Christina Rossetti is one of the most famous women writers of the Victorian era, but what do we really know about her life and works? Like Emily Dickinson, she rarely left her home (after an apparent serious illness), but her poetry is filled with a passionate intensity, which intertwines with religious sentiment to create her own brand of unforgettable poetics, with frustrated love, loneliness, and dejection.
Writing about that religiousity and sensuality in Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market," Virginia Woolf once said: "Death, oblivion, and rest lap round your songs with their dark wave." But then, "a sound of scurrying and laughter is heard." And, Woolf says: "You pulled legs; you tweaked noses. You were at war with all humbug and pretence."
We don't know what it was in Rossetti's life that inspired her passionate verse: whether it was a thwarted love affair, or an over-active imagination. The mystery also contributes to much of the mystery, and also to the debates that surround Rossetti's life and work. Wherever there area gaping holes in our knowledge, curiousity compels us to search for a deeper level of understanding.
A Bit of Biography
Christina Georgina Rossetti was born in London on December 5, 1830 to Gabriele and Frances Rossetti. While some scholars believe that her poor health as a child may have been faked, her poor health later in life appears to have been genuinely severe.
Rossetti was educated at home with her brothers, Dante Gabriel and William Michael Rossetti (both of whom became famous for their artistic works). Dante Rossetti (1828-1882) became a painter and writer, who founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848 with four others. William Michael Rossetti (1829-1919) was an important critic, who edited the works of Whitman, Blake, and Shelley.
Rossetti and her brothers followed similar pursuits. William edited "The Germ" (1850), which featured several of Dante's poems and five of Christina's poems, though her poems were published under the pseudonym "Ellen Alleyn."
In 1850, Christina's relationship with the Pre-Raphaelite painter, James Collinson, ended when he rejoined the Catholic Church. The differences in religious beliefs does not appear to have been a debateable issue. Critics have surmised that her later themes of loss and unhappiness in love may have been inspired (at least in part) from her relationship with Collinson. A few years later, in 1866, Christina also rejected Charles Cayley's marriage proposal.
Despite her failures in romance (or perhaps because of these experiences), her literary pursuits continued. Two of her most famous works, "Uphill" and "A Birthday," were published in 1861; and "Goblin Market and Other Poems" was published the following year, while other works include "The Prince's Progress" (1866), "Commonplace and Other Stories" (1870), "Sing-Song, A Nursery Rhyme Book" (1872), "A Pageant and Other Poems" (1881), and "Time Flies: A Reading Diary" (1885). Her work ranges from fantasy, ballads, and love lyrics to sonnets and religious poetry. Of them all, "Goblin Market" still reigns supreme.
Behind the "Goblin Market"
Perhaps it's that classic theme of a woman being tempted, like Eve in the Garden of Eden. The poem can be so many things... It's a child's daydream, a fairy tale, a religious allegory, a psychodrama, an existential reenactment, a Wasteland drama, and so much more.
In "Madwoman in the Attic," Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar write, "'Goblin Market' (1859) depicts multiple heroines, each representing selfhood for women." Later they say, "Obviously the conscious or semiconscious allegorical intention of this narrative poem is sexual/religious. Wicked men offer Laura forbidden fruits, a garden of sensual delights, in exchange for the golden treasure..."
The debates that have raged around Christina Rossetti's life undoubtedly provide an added spark to the study of her work. If there's something we don't quite know about a writer, we tend to talk about it until we think we know better. It must be a mark of a great work of classic literature when the controversy continues to grow after the death of the author.
Virginia Woolf once said of Christina Rossetti: "Your instinct was so pure, so intense that it produced poems that sing like music in one's ears--like a melody by Mozart or an air by Gluck."