Last reviewed: June 2018
English poet associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
December 5, 1830
December 29, 1894
Christina Georgina Rossetti, born in London on December 5, 1830, to Frances Polidori and Gabriele Rossetti, a Neapolitan political refugee who had settled in England and later became a professor of Italian at King’s College, London. She was the youngest of four children; she had two older brothers, poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti and writer William Michael Rossetti, and an older sister, writer Maria Francesda Rossetti. Christina Rossetti began to write poetry very early in life, and in 1847, when she was seventeen, a small volume of her work was printed at the private press of her grandfather, Gaetano Polidori, in honor of her mother. A year later, in 1848, one of her lyrics was published in the Athenaeum. When Dante Gabriel Rossetti founded the Pre-Raphaelite magazine the Germ in 1850, she became one of its frequent contributors, using the pseudonym Ellen Alleyn. Portrait of Christina Rossetti
Portrait of Christina Rossetti
Twelve years later Rossetti's second volume, Goblin Market, and Other Poems (1862), was published. The title poem received mixed reviews for its fantastic qualities, but her devotional poems were widely praised. Rossetti continued to write until the end of her life. Her third book of poetry, The Prince’s Progress, and Other Poems (1866), brought her recognition as a rising poet, while Sing-Song (1872) was widely appreciated for its musical qualities and playful images for children. Her reputation reached its greatest height with the publication of her fifth book of original verse, A Pageant, and Other Poems (1881), which caused her to be compared with Elizabeth Barrett Browning. During this time, she also published a collection titled Poems (1866, rev. 1888) in the United States, as well as a volume collecting poems from Goblin Market and The Prince’s Progress in 1875.
Although her creative life extended over a long period, her output, in terms of quantity, was not extensive for two reasons. The first had to do with the form of the poetry she wrote and the fact that she was essentially a composer of brief lyrics. Like precious gems, her poems are small but clear and of exceeding value, but because she wrote only when she felt the possibility of perfection, her work is limited. The other reason for her small poetic output was her extreme religious devotion. As she grew older she turned more and more from her poetry to the writing of her religious prose. Her religious interests enhanced her poetry, for the poetry itself is imbued with her religious feelings. Her religious poems often speak of the vanity of earthly life, the expectation of early death, and the hope for heaven as one journeys toward God. Some poems, such as “Three Enemies,” “Weary in Well-Doing,” and “A Better Resurrection,” are specifically religious in theme and subject matter. In all she wrote, at the root—if not in stalk and branch—is her religious preoccupation.
This preoccupation was dominant in her personality as well. Sickly most of her life and an invalid during her last years, she turned more and more from the world until she became almost a complete recluse. In her youth she had refused two different suitors because they did not conform to her Church of England beliefs,choosing instead to remain with her equally devout mother. Having channeled all her emotional energies into her religion, nevertheless in the end she was tormented by doubt, not of her beliefs but of her own worthiness. In this spirit she cried out, in “A Better Resurrection,” “My life is like a faded leaf / My harvest dwindled to a husk.” Her poetry sprang from her inner conflicts over the love of earthly life in tension with a love for the spiritual life beyond the material world. Rossetti died in London on December 29, 1894.