Christina ROSSETTI (1830-94)

 

When I am dead, my dearest,VWAP211 Rossetti C

Sing no sad songs for me;

Plant thou no roses at my head,

Nor shady cypress tree:

Be the green grass above me

With showers and dewdrops wet:

And if thou wilt, remember,

And if thou wilt, forget.

For long in the Rossetti household she was overshadowed by her colourful brother Gabriel and even, to an extent, by the industrious William.  She suffered from erratic health – perhaps having a mental breakdown when fourteen – and lived a quiet domestic life in the approved Victorian fashion (though her Italian immigrant family led a more artistic and political life than was normally thought proper), helping her ageing mother look after her almost blind father and run the house.  She was deeply religious (sometimes scorned as such by Gabriel) and was a follower of the Tractarian movement.  (Her sister Maria became a nun.)  Christina’s adherence to this Protestant sect contributed to the ending of her engagement to the lesser Pre-Raphaelite artist James Collinson in 1850 when he became a Roman Catholic.  (She never married, though she had one or two other wistfully unconsummated romances.)

Where sunless rivers weep

Their waves into the deep,

She sleeps a charmed sleep;

Awake her not.

She had been writing poetry since childhood (some of which had been privately published by her father) and in that sad 1850 she contributed five poems to her brother’s short-lived Germ magazine under the pseudonym ‘Ellen Alleyn’.  (One of them, Dream Land, begins as above.)  It was not until the following decade that her poems began to be noticed: Macmillan’s Magazine published her in 1861 and her brilliant Goblin Market and Other Poems came out in 1862.  Further books followed slowly, as poetry will.  The Prince’s Progress and Other Poems came in 1866, Sing-Song in 1872, A Pageant and Other Poems in 1881 and Time Flies: A Reading Diary in 1885.  (There was also a less interesting The Face of the Deep: A Devotional Commentary in 1892.)  Incidental poems, often of a religious nature, appeared in periodicals, and she wrote the famous carol In the Bleak Mid-Winter.  The first collected edition of her works, with biography, was published in 1904 under the editorship of her brother William.  ‘Her life,’ he wrote, ‘had two motive powers – religion and affection – hardly a third.’  She had died of breast cancer.

When she was young her brother Gabriel would sometimes use her as a model for his paintings: perhaps the best-known is his Ecce Ancilla Domini in which she features as the Virgin.  In her later life she became less housebound, working through the church for the poor, and she helped provide a refuge in Highgate for the reclamation of prostitutes.  To anyone unfamiliar with her name this summary of her life would suggest that she was a typically over-religious and forgettable Victorian ‘poetess’ but she has, in fact, contributed some of the best loved poems in the national repertoire.

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