Christina Rossetti: Poems

Christina Rossetti: Poems Study Guide

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 work on her own life experiences and observations of nature, but more commonly, Rossetti wrote about about her thoughts on mortality and spiritual existence.

In 1848, The Athenaeum, the leading weekly literary journal of that time, published two of Rossetti's poems. Her elder brother, Dante Gabriele, suggested the titles: “Death’s Chill Between” and “Heart’s Chill Between.” These poems focus on the theme of unrequited love, which is common in Pre-Raphaelite art and in Rossetti’s body of work. However, young Rossetti had very little experience in love, and almost certainly drew inspiration from literature and her own lively imagination. Later in her career, Rossetti's devotional poems became more autobiographical, but in this instance, she expresses fictional emotions. In her early work, though, Rossetti is able to invoke her young female protagonist's pain in a deep, visceral way. Rossetti also contributed seven poems to The Germ, the official journal of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Unfortunately, the periodical folded after publishing only 4 issues.

Meanwhile, Rossetti's singular talent caught the attention of other publications. In 1859, Once a Week Magazine published “Maude Clare,” another tale of thwarted love. Rossetti had composed "Maude Clare," which was originally forty-one stanzas long, between 1857 and 1858. However, Once a Week only printed fifteen stanzas and when the poem was published as part of Goblin Market and Other Poems, the publishers cut out three additional stanzas. In Rossetti's original manuscript, Maude Clare is a much more sympathetic character than in the published versions. This is because the extra stanzas explain her behavior in church and reveal a softer side to Maude's femme fatale persona.

In 1861, the literary periodical MacMillan’s Magazine published “Up-Hill," which Rossetti had penned in 1858. The poem became extremely popular among readers, leading the magazine to publish several more. Later that year, MacMillan’s published “A Birthday” (1857). Although MacMillan's was founded in 1859, Rossetti's work helped to propel its readership, making it into a leading intellectual journal. Concurrently, Rossetti's readership expanded significantly as a result of her relationship with the magazine.

In 1862, Rossetti's collection Goblin Men and Other Poems was published. Rossetti wrote the titular poem, originally titled “A Peep at Goblin Men” in 1859. "Goblin Market" turned out to be her most celebrated poem (as well as her longest). Rossetti dedicated the poem to her sister Maria as a way of paying tribute to their bond. The content was likely inspired by Rossetti's work at the St. Mary Magdalene Highgate Home for Fallen Women, where she ministered to reformed prostitutes. While Rossetti claimed that she never meant for "Goblin Market" to have any underlying moral messages, scholars argue that the piece holds both Christian and feminist implications. Out of Rossetti’s entire body of work, "Goblin Market" remains her most widely studied poem. It launched her literary career, and in turn, inspired Lewis Carroll to write Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Among the non-devotional pieces in Goblin Market and Other Poems is “Remember,” a poem that Rossetti penned in 1849. This sonnet also regularly appears in school curricula because of its elegiac nature and Rossetti's deep exploration of human existence and mortality. Rossetti had always been deeply religious, but in 1845, the Park Village Sisterhood, the First Anglican convent since the Reformation, opened in her parish of Christ Church. As a result, Rossetti underwent a religious crisis in the mid 1850s, which manifested itself in the form of devotional literature like “The Convent Threshold.” Although she wrote it in 1858, Rossetti chose to include "The Convent Threshold" in Goblin Market and Other Poems.

In 1872, Rossetti published a large anthology of nursery rhymes called Sing-Song. “Baby Lies So Fast Asleep” deals with infant death - a frequent reality during Rossetti's time. Rossetti's approach to children’s literature reflects the method of Victorian child-rearing, complete with scare tactics and didactic fairy tales.

In 1876, Rossetti published “Bird Raptures,” which was set to music by British composer Sir Frederic Hymen Cowen. That same year, she published “De Profundis,” inspired by a psalm. Over the years, different composers have set Rossetti’s poetry to music. Harold Darke composed the carol "Christmastide" using Rossetti's 1885 poem "Love Came Down at Christmas." Additionally, “In the Bleak Midwinter” was published posthumously in 1904, and set to music by Gustav Holst in 1906. Three years later, Harold Darke composed a more complex interpretation of Holst's version that is now common material for classical choirs.