Christina Georgina Rossetti was born in London on December 5th 1830. She was the fourth child of Gabriele and Frances Rossetti, who already had two sons and a daughter. Gabriele Rossetti had been exiled from Italy for his support of revolutionary nationalism and was now a professor of Italian and a Dante Scholar at King’s College in London. His wife, born Frances Polidori, was the English-Italian daughter of John William Polidori, an author and Lord Byron's physician. Although Gabriele was a Roman Catholic, he allowed his wife to raise their children in the Anglican church.
All four Rossetti children developed artistic and literary inclinations; Maria Francesca wrote about Dante Alighieri before becoming an Anglican nun, Dante Gabriel was a poet and painter, and William Michael was a writer and critic as well as a co-founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood with Dante Gabriel. Young Christina was not intimidated by her older siblings' success. In fact, she thrived during her childhood in London, where she was always surrounded by visiting scholars, artists, authors, and political firebrands.
At the age of 6, Rossetti started to demonstrate the depth of her own literary talent when she recited an original poem about a young girl named Cecelia and the gladiator who protected her. Frances home-schooled her lively youngest daughter, teaching her about classical and religious literature, fairy tales, novels, and the work of visionaries like Alighieri, Petrarch and Keats. Christina Rossetti had an extremely close relationship with her mother, and inherited Frances's intense religious devotion, which would later permeate her written work. In fact, Rossetti's first published poem was called “To My Mother.”
Rossetti wrote "To My Mother" when she was eleven years old, even though it was not until 1847 that her grandfather decided to publish it privately. The years in between proved to be very difficult for the Rossetti family. In 1843, Gabriele began to lose his eyesight and was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He retired from King’s College, leaving a financial vacuum that Frances attempted to fill by teaching while Maria worked as a governess. Gabriele Rossetti, meanwhile, suffered from depression until his death in 1854. Because her mother and siblings were working, Christina’s life became increasingly isolated and she, too, experienced long bouts of melancholy. In addition to her troubled mind, she also suffered from ill health, further compounded by her hypochondria. Poetry became an outlet for Rossetti to navigate these difficult circumstances. She expressed her morbid thoughts and religious zeal through her writing.
Rossetti was quiet and reserved throughout her adolescence, but she still had a large circle of friends, including three serious suitors. When she was seventeen years old, a man named James Collinson proposed to her. He was a shy, young painter involved in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Rossetti accepted, but in 1850, she broke off the engagement because Collinson reverted to Catholicism. Rossetti was a devout follower of Tractarianism, an Anglo-Catholic branch of Christianity. Later, she refused a second marriage proposal from linguist Charles Bagot Cayley, also because of his religious beliefs. Rossetti then refused a third offer of marriage, for unknown reasons, from the painter John Brett.
In 1848, Christina Rossetti made her public debut when two of her poems, "Death’s Chill Between” and “Heart’s Chill Between," appeared in a magazine called The Athenaeum. Later that year, Rossetti began submitting her work for publication in The Germ, a journal that her brothers founded during the emergence of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. She published seven poems under the pseudonym Ellen Alleyne. As a woman, she could not attend Brotherhood meetings, but Christina Rossetti still participated actively in the movement. She was the model for several of her brother Dante’s paintings, including The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1849) and Ecce Ancilla Domini (The Annunciation) (1850). Christina also tried her hand at painting, but her poetry remains her most significant contribution to the Pre-Raphaelite movement.
Christina Rossetti's innovative use of gothic themes, medievalism, chimerical settings, and Christian symbolism established her as an influential luminary in the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic. By writing poetry that demanded meticulous reading and interpretation, Rossetti developed a literary counterpart to the Pre-Raphaelite painting method known as "close-looking." In 1862, Rossetti published Goblin Market and Other Poems, which critics hailed as the first literary success of the movement. Scholars believe that Rossetti was inspired to choose this title by her involvement with St. Mary Magdalene Home for Fallen Women at Highgate Hill. To this day, though, scholars are still locked in heated debates about the interpretation of the titular poem.
The success of Goblin Market led to Rossetti's second collection, The Prince’s Progress and Other Poems in 1866 followed by Commonplace and Other Stories, a set of fairy tales that was published in 1870. However, critics were not quite as impressed by Rossetti's narrative work and encouraged her to return to poetry. She continued to write both poems and fairy tales, and in 1872, she published a didactic nursery rhyme anthology called Sing-Song. Lewis Carroll, a friend of the Rossetti family, lauded the poems and the accompanying illustrations. As a way of showing her mutual admiration, Christina Rossetti wrote a second children’s book, Speaking Likenesses, which resembles of Carroll's nonsense poetry. The three fairytales in Speaking Likenesses are quite dark and intended to intimidate young readers. Rossetti often wrote at children and not for them in order to preach the moral lessons that pervaded Victorian methods of child-rearing. As a result, scholars consider Rossetti's children's stories to be among literature's most terrifying, rivaling the work of the Brothers Grimm. During her time, though, Victorian parents embraced Rossetti's tales because they approved of didactic reading material for their children, even if the children did not like it.
In 1850, Rossetti wrote Maude: Prose and Verse, an autobiographical novel about her challenging teenage years. However, her brother William dismissed it as a frivolous tale for young girls, and the novel was not published until three years after Christina Rossetti's death. Maude offers fascinating insight into the mind of the young Rossetti, who was zealous in her spiritual devotion and morosely obsessed with the reflection of her sins. Rossetti had suffered from ill health all of her life, both physical and mental. In 1871, she was diagnosed with Grave’s Disease, and her symptoms included protruding eyes and the discoloration of her skin. In 1893, she developed breast cancer and died a year later, on December 29th 1894. She is buried in the Highgate Cemetery.
Although her older brother William described Christina as the least bookish member of their literary family, scholars consider Christina Rossetti to be one of the finest poets of the Victorian era. She helped to define the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Like Elizabeth Barrett Browning before her, Rossetti made an impression on a literary world saturated with male voices with her thought-provoking symbolism and deep questioning of human mortality. Today, her work is studied and celebrated by a wide audience, often through her original lyrics for well-known Christmas carols. Although she was appreciated during her lifetime, Christina Rossetti's enduring legacy has had a major impact on twentieth-century feminist critique.
Study Guides on Works by Christina Rossetti
Scholars widely acknowledge Christina Rossetti as one of the greatest Victorian poets and the foremost poet of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. She excelled in using words to invoke the particular aesthetic of the movement. She based some of her...