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Christina Rossetti Biography | Poet

Photo of Christina Rossetti

Considered to be one of the most important 19th century English women poets, Christina Rossetti was believed by many critics to be the greatest female poet of the Pre-Raphaelite movement following the death of Elizabeth Barrett Brown. Born in London on December 5, 1830 Christina was the youngest of four children born to Italian parents. Her father, Gabriele Rossetti, was also a poet who had been exiled from Abruzzo after supporting the revoked Constitution, while her brother, Dante, was an influential poet and artist and her other siblings, William and Marie, were writers.

Educated at home by her parents, Christina’s studies were also influenced by the variety of Italian writers, artists, scholars, and revolutionaries who frequently stayed in the family’s downtown London home. Though she did not attend college, she was well educated by her father, who served as a professor at King’s College London, and her mother, a trained governess.

Christina Rossetti’s first poems were dated 1842 and by the age of 16, she had written over 50 poems. While her early work included a mixture of ballad, pastoral, lyric, and fantasy forms, more than half of her work is devotional. Her poems often touched on the subjects of infidelity, rejection, the vanity of earthly pleasures, shamefulness, and the perfection of the divine love.

Following her father’s serious decline in health in 1843 that left him blind and unable to work, most of the family was forced to find employment. However, Christina was left at home to care for her father until she, too, became ill in 1845. Biographers are unsure of what ailed her, though there are a number of theories. They include that her symptoms were purely psychosomatic to keep from having to work, that she was mentally ill, or that she had a heart condition. However, much credence is given to the theory that she may have been a victim of paternal incest, which led both her father and Christina to display psychosomatic symptoms. Her recurring depression as an adult, along with the subject matter of her poems, is considered evidence of the alleged abuse.

In 1847, her grandfather privately published Verses, a collection of 39 poems that was well received by family and influential friends. By 1848, two of her poems, “Heart’s Chill Between” and “Death’s Chill Between” were published in The Athenaeum, a prestigious literary journal. In 1849 and 1850, her work appeared in The Germ, a Pre-Raphaelite literary magazine edited by her brother, using the pen name “Ellen Alleyne”.

For the next decade, Christina attempted to help support her family financially, while also volunteering to work as a nurse during the Crimean War, though she was turned down. A few pieces of her work were printed in various anthologies and magazines.

In 1861, her brother submitted her work “Goblin Market” to John Ruskin, an art critic in the hope that he would recommend it to the editor of The Cornhill. Ruskin responded with a legendary criticism that acknowledged the poem’s “beauty and power”, but deemed it unpublishable due to the original meter (later highly praised by other critics) with irregular measure, as well as being “full of quaintnesses and offenses”. Around the same time, three of her poems, “Up-hill”, “A Birthday”, and “An Apple-Gathering” were published by MacMillan’s Magazine.

In 1862, Alexander MacMillan published Goblin Market and Other Poems. The title poem, which is the same one that had received such a harsh critique and details two sisters’ adventures with goblins, is one of her best known works and established her reputation as the foremost female poet of the time. However, critics believe that the poem was actually discussing Victorian gender roles, erotic desire and social redemption, or temptation and salvation.

She continued publishing for the next decade, including “In the Round Tower at Jhansi, June 8, 1857”, “A Triad”, and “No, Thank You, John.  

In 1872 she was diagnosed with Grave’s Disease, but continued to write. During this time, feminist themes became prevalent in her poems, including Wife to Husband. She also vocalized her opposition to slavery, animal experimentation and cruelty, and the exploitation of underage girls in prostitution. In 1892, she published The Face of the Deep, which only contained devotional prose.

Despite three marriage proposals, Christina never married. Once engaged to James Collinson, a painter, the engagement was broken when she converted to Catholicism in 1850. She also refused a proposal by a linguist and a painter. She remained close to her siblings, particularly Dante, throughout adulthood and was even the subject of several of Dante’s paintings.

In 1893, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, though the tumor was removed. She suffered a second bout of breast cancer in 1894, which led to her death on December 29, 1894 in Bloomsbury, a London neighborhood.

 Today, she is still regarded as one of the top 19th century poets. 

Christina Rossetti: Poems | Best Poems | Short Poems | Quotes