Today the Church of England remembers Christina Rossetti, poet and sister of the more famous Dante Gabriel, of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. This group wrote and painted through the latter half of the 19th Century producing such classics as Millais’ Ophelia and Holman Hunt’s symbolic heavy The Hireling Shepherd.
Christina was not a formal member of the Brotherhood, as per Victorian gender role expectations, but unofficially I like to think of her as the most influential. Her considerable poetic talent revealed a life of sombre self-denial around which it is hard to disentangle patriarchy from Christianity.
She was twice disappointed in love. Her engagement to James Collinson was called off when he became a Roman Catholic and she later rejected Charles Cayley because he was an agnostic.
Her poetry is harshly uncompromising about the brevity of life and the certainty of death:
When I am dead, my dearest/ Sing no sad songs for me/ Plant thou no roses at my head/ Nor shady Cyprus tree./ Be the green grass above me/ With showers a dewdrops wet/ And if thou wilt, remember/ And if thou wilt, forget.
She can also do sensuous though. Goblin Market is a poem about female desire and temptation and a mature reading of it definitely doesn’t immediately say “children’s poem” (although that might be reading into the text).
She cried ‘Laura’ up the garden,/ Did you miss me?/ Come and kiss me./ Never mind my bruises,/ Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices/ Squeezed from goblin fruits for you.
She is best when she turns her thwarted feelings towards the consolation of faith, as in the middle verse of the perfectly constructed A Better Resurrection:
My life is like a faded leaf,/ My harvest dwindled to a husk;/ Truly my life is void and brief/ And tedious in the barren dusk;/ 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.
Her passionate nature was drawn to both ends of the Church of England – first Evangelical, then Tractarian – no dull middle-of-the-road for her.
So today the Church celebrates a woman come up against the limits of her society’s expectations, who stared down the obvious attraction (temptation?) of marriage to live an uncompromising single life, wedded to her art and to her God.