Project Canterbury

Lead, Kindly Light:
Studies of Saints and Heroes of the Oxford Movement

by Desmond Morse-Boycott

transcribed by Mr Robert Stevens
AD 2000


Christina Rossetti

CHRISTINA ROSSETTI was born on December 5, 1830, in Charlotte Street, Portland Place, London, the youngest child of Gabriel Rossetti, an Italian poet who had taken refuge in this country from political enemies. His wife was Frances Polidori, whose brother had been Byron’s companion and physician abroad.

Christina’s brothers and sisters became famous, but none more so than Dante Gabriel, one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite school, whose paintings "Beata Beatrix" and the "Annunciation" are in the National Gallery. Christina was his model for the latter, for she was beautiful, though she wore ugly clothes and thick shoes.

Although of Italian origin, the children were brought up in the tenets of the Anglican Church. One of them, Maria Francesca, forsook authorship to become an All Saints’ Sister. Christina herself shines next to Keble in the poetical constellation of Anglo-Catholicism.

She was educated at home by her mother. Miss Proctor says:

As the constant companion of her brothers, it may not be wrong to say that she acquired an independence of thought and feeling which, with an ordinary English education, she could scarcely have attained. Hers was a delightfully happy home: love, poetry, art, religion—everything that could make life sweet.

The children read the same books, learned Italian perfectly, and were strongly influenced by their father. Christina could read the operatic poems of Metastasio in Italian when but ten years old, and was deeply versed in Shakespeare, Scott, Byron and Burns. Her first poem was written in 1842 when she was eleven. Thus.


To-day’s your natal day,
Sweet flowers I bring;
Mother, accept, I pray,
My offering.

And may you happy live,
And long us bless;
Receiving as you give
Great happiness.

Her grandfather Polidori printed her youthful poems privately.

When she was nineteen she became a contributor (as Ellen Alleyne) to a short-lived magazine called The Germ, or Thoughts towards Nature in Poetry, Literature, and Art. Some of her finest poems appeared therein, among them "Dream Land." Hard times had come. Her father’s sight was failing. Christina taught in a little school which her mother conducted in Camden Town and later at Frome.

Her sweetness of character was ennobled by frustration. She had two affaires du cœur. When seventeen she fell in love with a foolish youth named James Collinson. He became a Papist, and she would not follow him. He entered a Jesuit seminary, but on being required to clean boots as an act of humility returned to indifferent painting. Her second love was Charles Cayley, but religious scruples intervened again. This was a tragedy. William Rossetti says: "No woman ever loved a man more deeply, or more constantly." Most women would have become embittered or austere, but her devotion to God touched every sombre cloud with light.

Her poetical powers won full recognition in 1862 with "Goblin Market." By the age of thirty-five she reached her zenith, and was revealed to the public as a spiritual genius. Consider the majesty of her poem on 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.

She was a member of Christ Church, Albany Street, and her spiritual adviser was Dr. Littledale, a "free lance" priest of singular genius, who contributed to many journals and figured in most of the controversies of the time. I could profitably devote a chapter to Dr. Littledale, but must suffice myself by indicating why Christina was drawn to him. He has been called the "Father of Ritualism," and he certainly nurtured the outward and visible form of the Oxford Movement.

He found [said a priest in a panegyric] Ritualism in his study, in the university, in the library, in the drawing-room; and he brought it out into the streets and lanes. He found it among scholars, antiquaries, and dilettanti; he vulgarized it, in the true sense of the word; he gave it to the common crowd; he found reasons and justification for those who used it.

But what he did for its outward form he did also for its soul. His witty versatility rescued Ritualism from the hands of archæologists and gentlemen.

With his large, earnest brown, though deeply sunken, eyes, and long, grey beard sweeping over his breast, he (seemed like) some benevolent and learned monk of the third or fourth century in the midst of an Alexandrian library; and his chambers, full of ecclesiastical ornaments, and resembling the abode of a recluse, heightened this impression. . . . He was an excellent talker, and his humour was intensified by a perceptible brogue.

He suffered much physical pain, but it seemed only to stimulate him to constant labour. He was a true journalist, because he could write at a moment’s notice on any subject under the sun, but he wrote with knowledge. Beatrice Rosenthal considers that his keen sense of humour and cheerful outlook on life must have exercised a wholesome influence on Christina, "with her strain of morbidity due to ill-health."

Her later life was spent in London (which she loathed) waiting upon an invalid aunt with unfailing cheerfulness, dreaming the while of leafy lanes, and green meadows, and mossy woods splashed with primroses. "Not on any account," she said once, "would I leave my aunt for a day, even. One day, perhaps, when I am alone, I shall see the country again." And yet she wrote:

Why, one day in the country
Is worth a month in town;
Is worth a day and a year.

"As I no longer go to the country from time to time," she wrote to Miss Proctor, "I may say that the country very graciously comes to me, for friends send or bring me flowers." Her passionate love of the country appears in many of her poems and letters. London affected her in another way, reminding us of how we have failed, since her day, to solve the problem of the "down and out." She was wounded to think of the suffering of the destitute and wrote. "The contrast between London luxury and London destitution is really appalling. All sorts of gaieties advertised, and deaths by exposure or starvation recorded in the same newspaper."

Soon after her aunt died she became ill, and could not enjoy her freedom. Her beloved flowers consoled her. "Thank you," she wrote, "for flowers, which bring a country charm and freshness to our world of brick and mortar. Not that I despise the square trees, which are greening delightfully. Those wild blue hyacinths have a special hold on me." On her last Easter she wrote: "Thank you for the pretty primroses and daisies in their envelope of moss . . ." "A box of primroses, etc., has come to-day, bringing something of the country to my little room; so I need not envy you your primroses! And now we are having thunder since I wrote that."

Beatrice Rosenthal says:

She died at her house in Torrington Square, after a painful illness, 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 ear like midnight bells. She, whose life was marked by self-effacement, is best remembered by lines such as those, and by her matchless carol, "In the bleak mid-winter" —one of the loveliest things, surely, that ever came out of Bloomsbury.

She died in the calm spirit in which she had written:

When flowers are yet in bud
While the boughs are green,
I would get quit of earth,
And get robed for heaven;
Putting on my raiment white within the screen,
Putting on my crown of gold whose gems are seven.

Christina secured her meed of praise in her own day.

The Century Magazine described her as the most perfect of the contemporary poets. There is, indeed, form and finish in her poems, and a poet’s generation is not necessarily purblind, even though it often exalts the mediocre while deriding the work of genius. We must not say that, because Christina Rossetti was recognized in her day, therefore she was mediocre. We may be poor judges of past work, as in the case of Francis Thompson (still neglected) as well as of present, as in the case of Sir William Watson. But she is certainly spoiled by quantity, and an incapacity to select and eliminate. Her poems have an inimitable, individual character, and open doors into the supernatural; touching Heaven like rainbows. Here is my favourite (with acknowledgements to the S.P.C.K.):

Thy lovely Saints do bring Thee love,

Incense and joy and gold:—

Fair star with star, fair dove with dove,

Beloved by Thee of old.

I, Master, neither star nor dove,

Do bring my sins and tears;

Yet I, too, bring a little love,

Amid my flaws and fears.

A trembling love that faints and fails,

And yet is love of thee.

A wondering love that hopes and hails,

Thy wondrous love for me.

Love kindling faith and pure desire,

Love following on to bliss.

A spark, O Jesu, from Thy fire,

A drop from Thine abyss.

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