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Studying The Poems of Christina Rossetti

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 4185 words Published: 24th Sep 2021

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Born into a family of artistic talent, it is of little surprise that a young Christina Rossetti first demonstrated her poetic ability at the age of eleven. “To my mother” was a poem written for Christina’s mother Frances Rossetti. The poem is an expression of her love for her mother, it is light and confident, a reflection of her happy and positive childhood self. However this positivity was soon to be overcome by a depressive state which would lead Christina into a morbid self analysis, a disturbance that only heightened the intensity and beauty of her later poetry. A decline in health in her mid-teens was to be the beginning of a life-long difficulty for Christina as her health rarely improved after this period in her life. Rossetti’s increasing devotion to Anglo-Catholicism influenced every aspect of her life; she allowed her faith and love of her God to be at the forefront of her mind from an early age and she made her decisions based upon strict religious values.

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This is evident in her writing as throughout Christina’s life her poems become explicitly religious and moralistic. A link between her obsessive religious following and her bad health was made by her physician Charles Hare who reportedly provided Rossetti with a private diagnosis of ‘religious mania’. One of Rossetti’s most famous poems ‘Goblin Market’ is an erotically charged depiction of female desire and temptation with a religious undertone. The implied repression of desire within Goblin Market has a poignant relevance to Rossetti’s place in Victorian society where female desire was fundamentally repressed and discouraged. With close reference to Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market and other poems, this study aims to explore the theme of repression in the life of Christina Rossetti to discover whether it was a subsequent accomplice to the deterioration of her mental and physical state.

There is an air of mystery surrounding Christina Rossetti. During her teenage years there is little documented on her, and when she emerged, she was reserved, retreating, and defiant of intimate relations. She upheld a barrier of resistance, a rejection towards the generic life of a woman in Victorian society. Her brother, William Michael Rossetti describes this mysterious change in his sister’s character,

“In innate character, she was vivacious, and open to pleasurable expressions, and during her girlhood, one might readily have supposed that she would develop into a woman of expansive heart, fond of society and diversions and taking a part in them of more than average brilliancy. What came to pass was of course quite the contrary”

Christina’s religion had led her to re-evaluate herself and delve so far into her psyche that she had become a stranger to her former mind. William, describes the

‘Odd freakishness which flecked the extreme and almost excessive seriousness of her thought’

Christina appears to have been vulnerable and an introvert, the focus on sin was damaging to her stability. She began to analyse the woman she was growing up to become, perhaps her poetry, the creative outlet that she engaged in for pleasure began to feel like a burden upon her and a hindrance obstructing her relationship with God. Her poetry was something she would spend a great amount of time thinking about, and to a devout Christian, any obstacle that comes between themselves and god is perceived as sin. Being under these demands and restraints, Christina’s health declined she suffered a nervous breakdown. According to William,

“She was not fully fifteen when her health became obviously delicate”2.

Her mental state declined as she had frequent bouts of depression, and physically she would complain of difficulty breathing, heart palpitations and feeling as though she was being suffocated. A valid explanation of these symptoms could be Rossetti’s body reacting to the suffocation she was imposing upon herself in her struggle for spiritual perfection. All of these physical symptoms coincide with that of an anxious state of mind, and her doctor, Charles Hare, had privately diagnosed Christina with ‘religious mania’ but formally diagnosed ‘angina pectoris, real or imagined’ thus supporting the hypothesis that the illness could have been a physical manifestation of Rossetti’s repressed lifestyle1.

Christina had two siblings, and stated that she felt she was ‘beheld far ahead of myself the clever sister and two clever brothers’. It seems Christina was an introvert, and had a deep emotional mind; her poetry emits an air of solitude and desperation. The novel Maude is the most biographical of all Christina’s work and it draws upon this sadness,

“I have gone over again and again, thinking that I should come right in time, and I do not come right’

The novel focuses upon a female heroine who experiences a religious crisis because she does not feel worthy, this mirrors Christina’s difficulties within her faith,

Christina appears to be overcome with the burden of self inspection, the longing for peace of mind and a contentment of existence shadows over her. These poetic statements convey a desperate cry, a plea for guidance, and for renewal. Many other of Christina’s poems including, “A better resurrection” also shares this element of distress, Christina conveys an ache for restoration, a self resurrection. The poem has an immediate negative statement of self

” I have no wit, no words, no tears”

She alludes to wanting to break free from human attachment and emotion in order to attain her spiritual ambition. Christina is acknowledging the absence of emotion in her life and further describes her life as a ‘falling leaf’. The leaf metaphor may be representative of her existence as a woman of faith, defying human emotions, and being discontent with her mortal existence, she welcomes death and the idea of a re-birth in heaven, and she feels herself break away, and fall like a leaf away from the natural world, aware and fearless of the ground where she will eventually rest. The tree in which this leaf has fallen from may represent the natural world, a world of beauty that Christina could not engage with as she resisted earthly wonders, and viewed her time on earth as a test of faith, a stepping stone to a new life. Christina pleads for Christ at the end of the first stanza and asks him to “quicken” her, presumably requesting a hasten death to begin her journey to heaven.

“My life is like a frozen thing,

No bud nor greenness can I see:

Yet rise it shall- the sap of spring

O Jesus, rise in me”

Christina’s resistance and self repression has resulted in a detachment from the world around her. Her inability to see the ‘greenness’ further suggests that she has acquired a blindness to previous visual pleasures. It seems as though she recognises that spring and nature should evoke a happy reaction within her, but instead she is ‘frozen’, unable to appreciate or notice the beauty of a natural wonder. She asks of Christ, “Rise in me”, a yearning for renaissance, she wants to be revived after death in the same way Christ was resurrected. Alternatively critics such as Julia Touché (2007) have suggested that Christina’s plea to Christ to rise within her is alluding to the absence of a love interest or husband in her life and the desire for Christ to fulfil that void.

“A vision of a new spring that comes with Jesus. Disappointed with the love of man she experienced in her life, Rossetti turns to find a substitute in Jesus Christ. He is both begged and expected to bring forth new life in her” 

This view is possible due to Christina’s dissatisfaction with the men who had taken an interest in her and her strong belief that her husband should behold the same faith and ideologies as her own. Perhaps the “greenness” she was blind too was in fact representative of what earth has to offer her in terms of romantic love. She may have been comparing love to the blossoming growths within nature, and expressing her dismay at not even being able to see a possibility, a start, a “bud”.

Rossetti’s poem ‘A portrait’ has an evident melancholy truth to it as it enhances the struggle that Christina endured with her repression and faith. It tells the story of personal restraint and character transformation. The female character chooses to be blinded from material joys and beauty in hope of reaching religious ecstasy after death, a similar theme to “A better resurrection” though this poem is told in a third person narrative, as though Christina is trying to analyse her own persona by looking at it objectively, rather than expression her personal emotion. The poem begins with a description of self control, an example of resisting life’s trivial joys for want of a pure existence.

“She gave up beauty in her tender youth, gave all her hope and joy and pleasant ways; she covered up her eyes lest they should gaze on vanity, and chose the bitter truth”

Beauty is disregarded as are hope and joy, perhaps Christina had found joy in self presentation and materialisms before her devotion to the church or maybe she is implying a relation between her joyful innocence of youth and beauty, and remarking that once stripped of these pleasantries and molded into a religious expectation, she has lost her beauty of character. The reference to eyes being covered may represent a resistance of desire, and that if she does not look towards the things she may not obtain then she will not be tempted towards sin.

“So with calm will she chose and bore the cross

She hated all for love of Jesus Christ”4

The hate for all but Jesus is signifying the way that Christina resisted social norms and personal choice in fear of al all knowing God. The choice of bearing the cross alludes to Christina’s decision to become a practising Christian. The poem concludes with the character being free from pain. Her liberation is described by the bowing of her head as she meets her death on earth with the expectation of raising her head in the company of saints in heaven. Christina seems to be visualising death as though it is her ultimate freedom and purpose. She refers to a bridegroom and asks ‘Shall the bride seek to stay?’ This bridegroom may be that of Jesus Christ as during her life, Rossetti had reserved her romantic and sexual affection, and focused all her attention on Christ himself. It is possible that Christina found that a man on earth could not amount to the love she felt for her saviour in heaven. It shows a great strength in character for the subject of the poem to subject herself to a life of self-denial all in the hope of a happy ending in a world that she could but only envisage. The poem does not talk of heaven or confirm that she awakes there but instead she dies dreaming of the world she longs to reach. The impressive strength and determination towards her religious objective in this poem and many more of Christina’s poetry is alas tainted by the depressed and lonely character she so often conveys.

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Christina’s most famous poem is “Goblin Market”. It is one of the most perplexing and widely interpreted poems of the nineteenth century. The poem introduces us to two female heroines Lizzie and Laura, sisters who are tempted by Goblin Men to eat their delicious fruit; Laura succumbs to temptation and thus falls unwell. Laura is resolved when Lizzie seeks out the Goblin men; she suffers abuse as she refuses to consume their offerings but manages to run home with the fruit still upon her body and invites Lizzie to taste the juices that remain. The characters in the poem depict the institutions within Victorian society that many females of the time wanted to eradicate by seemingly mocking society.

“Laura rose with Lizzie: Fetched milk and honey, milked the cows, Aired and set right to the house, Kneaded cakes of whitest wheat”4

This description of the sisters going about a daily routine of a wife may be Christina expressing a dislike for the expectations of women in Victorian society. Women were to remain innocent, unaware and obedient of their husbands. It appears to be land without masculinity; however the Goblin’s portray sinister male roles. The Goblin’s appear to control the desires of the women by luring them with their tempting fruits despite the woman knowing whether the goblins will follow through with their promises. Laura pays the Goblins for their fruit with a lock of her hair; this could be Christina displaying the offering of one’s body or as a symbol of her cutting away her female purity by allowing herself to be seduced. When Lizzie refuses to eat the fruit of the goblin men they appear to treat her with violence. In terms of sexual interaction, this could be seen as Lizzie refusing to meet the male demands and suffering sexual violence as a result.

It is most probable that the fruit represents female sexuality as many critics have also stated. There are no males within the poem; however the Goblins appear to represent masculine figures, The ambiguity surrounding the intended purpose and consequence of devouring the forbidden fruit mirrors Rossetti’s opinion of the status of women within a Victorian society.

The poem is highly erotically charged and has many interpretations including that of Christian redemption and sexual temptation. In the bible story of Genesis, Jesus Christ proclaimed “A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit” undoubtedly suggesting that the fruits grow from separate trees. Rossetti’s Goblin Market does not appear to suggest a division between the fruits from the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life and instead it appears they are the same fruit, the same temptation from the same source. In Genesis, the two characters Adam and Eve eat some forbidden fruit from the ‘Tree of Knowledge’ and are therefore punished and denied access to the “Tree of Life”. However, in Goblin Market, Laura is denied access to the exact same fruit that was originally forbidden to her. Laura’s recovery is initiated when she tastes the juices of the forbidden fruits for a second time, and this time, the fruit function as a “fiery antidote”, giving her enough to vaccinate her, however not appearing to further feed her addiction, and she is cured. The themes of sin and clarity are therefore merged and unclear by the source of the fruits, as it does not coincide with the biblical view that resisting temptation of fruit is to be moral and that to succumb is a sin. Rossetti’s description of the fruits as they are luring Laura towards them with their charms is highly erotic and appealing.

“Plump unpecked cherries/ Melons and raspberries…Swart-headed mulberries, Wild free-born cranberries,”4

Her use of language evokes an explicitly sexual impression of Laura being overcome with desire, which is further enforced by Lizzie’s insistent discouragement and warnings,

“No” said Lizzie. “No, no, no;

Their offers should not charm us,

Their evil charms would harm us.”4

The intense passion that Rossetti accumulates with her choice of language is seemingly intentional and obvious despite there not being any direct reference to sex within the poem. Rossetti herself had always maintained that the poem was intended for children, however the erotic imagery and sexual language pervades this poem and deems the notion of it being intended as a child’s fable as improper and untrue. The poem has an unexplained, peculiar feel to it. This odd behaviour mirrors Christina’s own queer ways as part of her unwavering religious devotion. Christina’s brother. It is perhaps possible that Rossetti saw this wild exploration of temptation within Goblin Market as a weakness or lapse within her Christian faith, and therefore tried to disguise the poem as that of a different thematic interpretation in an attempt to maintain her strong moral persona.

The fundamental difference between the biblical character of Eve and Christina’s character Laura is that unlike eve, Laura is liberated from her suffering and ultimately achieves redemption. Laura’s recovery is due to the help of her sister Lizzie who sacrifices herself by confronting the Goblin’s herself to obtain more fruit to satisfy her sister’s painful desire. Victorian women were deprived of having a good sexual knowledge or understanding and many women turned to other women or to the church and considered themselves as married to Christ. Christina does not directly mention God within the poem; instead Christ’s sacrifice appears to be symbolized in the way that Lizzie surrenders herself to the Goblin’s on behalf of her ‘fallen’ sister. The Goblin men treat Lizzie harshly and are physically rough; there is an element of rape about the passage, although it is not described as sexual violence. Lizzie fights back and Laura is able to repent in the same way that she fell, by ‘sucking until her lips were sore’. It is entirely possible that Rossetti intended the sacrifice to be similar to that of Christ’s ultimate sacrifice for the sins of humanity. However, an alternative theory is that the sisterly sacrifice could be to emphasise Rossetti’s faith within female friendship, and her belief in the power of sisterhood. Christina was an associate at St Mary Magdalene’s Highgate Home which was a sisterhood that aimed to redeem fallen women and critics argue that this was Christina’s inspiration for the poem itself. The reference ‘fallen’ was applied to a woman who had given into seduction and led a life of sin. Rossetti portrays this rebellion within the character of Laura, the illicit woman, rebellious and unrestrained. Rossetti supervised young reforming prostitutes and her interest in the redemption of fallen women is consistent with the theme of tempted women that prevalent within “Goblin Market” suggesting that the friendship between Lizzie and Laura represented the relationships she had developed within the sisterhood. Having lived a life without a husband and without succumbing to sexual desire, Rossetti may have felt the same sexual temptations that she conveys with such grand description in the poem. Having met fallen women who had experienced a life of sin and watching their recuperation with the help of other women at Highgate, Goblin Market could have been a way for Rossetti to express the extent of her desire as well as to conclude that one who succumbs to desire will fall, like the women she was supervising and that women need a sister or perhaps even Christ to help in repenting and recovery. The reference to the character of Jeanie, a woman who had succumbed to the Goblin’s temptation appears to be representing the the danger of losing ones virginity, and a warning that Laura should not chose this same fate. Anthony H Harrison (2007) implies that Jeanie may also be referenced in the poem to portray the fallen women that Christina was helping at Highgate.

“To help them avoid becoming wholly lost to the world like Jeanie in Goblin Market, these penitents might be guided, as Rossetti had been, toward an imagined realm-distant from this world of “perishable stuff”-where their recalcitrant passions could be ultimately fulfilled”

Women were encouraged to remain innocent within the Victorian period, and this meant that they should be ignorant to sexual knowledge. As Christina was educated at home and also heavily involved within the church, it is likely that she would be very limited in her understanding sex and of the sexual desires she experienced. As a woman resisting sexual temptations for the love of her God, Christina probably felt it was her obligation as a Christian as well as a woman to help these women at Highgate to regain their self respect and to encourage them to repress the incentive an imagined world of eternal life.

. The death of Christina’s father put an end to the innocence and protection that accompanies childhood security, she was left feeling empty. When religion willingly stepped in to fill the void, Christina could not resist. She used the obedient lifestyle and resistance as a suit of armour, protection from the world that she had been sheltered from by her devoted and caring family.

“Roses on a brier” is a short poem focusing upon resistance of desires, particularly that of sexual desire. It expresses an immense sadness as Rossetti portrays a character who is reassuring oneself that her repression shall be rewarded and that her suffering is not in vain. The poem conjures up a feeling of sorrow towards Christina herself as a woman who at times was so evidently discontent but continued with her repressed lifestyle as she was adamantly determined to fulfil her religious aspiration. The poem invites a deeper look and insight into Christina’s sorrow and sexual frustration.

“Be stilled, my passionate heart;

Old earth shall end, new earth shall be;”4

The instruction to “be stilled” is a self reassurance that heaven awaits those who resist their passionate urges and that to succumb would be to jeopardise ones attainment of life within heaven, the “new earth” once she meets her death, the “old earth”. It would be fair to assume that Christina would have had many conversations with herself where by her faithful mind was in conflict with tempted heart.

“Be still and earn thy part

Where shall be no more sea”4

The sea Christina refers to could be a metaphor for the difficulty of life. She asks her strong desire not to yearn for pleasures that she cannot allow herself to experience and so affirms that this life will end and she will achieve religious ecstasy within her new life. It appears she may be even hoping that she will “earn thy part” and secure her place in heaven quite soon as she longs to be free from the restraints that she suffers on earth.

Passion in the form of a sexual partner by means of a husband was never to play a part in Christina’s life. She was twice sought for marriage, however refused both proposals based on religious reasons as both of the men did not conform to the views of the Anglican Church. The first proposal was not long before her seventeenth birthday, it came from an artist friend of her brothers, James Collinson. James was a recent convert from Catholicism and when he decided to convert back, Rossetti called off the engagement. The second marriage proposal was made to Rossetti in the 1860’s by a man called Charles Cayley, that of which she accepted. However when Rossetti discovered he was Agnostic, she refused to marry him, and although it appears she loved him, the two just remained as friends. These dramatic choices were to become symbolic of the control that her religious faith would have upon her personal life.

I would conclude that it is evident from studying Christina Rossetti’s poetry that she suffered emotionally as an effect of her self-imposed repression and one can gather from the documented reports from her doctor Charles Hare and brother William Rossetti that this control of her character would have been the cause of her mental health and subsequently caused physical illness in the form of anxiety. However Christina had suffered illness for the most part of her adult life, that of which were not related to her mental decline, after a life of battling numerous illnesses, she would have been well prepared for her eventual death which was a result of Cancer. Christina often pondered death, both with intrigue and yearning. Her lifelong devotion to her religion increased her curiosity to the heaven that she dreamed she would reach after death. Her resistance towards many of the natural desires that she experienced in her life led her to dream of leaving this world, for it was a world where she would not allow herself live without restriction and to divulge in natural pleasures.

Christina lived her life on this earth without engaging in marriage, having a family of her own or having any sexual experiences. It would be wrong to assume that she was unhappy with this, as this is the life she wanted for herself despite her evident struggle to remain true to her beliefs and repress the desires that tempted her to waver from her faith. Her passion and success in her life derived from her incredible talent as a poet. The words within her poetry were heavily influenced by her religious values and the subsequent difficulties that she endured. This misery and depression she suffered in striving to live a strictly religious lifestyle is what resulted in the beautiful, melancholic and gothic nature of Christina Rossetti’s poetry, the fact that her suffering has increased her success leaves a bittersweet irony tainting the works of this Victorian heroine.


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