CHRISTINA Georgina Rossetti, that daughter of the Tractarian Movement who, as a devotional poet, 'has not her equal in the English language,' says Sir Edmund Gosse in his History of English Literature, was born on December 5, 1830, at 38, Charlotte Street, Fitzroy Square, the youngest of a family of four gifted children.
Their father, Gabriele Rossetti, an Italian scholar and patriot, had been, as a young man, Secretary in the Department of Public Instruction at Rome, and afterwards Curator of the Bronzes in the Museo Borborico in his native city of Naples. At that time General Murat, the husband of Napoleon's youngest sister Caroline, was King of Naples, and Gabriele Rossetti, as an ardent supporter of the Napoleonic regime, was on a footing of friendship with the members of the Buonaparte family, among them Princess Christina Buonaparte, who became by her marriage Lady Dudley Stuart, and was afterwards the godmother of Christina Rossetti.
After the downfall of Napoleon and the flight, of Murat, Ferdinand, the Bourbon King of Naples, regained his throne, and Gabriele Rossetti, proscribed for his share in political plots, found himself in danger of not only losing his freedom but his life. After remaining for several months in hiding, he managed to escape from Naples, disguised as a bluejacket, on a British man-of-war, and landed at Malta, where he remained for some time. He arrived in England in February, 1824, poor as most refugees, but soon found employment as a teacher of Italian. In 1826 he married Frances Mary Larima Polidori, whose father, Gaetano Polidori, was also a political refugee. It is interesting, too, to recall the fact that her brother, John Polidori, was the young Italian doctor who accompanied Lord Byron on his travels in the East.
Mrs. Rossetti, a deeply religious woman of refined and cultivated tastes, devoted herself to her husband and children--a devotion which they all repaid to the full. Her task of fending for the family was not an easy one, for means were small, and the house the resort of all the Italian refugees who at that time came flocking to London. Scholars, organ-grinders, political adventurers, needy aristocrats, painters, poets would foregather in Charlotte Street, to lament the state of their country and discuss literature, art, and mystical interpretations of Dante with Professor Rossetti (he had been appointed to the Professorship of Italian at King's College in 1831). ' When dinner was served,' we are told, ' all would be invited to dine. Some would do so; others would slip away to eat farinaceous dishes in shabby restaurants; others would continue the argument over the fire, declaring stubbornly that they had dined.' Thus from their nursery days the Rossetti children were brought into contact with influences and ideas that wrought deeply on their imaginative minds. Like the Brontes, they began authorship in early childhood. Maria Francesca, the eldest of the four, who wrote A Shadow of Dante, seems to have been the least poetically-gifted member of the family. But the other three, Gabriel Charles Dante--Dante Gabriel Rossetti, as he preferred to call himself--William Michael, and Christina, wrote verse in English and Italian with equal ease. At the age of twelve Christina composed some verses of greeting for her mother's birthday which Gaetano Polidori, delighted with his little grand-daughter's facility, printed on his private printing-press in Regent's Park. On this press, too, he printed a collection of Christina's juvenile poems when she was seventeen. This little book, embellished with water-colour drawings by Christina herself, is now a great literary rarity.
To the influence of the Catholic Revival we owe those two beautiful pictures painted by Dante Rossetti, the painter-poet, in his youth--The Girlhood of Mary Virgin and Ecce Ancilla Domini--in both of which Christina was the model for the figure of the Blessed Virgin. It was through the Rev. W. J. E. Bennett, who, during the eighteen-thirties, was Minister of Portman Chapel, Baker Street, that into the lives of the Rossettis came the teaching of the Movement that was to be the inspiration of Christina's poetical genius.
Towards the end of the 'forties Professor Rossetti, who died a few years later, began to suffer with his eyesight, and Mrs. Rossetti and her daughters were faced with the need of doing something to help the family finances. Maria, who some years later became a Religious, found a situation as governess, and Christina helped her mother to start a little day-school, first in Mornington Crescent, and afterwards at Frome, but neither of these ventures proved successful. Gentle, patient, diligent, eager to help her dearly loved mother in these efforts to augment their scanty resources, Christina, fond of children as she was, had no gifts as a teacher. Sorely did she miss her sister and brothers and the literary and artistic interests they had shared together in the home-circle. Lover of nature, too, as Christina was, one whose heart, as has been said, 'was with the birds and fruits, cornfields and farmyard sounds,' yet at the same time those months she spent among the garden orchards and woodlands of Somersetshire were among, perhaps, the most unhappy of her life.
It was during this time of financial anxiety--largely afterwards relieved by her brother William, who, in addition to his salary as a clerk in the Inland Revenue, was earning money by writing and reviewing--that Dante Rossetti, a struggling artist sharing a studio with Holman Hunt, started with his brother William, Holman Hunt, and some other like-minded friends, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, as a means of setting forth their new artistic ideals. By these new ideals they meant, to put it shortly, a return to the truth of nature in place of the artificial and unreal; their desire was to bring back into the art of their day the simplicity that distinguished the work of the great craftsmen and poets of the early Middle Ages.
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was itself an outcome of the Romantic Movement that began with the novels and ballads of Sir Walter Scott--that Movement of which the Catholic Revival is, as has been truly said, ' the religious side.' In December, 1849, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood brought out the first number of their magazine, The Germ, to which short-lived publication the nineteen-year-old Christina contributed seven poems under the nom-de-plume 'Ellen Alleyne.' Among those poems, five of them to be counted among the finest she ever wrote, and by which she will be best remembered, for her power matured early, is the exquisite lyric Dream Land, with its wistful strain of music that echoes through so many of the poems of her later years. The last two stanzas run:
Rest, rest, a perfect rest
Shed over brow and breast;
Her face is toward the west,
The purple land.
She cannot see the grain
Ripening on hill and plain;
She cannot feel the rain
Upon her hand.
Rest, rest for evermore
Upon a mossy shore;
Rest, rest at the heart's core
Till time shall cease;
Sleep that no pain shall wake,
Night that no morn shall break
Till joy overtake
Her perfect peace.
To look at the face of Christina Rossetti in the pictures mentioned above, and in others for which she served as a model, as well as in the portraits her brother painted of her both as a young girl, and in her maturity, is to realize that hers was the type of beauty that specially appealed to the Pre-Raphaelite painters--the delicately-chiselled features, the wealth of hair, the deep lustrous eyes, the willowy neck, the graceful slenderness of form. Elizabeth Siddall, Rossetti's unhappy wife, and Mrs. William Morris, whom he also frequently painted, are other examples of this style of beauty--it is a type we recognize, too, in Sir Edward Burne-Jones's lovely Star of Bethlehem and The Golden Stair.
'To look at portraits of Christina is to feel that she was a born mystic; the eyes seem to be filled with inward vision, the entire pose is that of one who holds aloof from earth and its cares and pleasures,' says Miss Mary Bradford Whiting in an article written for the Centenary Commemoration in December, 1930, of the birth of Christina Rossetti. Renunciation, self-effacement, was the keynote of Christina's devotional poetry, but it may be truly said that she was not one of those who have no appreciation of that which they renounce. As Miss Bradford Whiting says: 'Three out of her four grandparents were Italians, and her nature was shot through with that fire of the south which flames up at the sight of beauty and the touch of joy. That her poems are too full of tears is a charge that has been brought against them: but her tears are not a winter rain, cold and cheerless; they are tears of April, with the warm sun shining through them. Wherever her pages are opened, the love of all things beautiful flashes out in some glowing line.'
And it is of her own youthful romance that she sings in A Birthday, with its note of pure ecstasy--one of the loveliest of all her lyrics;
My heart is like a singing bird
Whose nest is in a watered shoot;
My heart is like an apple-tree
Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit.
My heart is like a rainbow shell
That paddles in a halcyon sea;
My heart is gladder than all these
Because my love is come to me.
Raise me a couch of silk and down,
Hang it with vain and purple dyes,
Carve it in doves and pomegranates
And peacocks with a hundred eyes.
Work it in gold and silver grapes
And leaves and silver fleurs de lys,
Because the birthday of my life
Is come, my love is come to me.
Christina was only seventeen when she and James Collinson, one of the first members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, met and fell in love with each other. He had been one of those who, following the example of Newman in those troubled years of the later 'forties, had joined the Roman Communion, which, however, he left again for the sake of Christina, who had first of all refused him from a sense of loyalty to her own branch of the Church. The courtship went on for some time, and Christina and her brother William paid visits to the Collinson family. But the prospect of his earning sufficient to marry on seemed remote, and, when in 1850 he again decided to become a Roman Catholic, Christina broke off the unofficial engagement. Having formally resigned his membership of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Collinson sold his easel and lay-figure and entered a Jesuit College with the idea of becoming a priest. The Seminary authorities, feeling it necessary to test the sincerity of this somewhat fickle-minded young man, set him first of all to the task of cleaning shoes--' as an exercise in humility.' This, however, was not what Collinson expected, and accordingly he gave up the idea of entering the priesthood and resumed his former occupation as a very indifferent painter.
It was ten years after this, when Christina was thirty, that another and far stronger love came into her life. This second lover was Charles Cayley, the scholarly translator of Dante. Their temperaments were well suited to each other; their tastes and sympathies were akin--in every respect save one. But Cayley could not share the Faith which to Christina was more than life itself, and for that reason she refused to marry him. 'Although she would not be his wife,' says her brother William, 'no woman ever loved a man more deeply or more constantly.' Their friendship remained a life-long one, and when Cayley died some twenty-five years later, he left all his manuscripts and other treasured possessions to Christina. In her sonnet-sequence Monna Innominata she tells, through a veiled way, her own love-story, as Mrs. Browning did hers in Sonnets from the Portuguese. But, while to Mrs. Browning came an ideally happy marriage, Christina from loyalty to the Faith chose the way of renunciation.
In the following beautiful sonnet No. 6 in Monna Innominata, which is to be found in the 'Second Series' of her poems, Christina in very truth 'unlocks her heart,' and we can see what the sacrifice she had felt it right to make meant to her:
Trust me, I have not earned your dear rebuke,
I love, as you would have me, God the most.
Would lose not him, but you, must one be lost,
Nor with Lot's wife cast back a faithless look
Unready to forego what I forsook.
This say I, having counted up the cost;
This, though 't be the feeblest of God's host,
The sorriest sheep Christ shepherds with his crook,
Yet, while I love my God the most, I deem
That I can never love you over much:
I love him more, so let me love you too;
Yea, as I apprehend it, love is such
I cannot love you if I love not him,
I cannot love him if I love not you.
In the great poem From House to Home she tells, too, of the one who walked with her in her 'Earthly Paradise':
I have no words to tell what way we walked,
What unforgotten path now closed and sealed;
I have no words to tell all things we talked,
All things that he revealed.
Then follows a series of poignant verses telling of their parting, the bitterness of the cup, the sharpness of the thorns, the anguish of the wounds, and of the growth of the soul by their effect--a growth which shall at last find full fruition--the poem working up into the wonderful mystical vision of heaven:
Multitudes, multitudes stood up in bliss
Made equal to the angels, glorious fair;
With harps, palms, wedding garments, kiss of peace,
And crowned and haloed hair.
Glory touched glory on each blessed head,
Hands locked dear hands, never to sunder more:
These were the new-begotten from the dead
Whom the great birthday bore.
In the summer of 1861 Christina with her mother and her brother William went for a short tour in Normandy. This was the first time she had ever been out of England. 'I can particularly remember her companionship,' writes her brother, 'and the pleasure she expressed at the Hill and Church of Notre Dame de Bon Secours near Rouen, and on a walk towards the seaside near Coutances, and at the splendid effect of sunshine after storm from near Avranches. Another cherished reminiscence of hers was what she called "The cat of St. Lo"--a Persian of monumental size kept at our hotel there.' Only once again in her life did Christina go for a holiday abroad--this was in 1865, when with the same companions she paid a visit to Northern Italy. While thoroughly enjoying the trip and the interest of sightseeing, Christina, as is evident from her letters, had, unlike her brother Dante Gabriel, no leanings towards the home of her race. It is interesting to note, in this respect, the difference between her and her sister-poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. A north-country woman born, sprung from strongly Calvinist stock, and herself of Evangelical sympathies, Mrs. Browning made Italy the land of her adoption; whereas Christina Rossetti, the poet of the Catholic Revival, herself three parts Italian, and with the sunshine of the South in her blood, is essentially English in thought and feeling. The scene of the Nativity, as she pictures it in her loveliest carol, is not that of a Tuscan ' Adoration' with flower-sprinkled meadows and cypress-crowned hills forming a setting for the crib, but the countryside of a traditional English Christmas.
In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan;
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone.
Snow was falling, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
In 1862 Christina's poem Goblin Market was brought out by Messrs. Macmillan, the volume also containing the lyrics that had appeared in The Germ, and several others, among them Up-hill, one of the best-known of her poems--
Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
Yes, to the very end. Does the day's journey last the whole long day?
From morn to night, my friend--
which, printed in Macmillan's Magazine for February, 1861, the work of a then practically unknown writer, had by no means passed unobserved. Early in 1861 her elder brother had shown these poems in manuscript to Ruskin, the warm admirer and friend of the Pre-Raphaelites, and had asked his help in finding a publisher for them. But Ruskin, acute critic as he was, showed himself strangely blind to the power and originality of Christina's work. 'Your sister should exercise herself in the severest commonplace of metre until she can write as the public like,' he wrote to Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The immediate success of Goblin Market and other Poems caused Ruskin doubtless to reconsider his opinion. Not only did the modest little volume establish Christina's reputation as a poet, 'a reputation not a little covetable,' but it achieved the first popular success for Pre-Raphaelitism. Goblin Market, a work remarkable for the insight shown in dealing with 'unhuman spiritual natures,' struck, indeed, a new note in English poetry. Four years later came The Prince's Progress and other Poems, these two volumes, published before she was thirty-five, representing the highest achievement of her genius.
In the third volume of her poems, which appeared in 1881, and in the collection of New Poems, published after her death by her brother, William Rossetti, many beautiful things are to be found. Scattered, too, throughout her prose works--Seek and Find; Letter and Spirit; Time Flies: A Reading Diary; Called to be Saints; and The Face of the Deep: A Devotional Commentary on the Apocalypse, which took her three years to write--are lovely snatches of verse. But in the volumes published in the 'sixties are to be found the poems that give her a foremost place among the religious poets of our literature, as, for example, Sleep at Sea, which Professor Saintsbury ranks among the half-dozen greatest devotional poems in the language; A Better Resurrection; Advent; and the third of the Old and New Year Ditties, with its three stanzas--one of eight and two of nine lines each--built on one single rhyme throughout. 'For such a conception,' says Dr. A. C. Benson,' one would be inclined to predicate certain failure, the simplicity is too crude and daring; but consider the result.' The following is the final stanza of this poem, one of the finest religious lyrics in our language:
Passing away, saith my God, passing away,
Winter passeth after the long delay;
New grapes on the vine, new figs on the tender spray,
Turtle calleth turtle in Heaven's May.
Though I tarry, wait for me, watch and pray,
Arise, come away, night is past, and lo, it is day,
My love, my Sister, my Spouse, thou shalt hear me say.
Then I answered Yea.
To her earlier period, too, belong Christina Rossetti's finest sonnets, the oft-quoted 'Remember me when I am gone away,' and the sombre though magnificent The World, the utterance of the true ascetic. To Christina, as to Hurrell Froude, religion was ' the most awful and serious personal thing on earth.' In her scrupulousness, her reserve, her austerity, her deep spiritual awe, Christina was a true Tractarian. Her deep sense of her own un-worthiness, her humility of soul, was not 'sweet egotism' but the mark of the saint--stern with self, tender with others. Her love of her Lord and his Church was the greatest love of her life--a love that finds a personal expression in her devotional poems. 'To the service of her religion,' as Dr. A. C. Benson says, 'Christina Rossetti brought all the passionate fervour of her heart, her power of imagination, her sense of poetic form. As one of the 'Sweet Singers' of the English Church, under which title she figures in the 'Noble Women' window in Liverpool Cathedral, she ranks above George Herbert and Crashaw and Henry Vaughan, like herself of the company of the mystics. In her gift of poetic imagery, Dr. A. C. Benson puts her above Keble, above 'even the divine ardour of Newman,' while if one can indeed compare a poet to a hymn-writer, she utterly transcends 'the pensive richness of Charles Wesley, whose Puritan outlook made his hand unsure.'
When Christina Rossetti died, now nearly forty years ago, the writer of a sympathetic study of her expressed the wish that she were further removed by time and space from that era of the 'nineties, and had passed entirely beyond the region of letters, memoirs, and personal biographies, which would, erelong, doubtless begin to 'tear her heart before the crowd.' But although we live in an age when the popular thirst for information about famous people is far more excessive than it was in the days of the 'nineties, when the lives of so many of the great Victorians have been brought into a glare of notoriety that would have been to themselves appalling, Christina Rossetti has been spared this sort of publicity. In the memoirs that have been written of her, one cannot but feel that the real-life Christina eludes us, and certainly she would rather that this should be so; literary celebrity is the last thing she would have wished for, shrinking as she did from the world's eye and the world's praise.
Save for the months of school-teaching spent at Frome, the foreign trips already mentioned, and visits to the country now and then, Christina Rossetti's quiet uneventful life was passed entirely in Bloomsbury. Although, to judge by her portraits, she appears to have been a sturdy child, her health from the days of her girlhood constantly gave cause for anxiety. In her late 'thirties she suffered from that serious and disfiguring malady exophthalmic goitre, from which, however, she recovered. Like Charlotte Yonge, that other daughter of the Catholic Movement, Christina Rossetti from the days of her youth went regularly to confession. And although the state of her health made it impossible for her to take such an active part in Church work as did Charlotte Yonge--a Sunday-school teacher for over seventy years--there is, in Miss Mary F. Sandar's recent biography of Christina, an interesting glimpse of her as a worker at the Highgate Refuge. 'As long as the state of her health made churchgoing possible for her, she regularly attended the services at Christ Church, Albany Street, constantly in her place there at the week-day Eucharists and Offices in all weathers.'
One of Christina's spiritual advisers was, it is interesting to recall, Dr. Littledale, whose keen sense of humour and cheerful outlook on life must have exercised a wholesome influence on Christina, prone at times as she was, owing to a low physical vitality, to take a somewhat morbid outlook on life.
Her elder sister, Maria Francesca, who had joined the All Saints' Sisterhood in 1875, passed away the following year, leaving a gracious memory behind her. But there was the beloved mother for Christina to comfort and tender, and the bond between them grew closer every year. We can well realize what Christina's devotion must have meant to Mrs. Rossetti in her sorrowful anxiety for her elder son, the tragedy of whose story--unnecessary to dwell upon here--is intensified by the thought of his splendid gifts: a mystic without a creed, 'a Catholic without the discipline or consolation of the Church,' thus we may describe Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Darkened as his mind was by indulgence in the drug-habit, by which he had sought to relieve the insomnia and intense nervous depression that followed the death of his wife, he never failed to respond to the deep affection of his mother and Christina. They, and his brother William, were with him when he died at Birchington-on-Sea on Easter Day, April 9, 1882.
Of that family of six, father, mother, and four children, but three now remained. Four years later, in April, 1886, came the death of Mrs. Rossetti, nursed to the last most tenderly by Christina. William Rossetti, who had married a daughter of the artist Ford Madox Brown, was settled in a house of his own, and to Christina, almost wholly an invalid in those last years of her life, fell the care of her two old aunts, Charlotte and Elizabeth Polidori--the younger of them dying at a great age only a year and half before her own call to rest.
She died, fortified by the last Sacraments, after a long and painful illness, borne with serene patience and resignation, on the Feast of St. Thomas of Canterbury, 1894, going out with the old year, whose dirge she sang in that wonderful poem, ' Passing away, saith the world, passing away,' with its reiterated rhyme that beats on the air like midnight bells. She was buried at Highgate Cemetery on January 5, 1895, in the grave of her father and mother. One who was present at her funeral that wintry morning has described how, at the close of the service, the sun broke out over the snow, and a robin on a leafless bush close by burst suddenly into song.
It is sometimes said that Christina Rossetti dwells overmuch on the physical aspect of death. Her poetry has, indeed, its sombre strain, but the trails of glory are never far away. Like that other singer of the Catholic Revival, John Mason Neale, it is for the dear, dear country that her eyes keep vigil. Beyond the dull street on which her bedroom window looks out is the vision of Urbs Beata:
I saw the gate called Beautiful
And looked but scarce could look within.
I saw the golden streets begin
And outskirts of the glassy pool;
On harps, on crowns of plenteous stars,
On green palm branches many-leaved
Eye hath not seen, nor ear hath heard,
Nor heart conceived.
I hope to see these things again,
But not as once in dreams by night,
To see them with my very sight
And touch and handle and attain
To have all Heaven beneath my feet
For narrow way that once they trod;
To have my part with all the saints
And with my God.