Christina Rossetti: Poems

Christina Rossetti: Poems Themes

Tragic love

The Pre-Raphaelite school of thought placed a high aesthetic value on the idea of unattained love, harkening back to medieval notions of courtship. The underlying belief was that unrealized love preserves an unsullied state of purity. A knight would contemplate the virtues of his beloved from afar, with the distance serving to further safeguard her virtue. This distance between the knight and his maiden could be voluntary or forced, but regardless, the boundary is impenetrable. Rossetti uses this trope several times: Maude Clare is separated from Thomas because he marries another woman, while the young woman in “Death’s Chill Between” is separated from her beloved because he dies. Longing for an impossible love creates an emotional image that easily lends itself to powerful art.

Gender and Sexuality

The themes of gender and sexuality feature most prominently in “Goblin Market," but also surface in some degree throughout Rossetti’s other work. Although Rossetti did not fully identify with feminism, she recognized the injustice that women faced every day. “Goblin Market” confronts the subject of sexual desire, which was taboo in Victorian England. Laura craves the taste of the fruit, but Lizzie warns her that she will lose her youth and bloom, both euphemisms for her virginity. By the standards of Victorian society, women who engaged in premarital sex were considered "fallen" and therefore, no longer "marriageable." Meanwhile, in the Victorian era, women were just beginning to explore their sexuality, which resulted in challenging society’s (read: men's) expectations. Rossetti does not explicitly mention the sexual threats against Lizzie in "Goblin Market." However, Rossetti would have understood the emotional toll of sexual abuse through her work with prostitutes, so the implication is there.

Acceptance of Death

Christina Rossetti's life was plagued with death. Her father died when she was only twenty-four. In addition, tuberculosis was common in the surrounding London homes and infant mortality rates were high. Rossetti's isolated adolescence and zealous devotion to the church led her to spend long periods of time contemplating human mortality. Accepting death is part of the Christian message, especially since Christians believe in the afterlife. In addition to her faith, Rossetti's Pre-Raphaelite companions discouraged material wealth and earthly connections. Rather, Rossetti dwelled on intellectual and religious pursuits, contemplating the soul and the eternal hereafter. Several of her poems reflect her rejection of physical bodies, most notably “Remember,” in which she instructs her lover to forget her so that he can be happy.

Renunciation of Desire

Pre-Raphaelite philosophy held that the fulfillment of earthly desire was transient, if not impossible. Instead, the movement encouraged followers to renounce desire altogether, even the desire to live. This belief resulted in melancholy languor and lugubrious contemplation amongst the Pre-Raphaelites. Rossetti believed that the only lasting fulfillment comes from the acceptance of Christ, which will be complete at his Second Coming. She considered any other pursuits, like love, lust, money and fame, to be vain and fruitless.

Divine Love

Divine love is Jesus Christ's love for his people, which Christians believe manifested itself when he was born as a human baby. Divine love is most evident in the nativity and the crucifixion. Rossetti grew up as a devout Anglican and even contemplated becoming a nun. She took religion very seriously and wrote about her existential experiences in depth. Rossetti expounds upon the wonder of divine love in most of her devotional literature, including “Love Came Down at Christmas” and “In the Bleak Midwinter.” For Rossetti, divine love gave purpose to her existence and a reason to continue living. Rossetti refers to the crucifixion, which illustrates Christ's unconditional sacrifice, in “Goblin Market."

The Sublime

"The sublime" refers to any natural occurrence that cannot be explained. Throughout her poetry, Rossetti makes allusions to the natural world, which reveals her fascination with the sublime. Great Romantic writers, such as Keats, were also preoccupied with the idea of the sublime. Rossetti’s poem “Bird Raptures” resembles Keats’ poem about a nightingale on a beautiful night. For Rossetti, the wonders of the natural world are evidence of God’s glory. In “A Birthday,” Rossetti compares her heart to natural phenomena in order to express her joy at the coming of her beloved Christ.

Religious Doubt

Although Rossetti was devoted to her Anglican faith throughout her lifetime, she questioned her beliefs from time to time. In the 1850s, she suffered a religious crisis, which provided the material for her later devotional poems. "The Convent Threshold" and "De Profundis" question the placement of the universe and Rossetti's purpose within it. Doubt was a normal part of Rossetti's thought process, and guided her spiritual pursuits as well as her writing.