In the Life of Christina Rossetti
Death, love, God, infertility, woman empowerment: all of these are themes found in the work of Christina Rossetti. The theme Rossetti most often returns to, however, is religion. She was a strict believer in the Anglican branch of the Church of England, and readers of her work can find religious undertones in all of her writings. She often paired religion with love, specifically how loving God produced a much greater joy than any human relationship. This theme will be further examined later. Born in London on December 5, 1830, Christina Georgina Rossetti found herself to be the youngest in a family full of artists and critics. Her devotion to religion was influenced by her deeply religious mother, while her creative side was influenced by her father, a poet by the name of Gabriele Rossetti. Thus, she became a poet as well, anonymously publishing her first set of poems in 1842 by her grandfather’s, Gaetano Polidori, printing press in Regent’s Park. Her best known work, Goblin Market and Other Poems, was published in 1862, followed by Prince’s Progress and Other Poems in 1866, and Sing-Song in 1872.
Growing up, Christina Rossetti enjoyed the work of Sir Walton Scott and John Keats, but eventually became interested in Dante Alighieri, an Italian poet. He is best known for La divina comedia, and wrote the majority of his work in Italian, rather than the common Latin. His first major work La vita nuova, was written after the death of his first love, Beatrice Pornari. He idolized Beatrice and found pure joy in simply watching her, and his love for her is conveyed through La vita nuova. Influenced, no doubt, by the love that Dante portrayed, love became one of the key themes in Rossetti’s poetry. Her own relationships also played a key part in her writings. In 1848, she became engaged to James Collison, who was a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. However, this relationship ended because Collison reverted to the Roman Catholic religion, while Rossetti stayed true to Anglicanism. Later in life, she fell in love with Charles Cayley, whom she also never married because of his religion. The influence of these relationships can be seen in her writings of the time, which had the theme of “love equals death” rather than joy. She also used these writings to display her religious beliefs: no love is greater than the love of God.
Christina Rossetti’s work was written and published during the Victorian Era, a period in which many new movements flourished, including the artistic, social, scientific, and religious movements. This period was also characterized by a shift in ideology and beliefs about society, most prominently perhaps in the area of gender and religion.
The religious movement of the era brought about many new forms of religion, some of which challenged the already predominating Christianity. Many questioned religion in general, especially that of Christianity. In 1859, Charles Darwin published his widely-known Origin of Species, which provided one of the first challenges to faith, religion, and the existence of God through its proposal of evolution. In 1860, six clergymen of the Church of England published Essays and Reviews, which provided further criticism of the Bible. These are just a few examples of the many works that made people begin to question their faith and the uniqueness of mankind. Despite this questioning and change of religion, Rossetti remained true to her Evangelicalism and made sure that religion was prominent in her works. It is probably because of these doubts that religion is seen so strongly in her works. While many people began to trust in mankind more than their faith, Rossetti was the complete opposite. Her works show that loving and trusting man will lead to destruction, and that the only way to be truly happy is to love God first.
While religion of the Victorian Era was a cultural challenge to the beliefs of Rossetti, the Pre-Raphaelite movement had great influence on her work. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded by her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, along with William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais. Other members that joined were her brother William, James Collinson, Thomas Woolner, and F. G. Stephens. The Pre-Raphaelites were artists who wished to reform art by rejecting the conventional styles and revitalizing the simple forms of art before Raphael and Michelangelo. They were dedicated to the true purpose of art and romantic ideals, which they believed were painting real figures based on real models. They admired the “honesty and simplicity of early Christian artists” (Severn). The brotherhood created a magazine called The Germ, and the first issue was published in January of 1850. Only three additional issues were published before the magazine stopped publication due to financial failure. However, the magazine proved to have influence during the time period due to its poetry and prose that reflect the belief that art and literature are most important to society and devotion. Being surrounded by this brotherhood and their somewhat religious works that they deemed essential to devotion, Rossetti had the influence of many different artists all anchoring her in religion. Thus her poems battling the topic of loving God and loving man was promoted, especially with her publication of her second set of poems in The Germ in 1852. Dante gave her the pseudonym Ellen Alleyne to publish under.
Rossetti had a close relationship with her brother, Dante Gabriel. Dante was a poet as well as a painter. Christina posed as religious figures for some of his major paintings, which were displayed with the initials PRB to represent the brotherhood. In his first two major paintings, The Girlhood of St Mary Virgin and Ecce Ancilla Domini, both of which are religious paintings that show references to Christ, Christina served as a model for Virgin Mary. Although Dante was not religious like the rest of his family, he was the initiator of the loosely religious The Germ, and created references to Christianity in his paintings. He knew that Christina was deeply religious and looked up to him, and having her pose as religious figures may have kept her grounded in her faith. Even through art, she was still showing her devotion to God.
Love of God vs. Love of Man
This introduction examines the theme of religion in Rossetti’s works. In reading any of her work, readers should take note of the prevalent religious references. Critics have criticized her for combining religion and eroticism in some of her works, such as her most popular poem, Goblin Market. The main theme of the poem is temptation, which interpreted in the religious sense, is a temptation to sin, and the later redemption that follows. It seems as though her poetry that was written about human and earthly relationships took on the theme of death, rather than joy and hope. On the other hand, her poetry about the love of God seems to produce the joy and hope that man lacked. Even further, her poetry that included both the love of God and the love of man together always took on a theme of God’s love overpowering that of man. This introduction will look at the theme of “love of God vs. love of man” as exemplified in “Remember”, “After Death”, and sonnet 6 from Monna Innominata.
Rossetti’s “After Death” demonstrates Rossetti’s feelings toward man and the hopelessness that comes from loving man. It has the theme of death stemming from unreciprocated love, which is common in her poems about human relationships. It begins with the speaker on her death bed, and gives the reader a description of the scene and an objective view of the person mourning for her. As the scene is being set, the speaker says that the curtains are half drawn, which indicates that something is being revealed as well as covered up. In line 5, she begins to describe her lover, saying, “He leaned above me, thinking that I slept/ And could not hear him; but I heard him say,/ ‘Poor child, poor child’: and as he turned away/ Came a deep silence, and I knew he wept.” She goes on to say that her lover did not love her when she was alive, but appreciates her now that she is dead. The last three lines provide this insight: “He did not love me living; but once dead/ He pitied me; and very sweet it is/ To know he still is warm though I am cold.” The word ‘warm’ here implies two meanings: that he is physically warm (alive) and she is cold (dead), and that his heart and feelings towards her are warm, while she is cold and incapable of feeling anymore. Edward Beaman-Hodgkiss says that “whilst one may expect to find her poems unbearably sad and depressing, there was a certain charm to her writing with her subtle feeling of beauty and her almost childlike sense of innocent wonder that balanced out the melancholy.” This balance is seen in “After Death”; although the majority of the poem appears somber and depressing, the last line gives a sense of hope, as the mourner’s newfound love is revealed.
Further, Rossetti’s “Remember” is a poem that demonstrates the theme of absolute depression, destruction, and death stemming from human love. This is clearly seen as the speaker tells her lover to forget about her when she is gone. We see death as early as the second line, in which the speaker says that she will be “gone far away into the silent land,” which could be interpreted to be a cemetery or Heaven. The poem goes on to talk about the loneliness of losing a loved one: no physical contact and no sharing of future plans. It is a bittersweet moment; although the speaker knows that her lover will be in pain because of this loss, she tells him not to be saddened by the memories, but to try to forget about her so that he can be happy again. In the last two lines, the speaker says, “better by far that you should forget and smile than that you should remember and be sad,” which is a contradiction from the first line when she tells him to remember her after her death. This poem exemplifies the depression the theme of death that was common in many of her works about earthly love and relationships.
Analyzing the theme of love further, sonnet 6 will be discussed from Rossetti’s Monna Innominata, a set of 14 sonnets. The sixth sonnet is good to examine because it incorporates both the love of man and the love of God in one poem. It has a much less somber tone than that of After Death and Remember, likely because this sonnet more strongly brings in relationships with God. This type of writing is characteristic of Rossetti; it shows her devotion to her religion. The sonnet begins with the speaker saying that she cannot love any man more than she loves God. In the end the speaker says “I cannot love you if I love not Him,/ I cannot love Him if I love not you.” This is contradictory at first, but on closer inspection one can interpret the relationship between man and God that Rossetti is implying. Joshua Bocher says the key to understanding these crucial lines is to realize that “the narrator would have reverence for and hold belief in God no matter what, but if she could not love her lover, her love for God would be diminished as well“ (Bochner). Rossetti’s upholding of her religious beliefs is clear in this sonnet, as she shows how these two different kinds of love are meant to complement one another and strengthen each other.
Christina Rossetti’s life experiences, influences, and religion played a large role in the development of her poetry. The Pre-Raphaelite movement influenced her simplicity in style and Christian undertones. The effects of her human love relationships are seen in her writing, as death and depression are frequently associated with the love of man. Also, the relationships in her poems seem to fail because of a lack of a religious foundation, reflecting the actual relationships in her life. However, religion has played the largest role in her work, seen either covertly or overtly in all of her pieces. In her battle between the love of God and the love of man, God will always triumph.
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