis, long vowel sounds, heavy caesuras, tolling regularity of beat” and “displaced beats” (See especially Blake, Love and the Woman Question, 3-25; and Connor, “Language and Repetition.”). To these techniques must be added her calculated uses of abnormal syntax, frequent punning, deliberately archaic verbal and pronomial forms, intentional anticlimax, verbal repetition as musical (and thematic) leitmotiv, paradox, oxymoron, dialectical progressions, and rhetorical questioning. The “perfect surfaces” of her poems, so often acknowledged by critics, result from these techniques, but so do perfect thematic, psychological, and literary-historical or parodic “depths.”

Most technical analysis of Rossetti’s poetry has been conducted in specific thematic contexts and in the service of broader arguments about the ideological bases of her poetry (McGann), about the relative position of her work in the Victorian canon (Wilde and Rees), or about her position as a mediator of the Christian Victorian woman’s resignation to mutability, unfulfillment, and the need for patient endurance (Rosenblum, Metmin, Blake, and Gilbert). Technical analysis of her poems outside of such thematic contexts, however, can yield important conclusions about her frequent prosodic strategies, their aesthetic grounds, their origins, purposes, and formal effects. The primacy of artistry and the subordination of theme in Rossetti’s poetry should already be clear from chapter 1. The technical analysis of three neglected but representative poems that follows leads to corollary conclusions. “Autumn” is a short lyric about the transience of love; “Songs in a Cornfield” is a 117-line dialogic poem on the same subject; and “An Old World Thicket” is a long descriptive poem whose significant, largely epistemological focus is the relations between the self and the external world. All three poems embody Rossetti’s typical formal and prosodic “irregularities” and experimentations, so admired by Gosse and disparaged by Ruskin.

Rossetti wrote numerous seasonal poems, including two entitled “Autumn,” one in 1853 and one in 1858. Although both are prosodically experimental, the earlier poem not only shows closer attention to her ideal [41/42] of poetic “conciseness,” but it also demonstrates more effort at “filing and polishing,” as she described her work to revise poems for The Prince’s progress. (W M. Rossett, Rossetti Papers, 77).

  Care flieth,
Hope and Fear together:
Love dieth
In the Autumn weather.

  For a friend
Even Care is pleasant:
When Fear doth end
Hope is no more present:
Autumn silences the turtle-dove: —
In blank Autumn who could speak of love?
[Works, 310]

Readers of this poem may immediately observe the work’s dominant irony — that its deeply serious theme, the death of love, seems counteracted by the lightness of its rhymes and meter. But that apparent theme is also belied by the poem’s close on the accentually stressed, masculine rhyme-word “love.” The bottom-heaviness of the two-stanza shape reinforces the effect, as does the irregular metrical alteration between trochaic and iambic feet: the metrical flights of the first stanza of this poem about mutability are slowed almost to stasis by the increased fine lengths of stanza two and the comparative metrical regularity of the final couplet. Transience is artistically transformed into permanence, as is so frequently the case in Rossetti’s verse. Complementarily, the archaisms “flieth,” “dieth,” and “doth” deliberately ground the poem historically, in effect undercutting the present tense of the poem but also extending its assertions backward in time, thus making them timeless or perpetual.

“Autumn” forcefully realizes Rossetti’s ideal of conciseness. The absence of background information (about the speaker and his or her situation), as well as the lack of any logical and causal connections or explanations, invites projection and deduction as a primary mode of reader response. But the high level of prosodic and lexical control demands a focus on the universal rather than the personal, on the “silences” and “blanks” of love that finally celebrate its inexorable power rather than resignedly lamenting its inevitable death. That is, partly by means of the concluding couplet’s weight, a simultaneously formal and thematic paradox emerges. The poem itself gives “silences” and “blank” love a new and poignant voice as well as [42/43] a clear and visible form. The articulated absence generates a powerful presence, reviving the cares, hopes, and fears of love’s past springs — its sources and seasons. Not to speak of love is impossible, as the form and the words of the poem demonstrate, thus answering its closing rhetorical question. The rhyme of the concluding couplet constitutes a deceptive act of closure. The speaker’s (and poem’s) refusal to be blank and silent suggests that Care, Hope, Fear, and Love itself exist in a perpetually autumnal state of dissolution, but because Fear of losing Love (the inspiration for art) never ends, Hope of its continuance or recovery is always present.

Like “Autumn,” “Songs in a Cornfield” discusses transient love, but this later poem displays Rossetti’s extraordinary virtues as a craftswoman even more strikingly than “Autumn,” and indeed as fully as any other poem she composed, including Goblin Market. Its metrical complexities so impressed Sir G.A. Macfarren that he set the poem to music as a cantata during Rossetti’s lifetime (Works, 484). From one of Christina’s letters to Dante Rossetti during the preparation of The Prince’s Proqress and Other poems, we learn that both he and Swinburne admired the poem. In this letter Rossetti claims “Songs in a Cornfield,” finally, as “one of my own favorites.” Presumably, therefore, it faithfully embodies her highest aesthetic values. It is also one of the very heavily revised poems of her 1866 volume (Rossetti Papers, 88). The work was initially composed in 1864 and presents a cycle of unanswered love “calls.” But for publication the second of the original “songs” in the poem was excised and replaced (with what in the published version appears as Rachel’s song), and the final twelve lines of the original work were deleted altogether, not only making the conclusion more powerfully climactic but also making the entire poem self-reflexive.

“Songs in a Cornfield,” like so many of Rossetti’s poems (including “Three Nuns,” Goblin Market, and “A Triad”), is wholly “dialogic” in Mikhail Bakhtin’s sense of the word. Not only is the poem comprised of an interaction among the voices of four singers who sing three songs (only one in unison) and an objective narrative voice, but the very language and meter of these voices are heterogeneous and nonhegemonic. The poem presents multiple perspectives on mutable love. A further interaction — among resonances of appropriated texts from Tennyson, Keats, and Swinburne — along with a subtle interchange among complementary emblem systems accomplishes a destabilizing effect. That effect is replicated in the poem’s metrical gymnastics and echoes the poem’s themes of loss and abandonment.

The triadic and symmetrical structure of this poem begins with a description of Marian’s sorrowful questions about her unreturning lover. It [43/44] concludes with a speculative fantasy of his return after her death; the final stanza ironically employs the same rhyme words as the first stanza. After the narrative introduction to Marian’s plight, May, Rachel, and Lettice sing a monitory song about devotion to “a false false love.” The middle section of the poem (ll. 57-85), as these reapers “rest from toil,” recounts Rachel’s “second strain,” an emblematic and potentially mythological lament at the departure of the “sunny,” “wise,” and “good” swallow. (Rachel’s song is reminiscent of both the concluding stanza of Keats’s “To Autumn” and Swinburne’s “Itylus” which was published the same year as The Prince’s Progress.) Next “listless Marian” sings, “like one who hopes and grieves,” an elegiac song for the dead (herself? her beloved?). The final brief stanza envisions the return of the beloved, who will “not find her at all, / He may tear his curling hair / Beat his breast and call.” His spectral appearance provides another questioning voice, disoriented and disappointed, which will remain unanswered.

In the themes and in the prosody of this poem there is no security, only discontinuity, dislocation, disorientation, displacement, and anomie, as we see from the first stanza:

A song in a cornfield
Where corn begins to fall,
Where reapers are reaping,
Reaping one, reaping all.
Sing pretty Lettice,
Sing Rachel, sing May;
Only Marian cannot sing
While her sweetheart’s away.
(Poems, 1:126)

The first line clearly echoes the poem’s title, but with the destabilizing substitution of singleness for plurality, isolation for prospective choral unity. This effect is reinforced immediately by the irregularity of the iambic trimeter line, and later by the absence of any continuity or complementariness among the three songs as well as by the contradictory fact that Marian finally does sing. In the second, historically retrospective stanza, an irregular, breathless, jog-trot rhythm underscores Marian’s sense of desperation, an effect that is only exacerbated when the narrative voice settles into aphoristic imperatives, parallel structures, and regular meter: “Let him haste to joy / Lest he lag for sorrow.”

A ground of certainty does emerge in the triune song of May, Rachel, and Lettice, with its use of anaphora and refrain, its predictable meter, [44/45] dependable rhymes, and its perfect symmetry. The three maidens confidently recommend taking “wheat to your bosom, / But not a false false love.” The alternating iambic trimeter and tetrameter lines describing nature’s and the reapers’ repose at noon seem similarly comforting, with their alternating masculine rhymes and lulling sibilants. But the mood changes abruptly with Rachel’s song of the swallow.

 “There goes the swallow —
Could we but follow!
Hasty swallow stay,
Point us out the way;
Look back swallow, turn back swallow, stop swallow.

 “There went the swallow —
Too late to follow:
Lost our note of way,
Lost our chance today;
Good bye swallow, sunny swallow, wise swallow.

 “After the swallow
All sweet things follow:
All go their way,
Only we must stay,
Must not follow; good bye swallow, good swallow.”
(Poems, 1:128)

The substance of Rachel’s song recalls the violence and ruin that characterize Procne and Philomela’s story; here, moreover, even after Procne’s metamorphosis as an immortal bird and potential guide to transcendence, the swallow is unreachable. The swallow’s role as an emblem of loss and inevitability is onomatopoeically drawn out by the hollow internal rhymes and the extended line lengths at the end of each stanza, and by the nearly spondaic finality of the bird’s name itself, which is preceded by an irregular, often spondaic five-foot meter.

The stanzaic and metrical pattern is different and disorienting once again in Marian’s song, with its masculine rhyming quatrains and truncated last lines.

“Deeper than the hail can smite,
Deeper than the frost can bite,
Deep asleep thro’ day and night,
Our delight. [45/46]

“Now thy sleep no pang can break,
No tomorrow bid thee wake,
Not our sobs who sit and ache
For thy sake.

“Is it dark or tight below?
Oh but is it cold like snow?
Dost thou feel the green things grow
Fast or slow?

“Is it warm or cold beneath,
Oh but is it cold like death?
Cold like death, without a breath,
Cold like death?”
(Poems, 1:128-29)

The play with meter and with anaphora here is masterful. With the beginning and end rhymes of the first stanza and its regular iambs, Rossetti introduces a chant that culminates with the echoed syntactical patterning of the third and fourth stanzas and the conclusiveness of radical repetitions in the fourth. The harsh anomie of “cold like death” is echoed in the two final lines of the poem (“He may tear his curling hair, / Beat his breast and call”). These come as a sharp interruption of the lulling anaphora (expressed once again in multiple sibilants) of the last stanza’s first six lines–three sets of syntactically identical conditional statements. The poem’s fundamentalty dialogic mode of discourse ironically emphasizes the absence of communication between lovers and among maiden friends. The reader’s sensitivity to their isolation from one another because of conflicting values, expectations, and desires culminates with the poem’s final, infinitely self-echoing monosyllable, “call.”

Unlike “Autumn” and “Songs in a Cornfield,” but like most of Rossetti’s devotional poems, “An Old World Thicket” is comparatively regular in form and meter. Its innovation lies, rather, in the subtlety and ingeniousness of its larger structure. It is a colorful poem, dense with striking images that accumulate symbolic weight and typological resonances only with the last three stanzas, whose Christian iconography is unmistakable; in them a “patriarchal ram” leads “meek mild” sheep “Journeying together toward the sunlit west.” By this point “heavenly harmony” has been restored to the speaker’s previously anguished spirit.

“An Old World Thicket” is a thirty-six stanza, elegiac poem of episte- [46/47] mological and teleological exploration. Like Wordsworth’s “Intimations Ode,” this work traces the dialectical interaction between the stunning beauty of external nature and the “rage,” “despair,” and “weariness” of the solipsistic and suicidal speaker who, after stanza eleven, attempts in vain to close out nature’s “jubilee,” Very early in the poem she describes the visual and auditory spectacle of the ubiquitous forest birds:

Such birds they seemed as challenged each desire;
Like spots of azure heaven upon the wing,
Like downy emeralds that alight and sing,
Like actual coals on fire,
Like anything they seemed, and everything.

Such mirth they made, such warblings and such chat,
With tongue of music in a well-tuned beak,
They seemed to speak more wisdom than we speak
,   To make our music flat
And all our subtlest reasonings wild or weak.

Their meat was nought but flowers like butterflies,
With berries coral-coloured or like gold;
Their drink was only dew, which blossoms hold
Deep where the honey lies;
Their wings and tails were lit by sparkling eyes.
(Poems, 2:124)

But the “sweetness of [such] beauty” only moves the speaker “to despair.” Although unable to blind herself to nature’s beauty or to silence its symphony, she does succeed in projecting upon all its music her internal “sound of lamentation.” The poems peripeteia occurs finally in stanza twenty-nine, when abruptly “Without, within me, music seemed to be.” The focus of the central half of this work (stanzas twelve through twenty-eight), unlike Wordsworth’s “Ode,” is thus upon the speaker’s internal, purgatorial cacophony, described in stanzas fifteen and sixteen:Such universal sound of lamentation

I heard and felt, fain not to feel or hear;
Nought else there seemed but anguish far and near;
Nought else but all creation
Moaning and groaning wrung by pain or fear, [47/48]

Shuddering in the misery of its doom:
My heart then rose a rebel against light,
Scouring all earth and heaven and depth and height,
Ingathering wrath and gloom,
Ingathermg wrath to wrath and night to night.
(Poems, 2:125-26)

The illumination eventually achieved is expressed mutedly and only in symbolic or typological, rather than didactic and directly philosophical, terms. “An Old World Thicket” closes on the image of the “homeward flock” at peace, “journeying well,”And bleating, one or other, many or few,

 Journeying together toward the sunlit west;
Mild face by face, and woolly breast by breast,
Patient, sun-brightened too,
Still journeying toward the sunset and their rest.
(Poems, 2:128)

Although it closes with a focus on Christian typology, the poem is deliberately intertextual with its pervasively embedded verbal and thematic echoes of Keats, Wordsworth, and Tennyson. But as with all of Rossetti’s revisionist poems, the author appropriates the language and themes of her precursors only to redirect them and provide a retrospective commentary upon the values their poems project. (See chapter five for a full discussion of the intertextual qualities of Rossetti’s poetry.) Rossetti’s poem begins in a secular, Keatsian vein, echoing the “Ode to a Nightingale” Awake or sleeping (for I know not which) / I was or was not mazed within a wood.” It adopts and adapts lush Keatsian and early Tennysonian hedonistic image patterns. (Stanza ten reminds us of “The Palace of Art” as inescapably as stanza fourteen invokes “The Lotos-Eaters.”) But Rossetti concludes her poem by rejecting the vocabularies and the secular epiphanies of Keats and early Tennyson, as well as the pantheistic revelations of Wordsworth, in favor of a quietly symbolic, traditionally Christian apocalypse; she leads her precursors, as it were, out of the wilderness of Romantic speculation.

Rossetti’s traditional Christian solution to the Romantic and Victorian literary problem of alienation from nature and to the more characteristically Victorian problem of despair at life’s meaninglessness is accomplished in formally unremarkable, iambic pentameter, five-line stanzas that contain a fourth tetrameter line. The stanzas use four different a-b rhyme [48/49] schemes that alternate irregularly. Just as the thirty-six stanza structure of the complete poem suggests trinitarian concerns, however, so the use of combinations of five in the meter and stanzaic form may reflect Rossetti’s play with medieval numerology, in which five is perceived as a “perfect” number (Christ’s wounds) or the “quintessence.” Further, if the poem’s title and the speaker’s situation ultimately present a revisionist perspective on Eden and refer to mans postlapsarian loss of direction, this poem’s pentastiches may be seen to allude formally to Israel’s (mankind’s) initial recovery of direction by the end of the Pentateuch. That Christina Rossetti indulged in such formal puns is apparent in many poems, most notably in the fourteen-sonnet Monna Innominata, which she designated a “sonnet of sonnets.”

Locally and generally the structure of this poem, with its central image patterns of sound and sight, is dialectical rather than dialogic. From the opening words (“Awake or sleeping”), contraries–and oxymorons — pro-liferate. These include oppositions between despair and hope, meaningless natural phenomena and meaningful symbol, external and internal, birth and death, sun and moon, hope and fear, silence and sound, mourning and jubilee, depth and height, peace and strife, light and darkness, strenqth and weakness. But just as inner and outer music are harmonized after stanza twenty-eight, and as the visual becomes visionary at “glorious” sunset, so all dialectical oppositions are implicitly synthesized. The movement of the poem as a whole is from the external to the internal, but finally to the eternal that incorporates — and reconciles — both.

A Wordsworthian marriage of mind and nature thus occurs by the end of the poem, where imagery of the golden sunset symbolizes not only the unity of the external world, but also the unificaton of the internal with the external:

Each twig was tipped with gold, each leaf was edged
And veined with gold from the gold-flooded west;
Each mother-bird, and mate-bird, and unfledged
Nestling, and curious nest,
Displayed a gilded moss or beak or breast.     (Poems, 2:128)

Clearly in Rossetti’s poem, however, it is not the mind that is “A thousand times more beautiful than the earth “on which it dwells.” Rather, from the start of the poem “right-minded” nature serves as a potential revelation of teleology and of nature’s “fabric more divine.” The challenge for [49/50] the speaker is not only to recognize but also to synthesize nature’s glory. The epistemological process that must occur, then, is not one of projection but one of “awakening” from the sleep of self to the divine and teleologically assured synthetic and synesthetic interaction — expressed in musical, visual, and marital imagery — of all natural phenomena, including the mind of man. Indeed, the pattern here is more reminiscent of Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight” than the last lines of the Prelude, book 14. Stanzas twenty-nine through thirty-two of Rossetti’s poem read,

Without, within me, music seemed to be;
Something not music, yet most musical,
Silence and sound in heavenly harmony;
At length a pattering fall
Of feet, a bell, and bleatings, broke through all.

Then I looked up. The wood lay in a glow
From golden sunset and from ruddy sky;
The sun had stooped to earth though once so high;
Had stooped to earth, in slow
Warm dying loveliness brought near and low

Each water drop made answer to the light,
Lit up a spark and showed the sun his face;
Soft purple shadows paved the grassy space
And crept from height to height,
From height to loftier height crept up apace.

While opposite the sun a gazing moon
Put on his glory for her coronet,
Kindling her luminous coldness to its noon,
As his great splendour set;
One only star made up her train as yet.     (Poems, 2:127-28)

Just as the poem echoes, redirects, and “marries” earlier, Romantic texts, so the objects and elements of nature in these stanzas and the one that follows mirror, echo, redirect, and marry one another in muted apocalypse, The divine text of nature becomes a paradigm not only for the text of this poem but also for the cumulative texts of all (Romantic) poets seeking revelaton of ultimate realities. Similarly, the “text” (lesson) of this poem is echoed in the prosody of its stanzas, which are dense with intro- [50/51] active end rhymes, internal rhymes, assonance, and consonance. The poem’s multifarious oppositions are undercut and unified finally by the musical harmonies in which they are expressed.

“An Old World Thicket” is a subtle showpiece of Rossetti’s characteristic technical procedures (and her thematic concerns), but it is also an embodiment of her fundamentally Ruskinian aesthetics, in which Typical and Vital Beauty interact. This work, like many of her poems, illustrates the basis of Rossetti’s aesthetic thought in the convergence of Ruskinian art theory, Tractarian and medievalist poetics, and the typological habits of mind basic to all of these. Any detailed analysis of the apparent theoretical grounds of Christina Rossetti’s aesthetics and poetic practice might well begin by observing the ways in which the two dominant metaphors (music and golden sunlight) in “An Old World Thicket” evoke the central tenets of Ruskinian aesthetics, as well as the typological mindset underlying those aesthetics and much mid-Victorian thought on poetry, painting, and theology.

Early in Seek and Find, in a context obviously appropriate to analysis of the thematic structure of “An Old World Thicket” Rossetti discusses the ordinarily deficient visual capacities of man, which can be improved only with the help of the “eyes” of faith:

Faith accepts, love contemplates and is nourished by, every word, act, type, of God. The Sun, to our unaided senses the summit of His visible creation, is pre-eminently the symbol of God Himself: of God the giver, cherisher, cheerer of life; the luminary of all perceptive beings; the attractive centre of our system. The Sun, worshipped under many names and by divers nations, is truly no more than our fellow-creature in the worship and praise of our common Creator; yet as His symbol it none the less conveys to us a great assurance of hope. (sf,34)

Not only does this passage serve as an obvious gloss on Rossetti’s poem, but it also reveals her characteristic concern with symbolic or typological correspondences between phenomena, on the one hand, and “moral” (or theological) interpretation of them, on the other. This concern is ubiquitous in Rossetti’s poetry and prose, and although it is too pervasively Victorian to derive exclusively from any single writer or text, her readings in Ruskin certainly would have provided a clear-minded, authoritative theoretical grounding for her lifelong poetic practice. [51/52]



There was something about the waning Thanksgiving Day dinner conversation that reminded me of Sappho and Christina Rossetti. Our quaint table of picked-over turkey and dressing became a thiasos, an all-female fellowship. The ice melted slowly in the sweet iced-tea as I sat and listened to my mother and aunt recount the stories of their divorces. Their stories were not even remotely similar, but what I noticed was the quiet strength that both of these women drew from hardship, a hardship, nevertheless, brought on by men. The similarity I discovered from these two very different stories was hidden beneath a refining that each of my relatives underwent as a result of much pressure. So, as the Jell-O mold relaxed in the warmth of the room, so did I. My mind wandered in and out of their conversation — into my aunt’s story and out of my mother’s. I thought about Sappho and Christina Rossetti — females in Ancient Greece and Victorian England. If they could communicate with each other, would they have something to share? Would these two women, a couple thousand years apart, relate in such a way that an onlooker could recognize their kinship? Is there a kinship? Would Sappho’s daughter or Rossetti’s sister begin to mentally wonder as I did? Would this onlooker take a silent journey within, mysteriously connecting two very different stories? I believe so.

Just like my mother and my aunt, Sappho and Christina Rossetti share a common ground; a place that comes from deep inside where “she” is not allowed a voice or a place in a man’s world. “She” must go against the male-dominated grain and create her own voice and place worthy of recognition. These are the kinds of questions and answers feminist theorists address. Without feminist theory, we could not even attempt to ask these questions because the inquiry itself would be invalid. Some would still consider these questions invalid, if not inane; but I don’t think so, because questions push us into a realm only doodled in by the daring, the red-lined forbidden margins of history where Sappho and Christina Rossetti live silently.

There are some striking similarities between Sappho and Christina Rossetti. First, and most important, is the fact that they both lived in male-centered cultures, societies which prized the achievements of men over women. As a matter of fact, women were rarely awarded achievement status at all in either of these cultures. This fact is an important one because I believe it provides fertile soil for the worldviews from which these women wrote. Their tiny seeds of voices were pushed down until it was inevitable that something had to sprout; for Sappho and Rossetti, the harvest was abundant. A second similarity between the two is that the scholarship done on them recently has been rather myopic. Sappho’s critics focus on the lesbianism in her poetry, and Rossetti’s critics focus on the dichotomous imagery in her texts. By focusing too closely on one area, critics miss the bigger picture, a picture that shows the relationship of women to history, and history to now. By steadily listening to the faint voices of women throughout history, we can better understand our own voices now.

Sappho lived in Greece in the area of Lesbos around 600 BCE. She was the only woman of her time whose “literary productions placed her on the same level as the greatest male poets, in other words, with Homer” (Glenn 20). Ancient Greek women did not do much of anything, if we consider doing as an act recognized by men. The majority of the time, women were supposed to be available for sexual reproduction only. Rarely, if ever, did women write. There were, however, a small group of women who lived sequestered from men. These women did try to educate themselves within their small circle, or thiaso. Sappho was in one of these circles.

Sappho chose to occupy her time with writing, an honored profession among men. Cheryl Glenn says that Sappho wrote an amazing nine books of lyric poems in her lifetime. Two hundred of these poems are left fragmented and only one is left in its entirety (21). Women generally did not write in Greek society, and if they did they certainly did not receive credit or esteem for their writing. As a matter of fact, women were just higher than slaves in the hierarchy of society. Surprisingly, Glenn states that a male contemporary of Sappho, Alcaeus, commented on her beautiful style of writing: “O weaver of violets, holy, sweet-smiling Sappho” (22).

Another male contemporary of Sappho, Strabo, wrote “Mitylene is well provided with everything. It formerly produced celebrated men such as Pittacus, one of the Seven Wise Men; Alcaeus the poet, and others. Contemporary with these persons flourished Sappho, who was something wonderful; at no period within memory has any woman been known who in any, even the least degree, could be compared to her for poetry” (Prins 59). Sappho’s poetry exuded a certain point of view that ancient Greece seldom, if ever, saw. It was the point of view of a woman. I do not think that Sappho wrote to sound her ancient feminist voice; actually, she may have even been oblivious to the fact that she had a voice. No, I think Sappho wrote where she was and while she was, and maybe for no other reason than to just write.

Part II

Like Sappho, Christina Rossetti also wrote out of her assigned place in society. Unlike Sappho, there were a handful of women writing during Rossetti’s own lifetime. Lately, there has also been a resurgence of scholarship concerning Christina Rossetti. She wrote roughly eleven hundred poems that were eventually organized into collections. She wrote children’s poems, short stories, lyric poems, and sonnets, to name just a few; Rossetti was prolific to say the least. But while she was prolific, she was not necessarily accepted. Victorian codes still existed, and they restrained women from being as active as men in society. The sheer fact that she was a woman kept Christina out of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of writers and painters who included her two brothers. Christina Rossetti slowly, but surely, made her own mark on the Victorian world, a mark that took a long time to show because she was continually on the outside, in the margins.

Rossetti had her own circle in which she was educated: the coterie of the family. Christina and her sister Maria followed typical Victorian custom; girls did not attend a formal school as did the boys. All four Rossetti children learned at home until their mother could no longer accommodate their education. It was the boys, then, who were allowed to attend school to learn Latin in preparation for Kings College School (Marsh 28). Christina learned what she could from home, her brother’s schooling, and her own personal reading. While Victorian England was much more flexible than was ancient Greece when it came to the role of women, there was still an acute restrain of women’s voices.

What was it about Sappho and Christina Rossetti that spurred them to write? They were shuffled into the margins of Anglo-male history books, they were not allowed a legitimate place in all of history. Only now are we coming to realize that these two women writers were unusual for their time. They were unusual because we are now beginning to see that they had voices; more important, we are beginning to hear them. Cheryl Glenn makes an important statement: “But invisible and silent are not the same as absent . . . some women are silenced by others, but some use silence to their own ends” (2). In the cases of Sappho and Christina Rossetti, we now see that they were not absent, just quiet. When we delve deeper into their writing, their voices become stronger. Obviously, both Sappho and Christina Rossetti wrote from a different perspective than their contemporary male writers. Contributing a whole new set of experiences, these women write fresh and new. Both Sappho and Christina Rossetti, as women pushed to the margins by the male hierarchy, share commonalities in their writing. I see two “sharings” in their writing: the first is the change in the perspective of the speaker.

In ancient Greece, and later in Victorian England, the common subject of any kind of writing was male, or from a male point-of-view. If women were included in a piece of writing, they were usually positioned as objects; and quite often they were positioned as either the ethereal angel or the wretched whore. For Sappho and Rossetti, however, this subject changed. Sappho’s subjects were not male aristocrats in the polis, but active, choice-making females in the thiasos. Sappho was interested in switching the gaze from male to female and she also addressed a world that most ancient Greeks did not know about, a world which included females as having identity. Paige Dubois says that “Sappho here seems to be concerned to say something new with the vocabulary, the terms of reference of her tradition, and to move toward a type of abstraction . . .” (108). In this excerpt, Dubois was talking about a particular poem; however, she did hit on something interesting: Sappho used language to do something new, to talk about her heritage and identity as a female in Greece. By writing poetry, Sappho exercised her voice which presents a challenge to what has often been seen as a monolithically phallic economy, an untroubled history of symmetrical heterosexuality, of masculine domination and female submission triumphant through all of Western culture” (Dubois 11-12).

The above statement that Dubois made about Sappho could easily be said of Rossetti. Christina Rossetti wrote against a culture that excluded women from being anything other than trite objects. Rossetti also lived in a “monolithically phallic economy,” that is, a stern, male-centered society. Christina battled against a solid idea that women were not to interpret scripture, a thing she was most ready to do. She was a devout Christian, read her Bible daily, and attended church services often. The single most important thing in her life, God, is who she wanted to learn and write about. Her every experience, both bad and good, revolved around her relationship with Jesus Christ. Most of Christina Rossetti’s poetry has some sort of underlying religious or spiritual theme.

While most critics believe that she constantly battled her flesh and spirit, and that in her writing there is a sort of split between the two, I feel that she merely wrote from through her body from her spirit about issues she felt were important. In a stoic time where women never expressed their deep emotions, Rossetti willingly wrote about those emotions. Like Sappho, Christina Rossetti used women as subjects of her poems. She was a woman writing with a confidence and legitimacy in her voice. Elewhere in the Victorian Web Melanie Plowman says that Rossetti “did not feel her job to be recording of injustice, but providing an inner portrait of a poet who belongs nowhere.” Rather, Rossetti did not feel it necessary to be a victim or an object with a pen, but a human being expressing emotion and experience that was not accepted by her culture.

Rossetti was not allowed membership into the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood because she was a woman; she was also denied the laureateship for the same reason. Jan Marsh said, “gender prejudice undoubtedly cost Britain the best poet laureate available” (560). Unlike Sappho, Rossetti had some support for her writing, support coming from mostly women, but also some men. But despite this “support,” she was held back because of her sex. Marsh called it “gender prejudice,” a power struggle based entirely on being male or female. In the struggle, Sappho and Rossetti “lost,” and the penalty was having to live in the shadows of men.

Sappho and Rossetti both had the ability to manipulate the conventional mold of poetry into something uniquely transformed. Paige Dubois thinks that Sappho’s “various elements in the poem, the opposition between love and war, between men and women, between past and present, serve the definition, create a web of particulars that works to establish that heading subsuming them all” (108). The poem Dubois is referring to is “Fragment 16” in which Sappho uses Helen of Troy as her “subject.” In “Fragment 16” Sappho creates an individual who is never before seen in Homer: “The Helen of Sappho’s Frament 16 is a figure from the epic cycle, a character of legend; yet she is made to signify something new here, to stand as an example of a general proposition about “the beautiful” (Dubois 107). Sappho uses poetical language in a way never used before by men, because a man never could use language the way Sappho, a Greek woman, could. In Sappho’s poetry, women had a place not only to speak, but also to reside. Women became more than objects, more than uterus-carriers, more than slaves; they were human beings worthy of respect (even if they did not receive it) (Glenn 21).

In introducing her poetic symbolism, George P. Landow compares Christina Rossetti’s writing with that of her male contemporaries: “Like many of her contemporaries, including her brother, Tennyson, both Brownings, and Hopkins, she occasionally makes elaborate uses of typological symbolism.” While this is a rather recent comment (1980), he does seem to equate Christina Rossetti’s writing with some of her male counterparts. There is much scholarship being done that discusses Rossetti’s writing and the exceptionality of it. Christina Rossetti’s writing truly was exceptional, for it was an exception to the stoic, male-dominated, woman-as-object poetry of the Victorian era. Rossetti wrote from the role of a woman, to women and about women’s issues. She was never shy about her faith in God and the influence this faith had on her life. She considered her relationship with God just that: a relationship. As being in an interactive relationship with a Supreme God, Rossetti saw fit to interpret scripture. Much of her writing came out of her personal experience with scripture. Like Sappho, Rossetti considered her womanhood an advantage to writing, not a disadvantage. Rossetti thus took her vantage point as a woman and wrote out of her experience, manipulating traditional, poetic forms in order to touch her audience in a unique way. Laura Rennert suggests that Rossetti places herself in her poem “Monna Innominata” in order to create a “doubleness” (251). This “doubleness” then keeps Rossetti on the ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ of her writing. She is reader, writer, and actor; she is the omniscient narrator creating her own characters. Rennert also says that Rossetti challenges “poetic tradition” by finding for herself a place not made by men, but a place comfortable for transforming the conventional (Rennert 269).

Christina Rossetti may have created a place for herself through her poetry, but she certainly was not selfish. She created a place for Sappho, as well. Rossetti wrote two poems regarding Sappho: one, when she was a mere sixteen years old, was entitled “Sappho” and was followed by a poem produced a year later in 1847, a poem entitled “What Sappho would have said had her leap cured instead of killing her.” Both poems contemplate the afterlife of Sappho (Prins 203). It was as if Rossetti anticipated an ongoing conversation about Sappho. Yopie Prins suggests Christina Rossetti seeks to “animate the motionless statue into a feminine figure oscillating between life and death.” This moment revives Sappho so that “her song has been heard “assuredly for the last time”” (Prins 208). Rossetti worked hard to ensure Sappho would be heard, and in the process she blessed the voice of a silenced woman.

Christina Rossetti connected with something in Sappho. There was something deep inside of Sappho’s story (whoever Sappho may be) that drew Rossetti to her. Jan Marsh said that it was unlikely Rossetti did not read Sappho because study of the classics was on a “low ebb” (66); however, I believe that Rossetti had to have read some Sappho in order to have written a poem to and about her — and to have written when she was only sixteen! Maybe Rossetti didn’t read an excess of Sappho-but does that really matter? Is the amount of Sapphic fragments Rossetti read really the issue? Or is the issue the point that a Victorian woman related in some way to an ancient Greek woman. To me, this human relation is more astonishing than what Rossetti kept in her deteriorating library.

So where does this conversation leave me? Thanksgiving is over, the turkey has been put away, the ice has vanished into the pale amber tea. I am left with a pensivity about women, voice, writing, and hope. Whatever the connection Rossetti felt with Sappho, whatever heartstrings were pulled, whatever stories remain, I am left with two new relationships instead of one. There was a time when I knew nothing of Sappho, and everything of Rossetti. I felt a connection to her and her story. Rossetti introduced me to Sappho and I am enjoying the thiasos.

I am left wondering where this conversation will take me. Sappho, in some way, cracked the door for Rossetti to write; in return Rossetti left the door ajar for me. Now I stand here, the door opened, waiting to walk through.

Christina Rossetti’s poem “Sappho”

I sigh at day-dawn, and I sigh
When the dull day is passing by,
I sigh at evening, and again
I sigh when night brings sleep to men.
Oh! It were better far to die
Than thus for ever mourn and sigh,
And in death’s dreamless sleep to be
Unconscious that none weep for me;
Eased from my weight of heaviness,
Forgetful of forgetfulness,
Resting from pain and care and sorrow
Thro’ the long night that knows no morrow;
Living unloved, to die unknown,
Unwept, untended and alone.



Fixated as the Victorians were on death, it is not at all surprising that a number of talented British poets in the nineteenth century would have explored mourning. From the elaborate, regal funerals of British royalty down to the simpler funerals of members of the working class — paid for by dutifully purchased death insurance — rituals of death formed an integral part of British life (Jones, 199). Yet the poets explored here do not write about funerals. Nor do they follow the traditional patterns of elegiac poetry, for example, used in Algernon Charles Swinburne’s elegy to Baudelaire, “Ave Atque Vale.” Rather, they thoroughly explore various aspects of the emotional experience of mourning. Some poets, notably Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Alfred Lord Tennyson, delve into the ways that people express grief. Tennyson also struggles with the role of one’s conscience in the process of mourning and with ways to reconcile a personal need for comfort and consolation with a strong desire to honor and preserve the memory of the deceased. Christina Rossetti examines how gender and sexual interest influence the way people mourn; in particular, she considers the value of mourning in relationships in which the fleeting nature of love is acknowledged. Both she and Tennyson deal with the dead woman as an aesthetic object, and the belated mourning of a previously inattentive male figure who feasts his eyes upon the dead female, bringing to light another aspect of the way gender relations affect mourning. Finally, Rossetti presents contrasting images of the afterlife that variously affect the practice of mourning, depending upon the consciousness of the deceased.

A common motif permeating poetry that deals with mourning is sound, be it in the form of tears of mourning, a missed language, a song of mourning or a noted silence. A large number of poems that consider death and mourning utilize images related to sound. The role of sound in the various elements of mourning these poets consider is crucial: sound is a critical link between two people; when one person dies, this connection is apparently broken, and the mourner is left in the unhappy position of vocally trying to maintain contact with the deceased. Thus, the numerous sound illusions in elegiac poetry are no more surprising than the general Victorian focus on death: people have mourned by means of words and songs for a long time. The emotionally charged and experimental ways of examining this method of mourning set apart the work of these poets.

Seeking a means of expressing grief

The loss of her parents is a shadow that hangs over Aurora Leigh in her struggle to mold her identity, in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh. Aurora tells of the loss of her mother early in the poem, describing the pain of a young child hardly old enough to understand what has happened but intensely aware that something is amiss. Aurora feels that she will always be searching for a mother because she was so young when her mother died and hence their time together was extremely brief.

I felt a mother-want about the world,
And still went seeking, like a bleating lamb
Left out at night, in shutting up the fold, —
As restless as a nest-deserted bird
Grown chill through something being away, though what
It knows not. [First book, lines 40-45, p. 2]

In Aurora’s pain, she likens herself to “a bleating lamb,” interestingly connecting her own mourning with the repeated cry of a young animal. The other animal analogy she makes is to a “nest-deserted bird,” and since birds are associated with songs, this also seems to have aural connotations. Aurora is like a crying animal, calling out for attention to a loved one who will not hear her. Thus, this passage subtly develops the idea of mourning as a plea to the one who has died somehow to respond and return. Aurora feels that her mother, by dying, has shut her out of her love and deserted her.

The animals symbolically carry out Aurora’s crying; she is too young to mourn by means of words, tears or songs, as her father writes in the verses to the memory of her mother, “Weep for an infant too young to weep much / When death removed this mother” (first book, lines 103-4, p. 4). Her father’s entreaty is primarily calling for sympathy for the child who is too young to have known her mother and therefore too young to mourn her. However, he is literally calling for the act of mourning by means of tears to make up for the child’s inability to cry about death at her age. Thus, there is a positive association with mourning in Aurora Leigh: there is a perceived need for Aurora to cry as part of the process of mourning her mother; the sadness of this circumstance is that the child is too young to mourn and hence show reverence and the pain of loss. She is also too young to experience the cathartic effects of mourning.

When she is still quite young, Aurora’s father dies as well. Aurora is then taken from her nurse and from Italy, her homeland, and sent to live with her aunt. The moment of parting from her nurse is wrought with agony and sounds of loss. Aurora cannot yet express her sadness, but at this point she is acutely aware of others’ sounds, particularly the sounds emitted by her nurse in her unhappiness at being parted from Aurora.

                                       [W]ith a shriek,
She let me go, — while I, with ears too full
Of my father’s silence, to shriek back a word,
In all a child’s astonishment at grief
Stared at the wharfage where she stood and moaned!
My poor Assunta, where she stood and moaned! [First Book, lines 226-31, p. 7]

Even as Aurora cannot speak in her youthful misery, she notices that her father’s voice has been stilled and that her nurse moans as she anticipates the loss of Aurora. Thus, vocal mourning is associated not only with the adult way of grieving a death but also with the separation of people. Sound creates a connection between people, and death and parting break that link.

It is not until Aurora reaches England that she is finally able to cry over the death of her father. She hears Britons speaking English, a language which she had only heard her father speak, and she feels the pain of unfulfilled expectations: the love she had come to associate with that language has passed with the death of her father, and that same language is now spoken by strangers.

And when I heard my father’s language first
From alien lips which had no kiss for mine,
I wept aloud, then laughed, then wept, then wept, —
And some one near me said the child was mad
Through much sea-sickness. [First Book, lines 254-58, p. 8]

Hearing the language and focusing on her loss, Aurora is finally able to grieve aloud, and she cries and laughs with sadness and relief at her ability to mourn. Her expression of grief is perceived by those around her as delirium or a fit of insanity. Although this is a somewhat negative response to her mourning, those around her do not know the cause of her tears, and so this passage does not seem to contradict the general sentiment in Aurora Leigh with regards to vocal mourning: it is a natural expression of pain that adults manifest, and that children, as they mature, will also learn to convey. Furthermore, the loss of a person creates a void: his voice is silenced. Hence, the vocal act of calling a person back fills that sound void, and is therefore comforting to the mourner.

Tennyson also considers the appropriate way to mourn and the role of sound in this process — particularly in the form of mourning songs — in In Memoriam, his experimental elegy for his beloved friend, Arthur Henry Hallam. He questions the morality of such methods of mourning with respect to the memory of the deceased; yet it seems that in addition to his concern for the deceased, the narrator is also personally dissatisfied with the effects of mourning songs.

Peace; come away: the song of woe
Is after all earthly song.
Peace; come away: we do him wrong
To sing so wildly: let us go. [57, lines 1-4, p. 239]

These lines suggest that the songs a mourner sings and the sounds of weeping together express a need to cling to the deceased and a refusal to relinquish him. The speaker and the other mourners dwell on the dead one, carrying on wildly rather than letting him pass peacefully and calmly. The narrator’s call to those singing is to leave the dead behind and go on. He literally says that it does the deceased wrong when those alive sing, but he seems to be concerned with those who survive as well. Although this singing about loss is an earthly thing to do, and it is not exactly viewed by the speaker as an inappropriate way for those on earth to channel their grief, it is nonetheless not satisfying for exactly the reason it is natural: it is only earthly, and it provides no divine satisfaction to the mourner. The narrator is seeking that sort of spiritual experience and confirmation that Hallam died for a divine reason. The speaker feels this divine connection to Hallam in poem 95 of In Memoriam, and it is by means of touch not sound that the spiritual experience occurs, and that the narrator finds at least some degree of satisfaction.

The role of conscience

Throughout In Memoriam, Tennyson, as an evolving narrator, struggles in his efforts to cope with Hallam’s death. He considers thoroughly how he will be affected by different modes of mourning, and he worries deeply about the effects these will have on him. He is acutely concerned that in mourning Hallam, he will somehow ease his own suffering; although he is urgently searching for divine meaning behind Hallam’s death, his conscience continuously discourages him from mourning in any way that consoles him, and this makes his mourning process even more difficult and painful.

He contemplates the morality of writing about his friend’s death, fearing that the action of writing, which may mitigate his pain — “Like dull narcotics, numbing pain” (5, line 8, p. 208), is unethical. The act of forming words out of his pain, he fears, will misrepresent his feelings because it is impossible to perfectly capture the state of his soul (5, lines 1-4, p. 208). Similarly, he worries that beyond simply soothing his pain, he is actually using the death of his friend as inspiration for his own artistic creation, just as the yew tree receives its nourishment from the dead bodies buried in graveyards (2, lines 1-4, p. 207); this is a highly disturbing thought to a character so plagued by his conscience. He also worries that the elegy he is writing for Hallam will not provide an enduring tribute to his friend.

Come; let us go: your cheeks are pale;
But half my life I leave behind.
Methinks my friend is richly shrined;
But I shall pass, my work will fail. [57, lines 5-8, p. 239]

Thus, in his mourning, the narrator is aiming not only to grapple with Hallam’s death, but to create a worthy memorial for him.

Although the narrator calls for an end to mournful singing, he expresses the belief that he will always be haunted by sounds reminding him of the death of Hallam. He notes that until his hearing fails him or until he himself dies, he shall hear a slow, constant bell announcing the death of his friend repeatedly in his own ears. He also describes hearing the repeated farewells said to those who are dead.

Yet in these ears, till hearing dies,
One set slow bell will seem to toll
The passing of the sweetest soul
That ever look’d with human eyes.

I hear it now, and o’er and o’er,
Eternal greetings to the dead;
And “Ave, Ave, Ave,” said,
“Adieu, adieu,” for evermore. [57, lines 9-16, p. 239]

Thus, even when the mourner stops his vocal mourning, he nonetheless remains doomed to hear reminders of the death. It is as though the connection between the two men is so strong that not even death can break it, and sounds still draws them to one another.

At this point in the poem, the narrator seems to believe that it is the responsibility of the mourner forever to hear morbid, painful sounds. Interestingly, if memories of the dead can aurally infiltrate the being of the mourner but the mourner must remain silent and experience pain fully, the natural order of the world becomes inverted: rather than the dead being silenced and those who remain alive retaining the power to speak and sing, the reverse essentially is condoned. That is, the narrator may continue to speak and sing, orally expressing his grief, but such vocal manifestations of sadness are not encouraged. On the contrary, the bells prompting him to grieve, which the narrator hears in his mind, are considered righteous and appropriate.


Whereas some poems denigrate the act of mourning aloud, suggesting that it is inappropriate or inadequate, others discourage such forms of mourning in the particular context of romantic relationships and gender relations. For example, in Christina Rossetti’s “Song,” the narrator’s request that the person to whom the poem is addressed not mourn is more a reflection of the dynamic between the characters and an indicator of gender relations than a suggestion of a general dissatisfaction of the narrator with vocal mourning.

When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt remember,
And if thou wilt forget. [lines 1-8, p. 198]

As George Landow has shown in “The Dead Woman Talks Back: Christina Rossetti’s Ironic Intonation of the Dead Fair Maiden,” Rossetti is toying with and upsetting common ideas of Victorian femininity. The last two lines of the quotation above seem to conform to standard stereotypes of the self-sacrificing female: she does not want to inconvenience her lover or cause him distress by demanding that he mourn her and always remember her. Yet the final lines of the poem, “Haply I may remember, / And haply may forget” (lines 15-16) reverse the previous vision of self-sacrifice and eternal love on the part of the female speaker, suggesting instead that she is content to or at least quite capable of forgetting her lover and that he should do the same.

This reading allows for further consideration of the role of the specific acts of mourning that are mentioned in the poem. As the poem continues, the speaker describes a senseless afterlife in which she will not see, feel or hear anything, including the nightingale’s song. Thus, her death will distinctly separate her from the world, and not even the mourning song of the nightingale will reach her. The removal of the speaker from the living world will render her incapable of hearing songs of mourning, and therefore such mourning rituals become ridiculous. In the course of the poem, the narrator gradually challenges the notion that there is eternal love between herself and the speaker. Thus, death can be seen as the appropriate moment at which to accept the rupture of their relationship, since it would not continue forever anyway; there is no need, then, to prolong the connection by means of songs and other customs of mourning. Rossetti boldly states what many people dare not admit: that the person who has died will not benefit from the mourning practices of those who survive him and hence, such customs only serve those who live. In a situation in which the lover is not likely to go on loving the woman who has died, Rossetti’s narrator urges him not to mourn in false, showy ways: both of them will soon forget each other anyway.

Beyond projecting herself into the grave, the speaker in Rossetti’s “After Death” is already dead and narrates the poem from the grave. She is thus a standard aesthetic object, deemed a beautiful and rich source for poetry (Landow). In this poem, the lamenting words of the dead woman’s beloved reach her ears, even though he does not know it.

He leaned above me, thinking that I slept
And could not hear him; but I heard him say:
“Poor Child, poor child:” and as he turned away
Came a deep silence, and I knew he wept. [lines 5-8, p. 200]

In this case, the man’s grieving words do provide comfort to the narrator, whom he did not love in her life and whom he can only pity in death. In the silence, she indicates her certainty that he is crying for her. Thus, words and tears of mourning have practical significance in this poem because they can be heard and felt by the deceased. Here the acts of mourning do not fall on deaf ears, and they are conveyed to the reader by the character with the most personal investment in them: the dead woman for whom they were intended.

The dead woman as an aesthetic object also appears at the end of Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott” when the knight Lancelot notices the beauty of the dead Lady of Shalott. From the moment that she places herself in the boat and sets out down the river, sound plays a key role in setting the scene of her death. As she floats, “the noises of the night”(line 139) are mentioned, but it is the music that she herself creates that is the more powerful sound.

They heard her singing her last song,
The Lady of Shalott.

Heard a carol, mournful, holy,
Chanted loudly, chanted lowly,
Till her blood was frozen slowly,
And her eyes were darkened wholly,
Turned to tower’d Camelot.
For ere she reach’d upon the tide
The first house by the water-side,
Singing in her song she died,
The Lady of Shalott. [lines 143-53, p. 44]

It is as though the Lady of Shalott sounds her own death knell with her song. Her music is her final and only direct interaction with the world, distant as it is, before her death. She has emerged from her bower and sings a song that reaches the ears of those her boat passes on the journey to Camelot. Then, after death, she physically confronts the outside world. Previously, she saw shadows and reflections of the world outside and made no art that the outside world could appreciate. The sound she emits before her death, however, establishes a brief and melancholic connection between her and the world.

Yet when she reaches Camelot, she is “silent” (line 158, p. 44), and her deathly presence causes the merriment in the palace to cease, killing the sounds within (lines 164-5, p. 45). The silence of those at the palace stresses the absence of vocal mourning, emphasizing the distance between her and them, and their inability to feel deep compassion for her. The connection she made with them with her song is largely one-sided: most of them do not respond. Lancelot, however, does respond, but his comments about the beauty of her face and his request for God’s blessing on her ring of transience: in death she has caught his fancy for a moment, but he will soon move on and forget her. In the same way that Rossetti argues against the immortality of love in “Song,” Tennyson seems to suggest the inherently ephemeral nature of vocal mourning at the end of “The Lady of Shalott.” The use of the word “mournful” anticipates her death, and perhaps compensates for the fact that she will not be mourned by anyone who knew her, except in her own self-pitying song.

The post-mortem mourning of the men who did not love or notice the women in life has a dramatic and ironic, yet somewhat shallow effect. In both “After Death” and “The Lady of Shalott,” the reader is left with a slight feeling of satisfaction: at least the man has finally noticed the woman, if only for a moment and after her death. An aura of revenge, if only mild revenge, is thereby achieved: the punishment for having ignored the women in life is that the men are doomed to see beauty in the women only when they are already out of reach.

Images of the Afterlife

Rossetti’s imaginings of life after death range from the complete alertness seen in “After Death” to the partially aware state of the woman in “Dream Land” to the completely senseless states of the women in “Song” and “Rest.” The woman discussed in “Rest” is completely shielded from the sounds of earthly life. However, the sounds discussed in the poem are not sounds of mourning, but rather the sounds that make up daily life. The omniscient narrator calls for the earth to physically isolate and protect the buried woman from “mirth/ With its harsh laughter” (lines 3-4, p. 200) and the “sound of sighs” (line 4, p. 200). The narrator, who several times alludes to sound, claims that the woman will be spared all noise in her rest, and that the silence of death will be “more musical than any song” (line 10, p. 200). The afterlife in this poem resembles that described in “Song” in that the woman escapes to a senseless, timeless place of peace. Although “Rest” does not deal directly with mourning, it reinforces the idea that sound establishes a connection between people; in the woman’s desire to escape the world in death, she is entirely isolated, both from people and sound.

Interestingly, in Rossetti’s “Dream Land,” she creates a post-mortem state somewhere between the full awareness of the narrator in “After Death” and the senseless afterlife described in “Song” and “Rest.” The third person narrator in “Dream Land” never states that the woman in the poem is dead, saying rather that she is asleep, which is also implied by the title. However a number of illusions in the poem suggest that her sleep is actually death, or at least strongly resembles such a state: “a perfect rest” (line 17), “rest, for evermore” (line 25), and

Till time shall cease:
Sleep that no pain shall wake;
Night that no morn shall break
Till joy shall overtake
Her perfect peace. [lines 28-32, p. 199].

The final two lines in particular suggest the prospect of heaven after a deathly respite. Although Rossetti describes how the speaker cannot see grain or feel rain, she nonetheless is able to see “the sky look pale” (line 14) and hear “the nightingale / That sadly sings” (lines 15-6). Her awareness of these sights and sounds suggests an increased awareness as opposed to the senseless afterlife anticipated by the narrator of “Song.” In “Dream Land” there is no indictment of mourning. Rather, there is a slight indication that sounds can pass between the worlds of the living and the dead or at least deeply sleeping; therein may lie a justification for the nightingale’s song or a lover’s cries of mourning, despite the indications in “Song” that such methods of mourning are futile.

As a contrast to Rossetti’s quieter imaginings of the afterlife, and a parallel to “After Death,” it seems reasonable to mention the afterlife envisioned by Robert Browning in his dramatic monologue, “The Bishop Orders his Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church.” In “A Strangely Literal Afterlife,” I discuss the lack of faith suggested by the fully aware, materialistic, and grudge-holding afterlife the Bishop envisions for himself. Yet despite Rossetti’s devout religious tendencies, her depiction of the afterlife, in the poems discussed above, seems less religiously than emotionally focused: she is concerned with the women’s connections or lack thereof to the world and people around them, and how death and awareness of sound affect these connections.

Mourning and the connections people hope to make by emitting sounds are relatively specific themes, yet they illuminate a distinct perspective on the broader topics of personal expression, conscience, gender and the afterlife, all subjects explored by the Victorian poets here considered. They created characters who aspire to connect with other people, sometimes those who have died and are therefore out of reach. These characters struggle to adequately express their emotions. In situations of loss, this need to express oneself is heightened as a result of suffering. As they grieve and search for meaning or solace in the wake of a death, some characters feel the strains of a strong conscience, causing them to question which forms of mourning and self-expression are moral and which are not. Certain poets considered the way that men grieve for women, sometimes viewing the process from unusual angles. Gender relations played an ever-changing role in Victorian life, so of course their appearance in the elegiac poetry of the nineteenth century is understandable. Poetry that deals with love often also considers loss, and this loss allows for creative conceptions of the afterlife. All of these subjects intimately relate to human relationships. By addressing these issues, the poems discussed show that sounds both draw people together and ultimately force them to accept that their connections have been severed — and that all that remains is silence.


The tension between what she was and what she thought she should be exhausted Rossetti. Physical as well as spiritual distress played its part; throughout most of her life she was a sick woman. Try as she might to rejoice in disfigurement as a bulwark against pride, this lover of beauty did not enjoy being brown-skinned, bloated, flabby, bulge-eyed, pre-maturely old. In a disquietingly large number of poems, she longs for rest so intensely that she thinks of death as blessed oblivion rather than as blessed gateway:

Rest, rest; the troubled breast
Panteth evermore for rest:–
Be it sleep or be it death
Rest is all it coveteth.

Here she succumbed to a temptation perhaps graver than those which she had wearied herself in fleeing:

I am full of heaviness.
Earth is cold, too cold at the sea:
Whither shall I turn and flee?
Is there any hope for me?
Any ease for my heart-aching,
Any sleep that hath no waking,
Any night without day-breaking,
Any rest from weariness?

Hark the wind is answering:
Hark the running stream replieth:
There is rest for him that dieth;
In the grave whoever lieth
Nevermore hath sorrowing.

This is uncomfortably close to Swinburne’s “Garden of Proserpine.” Not that she doubts for a moment the certainty of life after death; but it is that wonderfully long interval of slumber in the grave while she awaits the resurrection of the body which attracts her:

Life is not good. One day it will be good
To die, then live again;
To sleep meanwhile. . .
Asleep from risk, asleep from pain.

In order to enjoy this boon however, it was necessary to die, and she was terribly afraid of dying. Her oversensitive imagination was appalled by the physical ghastliness of it, but also by the possibility that she might die in a state of unforgivable spiritual torpor. How would it be possible to feel the approach of the Bridegroom at a time when she could feel nothing at all? And if she did not greet Him, would he greet Her? It would have been easy for Christina to wallow in self pity, to seek relief in the perverted thrill of posing as a lost soul, or to relapse into acedia. She did nothing of the sort. Her poems exhibit no steady ascent from the depths to the summit: what they reveal is the fact that she never gave up. She would have been glad, of course, to evade the necessity of struggling. The long slumber of the grave offered one means of escape, but its attractions were spoiled by the fear of dying and the fear of judgement. She must live, then. But how could she live without some compromise between her flesh and her spirit–a compromise which, she felt sure, would end in the subjection of thhe latter to the former? For the true mystics, the symbol of earthly life was not an up-hill climb but one joyous leap, here and now, into the arms of the Almighty Lover. This she greatly desired; such rest would be even better than the rest of the tomb.



Much of Christina Rossetti’s poetry is filled with a homesick love of spring, the season of a promise ever lovlier than its own fulfilment. Longing for “the limpid days” with their tender colors, their budding shoots, their small beguiling birds and beasts, is one in her regret for the lost youth of the soul. Both have the same heart-breaking beauty, pure and evanescent, that can never long continue its unsmirched freshness.

There is no time like Spring,
Like Spring that passes by;
There is no life like Spring life born to die, —
Piercing the sod,

Clothing the uncouth clod,
Hatched in the nest,
Fledged on the windy bough,
Strong on the wing:
There is no time like Spring that passes by,
Now newly born, and now
Hastening to die. [Christina Rossetti, “Spring”]

There, for Christina, lies one of the central human tragedies. We let youth slip from us regardless of the treasures it is bearinginto oblivion, with the same unperceptiveness that lets theglories of spring go by unheeded. Sometimes we are merely dull of heart. Sometimes we lose the perfect enjoyment of our young days because we keep looking forward to the mirage of a happier future, the vainest of all vain dreams. finally we may be cowards or temporisers who will not use the golden hours while we have them.

If I might see another Spring
I’d not plant summer flowers and wait:
I’d have my crocuses at once,
My leafless, pink, mezereons… (Christina Rossetti, “Another Spring”)

The theme of lost opportunity, of joys unvalued until they have been snatched away forever, runs through the poems from The Prince’s Progress onwards. The Prince, by his tardiness, loses his own life’s felicity and sacrifices his betrothed:

This Bride not seen, to be seen no more
Save of the bridegroom Death

She is sister to Mariana in her moated grange; yet she represents more to Christina’s mind than a neglected lover. She is the secret of life, the true happiness, that we one and all so readily abandon for illusions. To most of us life is a Prince’s Progress of forced toils and casual triflings, and though the memory of the Princess stirs in our hearts, while she waits for us in patience, we allow ourselves to dally until, if at last we seek her at all, it is to fine her dying.


Christina Rossetti fell in love twice in her life. The first time with James Collinson, then later with Charles Cayley. The paradoxical character of Christina’s genius when she was in love can be seen from the poems which she then wrote. None of her poems to Collinson reflects joy or hope. On the contrary, at the height of her love for him she wrote some of her most poignant lines on the imminence and the pathos of death. In her the idea of love turned inexorably to the idea of death, and in this association we can surely see her instinctive shrinking from the surrender which love demands. Two of her most famous poems come from this time, and in each Christina is obsessed by thoughts of death. In “Remember” she asks her beloved to remember her when she is dead, because that is all that he will be able to do for her. Then, with characteristic humility, she assures him that even this is not necessary and that all she asks is that he himself should not be unhappy:

Yet if you should forget me for awile
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that I once had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.

In the wonderful “Song” which is a kind of counterpart to this sonnet, Christina forsees what death will mean to her and wonders if perhaps she also will forget the past:

I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on as if in pain;
And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply I may forget.

In Christina love released a melancholy desire for death, and for a kind of death not closely connected with her usual ideas of an afterworld. It is an intermediate condition between sleeping and waking, a half-conscious state in which memories are dim and even the strongest affections fade into shadows. Moreover, she felt that the claims of love were not for her, that her way of life was unsuited to it, and that she must go back to her old denials and refusals.

Rigorous though Christina’s denial of love was, it was not strong enough to curb all her womanly and human instincts. She fought against them and kept them in iron control, but, left alone with her genius, she could not from time to time prevent them from bursting into almost heart-rending poetry, which is all the more powerful because it rises from not controlled thoughts but from longings which force themselves on her despite all her efforts to check them. It is not surprising that, being the victim of such a struggle, she sometimes felt it was too much for her and she could not bear it endure longer. At such times she would long for release and find no magic even in the spring;

I wish I were dead, my foe,
My friend, I wish I were dead,
With a stone at my tired feet
With a stone at my head.

In the pleasant April days
Half the world will stir and sing,
But half the world will slug and rot
For all the sap of Spring.

In these words there is more than a passing mood: there is a deep basis of experience, of misery in a defeat which has been hard for Christina to endure.


Though I till now be barren, now at length,
Lord give me strength
to bring forth fruit to Thee.

Even today, scholars still tend to classify Christina Rossetti as a “spinster” or a “nun of art” [Norton Anthology 876, 873]. This view has also influenced the way in which her poetry has been conceived. Because Rossetti never married, the central themes of her poetry were considered to be renunciation, a general world-weariness which developed out of sexual frustration, and, the hope for a better life after death. The possibility that Rossetti on the contrary longed for a child — a theme that runs through some of her poems — has not yet been closely investigated.

To most critics of Rossetti, Sing-Song. A Nursery Rhyme Book has seemed limited to the realm of the nurseries. This way of regarding the poem resembles critical treatment of Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”, which was also for a long time considered to be written only for children. But like “Goblin Market,” Sing-Song is more than just a book of children’s verse, for its poetry reveals several levels whose full significance lie beyond that of children. Marya Zaturenska describes these levels as “undertones. . .full of subtleties” [195]. And Peter Hunt assists this view when he states, that Sing-Song “speaks to readers at many different levels” [160].

A brief look at the biographical situation of Rossetti in 1872 will show that this voilume was written at a very bleak moment in her life. Nevertheless, it is one of her “most charming and gayest” books. [Zaturenska, 194] Writing Sing-Song was, according to Jan Marsh, “part of a recuperative process” [422]. At 42, Rossetti takes a sentimental look back on her own childhood (3.1), says good-bye to her longing for motherhood (3.2) and for a partner (3.3), as well as to the social acceptance (3.4) that would have come with fulfilling the Victorian gender concept of being a wife and mother.

Furthermore, apart from Sing-Song’s being highly autobiographical, in it, Rossetti also addresses, and thus shows herself to be aware of, some of the problems of her age (3.5) — namely infant mortality, poverty and orphanage.

Seeking solace in religion was Christina Rossetti’s solution to her unfulfilled longing for a child. It is hinted at in Sing-Song (3.6), but becomes even more distinctive in her religious poetry (4). She could not find a partner in real life. Therefore, she turned her hopes towards life after death. There, she hoped to find an end to what she describes as her ‘infertility’ (4.1), as well as a husband, Jesus Christ, who would give her the sensuality and sexuality she was longing for throughout her life (4.2).


Christina Rossetti, Pre-Raphaelitism, and Tractarianism
Anthony H. Harrison, Professor of English, North Carolina State University

As we have seen, late nineteenth-century reviewers frequently observed that Christina Rossetti’s devout religiosity distinguished her from the other Pre-Raphaelites. Such commentators, appear to have forgotten the early, ostensibly sacramental work of the first members of the brotherhood, who were not only painters, but also poets and self-proclaimed art theorists as well. The emphasis of reviewers like W J. Courthope upon the “literariness” the “common antipathy to society,” and the aestheticism “the atmosphere of… materialistic feeling [that] pervades the poetry” — is not surprising in light of the work published by Morris, Swinburne, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti after 1858 (“Latest Development in Literary Poetry,” 63).

After all, as David Riede has demonstrated, when Dante Rossetti prepared his Poems of 1870 for publication, the most extensive and “the most important revisions were designed to eliminate any impression of religious faith in his book” (“Erasing the Art-Catholic” 50). In 1847 Rossetti had forwarded a number of these poems, later heavily revised, to William Bell Scott as a group entitled Songs of the Art Catholic. (Some, including “My Sister’s Sleep” and “The Blessed Damozell” were published under the Pre-Raphaelite imprimatur in The Germ.) The success of Rossetti’s alterations to these early drafts and the revised poems’ resulting compatibility with the work of   Swinburne [64/65] and  Morris is affirmed by Courthope’s typical assertion that all three poets either “quietly avow” or “passionately profess” atheism, “not as the supplanter of superstition, but as the rival of Christianity” (63; see also J. C. Shairp’s even more vitriolic attack, on similar grounds, in “Aesthetic Poetry.”).

Such a conclusion is distant indeed from Ruskin’s insistence, during his 1853 Edinburgh lectures, that the   Pre-Raphaelites were in the process of rehabilitating contemporary art, restoring it to the heights of spirituality and truth that characterized painting during the late medieval period and the early Renaissance. With the single exception of work by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PR.B.), he asserted,

the great and broad fact which distinguishes modern art from old art … [is] that all ancient art was religious, and all modern art is profane…. That is to say, religion was its first object; private luxury or pleasure its second…. [For] all modem art . . . private luxury or pleasure is its first object; religion its second…. Anything which makes religion its second object, makes religion no object. God . . . will not put up with … a second place…. He who makes religion his first object, makes it his whole object: he has no other work in the world than God’s work. (WJR, 12:135)

The clear implication of Ruskin’s remarks is that, in pursuing absolute truth to nature and to historical details, the Pre-Raphaelite painters were God’s apostles. Two years earlier, before meeting any of the brethren, Ruskin had written his first letter concerning Pre-Raphaelitism to the Times (the letter is dated 13 May 1851 (WJR, 12.319-23).). Like many early viewers of works by members of the PR.B., he went so far as to suspect them of “Romanist and Tractarian tendencies.” Had Ruskin read the second number of The Germ (February 1850), his suspicions might have been reinforced by certain ambiguities in F. G.Stephens’s brief essay, “The Purpose and Tendency of Early Italian Art.” Searching for models that the P.R.B., as a new and aspiring school of “historical painters,” might follow, Stephens found precedent only in the early Italian painters who possessed “a feeling which, exaggerated and its object mistaken by them, though still held holy and pure, was the cause of the retirement of many of their greatest men from the world to the monastery.” Of course, Stephens insisted (the example of James Collinson was not yet available to him), “the modern artist does not retire to monasteries, or practice discipline; but he may show his participation in the same high feeling by a firm attachment to truth in every point of representation…. By a determination to represent the thing and the whole of the thing, by training himself to the deepest observation of its fact and de[66/67] tail, enabling himself to reproduce, as far as possible, nature herself, the painter will best evince his share of faith” (Sambrook, 58).

In such passages, readers like Ruskin might well see as much of a leaning toward “old” religious belief and modes of expression (in the   Tractarian vein) as toward the new and diametrically opposed, historical perspectives on religious understanding inaugurated by the   Higher Criticism. Whichever view of Pre-Raphaelitism a reader or viewer adopted, the inalterable fact remained that most early PRB pictures were occupied with what William Michael Rossetti termed “Christian Art Design” or the “sacred picture” (Fredeman, P.R.B. Journal, 9, 13. See Sussman, Fact, chapter 4, for a full discussion of scripture as history among the Pre-Raphaelites.).

The transition from the sacramentalism of Pre-Raphaelite painting, poetry, and aesthetic theory during the period 1848-53 to the aestheticism of the second generation of Pre-Raphaelite poets hinges upon the avant-garde techniques and habits of mind adopted by both generations. As Herbert Sussman has observed, the early brotherhood “effort to restore … the authentic tradition in sacred art” required “a rejection of the artistic tradition offered by established institutions.” But, “once the religious motivations dissolved, the sense of opposition remained, to be passed on through Rossetti to Morris, Swinburne, and the aesthetic movement” (Fact, 55). With these historical matters dear, then, Christina Rossetti can be seen not only as the “Jael who led [the Pre-Raphaelite] hosts to Victory” with the recognition accorded her 1862 volume of poems, but also as the poet who, in the pervasive Tractarian tendencies of her poetry, remained true to the topoi, the habits of mind, and the ostensibly sacramental aesthetics of first-generation Pre-Raphaelitism.

As we have already seen, of course, Rossetti’s work has much in common with the later poetry of her brother, Morris, and Swinburne. Yet — in addition to its careful attention to the details of nature, its highly sensory images used to accomplish noumenal effects, and its preoccupation with betrayed or disappointed love — her poetry’s use of symbolism and typology, its medievalism, its employment of dream visions, and its preoccupation with suffering and with visionary idealities as a relief from suffering allow readers to perceive her poetry as simultaneously Pre-Raphaelite and Tractarian. Through analysis of Rossetti’s devotional poetry, we can, in fact, begin to understand some previously underemphasized connections between Pre-Raphaelite and Tractarian aesthetics.[67/68]

The Tractarian Movement
Herbert Schlossberg, Senior Research Fellow, Ethics and Public Policy Center, Washington, D.C.

Although evangelical language and ideas increasingly dominated English society, even after the essential religious power of the movement had begun to fade, evangelicalism was not the only influential religious movement of the era. At Oxford a group of Anglican academics and clergymen were increasingly unhappy with the lack of seriousness with which the establishment regarded its religious duties, with the failure to appreciate the catholic heritage of the church, in particular its historical and theological insights predating the reformation, and with its erastianism — the willingness to subordinate the legitimate claims and prerogatives of the church to the requirements of state policy. Their best-known leaders were John Henry Newman, John Keble, and Edward Pusey, and their preferred method was a series of publications they began in 1833 called “tracts;” hence they were known as the Tractarians (also as the Oxford Movement). These argumentative pieces attacked what the high churchmen regarded as the prevailing weaknesses of the church, and in particular the assault by what they called “liberalism.” By this they meant both the doctrinal laxity and inattention to many aspects of the church’s rich heritage, and political trends which threatened the church’s status as a national institution; this included the erastianism and the other side of that coin, which was the increasing agitation for disestablishment. (Severing of the church’s favored position in the state was by no means the exclusive provenance of unbelief, as the Tractarians sometimes implied, but was mainly pushed by Dissent, which was under several very real handicaps in comparison with Anglicans, including its inability to participate fully in university life.) Richard Hurrell Froude, a young associate of Newman and Keble and fellow of Oxford who died at the age of thirty-three, struck hard at the notion that establishment had caused the church to be weak, and said that the true cause was the deception practiced by the clergy. The pretention that England was a Christian nation made it impossible to enforce church discipline, since that would strip away the false covering. [Froude, Remains, 1: 273. These volumes of Froude’s miscellaneous writings were published posthumously by Newman.]

It is common in the literature to regard the Tractarians as antithetical to the Evangelicals, who are sometimes called the “low-church” party. There is an unfortunate combination of errors here. The Evangelicals originally were opposed to the low churchmen, who tended to be latitudinarian and antinomian, devotees of the doctrinal and moral laxity that the Evangelicals decried. Thus the Evangelicals were natural allies of the Tractarian movement, although by the time the Tracts began appearing in 1833, the Clapham generation was either dead or soon to be dead, and their successors were not as promising as colleagues. Keble’s distrust of the Evangelicals stemmed mainly from what he thought was their reliance on feeling to the neglect of duty and character rather than from their positive positions. He was closer to them than to the latitudinarianism against which they were reacting [Lock, John Keble, 19f]. Henry Liddon, Pusey’s sympathetic nineteenth-century biographer, argued that the Evangelical revival was a reaction against the Church’s teaching of a loose natural morality which ignored Jesus Christ, and it took form both within and outside of the Anglican Church. Although critical of what he considered the “one-sided” nature of the movement, Liddon treated it almost as the salvation of Anglicanism, describing Pusey’s attitude in similar terms: “…and to the last day of his life, Pusey retained that ‘love of the Evangelicals’ to which he often adverted, and which was roused by their efforts to make religion a living power in a cold and gloomy age” [Liddon, Life of Edward Bouverie Pusey, 1: 254]. The Swedish scholar Yngve Brilioth was so convinced about the natural affinities between evangelicalism and Tractarianism that he asked rhetorically: “Would it be untrue to call Pusey one of the great English Evangelicals?” Hymnody, he thought, suggested the same conclusion; the High Church movement helped bring a wide range of Evangelical hymns, including those of Dissent, into common use in the Church [Evangelicalism and the Oxford Movement, 35-38, 46ff]. Liddon portrayed the Tractarians as being concerned about the penetration into the Church of liberalism; they believed that the only defense against it was through the appropriation of aspects of the Church’s traditions that the Evangelicals were content to ignore. [Liddon, Life of Pusey, 4:1].

There was a pronounced evangelical heritage in the Tractarians. Newman’s conversion under the ministry of a Calvinist Oxford don, Walter Mayers of Pembroke College, was classically evangelical. Although by the time Newman wrote his memoirs he had long since abjured protestantism, he explicitly confirmed his conversion experience. He called Mayers an “excellent man,” he affirmed “through God’s mercy” that he had never repudiated the doctrine he learned at the time, and said of his conversion that he was more certain of it than that he had hands and feet. To be sure, he rejected the typical Calvinist doctrine of the “perseverence of the saints,” and the conviction that conversion and justification were the same, as well as the whole Protestant ecclesiology, [Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua, 24-27. By the time he wrote this work, of course, Newman regarded Lutheranism and Calvinism as heresies (148).] but that still left a good deal of common ground with the evangelicals, especially in the context of their common adversaries. Henry Manning was another high church Anglican who had a conversion story similar to Newman’s. [There is a good account of Manning’s evangelical conversion in Newsome, The Wilberforces and Henry Manning, 148f. Newsome includes a short testimony of Manning on the aftermath of his conversion: “All this made a new thought spring up in me — not to be a clergyman in the sense of my old destiny, but to give up the world and to live for God and for souls….I had long been praying much and going habitually to churches. It was a turning point in my life. . . . It was as surely a call from God as all that He has given me since….”] Three sons of William Wilberforce — Samuel, Robert and Henry — were closely allied with the Oxford Tractarians as students and afterwards. And high churchmen such as the future Prime Minister William Gladstone often had such strong evangelical convictions that they might as well be called Evangelicals. Such an undulating and fuzzy border between the two movements was natural, when it is considered that the main preoccupations of the Tractarians were not in the externals, as their accusers often charged, but in the inner religion of the heart — which is what the Evangelicals always emphasized. Keble’s Christian Year was a book of devotional poetry with an extraordinary impact on people of all parties who had that kind of bent. As Newman put it, “Keble struck an original note and woke up in the hearts of thousands a new music, the music of a school long unknown in England” [Apologia. 38].

One might say it was the poetic version of the evangelical preachers in the heyday of their effectiveness, designed to wake up a sleeping church. That kind of inner fervor, and not nostalgia with medieval forms, is what motivated the Tractarians. [In saying that the Tractarians were not mere purveyors of medieval nostalgia, I do not deny their conscious admiration for that period. They were enthusiastic followers of Walter Scott’s novels, and they openly acknowledged their debt to him. They mourned Scott’s death, and every year on its anniversary held a memorial service, reading Keble’s poem for that day from The Christian Year. Some of the opponents of the Tractarians denounced Scott as well because of this relationship. See Cruse, The Victorians and their Reading, 34f]. If the evangelicals were preoccupied with justification, the Tractarians were similarly preoccupied with sanctification, the striving for inner holiness and zeal. [This point is strongly argued by Reardon, From Coleridge to Gore, 118]. But this was a matter of emphasis, and neither side denied the other doctrine, whatever differences may have remained in the way they conceived them. In the early Tractarian days it was possible to make common cause with the Evangelicals, as when they combined to thwart the apppointment of a a non-orthodox Regius professor of divinity at Oxford.

But the alliance could not last. It foundered largely because Evangelicals and others suspected that the high-church Tractarians were, despite their protestations, stalking horses for Roman Catholicism. That suspicion became a near-certainty with the publication in 1840 of Newman’s Tract number 90, which argued that the 39 Articles, the de facto constitution of the Anglican church, rightly understood, was compatible with the Roman Church. The storm raised by Tract 90, as Newman later wrote, put an end to his usefulness in the task of influencing the course of the Anglican Church:

I saw indeed clearly that my place in the Movement was lost; public confidence was at an end; my occupation was gone. It was simply an impossibility that I could say any thing henceforth to good effect, when I had been posted up by the marshal on the buttery-hatch of every College of my University, after the manner of discommoned pastry-cooks, and when in every part of the country and every class of society, through every organ and opportunity of opinion, in newspapers, in periodicals, at meetings, in pulpits, at dinner-tables, in coffee-rooms, in railway carriages, I was denounced as a traitor who had laid his train and was detected in the very act of firing it against the time-honoured Establishment. [Apologia, 100.]

When Newman converted to Roman Catholicism in 1845 the tattered remnants of the Tractarian movement came to an end. Those who had suspected Newman of smuggling the pope’s legions within the walls of Anglicanism believed they had been vindicated, and great segments of the public agreed with them. The carnage in the Church of England was frightful. A number of Newman’s disciples and many others as well came over with him or soon thereafter. Henry Manning, who was then a widower, became a Roman Catholic priest and later on Bishop of Westminster and then a Cardinal. Families were torn apart. David Newsome’s book The Wilberforces and Henry Manning depicts the strife within the Wilberforce family as Robert and Henry, their father long dead, converted to Rome while Samuel became one of the most energetic and influential Anglican bishops of the century.

[I omit from the present study any consideration of the Ritualist Movement in the Church of England because it came after the period I am considering. Some scholars affirm and some deny that this movement was a continuation of the Tractarians. It hearkened back to the catholic tradition in the church, and its ancient rituals in particular. The enemies of all high church manifestations in the last two-thirds of the century tended to lump them together as “Puseyism,” although Pusey never had much use for catholic rituals. In addition to Brilioth, Evangelicalism and the Oxford Movement see Voll, Catholic Evangelicalism. Voll is largely sympathetic with Brilioth’s work, although he thinks the later ritualists exhibited evangelical characteristics to a greater extent than the Tractarians. He believes the ritualist movement was heavily influenced by Methodism, the link between them being Alexander Knox, a lay theologican in the Church of Ireland.]