Christina Rossetti

Who Shall Deliver Me? from Poems, 1876

God strengthen me to bear myself;
That heaviest weight of all to bear,
Inalienable weight of care.

All others are outside myself;
I lock my door and bar them out
The turmoil, tedium, gad-about.

I lock my door upon myself,
And bar them out; but who shall wall
Self from myself, most loathed of all?

If I could once lay down myself,
And start self-purged upon the race
That all must run ! Death runs apace.

If I could set aside myself,
And start with lightened heart upon
The road by all men overgone!

God harden me against myself,
This coward with pathetic voice
Who craves for ease and rest and joys

Myself, arch-traitor to myself ;
My hollowest friend, my deadliest foe,
My clog whatever road I go.

Yet One there is can curb myself,
Can roll the strangling load from me
Break off the yoke and set me free.

– Christina Georgina Rossetti (5 December 1830 – 29 December 1894)

Rossetti was an English poet who wrote a variety of romantic, devotional, and children’s poems. She is perhaps best known for her long poem Goblin Market, her love poem Remember, and for the words of the Christmas carol In the Bleak Midwinter.

Christina Rossetti was born in London to Gabriele Rossetti, a poet and a political exile from Vasto, Abruzzo, and Frances Polidori, the sister of Lord Byron’s friend and physician, John William Polidori. She had two brothers and a sister: Dante became an influential artist and poet, and William and Maria both became writers. Christina, the youngest, was a lively child. She dictated her first story to her mother before she had learned to write.

Rossetti was educated at home by her mother and father, who had her study religious works, classics, fairy tales and novels. Rossetti delighted in the works of Keats, Scott, Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis. The influence of the work of Dante Alighieri, Petrarch and other Italian writers filled the home and would have a deep impact on Rossetti’s later writing.

In the 1840s, her family faced severe financial difficulties due to the deterioration of her father’s physical and mental health. In 1843, he was diagnosed with persistent bronchitis, possibly tuberculosis, and faced losing his sight. He gave up his teaching post at King’s College and though he lived another 11 years, he suffered from depression and was never physically well again. Rossetti’s mother began teaching to keep the family out of poverty and Maria became a live-in governess, a prospect that Christina Rossetti dreaded. When she was 14, Rossetti suffered a nervous breakdown and left school. Bouts of depression and related illness followed. During this period she, her mother, and her sister became deeply interested in the Anglo-Catholic movement that developed in the Church of England. Religious devotion came to play a major role in Rossetti’s life.

In her late teens, Rossetti became engaged to the painter James Collinson, the first of three suitors. The engagement was broken in 1850 when he reverted to Catholicism. Later she became involved with the linguist Charles Cayley, but declined to marry him, also for religious reasons. The third offer came from the painter John Brett, whom she also refused.

Rossetti sat for several of Dante Rossetti’s most famous paintings. In 1848, she was the model for the Virgin Mary in his first completed oil painting, The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, which was the first work to be inscribed with the initials ‘PRB’, later revealed to signify the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The following year she modelled again for his depiction of the Annunciation, Ecce Ancilla Domini. A line from the above poem “Who shall deliver me?” inspired the famous painting by Fernand Khnopff called “I lock my door upon myself“. In 1849 she became seriously ill again, suffering from depression and sometime around 1857 had a major religious crisis.

Rossetti began writing down and dating her poems from 1842, mostly imitating her favoured poets. From 1847 she began experimenting with verse forms such as sonnets, hymns and ballads; drawing narratives from the Bible, folk tales and the lives of the saints. Her early pieces often feature meditations on death and loss, in the Romantic tradition. She published her first two poems (“Death’s Chill Between” and “Heart’s Chill Between“), which appeared in the Athenaeum, in 1848 when she was 18. Under the pen-name “Ellen Alleyne”, she contributed to the literary magazine, The Germ, published by the Pre-Raphaelites from January – April 1850 and edited by her brother William. This marked the beginning of her public career.

Her most famous collection, Goblin Market and Other Poems, appeared in 1862, when she was 31. It received widespread critical praise, establishing her as the main female poet of the time. Hopkins, Swinburne and Tennyson lauded her work, and with the death of Elizabeth Barrett Browning in 1861 Rossetti was hailed as her natural successor. The title poem is one of Rossetti’s best known works. Although it is ostensibly about two sisters’ misadventures with goblins, critics have interpreted the piece in a variety of ways: seeing it as an allegory about temptation and salvation; a commentary on Victorian gender roles and female agency; and a work about erotic desire and social redemption. Rossetti was a volunteer worker from 1859 to 1870 at the St Mary Magdalene “house of charity” in Highgate, a refuge for former prostitutes and it is suggested Goblin Market may have been inspired by the “fallen women” she came to know. There are parallels with Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner given both poems’ religious themes of temptation, sin and redemption by vicarious suffering. Swinburne in 1883 dedicated his collection A Century of Roundels to Rossetti as she had adopted his roundel form in a number of poems, as exampled by her Wife to Husband. She was ambivalent about women’s suffrage, but many scholars have identified feminist themes in her poetry. She was opposed to slavery (in the American South), cruelty to animals (in the prevalent practice of animal experimentation), and the exploitation of girls in under-age prostitution.

Rossetti maintained a very large circle of friends and correspondents and continued to write and publish for the rest of her life, primarily focusing on devotional writing and children’s poetry. In 1892, Rossetti wrote The Face of the Deep, a book of devotional prose, and oversaw the production of a new and enlarged edition of Sing-Song, published in 1893.

In the later decades of her life, Rossetti suffered from Graves Disease, diagnosed in 1872 suffering a nearly fatal attack in the early 1870s. In 1893, she developed breast cancer and though the tumour was removed, she suffered a recurrence in September 1894. She died in Bloomsbury on 29 December 1894 and was buried in Highgate Cemetery. The place where she died, in Torrington Square, is marked with a stone tablet.

Although Rossetti’s popularity during her lifetime did not approach that of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, her standing remained strong after her death. In the early 20th century Rossetti’s popularity faded in the wake of Modernism. Scholars began to explore Freudian themes in her work, such as religious and sexual repression, reaching for personal, biographical interpretations of her poetry. In the 1970s academics began to critique her work again, looking beyond the lyrical Romantic sweetness to her mastery of prosody and versification. Feminists held her as symbol of constrained female genius, placed as a leader of 19th-century poets. Her work strongly influenced the work of such writers as Ford Madox Ford, Virginia Woolf, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Elizabeth Jennings, and Philip Larkin. Critic Basil de Selincourt stated that she was “all but our greatest woman poet … incomparably our greatest craftswoman … probably in the first twelve of the masters of English verse”.

Rossetti’s Christmas poem “In the Bleak Midwinter” became widely known after her death when set as a Christmas carol first by Gustav Holst, and then by Harold Darke. Her poem “Love Came Down at Christmas” (1885) has also been widely arranged as a carol.

The title of J.K. Rowling’s novel The Cuckoo’s Calling is based on a line in Rossetti’s poem A Dirge.

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