Edited by Jack P.
Christina Rossetti is one of the most significant and enduring poets of the 19th century. Though often dismissed as the 'delicate and religious girl' that Dominic Head makes her out to be, she should in fact be best known as the author of intriguing, haunting and sometimes troubling lyric poetry. Popular and celebrated in her own time, much of her work fell into obscurity over the early 20th Century, before she was rediscovered mostly by feminist critics interested in reading her poetry as more subversive than it was often taken to be: following the publication of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's 1979 work The Madwoman in the Attic, many Victorian women writers were re-examined from a feminist perspective. Consequently, Rossetti's work and legacy has enjoyed greater and more serious critical attention across much of the later 20th Century and up to the present day.
During her lifetime, she published three collections of verse, and contributed poetry to some of the most popular literary journals of the period. As well as poetry, she also published two collections of short stories, a collection of rhymes for children and six works of religious devotional literature. This devotional focus became more prominent in her work in later life, which began to steer away from the guarded radicalism of some of her earlier poetry.
Beyond her devotional and fictional work, she also reveals what Dinah Roe praises as a 'frank, thoughtful style' in her other more academic prose work, which includes thorough and original examinations of Anglican theology conducted in a more conventional academic format than what she attempts in her poetry. Rossetti reveals in these works especially a powerful intellect, strong sense of herself as a writer and a remarkable sense of humour that marks her out as a figure whom a simple classification as either a subversive Feminist or a devout-to-the-point-of-inanity Christian cannot do justice: what is most exceptional about her poetry is that it proves time and time again that regardless of her pain, suffering and oppression in society, the humanity of her and her speakers will always endure and give her strength.
Born in London in 1830, seven years before Queen Victoria ascended the throne, Christina was the youngest child of Gabriele Rossetti, an Italian immigrant who worked as a scholar and teacher of Italian, and Frances Polidori, the daughter of an Italian father and an English mother, who also worked as a teacher. She had three siblings: a sister, Maria, who became a nun, and two brothers, the editor and critic, William Michael and the artist and poet, Dante Gabriel, both of whom were key members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, an artistic movement that they helped found in 1849.
Unlike many Victorian women, this family environment and its connections to various cultural and scholarly networks encouraged her to develop and exert her creative talents: she had access to her father's extensive library, as well as the chance to talk with his colleagues at King's College London, where he worked from 1831 until his death in 1854. Her brothers both encouraged her to publish a volume of poetry titled Verses: Dedicated to my Mother, when she was just seventeen, a decision made possible by her grandfather's promise to fund her efforts.
Despite multiple proposals, all of which were rejected on religious grounds, Rossetti did not marry and for most of her adult life she lived at home with her mother, her sister, and her elder brother, William Michael. It is easy to make the mistake of viewing her life as one of domestic confinement and limitation; however, through her poetry and the intellectual society she was exposed to from a young age, she was able to loosen the societal restraints that held her back. While she was very aware of the 'blank…woman's lot' as her speaker describes it in From the Antique, which dictated much of any Victorian woman's personal and political freedoms, it was in her poetry that she often attempted to create a space for these concerns to be heard.
Intertwined with the joint influences of literature and family, the other main source of authority and inspiration in Rossetti’s life was her religious faith. She, her mother and her sister all attended Christ Church, Albany Street and were devotees of the Oxford Movement, which aimed to bring Anglicanism more closely in line with Catholicism. While she was acutely aware of the limitations placed on women by her religion, she was also a particularly devout believer. It would seem that religion offered Rossetti the hope and power of an escape from the often disappointing and restricting material world that much of her poetry speaks to, as is suggested by this account written by Mackenzie Bell, who quotes a friend's report that:
…towards the close of her life, Christina always sat in the very front pew in church. She remained until the very last before leaving the building, and it was evident from her demeanour that even then she strove to avoid ordinary conversation, evidently feeling that it would disturb her mood of mind.
Despite her willingness to expose and critique her religion for its restricting double standards surrounding gender, it was nevertheless deeply important to her: though Anna Barton's claim that we can 'view her powerful religious faith as a constraining influence on her life and her art' echoes throughout much of her work, her devotion clearly also gave her great strength, such as when she found herself turning towards Christianity following a violent and distressing nervous breakdown in her teenage years.
Rossetti suffered from poor physical health and bouts of mental illness throughout her life, which were often attributed to a diagnosis of 'religious mania'. She died of breast cancer in 1894.
Although the facts of her life are easy to come by, her identity and character can be mysterious to readers of her work, which does not reveal much about her opinions or emotions. She once claimed that it was 'not in [her], and therefore, it [would] never come out of [her], to turn to politics'; however, we cannot deny that, as Germaine Greer argues, 'if [she is] not a feminist poet, then [she is] a poet important for feminists'. Her poems are often implicitly political, with Rossetti generally making a political point but expressing it through the veil of other characters and voices: she adopts a kind of defensive strategy in much of her work, hiding behind various screens and surfaces when a subversive viewpoint is put forward.
Alison Chapman describes this quality of Rossetti’s poetry as a “resistance to inscribing the personal” and argues that it is a deliberate aspect of Rossetti’s style, one that “dramatises both the impossibility of Victorian femininity and the impossibility of the woman poet caught within the sentimental tradition and the conflicted ideology of the Victorian literary marketplace”. In other words, Rossetti avoids the personal in order to resist being reduced to a narrow, incomplete version of herself by a masculine literary tradition and a male-dominated marketplace: her poetry exhibits an awareness that for her and women like her to challenge and interact with this patriarchal society, they must exercise extreme caution.
This conflict between a narrow ideal of femininity and a subversive wish for individuality is arguably present in how we approach Rossetti today: descriptions of her written by friends and family and Rossetti’s own letters together present a sequence of contradictions that can be summed up by two pictures of Rossetti, both done by her brother, Dante Gabriel. The first, a pencil portrait done in 1866, represents the poet in a contemplative pose, her head resting on her hands, her hair tied neatly back from her face, looking into the middle distance (fig. 1). This is Christina as she is often memorialised: reserved, demure, studious and thoughtful.
The second, a private sketch that Dante sent to Christina in around 1865, is called “Christina Rossetti in a tantrum” and depicts the poet storming around her room, breaking mirrors, windows and furniture (fig. 2). The sketch is an affectionate joke that nevertheless gives us a glimpse of a different side to the poet’s character, one whose extreme passion places the domestic tranquillity of her surroundings at risk. Among family, she was known for her sudden, violent temper, which earned her and Dante Gabriel the joint accolade of 'the storms', and reportedly once led to her slashing her arm open with a pair of scissors during a heated argument with her mother.
Perhaps it is these two images of Rossetti in a fit of violence with which we might best remember her: in both, we see her confined to a choking domestic space by her society and reduced to self-destructive violence, which some of her poetry on death could arguably pick up on, out of the frustration of a disappointing, weary world that she and many others faced. It is difficult to know which of Dante Gabriel's two sketches is the more accurate representation, but together they suggest the complexity of Rossetti’s character as one that is not easily reduced to a particular stereotype of Victorian femininity.
 See pages 21-22 for all figure images.
Influences & Themes
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) was established by Dante Gabriel Rossetti in 1848. It was principally a collective of painters united by their dissatisfaction with the artistic establishment and with the teachings of the Royal Academy of Art, where Dante himself had been a student. The group rejected the artistic conventions of the time as set out by the Royal Academy, favouring a less 'mechanised' creative process than the strict rules of art that their contemporaries had to follow; however, it is often difficult to pin down exactly what their principles were. Two key features of their work are the idea of a return to nature and the championing of creative inspiration over reason and logic; as a result, the Brotherhood was often attacked and denounced when its painters turned to religious scenes with these fresh principles and perspectives, with their more naturalistic representation of more 'human' biblical figures often being claimed as blasphemy. An example of this aspect of their work is a painting by John Everett Millais called “Christ in the House of his Parents” (1849-50), which represents Christ as a small child in a carpenter’s shop: if you look closely at it, you will notice that Millais has deliberately put in small details that mark Jesus out more as a human being than divine one.
Christina Rossetti's relationship with the Brotherhood was not straightforward: though Anthony Harrison argues that “in a surprising number of ways the poetry of Christina Rossetti fits the avant-garde pattern that generally characterises Pre-Raphaelite art and poetry”, we cannot overlook how she was actively excluded from the Brotherhood itself. Although she did submit some of her early poems to be published alongside work by her brother and his friends in The Germ (a Pre-Raphaelite Journal), she was still refused entry into the group itself as a full member, with John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt objecting to the prospect when Dante Gabriel suggested it; she was eventually offered membership, but later turned it down, preferring the peripheral position she occupied on the side-lines of the movement.
Nevertheless, Harrison does make a fair point: he draws a comparison between the way the PRB attacked the prevailing wisdom of the artistic establishment in their break from the Royal Academy and return to a more natural style of painting and the way Rossetti’s poetry “provides a critique of the false values and premises of topical work by her contemporaries”. In fact, due to this unique position as both an observer of and occasional participant in their work (she is known to have sat as a model for numerous paintings, an experience she likely draws on in In an Artist's Studio), Rossetti produces poetry that uniquely both reflects and critiques Pre-Raphaelitism: while she seems to welcome their radical break with convention, she remains wary of their less progressive gender politics and sense of importance.
Along with the majority of women associated with the PRB, the most visible aspect of Rossetti’s involvement was as an artist’s model. Her poem, “In An Artist’s Studio” reflects on the relationship between an artist and his muse, recalling her own experience as a Pre-Raphaelite model. She was painted by a number of members of the brotherhood, most frequently by her brother, Dante Gabriel. The best known of his paintings that use Rossetti as a model are a pair that depict scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary: “The Girlhood of Mary Virgin” (fig. 3) and “Ecce Ancilla Domini!” (fig. 4) (which translates as, “Behold, the Handmaiden of the Lord!”), both of which represent scenes of submission and obedience. As we see in this poem, however, the truth of the woman behind the painting is less clear-cut:
One face looks out from all his canvasses,
One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans;
We found her hidden just behind those screens,
That mirror gave back all her loveliness.
A queen in opal or in ruby dress,
A nameless girl in freshest summer greens,
A saint, an angel; – every canvass means
The same one meaning, neither more nor less.
He feeds upon her face by day and night,
And she with true kind eyes looks back on him
Fair as the moon and joyful as the light:
Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.
The octet (the first eight lines) takes the reader on a tour of the studio. It employs repetition to emphasise the monotony that characterises the paintings it contains, which reduce its subject to “the same one meaning, neither more nor less”. At the volta (the “turn” in a sonnet’s argument that makes the transition from the octet to the sestet) the speaker introduces the artist, who has been absent up until this point: he “feeds” on the face of his model, employing a vampiric turn of phrase that implies that implies that the artist represents a threat to his model, but also that his relationship with her is one of dependency: he needs her to sustain himself, which complicates the power dynamics of the poem. The model appears to be the artist’s victim; but at the same time she is granted a kind of subversive agency. She “looks back” at the artist, becoming the observer rather than an object to be observed; and, in the final line we are told that “she haunts his dream”, so that it is she, as much as the vampire artist, who is invested with supernatural force. As a presence that haunts the dream of the artist, the model gains a power that exceeds the limits imposed on her by physical and social reality; indeed, it is certainly interesting that the artist is a part of these limits, and even could be symbolic of them, which gives us a sense of Rossetti's wariness of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
The final lines suggest that the human woman represented in the pictures no longer looks the same as she does in the paintings. She is now “wan with waiting” (although we do not know what she is waiting for) and “with sorrow dim”, so that again Rossetti appears to emphasise the cost of the interaction between artist and model: it would seem that this cycle of supernatural 'feed[ing]' and haunting cannot be sustained.
Given that the poem was written in 1856 but never published until after Rossetti's death, William Michael’s note to “In An Artist’s Studio” is significant, indicating that its more immediate inspiration was Dante’s relationship with a second model, Elizabeth Siddal, whom he eventually married and whose troubled life was cut short in 1862 when she overdosed on laudanum. William’s note draws attention to the fact that the speaker in the poem is neither artist nor muse, but a shadowy “we”, who discloses nothing about herself except her perspective on the scene she describes. Siddal's relationship with her husband was one fraught with anxiety and turbulence, especially after a miscarriage in 1861; moreover, her relationship with the rest of the Rossetti family is thought to have been similarly troubled, with the Rossetti sisters reportedly taking a dislike to her, possibly due to her lower social standing. Nevertheless, if we do read this poem as directly writing on Elizabeth Siddal and Dante Gabriel's relationship, which was often marked by almost obsessive struggles for control and power, with Dante Gabriel making his wife change her name from "Siddal" to "Siddall" in what seems an odd bid for further control of her identity, it reveals Rossetti's unique perspective on the PRB, which often saw her sitting somewhere between muse and artist, ultimately sympathising with both, though generally more so with the muse, as Dinah Roe argues, suggesting that this poem is a direct response to her disapproval of her brother's treatment of his wife as their relationship deteriorated during the 1850s, largely due to accusations of infidelity levelled against Dante Gabriel by his wife, most of which were, unfortunately, likely true.
Beyond exposing her to new ideas of artistic creation and bringing gender politics to the fore through her own experience with the group, the PRB also offered Rossetti a route into publication. In 1850 the brotherhood launched a literary journal, The Germ, which was conceived as a means of disseminating the literary endeavours of the group. Rossetti had begun to publish poetry in journals and periodicals two years earlier and, encouraged by her brother, she contributed poems to each of the four issues in the journal’s short run. These contributions are an important example of her brothers’ involvement in her poetic career as editors and agents.
However, this came with drawbacks: Rossetti frequently allowed her brothers to make editorial changes to her poems, to tweak her use of rhyme and metre so that it was more regular, and to alter the titles of her poems, exerting a kind of control over her published, professional identity that is perhaps not so different from the way D.G. Rossetti’s paintings represented types of feminine identity that accorded with his ideals of submissiveness and often sexualised beauty. Even if we assume that Rossetti did not tolerate any editing she felt was invasive and ultimately retained control over her work, we cannot ignore the significant influence her two brothers would have had over it, especially in the beginnings of her career.
Ultimately, while her relationship with the PRB was often complicated, Rossetti's work arguably would not be the same without it: much of her poetry produces a challenge to a masculine, hierarchical authority that arguably reflects the challenge mounted against the elitist, conformist rules and regulations of the Royal Academy by the PRB, which we might argue stems from her brushes with it throughout her life. Still, we cannot ignore the negatives of her relationship with the group, as discussed in much of her most subversive poems like In an Artist's Studio and her later Monna Innominatacollection of sonnets, which are marked out by their focus on a female speaker 'talking back' to a male artistic establishment, something that arguably reflects her views on the Brotherhood's gender politics. In the end, her poetry is made all the more powerful and nuanced by the complexity of her relationship with the Pre-Raphaelite painters.
The Rossetti Family
As with every writer, Christina Rossetti's relationship with her family, especially her mother, Frances, her father, Gabriele, and her three siblings, Dante Gabriel, William Michael and Maria, likely had a significant influence on her work; however, since we do not know the exact details of her family life, it is difficult to give an authoritative explanation of how her upbringing is reflected in and ultimately shaped her work. Speculation is easy, but also dangerous.
Nevertheless, there are some details of Rossetti's family life that we can see strongly reflected in her work. Whether or not such strongly biographical interpretations are true is probably less important than getting valuable marks for context in an A-level exam, but it is still good practice to be wary of such a focus on what can often seem like educated guesses. One example of this is Jan Marsh's belief that Rossetti's 1845 depressive period, which led to her withdrawing into domestic isolation at 15 years of age, was brought on by some sort of sexual assault attempted by her father, Gabriele, whom she cared for after he entered a depressive period of his own in 1842, after the publication of his writing on Dante Alighieri received harsh critical reviews. Naturally, this sort of accusation is difficult to prove with the information we have; however, it is easy enough to see it reflected in the aggressive masculine sexuality that Rossetti's female speakers and characters so often must contend with, perhaps best embodied by the vicious attacks of the goblins on Laura and Lizzie in Goblin Market.
Similarly, the Rossetti family's relationship with religion, if it did not directly impact Rossetti's religious poetry, arguably can be seen as provoking her interest in this topic that is so prevalent in her work: Dinah Roe has claimed that, of the roughly 1200 poems we have that Rossetti wrote, around half can be identified as explicitly devotional. What is so interesting about her family's attitude towards religion, though, is that it is remarkably split, with Maria, Frances and Christina remaining devout Christians their whole lives, despite William Michael and Dante Gabriel's turning to Atheism in their adult lives. This experience of conflicted faith could well be reflected in some of her more nuanced devotional and religious works that feature what Anna Barton describes as 'speakers [who] often struggle with a lack of reassurance or direct contact with something, probably God': just as the speakers find themselves conflicted over their faith, Rossetti may well have entertained religious doubts following her brothers' conversions to Atheism.
One influence in her family that is commonly overlooked, however, is that of the women: Dinah Roe highlights that 'the 'right people' to consult in Rossetti studies have so far been the male members of her family', whom she argues offer valuable but only partial insight into the life behind the literary figures, suggesting that Rossetti's mother Frances and sister Maria 'were no less important to Christina's literary development', despite their less public presence. Indeed, Mary Arseneau takes this one step further, asserting the importance of Frances' sisters, Charlotte and Eliza Polidori, for whom Christina cared up until their deaths. At present, scholarship that focuses on these more private influences is limited, and so to construct a contextual point or argument around them is difficult even without the struggle of figuring out the exact details of Rossetti's relationships with these women; nevertheless, these figures could well have helped bring out the subtly subversive and challenging streak that features in so much of Rossetti's poetry on gender and the position of women, which her influences in the Pre-Raphelite Brotherhood and the male side of the Rossetti family might have otherwise suppressed.
Charles Cayley, James Collinson and John Brett
Though Rossetti never married, her life was not devoid of romance: Charles Cayley and James Collinson were both significant figures in her life, and John Brett, though from what we see written about him in Rossetti's notebooks he seems more of a nuisance than anything else, was also briefly important, even if he was perhaps not wanted. Collinson was a quiet, retiring member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood: a religious man, who reportedly often fell asleep during group revels and activities, he formed a personal attachment to Christina Rossetti early in the 1850s, and the two were engaged shortly afterwards. Unfortunately, Collinson then suffered a crisis of religious doubt, converting to Roman Catholicism, which, in Rossetti's eyes, made him an incompatible choice, leading to their marriage being called off, a blow from which William Michael claims 'she did not fully recover for years'. Though as with all biographical context it is difficult to make a strong claim on the impact of this experience, we can easily identify a sense of longing and lament for a lost love in poems such as Soeur Louise de la Misericorde, Twice, Shut Out and many more.
Rossetti's relationship with Charles Cayley, who proposed to her having become good friends after they met when he was being taught Italian by Dante Gabriel, ended similarly, although the two still remained friends up until his death. William Michael reports that, again, his proposal was turned down on religious grounds; however, some biographers, who find this repeat of a similar rejection to Collinson's suspicious, have argued that Rossetti was either not in love with him, harboured a secret fear of sex or was even possibly a lesbian. This last possibility is particularly intriguing, and is even potentially supported by some of her poetry, such as Goblin Market's depiction of a strangely sexual sisterly love between Laura and Lizzie; yet unfortunately there is very little biographical evidence to support this (perhaps unsurprisingly, given the stigma against homosexuality in Rossetti's time). Regardless, the feelings surrounding this failed relationship arguably can again be identified in some of Rossetti's more demented, pained meditations on love.
What then makes her relationship with John Brett so interesting in comparison with Cayley and Collinson is her rejection of him and clear attitude towards him: unlike with his predecessors, Brett is viewed with notable scorn (though given Brett's persistence, this is very much understandable), and does not receive the religious rejection that Cayley and Collinson do, instead being bluntly disposed of and even potentially publicly mocked in Rossetti's stinging poem, No, Thank You, John. This reveals a more blunt, outspoken streak in Rossetti's attitude towards men that arguably comes through in poems like Maude Clare, but also her bleaker, blunter poetry such as From the Antique and The Lowest Room, in which she depicts feminine experience in unflinching detail.
Another key area that can be seen to have influenced Rossetti's poetry is her Anglicanism: a relatively modern sect of Protestantism, Anglicans wanted their Christianity to be more in line with Roman Catholicism as practiced in much of Europe, which they felt would bring them closer to God, the latter form of Christianity being the more established one. As Joshua Bocher writes, this movement 'sought to attain an emotional, imaginative connection with Christ', something that we can identify in much of Rossetti's own poetry: it is easy to see how this approach to religion present in her devotional works could have been inspired and encouraged by her specific religious faith. Anglicanism, or more specifically, the Tractarian or Oxford Movement that set out to promote it, also had a direct influence on Rossetti's poetic style: she often cited Edward Pusey's Tractarian poetry as a significant influence on her form and style, looking up to his work.
Her devotion to Anglicanism also led her to spend a significant amount of time helping others and encouraging them to find religion in themselves: despite her application to serve as a nurse alongside Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War being rejected on grounds of ill health in the early 1850s, Rossetti went on to dedicate a significant amount of her time to the inmates of the Saint Mary Magdalene Home for Fallen Women at Highgate Penitentiary, which saw her lending her intellectual skills as a part-time teacher and guiding the Fallen Women in her care on a path of Christian redemption. Her commitment to redemption and devotion is something that undoubtedly comes through in work like Goblin Market, though it is unclear whether her experiences at the Penitentiary from 1850 to 1861 strengthened or created this staunch belief that these women were redeemable from their sins.
Thanks both to the extensive library her father owned and to the connections her family had with the intellectual world of London through her father's job at King's College, Rossetti enjoyed great access to the work of other writers; indeed, the power she wields over her reader is partly enabled by her confident engagement with a wide range of authors. She is a knowing participant in the traditions and conventions of women’s poetry, which often strengthens the arguments and discussions made in her own work.
Like many 19th-century poets (male and female), Rossetti was inspired by the archetypal poetess, the ancient Greek poet, Sappho. Sappho’s works, only recovered as fragments, are a touchstone for a feminine tradition of spontaneous, emotionally charged, tragic love poetry; moreover, they arguably contain the key element of a woman voicing her own concerns and desires that often makes Rossetti's own work so significant and subversive. Today, Sappho is a powerful figure of feminine creativity, but her 19th-century reception risked reducing women’s poetry to a matter of unmediated emotional outpouring, denying its intellectual and artistic potential: in Rossetti's time, she was not taken quite as seriously as perhaps she should have been, something Rossetti was no doubt aware of when writing her own lyric poetry, having chosen a form that takes this emotional outpouring as its core.
Some of Rossetti’s earliest poetry sees her negotiating Sappho’s legacy and positioning herself alongside her more immediate female contemporaries. Her earliest collection includes a poem called “Sappho” (1847), in which the speaker desires that death put an end to her suffering and longs to be “Unconscious that none weep for me”, expressing an interest in the relationship between the dead and the living that runs through much of her later poetry – for example, “After Death” and “Song (When I am Dead my Dearest)” (both 1862) – a connection which suggests that Rossetti’s interest in death is not straightforwardly autobiographical, but is instead part of a performance of a certain kind of feminine artistry.
Reflecting on Rossetti’s relationship with the Sapphic tradition, Yopie Prins writes that “in troping on the trope [of Sappho] she makes explicit a figural logic that has become the defining feature of women’s sentimental lyric in the middle of the 19th century”. In other words, Prins suggests that Rossetti’s poetry self-consciously reflects on the way Sappho becomes a female “figure”, endlessly re-imagined by poets and readers and thereby emptied of stable meaning and significance, just as the muse is in In an Artist's Studio.
Felicia Hemans and Laetitia Elizabeth Landon
Rossetti also aligns herself with other female poets that she read and admired. Her first published collection includes a poem entitled “In the Round Tower at Jhansi, June 8, 1857”, a poem that strongly resembles the work of the renowned late-Romantic poet, Felicia Hemans. Hemans’s hugely popular collection, Records of Women(1828) reimagines historical and mythic narratives of female sacrifice and suffering. “In the Round Tower” takes up this theme, briefly recounting an apocryphal tale of a suicide pact between a British army captain and his wife, made during the Indian Mutiny.
The 1862 collection also includes “L.E.L.” (1862), a tribute to the poet, Laetitia Elizabeth Landon. Also writing within the Sapphic tradition, Landon’s poetry, hugely popular in the early decades of the 19th century, frequently adopted the voice of the love-lorn female artist, whose artistic success is meagre compensation for romantic failure. Reflecting on the relationship between L.E.L. and Rossetti, Angela Leighton observes that Rossetti’s poetry “takes the well-worn woman’s pose ‘to heart’ but somehow emptie[s] it of all the cloying appeal of the earlier poet’s verse, retaining only the shell, the exquisite formal shell of rhyme and metre”: in Leighton's view, Rossetti has learned from the reception of so many other female poets and therefore begun producing a 'next generation' of women's poetry that is perhaps deliberately devoid of the emotional intensity that was often used to deride and belittle her predecessors.
“L.E.L.”, which adopts this “pose”, demonstrates Rossetti’s keen understanding of L.E.L.’s manipulation of the role women play in her poems. The speaker in Rossetti’s poem expresses a suffering that isolates her from normal domestic life and from the creative cycles of the natural world:
Downstairs I laugh, I sport and jest with all:
But in my solitary room above
I turn my face in silence to the wall
My heart is breaking for a little love.
Though winter frosts are done,
And birds pair every one,
And leaves peep out, for springtide is begun.
This isolation is sorrowful, but the reader is struck less by a sense of sorrow than by the beauty of the lines that describe it. The last quatrain demonstrates Rossetti’s command of poetic metre; its perfect iambic rhythm creates a poise and harmony that perhaps feels more authentic than the speaker’s hackneyed emotional state.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
L.E.L also begins with an epigraph that is misattributed to a second 19th-century woman poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Browning, who was one of the most successful poets of her day, also wrote a tribute to L.E.L., called “L.E.L.’s Last Question” and so, by naming Browning in her poem about Landon, Rossetti deliberately positions herself as the aspiring successor to the position of Britain’s most celebrated female poet.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s influence can be seen in Rossetti’s experiments in the sonnet form, especially Monna Innominata (1881), a sequence of fourteen sonnets (“a sonnet of sonnets”), which, like Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850), inverts the conventional Petrarchan set-up in which a male lover expresses his unrequited love to his silent female beloved. Like Barrett Browning, Rossetti gives the woman the speaking role and allows her to break free of the clichés of youth, purity and beauty that are perpetuated by a masculine poetic tradition. The final sonnet of the sequence imagines the female speaker in old age:
Youth gone and beauty gone, what doth remain?
The longing of a heart pent up forlorn,
A silent heart whose silence loves and longs;
The silence of a heart which sang its songs.
Like “Winter: My Secret”, these lines play around with the idea of expression and withholding. Rossetti uses words to point towards a wordless realm that the reader cannot access. The power of silence for women’s poetry is also something that Rossetti learns from Browning, who, in her own sonnet sequence, promises that she will love her beloved “in silence with thy soul” (Sonnet XXI).
Alongside these different poetic influences, Rossetti also took inspiration from writers of fiction. Her interest in dreamscapes, fantasy and the world beyond the grave draws on and combines a number of very diverse literary genres. The title of “The Prince’s Progress”, another narrative poem about a woman waiting for the arrival of her less than reliable prince, recalls John Bunyan’s 17th-century narrative, Pilgrim’s Progress, a textual echo that puts Rossetti’s poetry into contact with a Christian allegorical tradition and provides an illuminating context for the mixture of biblical allusion and bizarre fairy-tale imagery that characterises a significant number of her poems and tales. Indeed, Marie Anceau has claimed that Rossetti's mother often read the Pilgrim's Progress to her daughters during their childhood, which we might argue resulted in it becoming a key influence on Rossetti's own creative work from a young age.
Although Rossetti’s poetry strongly identifies itself as part of a feminine poetic tradition, her influences range widely. Like her brothers, she was a great admirer of the late Romantic poet, John Keats, whose poetic exploration of melancholic states, of the desire for an escape from the mortal world into art or death and his belief in poetry as a space of self-negation (which he called “negative capability”) all resonate with Rossetti’s developing aesthetic.
She also took inspiration from Keats’s narrative poems, which tell fantastic stories of doomed love. Keats’s mythological register is employed in her best-known narrative poem, “Goblin Market” – which is discussed in depth at the end of this guide – and also in an early experiment in narrative poetry, “Repining” (first published in 1850). “Repining” rewrites Keats’s poem, “The Eve of Saint Agnes”, in which a young hero rescues his beloved from her oppressive family in the middle of the night. Rossetti’s version tells the story of a young woman, who is rescued from a condition of isolated imprisonment by a mysterious “young man” who visits her at night.
However, whereas Keats’s heroine is grateful for her rescue, which promises a happy ending in marriage, Rossetti’s heroine is less fortunate. Her “rescuer” takes her to a sequence of different locations, which each show scenes of human terror and suffering. The poem ends with the woman pleading to be allowed to “return to whence I came”. By choosing to return to seclusion and solitude rather than remaining in the mortal world, Rossetti’s heroine reverses the ending of Keats’s poem, forcing the reader to question the romantic fulfilment that Keats’s poem celebrates, something that reflects her often wary, cautious relationship with other writers.
As is typical of Rossetti’s work, the “moral” of this choice is ambiguous. It is, perhaps, a choice of art over life: we first encounter the woman “spinning the weary thread away”, an activity that is often associated with female creativity. But Rossetti also makes significant changes to the story that point towards the possibility of a religious interpretation. As Dinah Roe points out, her heroine, “rather than being awakened sexually, is awakened spiritually”. The poem’s hero is transformed from a lover into a Christ-like figure, whose entreaties – “rise up; be not afraid”, “Rise, and follow me” – echo Jesus’s words to his disciples (Matthew 9:9). “Repining” concludes without revealing whether the woman’s plea for return is answered and so it becomes even more difficult to interpret Rossetti’s attitude towards her story.
Rossetti’s interrogation of Keats's Romanticism situates her poetry alongside the work of other Victorian poets, notably Alfred Tennyson, whose early poems, “The Lady of Shallot” and “Mariana”, also employ the figure of the embowered (isolated, secluded) woman in order to explore the relationship between art and life and to ask whether it might be possible to bridge the two. If the heroine of “Repining” is post-Keatsian, she is also Tennysonian. Her weaving connects her to “The Lady of Shallot” (1832), who “weaves by night and day” and the opening stanza of the poem, which describes the woman “spinning the weary thread away” and complaining, “Come, that I be no more alone”, recalls the refrain of “Mariana” (1830):
She only said, “My life is dreary,
He cometh not,” she said;
She said, “I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!”
In “The Lady of Shallot”, the lady leaves her solitude, bringing down a curse that kills her; “Mariana” ends before any rescue takes place. Like Rossetti, Tennyson expresses a Victorian scepticism about the radical promise of Romanticism; however, unlike Tennyson, Rossetti is able to use the feminine voice of her poetry to enter into artistic debates that move beyond gender to explore broader cultural questions: the female voice becomes a voice that resists (often in vain) the masculine drive of Victorian progress, suggesting a pining for the past that is typical of much of Romanticism. Unlike other Romantic poets who do this, such as Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats, all of whom are reacting to the aftershocks of the Industrial Revolution, Rossetti tends to situate her speakers in a smaller, often more domestic context: it is as if she takes the Romantic "pose" of lament for a utopian vision of the past and translates it into the context of women's suffering for the sake of societal progress, arguably recentring her vision of Romanticism more around women than the men who have driven this development.
However, Rossetti often also builds on and subverts this religion tradition by combining it with a more modern genre: the Gothic. From childhood onwards she was an avid reader of gothic texts, enjoying the work of Ann Radcliffe, whose novels, The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian, represent her father’s native Italy as a place of adventure and feature a sequence of resourceful young heroines – prototypes, perhaps, for Goblin Market’s Lizzie and Laura. This idea of a wild setting may have been important in the influence it could have exerted over Rossetti due to its ideas of the sublime (that is, to give a very basic definition, a natural beauty so strong it becomes overpowering and almost terrifying): in Radcliffe's work, the sublimity of nature contrasts the domestic entrapment both her characters and much of her readership, which was famously majority-female, experienced, something Rossetti's dreamscapes arguably pick up on, leading the reader away from both domestic and artistic confines. Moreover, in this teetering opposition of attraction and repulsion with regards to the sublime landscapes Radcliffe depicts, we arguably find a key issue for Rossetti: the fear and fascination of the unknown, be that embodied by the temptation of the forbidden fruit in Goblin Market, or the potential freedom granted by death in Remember, Song and so many other poems.
Another notable aspect of Radcliffe's Gothic novels is how they often dramatise masculine aggression: many of the villains in her stories are hypermasculine and often sexually aggressive tyrant figures (such as Montoni from The Mysteries of Udolpho), something that could well have shaped Rossetti's own depictions of masculinity in her poetry. That Rossetti’s uncle, John Polidori was the author of a sensational gothic text, The Vampyre, is also significant here, since the vampire often stands as a figure of rampant sexuality in Gothic fiction. This family connection sheds potentially interesting light on all the “sucking” that takes place in Goblin Market and on the sonnet, “In an Artist’s Studio”, in which the speaker describes how the artist “feeds” upon his muse, suggesting that Rossetti might incorporate these Gothic tropes of the male tyrant and (more obliquely) the vampire to give force to the aggressive, often sexual and objectifying, masculinity that she often challenges and subverts: the violence and fleshliness of the Gothic provide the perfect equivalent for the "violence" of patriarchal oppression, allowing Rossetti to voice these concerns through a system of symbols (in the monsters she depicts, be they goblins, crocodiles or even painters) that is less vulnerable to attack by critics of her work.
Whereas in more straightforwardly allegorical literature, character and plot serve a clear interpretive purpose, in Rossetti’s poetry humans and beasts alike exhibit a gothic intensity that grants them a life beyond their allegorical import. The desires, experiences and actions of the characters that populate Rossetti’s narratives frequently take centre stage, refusing to map on to a clear intellectual pattern or structure and opening familiar moral questions up to new and unsettling scrutiny: again, Rossetti draws on previous literature to establish an effective defensive strategy against what we might term masculine interference and imposition.
Considering Rossetti’s vexed attitude towards the woman question, it is possible to view her powerful religious faith as a constraining influence on both her life and her art. In poems like “The Lowest Room”, female resignation and humility appear to be sanctioned by a patriarchal Christianity that condones obedience and self-denial; nevertheless, to view Rossetti's faith as limiting to her artistic goals and the value of her poetry is to overlook her nuanced and potentially radical approach to it.
Indeed, recent criticism has begun to reassess this relationship: Dinah Roe argues that
while feminist scholarship has done much to revive the flagging poetic reputation of Rossetti, it has also established her in the modern imagination as a woman whose faith, gender, and creativity were incompatible impulses whose conflict made her miserable.
Roe thinks this approach “confuses the poetic persona with the poet, and overlooks the centrally important fact that making conflict into art is not a miserable act, but a redemptive one”. In other words, perhaps we might argue that a view of Rossetti's faith as hindering her art neglects the focus of much of her religious-themed work: often, it is through her poetry that she reaches towards a kind of reconciliation of the freedom that religion offers with the double standards and constraining impulses inherent within it. As with everything in her work, the reality it speaks to is often much more complex than it might seem.
As with her exploration of different "poses" a woman might take and the critique of shallow roles left to her gender by society, in some of her more overtly devotional poetry another role is adopted, though in this instance Rossetti's speakers seem to do so more wholeheartedly.
An example of what we might term a "devotional aesthetic" is the poem, “A Birthday”. This ecstatic lyric calls on a cornucopia of images to describe the speaker’s feelings about her love, whose arrival is described, in the poem’s final lines, as “the birthday of my life”. The poem’s rich imagery is drawn from the Old Testament text, The Song of Solomon, a lengthy praise-poem sung to God, whom it frequently compares to a lover. What is so intriguing about it is how it then fits with view of love in Rossetti's poetry as a whole: it seems to fulfil Joshua Bocher's argument that 'Rossetti's love for God always trumps the love of another human', displaying all the joy and feeling of genuine completeness that this loving relationship brings. Unlike anything that the disappointing men that other speakers contend with in poems like No, Thank You, John and Maude Clare have to offer, in A Birthday, the love of God is exalted as profoundly fulfilling. We see a similar attitude appear in Twice, though here the pains of romantic love are still felt keenly as the final stanzas speak to a more reliable love to be found in union with God:
I take my heart in my hand -
I shall not die, but live -
Before Thy face I stand;
I, for Thou callest such:
All that I have I bring,
All that I am I give,
Smile Thou and I shall sing,
But shall not question much.
In this final stanza, the re-use of certain phrases from the beginning of the poem, now reworked with a more passionate, hopeful tone, suggest that it is in devotion to the Christian God and their faith that the speaker finds the strength to carry on despite the pains of the departure of a previous lover, to whom the first half of the poem is addressed. As in A Birthday, a kind of "devotional aesthetic" is adopted once more; however, the speaker in Twice arguably offers a more realistic twist to this joyful performance of religious zeal in their final words. In the last two lines, the affirmation that '[they] shall sing' when smiled upon (another re-used image from earlier in the poem) speaks to this rejuvenated faith and devotion, but is challenged by the comment that the speaker 'shall not question much', which might suggest an awareness of the imperfections of any sort of love: this leads us to believe that the speaker does in fact have doubts about the completeness of God's love as expounded earlier in the poem.
In some of her other religious work, Rossetti is seen to take a step further and actively pursue a more radical view of her faith, using her poetry to challenge double standards and patriarchal restrictions placed on women through the Christian tradition: though she often depicts a pure, unimpeded relationship to between her speakers and their spirituality, many poems also involve a struggle for this connection. One of the most overt examples of this is Shut Out, which first appeared on 10th December 1856 in the English Women’s Review, a publication on women’s position in society that argued it was ‘scarcely better than that of infants or slaves’. The poem is an example of Rossetti’s more complex relationship to her faith, and might be read as a chronicle of women’s experience with the misogyny inherent in the Christian tradition she followed. It depicts a speaker barred re-entry to the Garden of Eden: the story of the Fall of Man as depicted in the Bible is re-interpreted through the eyes of a woman, perhaps Eve herself, as suggested by its original title, What Happened to Me. This title carries the sense of deeply personal injustice that the lyric poem speaks to, the speaker describing how ‘A shadowless spirit kept the gate’ and denied her re-entry to their garden. While Angela Topping has argued that ‘all gardens in Rossetti symbolise the Garden of Eden’, we might identify a wider symbolism here: just as women in the Victorian Era found themselves rejected and derided by both religious and secular institutions, this speaker is barred from their garden, and left with a life that pales in comparison. Though the ‘violet bed’ and ‘lark’ in the final stanza are symbols of faith and freedom, we are reminded that ‘good they are, but not the best;/And dear they are, but not so dear.’, which might again allude to the ‘doubly blank’ lot of women as described in From the Antique.
Perhaps it is in Shut Out, the more complex reality of Rossetti’s religious poetry is best revealed: it is the shifting surface of devotional poetry that allows her to safely explore the politics she outwardly spurned. She is able to strike an expert balance between the conservative and the radical, both covertly critiquing and overtly supporting the values she examines: while we can easily take Shut Out as Lynda Palazzo does and argue that ‘Rossetti has radically rewritten the Fall of Eve in terms of the spiritual and social abuse of women’, it would also be equally valid for us to view it as an analogy for her self-imposed denial of earthly pleasure and fulfilment in search of a redeeming afterlife and her contemplation of a life of religious devotion similar to that of her sister Maria, who had become a nun. It is in this plurality and this space of multiple meanings that Rossetti thrives, and so, while Rhian Williams’ claim that ‘the King James Bible is there in her every speaking’ is undoubtedly true, to view her relationship to her faith as ultimately damaging to her art is to ignore the quiet, subversive depth beneath what is often a deceptively simple surface.
What is most telling of all, however, is that the change of title from What Happened to Me was thought to be due to the influence of Dante Gabriel, who also may have encouraged the poem’s emphasis on the natural, thus dampening the theological challenge it poses. It is not religion that constrains Rossetti’s devotional poetry, but rather the masculine impediments and intrusions into that faith against which she so often seeks to mount a veiled challenge.
Dreams and the Supernatural
One often overlooked area of Rossetti's work that undoubtedly challenges convention and conservatism is her fascination with the supernatural, which in many instances serves to destabilise and subvert accepted tradition. In an early poem titled “My Dream”, a surreal fantasy featuring a fratricidal crocodile king, she suggests that the reason for this interpretive trickiness is that even she does not know what she means:
What can it mean? You ask. I answer not
For meaning, but myself must echo, What?
And tell it as I saw it on the spot.
Rossetti’s answer to a direct question from an imagined interlocutor about the meaning of her dream is evasive and ambiguous. She uses the line break to play with the different potential meanings of “answer”. At first it looks as though she is going to refuse to answer the question at all (“I answer not”). But then she seems to relent, as, reading across the line break, the phrase becomes, “I answer not / For meaning”. But this is still a kind of non-answer, since it claims that the poet cannot, or will not, take responsibility for the way her dream might be interpreted. They can only repeat the question back to the reader, forcing the act of "answering" and shaping the poem into the truth onto us as readers. Their role is to “tell it as [they] saw it”, a phrase that implies openness and honesty, while actually giving nothing away. The speaker protests their own ignorance and innocence; however, the way they manipulate form and language in these lines suggests that they know more than they let on. Nevertheless, due to the fantastical narrative they spin, we are rendered powerless to impose our own reading: the supernatural is used as a tool to destabilise meaning and thus force Rossetti's reader to accept the speaker's voice.
In her later work, it is the imagery of the Gothic and the supernatural that again serves to strengthen any challenge Rossetti makes against convention. Her poem, “In An Artist’s Studio” (published 1896 but written in 1856), reflects on the relationship between an artist and his muse, but uses vampiric imagery to force its reader to question its nature:
One face looks out from all his canvasses,
One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans;
We found her hidden just behind those screens,
That mirror gave back all her loveliness.
A queen in opal or in ruby dress,
A nameless girl in freshest summer greens,
A saint, an angel; – every canvass means
The same one meaning, neither more nor less.
He feeds upon her face by day and night,
And she with true kind eyes looks back on him
Fair as the moon and joyful as the light:
Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.
The octet (the first eight lines) takes the reader on a tour of the studio. Here, Rossetti employs repetition to emphasise the monotony that characterises the paintings it contains, which reduce its subject to “the same one meaning, neither more nor less”. At the volta (the “turn” in a sonnet’s argument that makes the transition from the octet to the sestet) the speaker introduces the artist, who has been absent up until this point.
The speaker then describes how the artist “feeds” on the face of his model, employing a vampiric turn of phrase that introduces physicality and violence into the poem. “Feeds” is powerfully suggestive, implying not only that the artist represents a threat to his model but also that his relationship with her is one of dependency: he needs her to sustain himself. This sense of the artist’s dependence complicates the power dynamics of the poem. The model appears to be the artist’s victim; but at the same time she is granted a kind of subversive agency. She “looks back” at the artist, becoming the observer rather than an object to be observed; and, in the final line we are told that “she haunts his dream”, so that it is she, as much as the vampire artist, who is invested with supernatural force.
As in My Dream, the supernatural is used to offer an alternative vision of an otherwise accepted and normalised scene: as an avid reader of Ann Radcliffe's Gothic novels in her teenage years, Rossetti is well aware of the ability that this genre has to accentuate power dynamics, which she uses here to give a more subversive perspective on the relationship between an artist and his muse. It is through the Gothic monster of the vampire that she is able to confidently express the reality of women's situation in art, something Rossetti knew all too well, having known Elizabeth Siddal and modelled for Pre-Raphaelite painters herself: the supernatural defies the boundaries that might otherwise have been imposed upon her work by dramatising reality in a way that makes Rossetti's point on women in art all the more emphatic.
There is some degree of overlap between Rossetti’s interest in dreaming and the supernatural and her morbid fascination with death and mortality: her poetry on the latter subject is perhaps the logical next step for a poet Anna Barton describes as ‘often more interested in dream worlds than material existence’.
These ideas enrich an understanding of Rossetti’s engagement with the lyric tradition, and of her connections to other female poets. Alongside “Winter: My Secret”, two lyrics that yield to this kind of feminist approach are Rossetti’s poems, “Song” and “Remember” (1862):
When I am dead, my dearest,
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.
I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on, as if in pain:
And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget.
Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you planned:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.
These two poems look forward to a posthumous existence, achieving a provocative balance between self-abnegation and assertion. Whereas poets often use their poems to preserve their memory, the speaker of “Song” implies that they do not care whether their “dearest” remembers or forgets them after they die, a perspective that might suggest their sense of their own insignificance. The second stanza continues this work of obliteration with a description of the speaker’s insensate body, which “haply” (meaning, here, “perhaps”) will remember or forget her love.
At the same time it is impossible not to notice the assertive tone adopted by the speaker. The first stanza is made up of a list of commands with which she assumes full control of her afterlife. Her first instruction to her beloved, that he “sing no sad songs”, contrasts playfully with the title of the poem, drawing attention to the fact that the speaker is singing while her beloved must remain silent. “Remember” begins more conventionally, though no less assertively, with a request for remembrance. But, as the sonnet progresses, it becomes clear that the speaker is offering her memory as a consolation to the person she is addressing rather than as part of a bid for her own posterity.
Like “Song”, “Remember” casts the afterlife as a negative space, one in which things are “not”; but in this second poem emphasis is placed on those aspects of the relationship between the speaker and her beloved that will end in death. When she is “gone away” her lover will not “hold” her, “tell” her, or “counsel” her. Bluntly put, he will no longer exert any control over her.
Indeed, what might originally seem a conventional and potentially trite poem that simply declares the speaker’s love and nothing more could be radically reimagined as a subtly deceptive act: as in much of her more subversive work, Rossetti arguably depicts a speaker adopting a “pose”, though not wholeheartedly. It is easy to dismiss the poem from the outset (from the octave, we identify it as a simple, regular Petrarchan Sonnet, which sticks closely to the rules associated with this form); however, this could be exactly what the speaker intends. The “pose” of meek, trite femininity adopted in the poem, especially in its final couplet, may well have a more serious purpose than the speaker lets on: we might argue that this “pose” allows them to persuade their lover not to grieve for them or remember them and thus retain a vestige of the control they may have exerted over them in their relationship. “Remember” hints at a more conflicted relationship than the seemingly benign wish that their lover should forget them and be happy that ends the poem suggests: the image of the speaker’s lover telling them ‘of our future that you planned’ uses subtle, almost unnoticeable changes in pronouns to allude to a power imbalance in this relationship, while the image of the speaker ‘half-turn[ing] to go’ further suggests conflicted feelings that reinforce this reading of the poem.
However, it is the selfless act at the end of the poem that proves the most subversive: while we may dismiss it as another declaration of conformity to a narrow female role, what it ultimately secures through this is a guarantee that the speaker will be free in death. The speaker arguably diminishes themselves in life in the hope of freedom in death: they ensure that their lover will move on by using the narrow role left to them, subversively feigning total compliance and conformity to secure their ultimate freedom. The key object for them is that they will not be remembered and forced into another “pose” even in death, and thus be freed from the speaker’s control, left to enjoy the separation death permits.
Perhaps, then, death in much of Rossetti’s poetry is seen to be both a place of destruction and loss, as in the ‘darkness and corruption’ of “Remember”, and one of escape and freedom: through its being ultimately uninterpretable to humans, the concept of death often allows Rossetti the space to sketch a more utopian vision of life.
“Dream-Land”, for example, the first of her poems to be published in The Germ, is a poem that represents a female figure idealised in the apparently passive condition of a sleep-like death. The poem appeared in the journal alongside a poem by her brother, called “My Sister’s Sleep”, which tells the story of an imaginary sister, Margaret, who dies in her sleep on Christmas Eve. Dante Gabriel’s “sleeping” sister resembles a statue on a tomb:
The lids were shut; her uplaid arms
Covered her bosom.
She is motionless and blind, and the action of the poem goes on around her: she is marked out as an object, even in death. Meanwhile, in “Dream-Land” the same conceit of death as sleep is handled very differently:
Where sunless rivers weep
Their waves into the deep,
She sleeps a charmed sleep:
Awake her not.
Led by a single star,
She came from very far
To seek where shadows are
Her pleasant lot.
She left the rosy morn,
She left the fields of corn,
For twilight cold and lorn
And water springs.
Through sleep, as through a veil,
She sees the sky look pale,
And hears the nightingale
That sadly sings.
Whereas “My Sister’s Sleep” maintains a domestic focus, “Dream-Land” transports the reader to a kind of hinterland between death and life that is depicted as the creation of a powerful, authoritative imagination, not confined to the limits of feminine domesticity. The second stanza, with its description of the female subject leaving “fields of corn / For twilight cold and lorn” might allude to the myth of Proserpine (later the subject of one of Dante Gabriel’s most well-known paintings (fig. 5)), who was stolen from her mother, Ceres, goddess of agriculture, by Pluto, God of the underworld.
What is most significant about the poem is that in this natural world of the dream land there is a freedom from the masculine definition of feminine experience that plagued Victorian women and pervades "My Sister's Sleep". It is in death that Rossetti finds the space to imagine a world beyond these confines and depicts speakers who are not diminished in death but instead freed of those things that bind them to the mortal world and granted access to a wordless realm (interestingly, "Remember" depicts a peaceful but deadened 'silent land') that their dearest and their readers cannot know.
The liberation achieved in Rossetti’s poem is also reflected by its form. Whereas “My Sister’s Sleep” employs an abba rhyme scheme, the a rhymes enclosing a central couplet in a way that reflects the kind of confined spaces that Dante’s poem inhabits; “Dream-Land” employs an aaabcccb scheme, shortening the fourth and eighth line of each stanza to achieve a sense of openness or incompletion, a silent pause that hints at unspoken possibilities and insists that this dream-like death is not the end. In fact, it would seem that this dream world offers the creative freedom and power that Victorian women were generally denied: it is in this landscape of feeling, not explanation or rationality, that Rossetti depicts that the speaker finds fulfilment.
As a result, we might argue that Rossetti's depiction of death is similar to her depiction of the supernatural, in that it harnesses the force behind this unknowable, uninterpretable entity to place it behind a political agenda that, though guarded, seems nonetheless far from conservative in its treatment of women. In fact, Rossetti's explorations of femininity in the context of dreams and death are arguably so powerful because of how they repurpose and appropriate harmful stereotypes of Victorian femininity to empower: though we might argue that this still keeps a conservative set of values at the heart of femininity, we cannot ignore how creatively Rossetti responds to feminine ideals of submission, meekness and domesticity in her poems on death to ultimately challenge them, such as how in Remember, these ideals are performed to secure a peaceful afterlife beyond a potentially possessive lover's influence.
Love is often a complex topic in Rossetti’s poetry, with her speakers often torn between physical desire and a longing for a more spiritual connection; one resolution that comes out of this in many poems follows the lines of Joshua Bocher’s argument that ‘Rossetti’s love for God always trumps the love of another human’, though this is not to say that much of her work expresses both an awareness of this more sensual and often sexual love, as well as the potential limitations of a spiritual love.
In Twice, Bocher’s argument is proven, with Rossetti’s speaker arguably finding strength and redemption after a painful end to a relationship in the love of God, rather than the lost love of another human. What is so significant about the love of God as depicted in this poem is that it is not judgemental, unlike that of the harsh and even uncaring implied listener to whom the first half of the poem is addressed; moreover, it is this love that grants the female speaker the strength that her ‘woman’s words’ do not. In the poem, love becomes a transcendental force, one capable of escaping beyond the limitations of language and convention.
Of course, this is not to say that Twice does not acknowledge the difficult position of women in Rossetti’s time: in fact, it is this narrow, reductive and constrictive role that the poem uses a kind of love – in this case, love shared between the speaker and God – to escape. In the first three stanzas of the poem, the speaker finds herself trapped within the role of the submissive, meek woman, unable to make herself heard and subjected to the ‘critical eye’ of the implied listener, which arguably stands out as an image of assessment and cold, harsh judgement: the speaker’s ‘heart’, a visceral, powerful symbol of their love and emotion, it met with a disappointingly insincere ‘friendly smile’ and then ‘scanned’, which implies a sanitised, emotionless judgement being placed on it as an object, not as a transcendental force. The third stanza makes the effect of this on the speaker painfully clear, as they tell how they ‘have not often smiled…nor questioned since’, two physical indicators of their grief and disappointment, and have not ‘cared for corn-flowers wild,/Nor sung with the singing bird’, two images of separation from the natural world that arguably call back to this earlier clinical assessment of the unspoken but keenly felt natural love that the speaker had for their implied listener.
Furthermore, perhaps more significantly than this stark depiction of her speaker’s emotional pain itself, Rossetti marks this struggle and grief as a distinctly feminine issue: though they experience this great pain, they are left with ‘a woman’s words’ and thus claim that their implied listener ‘should speak, not [them]’. Though she bows to convention in her submissiveness to this listener’s judgement of her, Rossetti’s speaker still keenly feels the injustice and frustration of the role afforded to her in this scenario by her society: the struggle between these opposing forces of individual will and societal convention is apparent throughout this first half of the poem, especially when they break off in what is a largely confused and conflicted first stanza. Though she initially commands her implied listener to ‘this once hear [her] speak’, the speaker remains unwilling to commit to this stronger, more outspoken view of femininity, breaking off into silence and then professing her own weakness as a woman; yet Rossetti’s clever placement of a hyphen at the end of the fifth line in this stanza gives a sense of striving forward to some sort of talking back or voicing of concerns, suggesting an unspoken will and desire to break with her role that the speaker is otherwise unwilling to unveil in this first half of the poem.
However, despite the pain that this earthly love causes Rossetti’s speaker in Twice, in the last three stanzas renewed hope and strength is found, though not from a fellow human, but rather from God himself, to whom these stanzas are addressed: the change from the lamenting, pained ‘(O my love, O my love)’ that features in the first half of the poem to the more confident, assured ‘O my God, O my God’, which contrasts this first refrain through its doing away with the more guarded, uncertain parentheses, reflects a wider movement within the poem towards the speaker acknowledging the value and love that remains within her. The protection, safety and intimacy that the addressee of the first half of the poem was unable to provide her with is found in the love of God, whom she asks to ‘Refine with fire [her heart’s] gold,/Purge…its dross away’, this metaphor of smelting arguably speaking not only to a sense of greater purity found in this religious, spiritual love but also potentially acknowledging the pain and suffering required to build this speaker’s strength and for her to find her value: just as metal is refined with gold in great heat, the speaker hopes to find what she desires through this great suffering. This wish to escape the meekness and vulnerability that dominated the speaker and made her miserable in the brush with earthly love that was described in the first half of the poem is exchanged for strength coming from a close relationship not with another human but with God: in religious love, we might argue that the speaker finds a way to transcend the limitations imposed on her by her gender role and finally express both her inherent value as a person, as the metaphor of smelting implies, and her own strong voice.
Ultimately, though, Rossetti might allude to potential limitations in this more transcendental, spiritual love too, complicating the message of the poem in the final stanza, which is largely a triumphant rendering of the speaker’s first vulnerable, submissive call that their implied listener might ‘Let [them] fall or stand’:
I take my heart in my hand –
I shall not die, but live –
Before Thy face I stand;
I, for Thou callest such:
All that I have I bring,
All that I am I give,
Smile Thou and I shall sing,
But shall not question much.
What subverts what the poem has built to is this final line, which suggests an awareness of the limits of this religious, devotional love: as Michael O’Donnell writes, this is a speaker ‘haunted by the memory of what happened before when she exposed her feelings so openly for another’. Though the love of God itself seems to lend the speaker strength and remains pure, it is again the human factor that remains to trouble their newfound confidence: it would seem that the speaker can only conceive of God’s love as a variation on the earthly love that has failed her, a conclusion to what is otherwise a more hopeful meditation on love that suggests an element of religious doubt that might make Rossetti’s idealised view of love ultimately unattainable.
Moreover, this struggle with different types of love is examined in a more nuanced way in Soeur Louise de La Misericorde (1674), a poem distinct for its focus more on the physical, sexual desire as opposed to the spiritual connection and love that so many of Rossetti’s more devotional poems look to: it is, at its heart, an examination of the limitations that the human condition forces upon an ideal religious love. This dramatic monologue takes as its subject the historical figure of Louise de la Valliere, a former royal mistress to King Louis XIV of France, who became a nun after renouncing her previous life in keeping with the movement of Jansenism that had taken hold in 17th Century France. Josephine Pearce describes Jansenism as an ‘austere Catholic movement’ that ‘encouraged renunciation and living in religious orders’, and so Rossetti’s choice of a figure so involved in this ideology allows her to examine feelings of regret, shame and hope, her speaker expressing both a longing for and loathing of desire.
Regardless of how the poem handles desire, it is first important that we note its conception in relation to the speaker: though she is a nun, the poem nevertheless begins with her stating that she has ‘desired’, acknowledging the existence of autonomous sexual desire within women and thus challenging the accepted patriarchal view of Rossetti’s time that any female sexuality was only in response to its male counterpart. 1874 DOCTOR’S REPORT FROM DRACULA
However, the poem is not entirely clear in its depiction of desire, with its speaker lamenting the loss of her ‘fire’, which suggests autonomous, innate sexuality, but also questioning ‘Where [the hire is] for which [her] life was hired’, which may imply that this desire was an outside force imposed upon her by her previous life as a royal mistress to Louis XIV.
Ultimately, perhaps this confusion reflects the poem’s wider mood: much of its speaker’s pain seems to come not from one form of love, but rather from the fact that they exist together within her. Indeed, in the final stanza, Rossetti’s speaker curses desire for ‘Stunting [her] hope which might have strained up higher’, an image of failed transcendence and connection to God and Heaven; however, this disdain for desire is then contrasted by the images of the ‘death-struck love’ and ‘disenkindled fire’ that end the poem, which suggest a pain and sadness to the forfeiting of desire for spiritual love that the speaker aims to achieve through both the violence of ‘struck’ as well as the lifeless image of the ‘disenkindled fire’ and the anaphoric tricolon of exclamations that makes up the final couplet of the poem, the repeated long ‘oh’ sounds giving a sense of deep emotional pain.
As a result, the poem does not submit easily to being cast as only a rejection of desire or a ‘straining up’ to spiritual love, but rather examines the difficult position that Rossetti’s society placed women in with regards to the topic of love, denying them happiness in this narrow position of holy devotion that denies any physical pleasure or even the existence of autonomous desire. The speaker in this poem is left wounded by these two conflicting visions of femininity that the actual Soeur Louise embodied in her two roles as both mistress and nun, which arguably forms the basis of a critique of the spiritual love that Rossetti’s speaker, having experienced the failings of human love, turns to in Twice.
Consequently, we can arguably read Soeur Louise as an exploration of repression and regret more than anything else: the speaker stands out as a figure grappling with her own desire, which she has been taught by society to suppress, something reflected in her view that in having this desire she is destined for spiritual failure. What is so potentially subversive about the discussion of love and sexuality in the poem comes in the second stanza, where the closest thing to spiritual transcendence is reached not in singular religious devotion to a patriarchal view of spirituality, but rather through the metaphor of the ‘fount of tears outrunning measure’ that the speaker uses to typify love: it is through this love (notably one that is not marked as exclusively spiritual or sexual in nature) that the speaker finds escape and a potential religious connection. The image is so notable because it carries the idea of a possibly redemptive flood in the ‘fount of tears’, which calls to mind the new beginning that followed the biblical story of the great flood; moreover, it is this painful and deeply physical expression of selfhood that escapes ‘measure’ and evaluation. Unlike the simple life of the nun or the mistress, in which the speaker might find themselves constantly measured and judged, it is in this confusion and pain that they are accepted, ‘outrunning measure’.
In the end, the harsh distinction between spiritual love and forbidden yet autonomous desire that the poem examines is arguably upheld in the speaker’s final lament; nevertheless, it is the ambiguous love that features in the second stanza that arguably accomplishes the religious transcendence that the speaker so deeply desires. Unlike in Twice, and perhaps more along the lines of Goblin Market, this binary of ‘proper’ and ‘improper’ love is shown to be a potential hindrance to any spiritual connection: if anything, what causes Soeur Louise such pain and grief is her inability to establish a coexistence of physical and spiritual love, as caused by the societal views she has taken on.
From these two poems, it is clear that Rossetti’s view on love are, as with anything her work discusses, as subtle as they are subversive: it is perhaps ultimately impossible for us to pin down exactly what her stance is, something the shifting style she perfected lends itself to. What we can definitively say about her poetry on love, however, is that it is distinctly feminine, with both Twice and Soeur Louise, as well as other poems such as Goblin Market and Maude Clare, which touch on the subject but focus more on its relationship with other themes rather than its own nature, taking female speakers. Nuanced and intelligent, Rossetti’s poetry on the topic of love arguably attempts re-write and speak back against the patriarchal views of romance and female sexuality that dominated the area.
The Position of Women
As with so much of her work, Rossetti’s gender politics and stance in the debate over the position of women in society is difficult to accurately describe: Simon Avery gives us a good starting point in his claim that ‘[Rossetti’s] views may not be ‘radical’ as such, but they are far from conservative and often questioning, challenging and potentially subversive’. Ultimately, though, much of her poetry is arguably subversive even for its choice of form. The popular lyric style that Rossetti adopts most frequently is already a strong but subtle statement on the position of women, since it allows her speakers, most of whom seem to be women, that which their society rarely gave them: a voice.
This is shown well in No, Thank You, John, a strikingly outspoken poem notably published in Rossetti’s lifetime alongside Goblin Market in 1862, that her brother, Dante Gabriel, described as ‘utterly foreign to [her] primary impulse’ in a letter. Perhaps what is most striking about it is that not only is it an example of a female speaker talking back to a man and voicing her own concerns and autonomy, but it may well be an instance of autobiographical writing: the ‘John’ mentioned in the title and addressed throughout the poem could certainly be John Brett, a minor Pre-Raphaelite painter who pestered Rossetti for her hand in marriage, only to be turned down multiple times. In fact, William Michael suggests that John Brett is indeed being addressed here, citing a note written in one of Rossetti’s notebooks that ‘The original John was obnoxious because he never gave scope for ‘No, thank you’’. This makes the poem all the more notable for its speaker, who subverts the societal expectation that a woman would desire the obsessive male admiration she receives from John, and inverts the conventional dynamic of a relationship in which she would be expected to silence herself and let the man’s voice dominate: she speaks with such force and strength that John simply does not stand a chance. Though we do not know exactly how Rossetti herself handled John Brett’s proposals of marriage, we do know that she rejected him: perhaps this is a stylised, idealised form of what she might have wished to tell him, or perhaps it even directly reflects her rejection. It is often blunt, and even quite brutal, beginning straight off with the speaker’s declaration that she ‘never said [she] loved’ John: she does not pull her punches, something generally seen as undesirable from a woman of her time.
In fact, in her steadfast rejection of John, she becomes almost stereotypically masculine, something Rossetti develops in the final few stanzas’ imagers of ‘strik[ing] hands as hearty friends’ and the ‘open treaty’ the speaker wishes to conclude with John, both of which arguably have associations with battle and violence, suggesting that perhaps this equality envisioned in the poem is on more masculine terms. Moreover, John is depicted as vulnerable and weak, an object of ‘Pity’ from the other suitors the speaker suggests in the third stanza and through his silenced state. Consequently, though this depiction of a strong woman is remarkable for its steadfast commitment to female strength and the creation of a voice for a woman’s concerns in this relationship, we might argue that Rossetti fails to properly envision a truly alternative paradigm of femininity in No, Thank You, John: the issue that plagues the poem is that it seems only able to subvert and invert, and therefore incapable of offering a truly equal model of a relationship between a man and a woman as many believe it sets out to do.
However, if we look at some of Rossetti’s other more outspoken poetry on the position of women in society, it becomes clear that reading No, Thank You, John as a simple inversion of gender roles to give women the power for a change is perhaps not the most interesting approach. In Maude Clare, for example, Rossetti’s gender politics become much clearer: it would seem that her poetry on this subject is more preoccupied with critiquing a wider system that causes such inequality rather than offering alternatives within this same system. In many ways, the poem is very similar to No, Thank You, John, in its depiction of the staunch, frank Maude Clare, whose appearance at the marriage of Sir Thomas, her former lover, to Nell is remarkable for what Andrew Stewart describes as a ‘strong femininity that suggests that it is possible for women to voice their indignations’. As in No, Thank You, John, Rossetti depicts a character with a strong voice; however, unlike the speaker in No, Thank You, John, Maude Clare’s femininity, typified by power and strength as implied by the simile in the first stanza, which likens her to ‘a queen’ and Nell’s admission that she is ‘taller by the head,/More wise, and much more fair’, is contrasted by Nell’s more submissive, meek adherence to a traditional feminine role of the dutiful, silenced wife.
Indeed, the poem invites us to see them as polar opposites in depicting their fierce clash at its end; however, we might follow Andrew Stewart’s argument that championing Maude Clare over Nell, or vice versa, was ‘not…[Rossetti’s] original intention’. The scenario depicted encourages us to see the both Maude Clare’s stance as out of control and overly dramatic and Nell’s response as disappointingly submissive; yet when we move beyond the confines that the speaker places on the events depicted, which puts Maude Clare and Nell at the centre, it becomes clear that the problem here is neither woman, but rather the pale, ‘falter[ing]’ Sir Thomas, who is as much the victim as he is the perpetrator of this crime of sorts. He finds himself silenced and unable to step up and set things straight, which leaves the two women to handle the dispute over who he loves: thus, Rossetti depicts an example of what happens when the patriarchal system she critiques in the poem both fails and is failed by the men who benefit from it. It is not the two women who are at fault – in fact, today we would perhaps be more inclined to blame Sir Thomas for his inability to stay faithful to one woman: the issue is arguably the system that pits these two women against one another and ignores his failings to instead focus on the feud he has caused.
Therefore, if we return to No, Thank You, John with a view of Rossetti as a poet more interested in critiquing and exposing a wider problematic, defunct system rather than empowering the women trapped within it, its focus on the inversion of gender roles suggests a more powerful message: the equality envisioned by the speaker cannot exist in this system of gender roles and societal expectation, since the power she needs to equal John can only be found in the imbalanced relationship between man and woman that it hoists onto individuals.
This is a view that Rossetti develops in a more explicit light in From the Antique, which Angela Topping has described as a ‘bleak, nihilistic poem that implies injustices’. The narrative perspective it takes is what marks it out from the other two poems we have discussed in this section, since it is notable for its anonymity: all we know is that the speaker is a woman. This arguably allows her to serve as an “everyman” figure, representing the experience of all women in Rossetti’s time. As with the other poems, the imbalance of power between men and women is keenly felt, with the speaker’s first stanza setting things out bleakly and bluntly:
It’s a weary life, it is, she said:
Doubly blank in a woman’s lot:
I wish and I wish I were a man:
Or, better than any being, were not:
That the poem also ends with this idea of life being ‘weary’ creates a cyclical structure across its four stanzas, which reinforces this sense of a looping, tiring life that ultimately has no meaning in it; that this is applied to wider society through the anonymous speaker gives this all the more force and poignancy. What is perhaps most significant about this first stanza, though, is that life is said to be ‘Doubly blank in a woman’s lot’, which carries with it some important implications. Firstly, it alludes to the idea of a wider system as critiqued in Maude Clare and No, Thank You, John, with the idea of ‘a woman’s lot’, which carries with it a sense of an outside force imposing this lot on women, suggesting that the role and life given to them is not natural but rather hoisted upon them. Secondly, the idea that life is ‘Doubly blank’ for women in also important in the context of Rossetti’s continued critique of a defunct system, since it carries with it the implication that life for men is still ‘blank’: again, this would suggest that the biggest obstacle to progress and happiness Rossetti identifies is not even men, but rather the underlying system both men and women occupy, embodied in the bleak final statement that ‘all the rest/Would wake and weary and fall asleep’, the use of polysyndeton and repetition of ‘w’ sounds here giving a sense of monotony and almost hypnotic repetition.
Now that we have examined all these areas and aspects of Rossetti’s work, one thing is clear: she is more than just one simple category, often using her immense intellect and skill as a poet to subtly shift between these various “poses” her readership would have her adopt in order to create a space for her own individuality. Naturally, this can often make her a tricky writer to discuss, both generally and in the format of an A-level essay: since she is deliberately often so difficult to pin down, we can find ourselves struggling to take an effective and productive stance on her work, something that is not all that welcome in the time-pressured environment of an exam. My advice would be that, since this troubles comes because of how the way we need to approach a writer for an exam does not generally lend itself to the nuanced shifts and evasions of Rossetti’s work, you show an appreciation for this nuance in your writing on her: it is tricky to grasp, and often requires a lot of practice, but if you can bring attention to her subversive, challenging approach to conventions as well as her defiance of interpretation and use of subtle defensive strategies to combat the dangers of being interpreted by the patriarchal critical establishment she faced, you will be rewarded in an exam.
Nevertheless, always be mindful of the demands an essay places on you: before you start practising and even before you start revising, the best thing you can do is to look over your exam specification for Rossetti. Make sure that you know what Assessment Objectives the examiners will be looking for in your essay, and how much of them you need to include, since this will help you focus your writing on what is going to get you the most marks.
For example, OCR A-level English Literature exam (as it stands in 2020 – always check online and with your teachers to make sure things haven’t changed) has you write about Rossetti in a comparative essay with one other drama text from before 1900. When you look at the Assessment Objectives for this essay, suddenly it becomes much clearly how you can get the most marks with the knowledge you have: 50% of the 30 marks available on this essay come from AO3, which, for OCR at least, is contextual detail. This means that when you write your essay in the exam, or even for a teacher, you want to reflect this level of contextual detail throughout, while also working to satisfy the other Assessment Objectives. Most importantly, this essay does not require AO2 (that is, close language analysis), and as a result, you will want to ensure that you do not waste any valuable time both in the exam and while revising learning this skill for this essay.
Of course, this will not be the same for every exam board, so do yourself a favour and check over what the essay you need to write about Christina Rossetti requires, and work to satisfy this when you try writing one. If you can, work with a teacher to go over an essay you might already have written and identify how you can shape your writing to get the most marks for your knowledge: if you’ve already put in so much effort learning everything you need to know, it would be a good idea to ensure you can put it to the best use in the exam.
Ultimately, though, I hope that this guide has been of some use to you in your studies, and that in learning a little more about a fascinating and often criminally overlooked figure in literature, you have found a little more strength in the intelligence, persistence and good humour of the woman who, in one famous anecdote, slashed at her own arm with a pair of scissors out of pure rage, her mother having reportedly ‘rebuked’ her. It is this image of a frustrated teenage girl desperately trying to find some way of self-expression, in this case leading to drastic physical consequences, that perhaps best epitomises a complex and infinitely rewarding figure, whose poetry is as much fantastically hopeful as it is painfully despondent and, in the end, powerfully human.