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 f