Today is the birthday (1830) of Christina Georgina Rossetti, 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.”
Rossetti was born at 38 Charlotte Street (now 105 Hallam Street), 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, 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. Their home was open to visiting Italian scholars, artists and revolutionaries. The family homes in Bloomsbury at 38 and later 50 Charlotte Street were within easy reach of Madame Tussauds, London Zoo, and the newly opened Regent’s Park, which she visited regularly; in contrast to her parents, Rossetti was very much a London child, and, it seems, a happy one (contrasting markedly with later life).
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. At this time her brother William was working for the Excise Office and Dante was at art school, leading Christina’s life at home to become one of increasing isolation. When she was 14, Rossetti suffered a mental breakdown. Bouts of depression and related illnesses followed periodically for the rest of her life. Her mother and her sister became deeply interested in the Anglo-Catholic movement that developed in the Church of England at this time, and religious devotion came to play a major role in Rossetti’s life.
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 modeled again for his depiction of the Annunciation, Ecce Ancilla Domini.
A line from her poem “Who shall deliver me?” inspired the famous painting by Fernand Khnopff, 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 favored 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 has been suggested that “Goblin Market” may have been inspired by the women she came to know there. 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 U.S. 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 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 tumor 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.
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. Here is the Holst setting which is generally preferred for congregational (and my favorite).
Here is the Darke setting, which is generally used for choirs:
Her poem “Love Came Down at Christmas” (1885) has also been widely arranged as a carol.
Rossetti is honored with a feast day on the liturgical calendar of the Anglican Church on 27 April.
Today’s choice of recipe is inspired by this short poem:
Currants On A Bush
Currants on a bush,
And figs upon a stem,
And cherries on a bending bough,
And Ned to gather them.
Here’s my old Victorian favorite, Isabella Beeton. Note that you should use fresh currants for this recipe and not dried. You’ll probably need a friend (Ned perhaps?) who grows them for this because they are not readily available in markets. If you use red currants and add raspberries the crust will be tinged a glorious red on the inside. To honor the poem also note that you could make this pudding with figs or cherries, or some combination thereof.
BLACK or RED CURRANT PUDDING.
1266. INGREDIENTS.—1 quart of red or black currants, measured with the stalks, ¼ lb. of moist sugar, suet crust No. 1215, or butter crust No. 1213.
Mode.—Make, with ¾ lb. of flour, either a suet crust or butter crust (the former is usually made); butter a basin, and line it with part of the crust; put in the currants, which should be stripped from the stalks, and sprinkle the sugar over them; put the cover of the pudding on; make the edges very secure, that the juice does not escape; tie it down with a floured cloth, put it into boiling water, and boil from 2 ½ to 3 hours. Boiled without a basin, allow ½ hour less. We have allowed rather a large proportion of sugar; but we find fruit puddings are so much more juicy and palatable when well sweetened before they are boiled, besides being more economical. A few raspberries added to red-currant pudding are a very nice addition: about ½ pint would be sufficient for the above quantity of fruit. Fruit puddings are very delicious if, when they are turned out of the basin, the crust is browned with a salamander, or put into a very hot oven for a few minutes to colour it: this makes it crisp on the surface.
1215. INGREDIENTS.—To every lb. of flour allow 5 or 6 oz. of beef suet, ½ pint of water.
Mode.—Free the suet from skin and shreds; chop it extremely fine, and rub it well into the flour; work the whole to a smooth paste with the above proportion of water; roll it out, and it is ready for use. This crust is quite rich enough for ordinary purposes, but when a better one is desired, use from ½ to ¾ lb. of suet to every lb. of flour. Some cooks, for rich crusts, pound the suet in a mortar, with a small quantity of butter. It should then be laid on the paste in small pieces, the same as for puff-crust, and will be found exceedingly nice for hot tarts. 5 oz. of suet to every lb. of flour will make a very good crust; and even ¼ lb. will answer very well for children, or where the crust is wanted very plain.