Poet Profile: Christina Rossetti (1830-1894)

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

It’s hardly applicable to a New Zealand Christmas (as I type this, the sun is shining, the strawberries and raspberries are ripening, and I’m planning a Christmas dinner which includes fresh cherries and salad straight from the garden) but, with its haunting melody and evocative portrayal of the contrast between the lowly circumstances of Christ’s Incarnation and the glories of His heavenly kingdom and coming reign, this is nonetheless one of my favourite carols. Written by Rossetti some time before 1872 in response to a request from ‘Scribner’s Monthly’ magazine for a Christmas poem, ‘In the Bleak Mid-Winter’ gained fame only after her death, when it appeared in the 1906 English Hymnal with a setting by Gustav Holst (1874-1934, most famous for his ‘Planets’ Suite).

Born in London to a family of Italian immigrants, Christina’s brothers Gabriel Dante and William would gain fame as painters in the avant-garde movement The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (officially founded 1884), but while Christina occasionally modelled for them her own creative abilities found expression in writing and, particularly, poetry.

Christina_Rossetti_2
Christina Rossetti, by her brother Gabriel Dante Rossetti, 1866.

Rossetti was a devout Christian and involved with the Anglo-Catholic movement in the Church of England, and many of her poems reflect Christian religious themes and a concern for what we would today term social justice as well as the Romantic preoccupation with death and the hereafter, typified by her most famous poem, ‘Remember’.

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 afterward 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.

The period in which Rossetti lived saw the birth of what we think of today as the women’s rights movement. A generation before, in 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft had published ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’. In 1854 Florence Nightingale led a team of nurses, including Rossetti’s aunt Eliza Polidori, to the Crimean War and revolutionised medical care. Women writers including the Bronte sisters, Elizabeth Barrett-Browning, George Eliot, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Emily Dickinson were gaining prominence in both poetry and prose. A queen – Victoria – sat on the throne of England. In 1867 the women’s suffrage campaign began; in 1868, Harriet Taylor Mill and her husband John Stuart Mill published ‘The Subjection of Women’. In 1876, British higher education was opened to women; in 1882 the Married Women’s Property Act allowed married British women to own and control property in their own right. And in 1893, the year before Rossetti died, New Zealand became the first country in the world to grant universal suffrage to women as well as men.

Although Rossetti herself was ambivalent on the subject of women’s suffrage many of her poems reflect a distinctly female voice and deal with women and women’s issues in ways that her male contemporaries did not. When Laura is ensnared by goblin enchantment in ‘Goblin Market’ it is her sister Lizzie who must outwit the fairy-folk in order to break the spell, while in ‘Covenant Threshold’ a woman (possibly Rossetti herself, who turned down several marriage proposals) bids a sad but firm farewell to a lover who seeks only earthly pleasure and doesn’t share her eye for heavenly things. And in ‘A Royal Princess’ the ‘poor dove that must not coo – eagle that must not soar’ turns heroine to face a starving mob in an effort to ransom her father.

Subsequent generations have tried to read autobiographical detail into Rossetti’s work, but perhaps it is best to let her have the last word on that subject with the opening lines of ‘Winter: My Secret’.

I tell my secret? No indeed, not I:
Perhaps some day, who knows?
But not today; it froze, and blows, and snows,
And you’re too curious: fie!
You want to hear it? well:
Only, my secret’s mine, and I won’t tell.

More than a century on, Rossetti’s poetry remains as powerful and beguiling as ever, and well worth a read.

Are you familiar with Rossetti’s work? Do you have a favourite Rossetti poem?

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