This ClassicNote focuses on twelve of Christina Rossetti’s poems that represent a variety of styles and phases in her career. These works span her entire professional life, and include sonnets, narrative poems, devotional literature, and folk tale ballads. Rossetti's style was heavily influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite Movement in the visual arts, which was based on close examination, nature, word-painting, and medieval influences.
Rossetti's first published poem, “Death’s Chill Between” (1848), marked the dawn of her public career, but she had been writing since childhood. Although this poem feels raw and immature in places, Rossetti portrays strength of feeling and a literary talent that are indicators of her bright future. In this poem, Rossetti expresses the theme of tragic love by focusing on a grieving young woman who must come to terms with her lover’s death. Rossetti's next published poem echoed the theme of unrealized passion, but in a different form.
“Maude Clare” (1859) is one of Rossetti's most renowned ballads. It tells the tale of a regal woman whose former lover, Sir Thomas, has married another girl, Nell. Just the newlyweds are leaving the church, Maude Clare accosts them with the details of her affair with Sir Thomas. Maude Clare embodies the Victorian archetype of a scorned woman who is rejected by society because she has failed to meet the expectation of getting married and having a family.
Rossetti also wrote contemplative poems, such as “Up-hill” (1861). This poem is composed of a dialogue between a traveler and a guide about the journey of life and its hardships. The traveler asks about the road ahead, which could either refer to the symbolic journey of life, the transition from life to death, or purgatory.
“Remember” (1862) is a classic Petrarchan sonnet that deals with the acceptance of death. It starts with the narrator asking her lover to remember her when she dies. By the end of the poem, though, she has rescinded her request. This arc represents the Pre-Raphaelite notion of renouncing desire. Rossetti wrote other poems addressing the acceptance of death, including “Baby Lies So Fast Asleep” (1872), which is about infant death.
Rossetti wrote devotional poems as well, including “A Birthday” (1861), “The Convent Threshold” (1862), “De Profundis” (1876), “Love Came Down at Christmas” (1885), and “In the Bleak Midwinter” (1904). The latter two poems celebrate the glory of God’s love at Christmas time. In “De Profundis,” Rossetti questions the structure of the universe and expresses her desire to escape from her human form. “A Birthday” expresses deep joy about a beloved's birthday, which most likely refers to the Second Coming of Christ. In the “Convent Threshold,” Rossetti indicates her devotion to God though the narrator, who dedicates her life to the church.
Rossetti’s most famous piece is a narrative poem titled “Goblin Market” (1862). The poem tells the story of two sisters, Lizzie and Laura, who encounter goblin men selling luscious fruit. Lizzie refers to the cautionary tale of their friend Jeanie, who ate the fruit and then died because she could not have any more. However, Laura gives into temptation, tastes the fruit, and becomes dangerously ill as a result. Lizzie returns to the goblins to buy more fruit to cure Laura, but the goblins will not let her have any. Instead, they force fruit on her mouth, but Lizzie manages not to drink its juice. However, the juice is all over her face when she returns to Laura, who consumes the nectar and is cured. Both women live to tell the tale to their children, saying “There is no friend like a sister.” There are two interpretations of this poem, both of which are accepted in academic circles. One school of thought is that the sisters' experience represents the Christian redemption of the sinner and the other focuses on the poem's implications about gender and sexuality. In both versions, Lizzie is the savior.