Christina Rossetti is best known for her children’s poems, like “Who Has Seen the Wind?” and her poem “In the Bleak Midwinter” which is sung at Christmas time. Yet she wrote many other poems, and some short stories. She lived from 1830 to 1894. She never married but lived devoted to her family, her poetry and her religion.
Growing up her family wrote poetry as a game, where they would give each other rhymes with which to end the lines and then have to compose a sonnet based on it. One example of a set of end-rhymes was: “shun, blank, sank, done, one, bank, drank, run, sigh, sought, yet, die, thought, forget.”
For those of us not nearly as poetic we could try to do a simple stanza. Try “fly, stance, try, dance.” Or “man, one, ran, done.”
Historical and literary connections
Christina Rossetti was connected with a great many other well known people. Her godmother was Princess Christina Bonaparte, the niece of the Napoleon Bonaparte, and members of the Bonaparte family would occasionally visit Rossetti’s family. Her uncle John Polidori was Byron’s travelling physician and wrote a gothic novel The Vampyre. Her aunt Eliza applied to work with Florence Nightingale’s nurses and ended up as a storekeeper for them (she had expected to work as a nurse). Ruskin was a family friend of theirs. Her brothers were part of the Pre-Raphelite Painters. Her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti went into business with socialist William Morris. Her family had friends among the Langham Place Group, a group of feminists.
I printed out notes on some of these connections and had my children help me arrange them on a bulletin board with strings between the connections, talking about the people as we did this. You can download my pdf including pictures and notes about some of Christina Rossetti’s historical connections. These can be linked too with my similar styled notes on the 19th century.
There is an interesting American connection too. In 1862 Britian was respecting the Northern States blockades of Southern cotton and thus deprived Lancanshire, England, of the raw material necessary for their cotton mills. One of Christina Rossetti’s poems was among the works gathered together into a book titled Poems: An Offering to Lancashire dedicated to the relief effort and encouraging of British support for abolition.
Christina’s poem “Sit Down in the Lowest Room” was also relevant to American readers during the civil war, as it briefly compares the lot of women and slaves within society and at the same time it deals with the question of war. Can war be justified?
Christina felt that writing anything for publication was a great spiritual responsibility, and she willingly destroyed any of her work that her mother thought improper. Yet sensibilities were different in the Victorian era, and even amongst her children’s poems there is an acknowledgement of death including the death of children.
Baby lies so fast asleep
That we cannot wake her:
Will the angels clad in white
Fly from heaven to take her?
Baby lies so fast asleep
That no pain can grieve her;
Put a snowdrop in her hand,
Kiss her once and leave her.
– Would you read a poem about death to a young child?
– Why are infant deaths less common in the developed world now than they were in Christina’s time?
The Goblin Market
Christina Rossetti’s poem the Goblin Market was written during a year when an early warm period was followed by a fruit-blossom killing frost. Fruit was in short supply, thus possibly explaining the tantalizing beauty of the fruit mentioned.
Richard Menke explores the possibility of economic implications in the poem. The goblin fruit, said to be ripened all at once, available day and night, is more more like hothouse grown fruit or imported fruit. They do not know from where it comes. (“Who knows upon what soil they fed / Their hungry thirsty roots?”) Nor can they use the kernel from it to grow more. It is rootless. It is a commodity, not domestic produce.
Goblin Market may not offer an analysis of the commodity form as Marx does, but it incisively locates the play of surface and secret in the commodity and suggests the peril presented by its inarguable allure. The goblin’s fruit, initiatially so palpable and so palpably tempting, stands revealed as pure exchange value, pure commodity.
In Menke’s interpretation of the poem Laura’s unfullfillable desire for the commodities takes away her interest in the domestic sphere. Laura will no more sweep the house, tend the animals or do any other of the numerous household duties she used to do. Her sister frees her from this by transforming the goblin fruit from something traded to something given for a purpose (use-value instead of exchange-value).
Possible discussion questions:
– imagine a conversation between Laura and Lizzy afterwards. Can Laura defend her decision to buy the goblin fruit?
– what kind of argument might Laura make to another village girl to convince her not to buy the fruit?
The poem “Repining” (in contrast with “The Lady of Shalott”)
Christina Rossetti was strongly influenced by Tennyson, but put her own twist to things. Her poem “Repining” starts like the “Lady of Shalott” with a woman all alone.
She sat alway thro’ the long day
Spinning the weary thread away;
And ever said in undertone:
‘Come, that I be no more alone.’
She is rescued from her loneliness by a young man who leads her to a village that appears to her to be wonderful.
‘The noise of life, of human life,
Of dear communion without strife,
Of converse held ‘twixt friend and friend;
Is it not here our path shall end?’
Alas that village is soon covered in an avalanche and suffering. They carry on and she witnesses the death of many in a storm at sea, and then a fire, and finally a war. Unlike in “Lady of Shalott” the woman does not die from moving beyond her isolation but she watches many others suffer until she prays to return into her own isolation. It makes me wonder whether the Lady of Shalott would have prayed to return to a living isolation if she could have, or whether she felt that the glimpse of Lancelot was worth it. Or does her quick death spare her from the time living with Lancelot during which he could have dragged her into the suffering that Christina’s heroine sees? Stage a conversation with both women in the afterlife!
Floor plan drawing
In 1839 Christina’s family moved into a slightly larger terranced house than their previous one. The book Learning Not to be First: The Life of Christina Rossetti describes the house this way:
“For 60 pounds a year they had five floors with two rooms on each floor. It had no garden and faced a public house and a hackney carriage stand. There was the usual basement kitchen opening onto a backyard, a family dining room and sitting room on the ground floor, a drawing room and bedroom on the first floor and five or six bedrooms on the second and third floors, one of which was occupied by the maid. On the smallest of the rooms, used at first by [the father] as a dressing room, was gradually given over to William and Gabriel as a ‘den’.”
Read the description and then draw a floorplan of a house that would match that description.
Later when the Rossetti children – Maria, William, Gabriel and Christine – were adults, Gabriel rented 16 Cheyne Walk. You can read about that building and see a floor plan of the first floor. What might a floor plan of the other floors look like?
Continue over to my second post about three important issues within Christina Rossetti’s life and poetry: feminism, poverty and religion.