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Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) and her poetry have become a staple for female poets in the Victorian period. Modern critic, Antony Harrison has remarked that her work has a feminist agenda to some degree and by doing so has challenged nineteenth-century critics, who have primarily focused on examinations of Rossetti on the poet’s reticence and her renunciation of this world in favor of the afterlife. The empowering elements of Rossetti’s work have undeniably been replicated throughout the generations, and the increasingly prominent concept of feminism has become more significant in modern literature and poetry. Since the 1970s, feminist scholars have noted that much of Rossetti’s work contains subtle critiques of nineteenth-century society’s treatment of women. Although it has been recognized that Rossetti was no radical feminist- she even rejected the notion of female suffrage. Despite this, Rosetti was known to explore complex relationships between women, often focusing on the security and benefits of a strong sisterhood, the restrictions imposed upon women, the difficulties facing a female writer and gender ideology. Some critics also argue that her religious verse offers new readings of the Christian scriptures with a uniquely feminist understanding and that her work, in general, offers a critique of the treatment of women in her age despite the fact she did not overtly challenge the social order.
Rossetti is best known for her ballads and her mystic religious lyrics. Her poetry is marked by symbolism and intense feeling. Rossetti’s best-known work, Goblin Market, and Other Poems were published in 1862. The collection established Rossetti as a significant voice in Victorian poetry. The Prince’s Progress and Other Poems, appeared in 1866 followed by Sing-Song, a collection of verse for children, in 1872 (with illustrations by Arthur Hughes). By the 1880s, recurrent bouts of Graves’ disease, a thyroid disorder, made Rossetti an invalid and ended her attempts to work as a governess. While the illness restricted her social life, she continued to write poems. Among her, later works are A Pageant and Other Poems (1881), and The Face of the Deep (1892). Rossetti also wrote religious prose works, such as Seek and Find (1879), Called to Be Saints (1881) and The Face of the Deep (1892). In 1891, Rossetti developed cancer, of which she died in London on December 29, 1894. Rossetti’s brother, William Michael, edited her collected works in 1904, but the Complete Poems were not published before 1979. Christina Rossetti is increasingly being reconsidered a major Victorian poet. She has been compared to Emily Dickinson but the similarity is more in the choice of spiritual topics than in poetic approach, Rossetti’s poetry being one of the intense feelings, her technique refined within the forms established in her time. Her work is generally focused on spiritual love and subtle criticism, which is established through symbolism and allegories.
Soon after the publication of Goblin Market, and Other Poems, the British Quarterly Review, a highly respected literary journal of the day, commented that all the poems were “marked by beauty and tenderness. They are frequently quaint, and sometimes a little capricious.” Christina Rossetti was praised in her time for the clarity and sweetness of her diction, for her realistic imagery, and for the purity of her faith. She was widely read in the nineteenth century but not often imitated. The latter is true perhaps because she did not introduce innovative techniques or subject matter. She is not read widely today, either, and is usually treated as a minor poet of the Victorian period, being eclipsed by her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his fellow Pre-Raphaelite writers. Perhaps the simplicity of Christina Rossetti’s faith seems remote and unrealistic to many contemporary readers, but this fact should not diminish her artistic contributions. Andrew Lang, in The Cosmopolitan Magazine, June 1895, left this judgment: “For the quality of conscious art and for music and color of words in regular composition, Miss Rossetti is unmatched.”
In terms of contemporaries, Christina Rossetti, Alice Meynell, Katherine Tynan and Elizabeth Barrett Browning dedicated poems to one another in a uniquely female dialogue. Many women wrote poetry despite the many obstacles, and anthologies and journals of women’s poetry encouraged a distinctive conversation between female poets. Isobel Armstrong also claims women used ‘expressive’ language to represent their emotions and experiences, and the representational symbols on the page were paradoxically both a means of expression and part of the forces of repression. She proposes that poetry involves the ‘movement outwards, the breaking of barriers’. It is also appropriate to say that Rossetti and many of her contemporaries were inspired by the concept of floriography, which is the use of vivid flower imagery in order to convey powerful messages through symbolism, for example, the most commonly interpreted flower is perhaps the Rose, which represents love.
Furthermore, Rossetti’s work was largely influenced by her personal life, which often seeped into her writing. Caught up in the Tractarian or Oxford Movement when it reached London in the 1840s, the Rossetti’s shifted from an Evangelical to an Anglo-Catholic orientation, and this outlook influenced virtually all of Christina Rossetti’s poetry. She was also influenced by the poetics of the Oxford Movement, as is documented in the annotations and illustrations she added to her copy of John Keble’s The Christian Year (1827) and in her reading of poetry by Isaac Williams and John Henry Newman. For more than twenty years, beginning in 1843, she worshiped at Christ Church, Albany Street, where services were influenced by the innovations emanating from Oxford. The Reverend William Dodsworth, the priest there until his conversion to Catholicism in 1850, assumed a leading role as the Oxford Movement spread to London. In addition to coming under the religious influence of prominent Tractarians such as Dodsworth, W. J. E. Bennett, Henry W. Burrows, and E. B. Pusey, Rossetti had close personal ties with Burrows and Richard Frederick Littledale, a High Church theologian who became her spiritual adviser. The importance of Rossetti’s faith for her life and art can hardly be overstated. More than half of her poetic output is devotional, and the works of her later years in both poetry and prose are almost exclusively so. The inconstancy of human love, the vanity of earthly pleasures, renunciation, individual unworthiness, and the perfection of divine love are recurring themes in her poetry.
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