Christina Rossetti

5 December 1830–29 December 1894


Christina Rossetti, in William Michael Rossetti, The Family Letters of Christina Georgina Rossetti (London: Brown, Langham & Co., 1908).

CHRISTINA GEORGINA ROSSETTI (1830–1894), poetess, younger daughter of Gabriele and Lavinia Rossetti, was born in Charlotte Street, Portland Place, London, on 5 Dec. 1830. Some account of her father will be found in the memoir of her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. She enjoyed the same educational advantages as the rest of the family, and manifested similar precocity. Her first recorded verses, addressed to her mother on the latter’s birthday, were written on 27 April 1842, and were printed at the same time by her maternal grandfather, Gaetano Polidori (1764-1853), at his private press. A little volume of verse was printed in the same manner in 1847, and when her brothers and their friends established The Germ, in 1850, Christina, though only nineteen, contributed several poems of great beauty, under the pseudonym of “Ellen Alleyne.”

She took her full share in meeting the distressed circumstances which shortly afterwards befell the family through the disablement of its head by illness. She gave lessons in Italian, a language in which, like her brothers, she composed with almost as much freedom as in English, and in which several of her poems were written. After a while she was enabled to devote herself to domestic duties and works of charity.

Miss Rossetti's temperament was profoundly religious, and she found much congenial occupation in church work and the composition of devotional manuals, and works of religious edification. As an ardent Italian patriot she could not well become a Roman catholic, but her devotion assumed a high Anglican character. This had the unfortunate result of causing an estrangement between herself and a suitor to whom she was deeply attached. This circumstance explains much that would otherwise be obscure in her poetry, and accounts for the melancholy and even morbid character of most of it. Few have expressed the agonies of disappointed and hopeless love with equal poignancy, and much of the same spirit pervades her devotional poetry also.

In her first published volume, Goblin Market and other Poems, with two designs by D.G. Rossetti (Cambridge and London, 1802), she attained a height which she never reached afterwards. Her Goblin Market is original in conception, style, and structure, as imaginative as the “Ancient Mariner,” and comparable only to Shakespeare for the insight shown into unhuman and yet spiritual natures. The Prince’s Progress (1860) and A Pageant (1881) are greatly inferior, but are, like Goblin Market, accompanied by lyrical poems of great beauty. In many of these — perhaps most — the thought is either inadequate for a fine piece or is insufficiently wrought out; but when nature and art combine, the result is exquisite. “Dream Love,” “An End,” “L.E.L.,” “A Birthday,” “An Apple Gathering,” may be cited as examples of the perfect lyric, and there are many others.

She had also a special vocation for the sonnet, and her best examples rival her brother’s, gaining in ease and simplicity what they lose in stately magnificence. Except in Goblin Market, however, she never approaches his imaginative or descriptive power. Everywhere else she is, like most poetesses, purely subjective, and in no respect creative. This, no less than the comparative narrowness of her sympathies, sets her below Mrs. Browning, to whom she has been sometimes preferred. At the same time, though by no means immaculate, she greatly excels that very careless writer in artistic construction and purity of diction. Mrs. Browning, however, went on improving to the last day of her life, and the same can by no means be said of Christina Rossetti.

After producing Commonplace (stories) in 1870, and Sing Song (nursery rhymes) in 1872, she devoted herself mainly to the composition of works of religious edification, meritorious in their way, but scarcely affecting to be literature. They obtained, nevertheless, a wide circulation, and probably did more to popularise her name than a second Goblin Market could have done. They include Speaking Likenesses, 1874; Annus Domini (pravers), 1874; Seek and Find, 1879; Called to be Saints: the Minor Festivals, 1881; Letter and Spirit, Notes on the Commandments, 1882; Time Flies: a Reading Diary, 1885; The Face of the Deep: a Commentary on the Revelation, 1892, and Verses, 1893.

Christina Rossetti long led the life of an invalid. For two years — from 1871 to 1873 — her existence hung by a thread, from the attack of a rare and mysterious malady, “exophthalmic bronchocele,” and her health was never again good. She died of cancer after a long illness at her residence in Torrington Square, London, on 29 Dec. 1894, and was buried at Highgate cemetery on 2 Jan. 1895. Her portrait, with that of her mother, drawn in tinted crayons by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, is in the National Portrait Gallery, London. Her unpublished poems, with many collected from periodicals, were printed by her surviving brother, Mr. W.M. Rossetti, in 1896 as New Poems. Prefixed is a portrait of her at the age of eighteen, from a pencil sketch by her brother Dante. These verses are in most cases too slight in theme or too unfinished to add anything to her reputation. But Christina Rossetti’s character was so interesting, and her feeling so intense, that few of even her most unimportant lyrics are devoid of some touch of genius worthy of preservation. At the same time her reputation would certainly have stood higher if she had produced less or burned more. No excision, however, could have removed the taint of disease which clings to her most beautiful poetry, whether secular or religious, Goblin Market excepted.

by Richard Garnett
Dictionary of National Biography, vol. 49 (1897)


Featured Hymns:

Love came down at Christmas

Published Collections:

Note: American editions not listed here.
Individual songs and leaflets also not listed.

To My Mother on the Anniversary of Her Birth (1842): WorldCat

Verses (1847): WorldCat

Goblin Market and Other Poems

1st ed. (1862): PDF
2nd ed. (1865): PDF
New ed. with Prince’s Progress, etc. (1875): PDF
Illustrated by L. Housman (1893): WorldCat

The Prince’s Progress, and Other Poems (1866): PDF

Commonplace, and Other Short Stories (1870): PDF

Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book

1st ed. (1872): WorldCat
— (1893): PDF

Speaking Likenesses (1874): PDF

Annus Domini: A Prayer for Each Day of the Year (1875): WorldCat

Seek and Find (1879): PDF

A Pageant and Other Poems (1881): PDF

Called to Be Saints (1881): PDF

Letter and Spirit: Notes on the Commandments (1883): PDF

Time Flies (1885): PDF

The Face of the Deep (1892): PDF

New Poems: Hitherto Unpublished or Uncollected (1896): PDF

Maude: A Story for Girls (1897): HathiTrust

see also:

The Germ (1850 / 1901): PDF

“Up-Hill” in MacMillan’s Magazine (Feb. 1861): HathiTrust

Poems: An Offering to Lancashire, ed. Isa Craig (1863): HathiTrust

Lyra Eucharistica, ed. Orby Shipley (1st ed., 1863): PDF | (2nd ed.): PDF
Lyra Messianica,
ed. Orby Shipley (1864): PDF
Lyra Mystica,
ed. Orby Shipley (1865): PDF

Children’s Hymn Book, ed. Wm. How, Mrs. C. Brock (1881): HathiTrust

The Athenaeum : HathiTrust

Editions:

Poems

1st ed. (?)
American ed. (Boston, 1866): PDF
American ed., rev. & enl. (1876): PDF
New & enl. (London, 1890): Archive.org

Verses (1893): PDF

Poetical Works, ed. William Michael Rossetti (1904): Archive.org

The Complete Poems of Christina Rossetti, ed. Rebecca W. Crump, 3 vols. (Louisiana State University, 1979-1990).

The Letters of Christina Rossetti, ed. Antony H. Harrison, 4 vols. (Univ. Press of Virginia, 1997-2004)

Manuscripts:

For a list of MS holdings in multiple libraries, see the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and add the Christina Rossetti collection, Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library: http://hdl.handle.net/10079/fa/beinecke.crosset

Related Resources:

W. Garrett Horder, “Christina Georgina Rossetti,” A Dictionary of Hymnology, ed. John Julian (London, 1892), p. 978: Google Books

Theodore Watts, “Christina Georgine Rossetti,” The Athenaeum, No. 3506 (5 Jan. 1895), pp. 16-18: HathiTrust

Richard Garnett, “Christina Georgina Rossetti” Dictionary of National Biography, vol. 49, ed. Sidney Lee (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1897). pp. 282-284: HathiTrust

Mackenzie Bell, Christina Rossetti: A Biographical and Critical Study (London: Thomas Burleigh, 1898): PDF

William Michael Rossetti, The Family Letters of Christina Georgina Rossetti (London: Brown, Langham & Co., 1908): PDF

Harry Boynton Caldwell, Christina Rossetti's Monna Innominata: Criticism, Tradition, Interpretation, thesis (Nashville: Vanderbilt University, 1961): WorldCat

Lona Mosk Packer, Christina Rossetti (Berkeley: University of California, 1963): WorldCat

Georgina Battiscombe, Christina Rossetti: a Divided Life (London: Longmans, Green for the British Council, 1981).

Kathleen Jones, Learning Not to Be First: The Life of Christina Rossetti (Oxford: University Press, 1992): WorldCat

Jan Marsh, Christina Rossetti (London: J.M. Dent, 1996): WorldCat

Frances Thomas, Christina Rossetti (Virago Press, 2011): WorldCat

Lindsay Duguid, “Christina Georgina Rossetti,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:
https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/24139

J.R. Watson, “Christina Georgina Rossetti,” Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology:
http://www.hymnology.co.uk/c/christina-georgina-rossetti

Christina Georgina Rossetti, Hymnary.org:
https://hymnary.org/person/Rossetti_CG