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Read The Editor's Introduction to Almost Paradise

    ISBN 0-9546139-0-2    © Andrew Rice-Oxley January 2004.

An Extensive, Ordered Selection of the Poems of Christina Rossetti from 1844-1894.

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Introduction

Christina Rossetti is a great devotional poet, one of our best love poets, and the author of some delightful light verse and children’s verse. Few English poets have excelled in both religious and secular verse as she did; certainly not in both religious poetry and secular love poetry. One thinks of John Donne; Blake and Browning; perhaps Tennyson, though his religious verse is hardly substantial. There are not many more.

The fact that her broad achievement is still not fully recognised - though her classic status as an important Victorian woman poet and writer is undisputed - is due partly to negative labels and preconceptions attached to her which persist and also to lack of sufficient knowledge of the full extent and quality of her poetry. There still tends to be more attention paid to her life than her poetry, certainly outside academic circles, even though she reveals herself truly only in her poetry, if at all. (Her prose is another matter). This selection of her poems presents the reader with a much larger and wider choice of her poetry than is normal in selections and in so doing seeks to increase her appeal to general poetry lovers as well as provide easier access to the full range of her poetry for students of literature and academics. The layout and arrangement of the poems in the selection are of critical importance too and will be explained fully later in this introduction. Back to Links Index

Christina Rossetti’s Poetic Output and Complete Poetry Editions

The quantity and time span of Christina Rossetti’s poetry was certainly considerable. She wrote her first extant poem in 1842 when she was eleven. It consisted of two short four-line stanzas and was composed to mark her mother's forty-second birthday. Her last poem, Sleeping at Last, was written in 1893 or, quite possibly, in 1894, the year of her death, when she was sixty-three.

During this period of  52 years she wrote over one thousand poems in English and over 60 poems in Italian. Even allowing for the fact that this total includes the 126 miniature pieces in Sing Song (her 'nursery rhyme book' for children), other brief minor pieces or fragments and some repeated pieces in modified or abbreviated  form, and that most of her poems are short, this still constitutes a substantial body of work and one that is difficult to reproduce or even represent in a single, readable volume.

Until fairly recently, the only way to discover the full breadth of Christina Rossetti's poetry was to read her brother William’s The Poetical Works of Christina Georgina Rossetti published in 1904 (‘Poetical Works’) or consult Rebecca Crump's The Complete Poems of Christina Rossetti – ‘A Variorum Edition’ (Crump), published 1979-1990. ‘Poetical Works’ is a very old fashioned edition with cluttered presentation and somewhat complicated arrangement, though the poems are helpfully dated underneath by William Rossetti. The latter, Crump, is a textually authoritative work of first-rate scholarship but it comes in three volumes, is available only in some libraries and is very expensive to buy.

Happily, in July 2001, Penguin Books published their Christina Rossetti: The Complete Poems, ed. by Betty Flowers, under their Penguin Classics label. This paperback complete edition follows Crump’s text but combines her three volumes in one and adds notes on the content of the poems; Crump’s notes are only on variations of the text. In addition to being in a much handier single volume, the cost of the paperback book is much lower and therefore much more affordable. Editor Betty Flowers’ notes include William Rossetti’s notes on the poems in his ‘Poetical Works’ (as this selection does), and Crump’s dates for the composition and publication of the poems; they also give the sources of most literary and biblical allusions, and explanations of difficult or unfamiliar words. Betty Flowers’ well-balanced introduction, together with the table of dates which follows it, is instructive and an excellent guide to Christina Rossetti’s life and verse. The Penguin Classics edition is indeed an outstanding complete edition, the result of years of dedicated and thorough work, and has made, and will continue to make, an enormous contribution to the study and appreciation of Christina Rossetti’s poetry.

However, there are two disadvantages to the Penguin Classics edition as a reading book rather than - what it undoubtedly is - an essential reference book for all Rossetti's poems.

First, there is the awkwardness of the arrangement of the poems for the reader who wishes to gain some idea of the order in which the poems were composed and make comparisons between poems of similar dates. Following Crump, Betty Flowers in the Penguin Classics edition presents the poems in the order of their publication by Christina Rossetti in collected editions - Crump’s Vols I + II - followed by all the unpublished or uncollected verse during her lifetime - Crump’s Vol III. Many of Rossetti’s unpublished poems match the quality of her published poems and their dates often coincide with the more famous published ones but it is not possible to see them side by side in the Penguin Classics edition because they are at different ends of the book. Dates of the poems are given but only in the notes at the back of the book which follow the order of the poems in the volume, so that the chronology of the poems is not easy to trace.

Second, there is the drawback of presenting Christina Rossetti’s poetry wholesale and undiluted. Any complete edition must necessarily do this but, regrettably, encountering her verse en masse is likely to intensify the impression she can give of uniformity and monotony, since she returns to the same subjects and themes again and again and does not always vary her treatment of them, even though the variety of verse forms she employs is remarkable. Back to Links Index

The Necessity and Challenge of Selection

In view of the repetitive nature of her poetry - and we have to remember that she never intended that all her poems should be published and seemed aware herself that much of her poetry was repetitive (see William Rossetti’s comment in his Preface to New Poems, p.xi) - a selection of her poems would appear to be essential and there are of course many selections available. Unfortunately, most are far too selective and leave out far too many good poems.

Jan Marsh's Poems and Prose of Christina Rossetti, published in the Everyman Library edition in 1994, contains one of the fullest selections of her poems available. This valuable volume includes 226 poems, a far more generous selection than most but, even so, it comprises barely a quarter of Rossetti’s verse and omits some of her best poems. What proportion then of her complete poems is necessary to encompass all her best poetry? How do we cut down without cutting out too much? Where, amongst her thousand poems written over a period of fifty years or more, are her best poems to be found?

Some commentators have answered these questions very simply by claiming that her best work is to be found in her earlier publications, particularly her first one, Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862). Such a claim, if true, would certainly restrict the number of poems that needed to be selected. Goblin Market and Other Poems contains only 63 poems and her next publication, The Prince’s Progress and Other Poems (1866), under fifty poems, so both volumes combined constitute little more than a tenth of Rossetti’s output. Others maintain, more reasonably, that all we really need to concern ourselves with is the collection called Poems (1890), which includes all her previous published collections except Sing-Song (1872). There are 268 poems in Poems (all told) and this volume does indeed contain most of her popular secular poems and some of her best devotional verse, but it does not represent all of her best work since there are no poems in it from Verses published in 1893, which contains some of her finest religious verse, and none of the poems (except one) collected posthumously by William Rossetti and published by him in 1896 as New Poems. A number of the poems in this latter collection reveal the astonishing maturity and self-awareness which Christina Rossetti possessed from an early age, something not so well reflected in Poems. Moreover, Sing-Song, whose omission has already been mentioned, should not be ignored. Although written for children, William Rossetti believed Sing-Song contained pieces equal to some of her best adult work and there is no question that this collection is an important part of her overall poetic achievement. Back to Links Index

The Content of the Selected Poems

In the light of the above observations, I have included in my selection a fair proportion of poems from both Verses (1893) and New Poems and the whole of Sing- Song as well as over 150 poems from Poems. (I have not included any of the 62 Italian poems since this is a selection of her English poems and seeks to endorse her stature as an English poet). The total number of poems in the selection amounts to 510, approximately half Christina Rossetti’s complete poems in English. To do justice to her, I do not believe you can cut her down much more. On the other hand, once you include more than half her output you run the risk of labouring her achievement and causing the reader to miss the quality of the wood for the quantity and uniformity of the trees. Of course, there is inevitably a degree of subjectivity in the poems selected. With the exception of a few early poems, which I have included to represent her early years rather than on their own merits, I have chosen what seem to me to be her best poems rather than attempt to represent work of different genres irrespective of their quality. However, there are exceptions to this general policy.

Firstly, I have tried to be as inclusive as possible and take into account what other people have liked or valued in Rossetti’s poetry as well as my own preferences. I have therefore included nearly all the commonly chosen poems in earlier anthologies or selections and also poems which have been deemed special or significant in some way by others, though I may not rate them very highly myself. Birds of Paradise and From the Antique (‘It's a weary life, it is..’), for instance, I would not have included if I were merely following my own choice. Secondly, one of my intentions in producing this large selection is to show that Christina Rossetti is a far more buoyant and life-affirming poet than is often thought. The label of 'melancholy' is too readily attached to her. But I do not wish to manipulate my case by inadequate representation of her darker and more despondent poems. So, to ensure balance in this respect, one or two additional sombre poems have crept into my choice; poems which do not deserve to be there purely on their own merits, perhaps, but may have a place in the debate about how positive and ‘up-beat’ her poetry really is overall. (Today and Tomorrow, p.56, is an example). Back to Links Index

The Categorisation of Christina Rossetti’s Poems

Originally, I intended to separate the devotional poems from the secular ones so that Christina Rossetti’s achievement in both areas could be the more easily appraised. Rossetti herself tended to separate her devotional poems from her non-religious or less overtly Christian poems and William Rossetti followed her practice in his New Poems and ‘Poetical Works’ by putting her devotional poems in a different part of the book from all the others which he labelled 'general poems', unless they came in other categories such as ‘longer poems’, ‘poems for children, and minor verse’ or ‘juvenilia’. In the end, I decided against this practice for two main reasons.

The first reason is that the distinction between the ‘devotional’ poems and the so-called 'general’ poems is by no means clear-cut. A fair number of the 'general' poems, even when not explicitly Christian or biblical, are essentially religious, and some are Christian in their presuppositions or context and scarcely different from poems categorised as 'devotional'. Moreover, in some crucial poems we see Rossetti actually crossing over from the worldly/human sphere to the religious/ divine sphere. This happens, for example, in Twice and Till Tomorrow, both of which William Rossetti includes in 'general poems' when they might equally come in the 'devotional poems’ section since they both end with a movement and commitment to God. Rossetti’s sequence of sonnets Monna Innominata escapes both categories in ‘Poetical Works’ because William Rossetti includes it under 'longer poems' but it might have come in either category since, during the sequence, the human and divine become intertwined. The Later Life sonnet sequence contains a mixture of religious and secular verse, though their main thrust is religious, but these too William Rossetti includes in 'longer poems', thus creating more exceptions to his ‘devotional’ /‘general’ categories and weakening their validity.

Even if the poems could be split unequivocally into devotional and secular categories it might confirm the mistaken notion that during her life Christina Rossetti had religious and secular phases. After 1872 and the publication of Sing Song, she concentrated more and more on Christian, Bible-based poetry (though not exclusively), but for much of her verse writing life she was composing secular and religious poetry at the same time. It is quite wrong therefore for ill-informed commentators to declare that after her broken engagement in 1850 she withdrew into herself and turned to religious verse; she had; in fact, already written a great deal of religious verse alongside her secular verse. Keeping the religious and secular verse together according to when it was written should help to dispel this misconception of separate phases.

The second main reason against the separation of the religious and secular poems, and related to the above point, is that such a separation, even if possible, would cut across the chronological arrangement of the poems which this selection sets out to provide, together with the dates of all included poems, precise or approximate, printed with the poems (not just at the back of the book). The dating of Rossetti’s poems on the page and a degree of chronological arrangement has been done before but this selection’s chronological arrangement goes further than earlier editions, as outlined in the next section. Back to Links Index

The Chronological Arrangement of the Selected Poems

In his New Poems (1896) and ’Poetical Works’ (1904), William Rossetti gives the dates of composition of each of his sister’s poems, if known, and the approximate date or the latest possible date of composition, if not known. Most selected editions of the poems of Christina Rossetti do not give the dates of the poems, even where they are known, though Jan Marsh's Everyman edition, mentioned above, does. The dating of Rossetti's poems, which is useful and interesting to know, is another factor, which makes Jan Marsh's selected edition more helpful than most previous selections. However, both William Rossetti and Jan Marsh, whilst following chronology of composition in their arrangement of the poems, do so only within the genres they use to present Rossetti's poems. Except for some overlap in a ‘longer poem’ category, Jan Marsh's genres are different from William Rossetti’s but the net result is the same - the overall chronology of the poems is continually broken up and you have to move from one section to another if you want to read together poems written at the same period which are in different genres. It is true to say that Jan Marsh’s arrangement of the poems into four sections – ‘Lyrics, Ballads and Shorter Poems', ‘Poems for Children, from Sing-Song’, ‘Narrative and Longer Poems', and 'Sonnet Sequences' is sensible and follows recognised categories but the actual advantage of such divisions is limited and the disadvantage of losing the chronological flow arguably much greater.

If Rossetti’s longer poems and sonnet sequences were markedly superior to, or more important than, her shorter poems and lyrics, then use of such categories might serve some critical purpose beyond mere standard practice, but this is certainly not the case. One could argue, on the contrary, that the shorter lyrics contain the quintessence of Christina Rossetti; notwithstanding the fact that Goblin Market, one of her best and most popular poems, is a ‘longer’, narrative poem. Few, if any, of her longer poems (and none of them is particularly long or substantial) match the stature of Goblin Market and although she wrote some excellent sonnet sequences they are just what the words 'sonnet sequence' suggest, i.e. a series of shorter poems (of 14 lines) strung together by some connecting thread. The building blocks of these sequences, no matter how carefully ordered, are therefore short lyrics and there is no need to put Rossetti’s sonnet sequences in a different section from her short, individual poems, as if there were something fundamentally different about them. (The sonnet sequences, of course, must be kept intact but that is not the same as putting them in a separate section altogether from the ‘shorter’ poems).

The obvious advantage of putting all her poems into a single and sustained chronological order is that you can read through the poems from the beginning of the book to the end and gain some impression of Rossetti's poetic career unfolding before you, as well as being able to note more easily the occasions when she writes very different poems at the same time or period. There has been much debate about the extent to which her poetry can be read as autobiography and also some discussion about how far her poetry can be said to develop. Both these issues are much easier to consider and explore if the poems can be seen in a chronological arrangement. Back to Links Index

Chronological Arrangement Variables

Although I have said the poems in this selection are presented chronologically, I must make two qualifications to this statement. One is a caveat and the other concerns a few desirable exceptions to the rule. Firstly, the caveat. Christina Rossetti stopped dating her poems (contained in seventeen manuscript notebooks) after June 1866. The dates of her poems after 1866 can only be estimated (except in a few cases) from the date of first publication. She will have written many of her post 1866 poems some years before their publication and we cannot be sure in which order these poems were actually composed before publication. So there is a certain amount of guesswork in the chronological arrangement of poems after 1866. Nevertheless, the latest date a poem can have been written is some guide and the chronology of Rossetti’s published editions after 1866 gives an indication of the possible chronology of poems after this date, even though the exact order of composition of poems within published collections cannot be determined. [Even if there is further evidence, such as the known date of prior publication in a literary magazine, journal or anthology, as there sometimes is, this will not tell us the exact date of original composition].

Verses (1893) presents a challenge of its own to the chronological arrangement. This, her last volume of published poetry in her lifetime, is a collection of the verses included in her three devotional prose works: Called to be Saints (1881), Time Flies (1885) and The Face of the Deep (1892). Some of these pieces were written before 1866 and can be precisely dated; some were written between 1866 and 1893 and in most instances cannot be precisely dated, whilst others consist of recycled unpublished material from a much earlier, pre-1866 time, and appear in their prose works and in Verses in the eventual modified form which Rossetti intended for publication. In these latter cases, the earlier known date may be regarded as the origin of the poem but not necessarily its final composition date.

Secondly, there are deliberate, desirable exceptions to the chronological rule. I have deviated from strict chronology where poems of quite different dates are part of a pairing or sequence of poems. Usually, these non-chronological combinations follow Christina Rossetti's own intentions. For instance, I follow William Rossetti’s linkage of three poems in ‘Poetical Works’ under the heading Three Stages because he informs us his sister linked the three poems together in manuscript (only the first one was published in her lifetime). Memory I and II, though with a gap of nearly eight years, are kept together because Rossetti herself published them together in Prince's Progress and Other Poems (1866). Similarly, I follow her own linkage of Up-hill with Amor Mundi in her Goblin Market, Prince’s Progress and Other Poems (1875) and in Poems (1890). William does not link the two poems in ‘Poetical Works’ but Christina had good reason to do so for they make a powerful and striking contrast. The two contrary metres and storylines brilliantly dramatise the polarised moral/spiritual states expressed in the two poems. Though written at different times, you can see how the two poems benefit from being brought together. On the other hand, Amor Mundi also provides a fascinating contrast of a different kind with From Sunset to Star Rise written at the same time (just a day apart), so I have included Amor Mundi again in its chronological place.

A further editorial decision I have made which departs slightly from strict chronology is to group Rossetti’s roundels together. She adopted the roundel verse form during the 1880s in response, it appears, to Swinburne's use of the form in A Century of Roundels (1883). She made the roundel very much her own personal lyric form, favouring its use as much as she had hitherto favoured use of the sonnet form. She wrote about 50 roundels and I have included 20 of the most distinctive and put them together so that the reader can better appreciate what she achieved in this lyric form alone. The simplicity and brevity of the roundel suited her natural artistry in the handling of the short line and concise statement. Her use of the roundel in the last decade of her life is, indeed, part of the evidence that her poetic skill did not diminish with the passing years. Her final poem, Sleeping at Last, is a roundel and is as accomplished a piece of verse as anything she ever composed. Back to Links Index

Visual Lay-out of the Poems

Chronology, or grouping, have determined the order of poems in the selection, but the arrangement of the verse on the page and the physical integrity of the text has also been considered in the presentation of the poems. All sonnet sequences have been kept intact and no sonnets have been broken up. Furthermore, sonnets in sonnet sequences are laid out three or more to a page. This means that a double page can present at least six sonnets at once, a great asset to the reader who wishes to see the sequence unfolding and grasp as much of the overall structure of the sonnet sequence as possible. In the Later Life and ‘Out of the Deep’ sonnet sequences it has been possible to lay out twelve sonnets to the double page. No short poems have been broken up in any way, which means that most of the poems in the selection can be taken in visually as a whole and with no page turning necessary. Back to Links Index

The Lists and Index of the Poems

I have repeated the information about each poem in both the Contents list of poems and the title and first line Index to save the reader from having to flip from one to the other to gain the full details. The latter gives the title and first line of each poem together both ways round (for poems that have a title as well as a first line), not separately as is usual, so that the reader can more easily associate and remember the two together. Tracing poems in one or two poetry collections can pose a problem, since none of the poems in Sing-Song have titles and only a few in Verses (1893), presumably because they were originally embedded in a prose text and Rossetti was reluctant to invent titles for them, finding titles more effort to compose (it seems) than the poems themselves. The latter volume (Verses) creates a further complication for an editor in that many of the untitled poems have epigraphs, which might be mistaken for titles but are not strictly speaking titles. William Rossetti uses these epigraphs as titles in his Contents list and Notes in ‘Poetical Works’, and Crump uses them as titles too (though within inverted commas), but I have not done so, using the first line only to identify untitled poems. The epigraphs, however, are retained at the head of the poems and their sources are given in my notes; almost invariably they are biblical quotations.

Some poems, which have titles as well as first lines to identify them, can, even so, be difficult to distinguish. Rossetti used similar titles and opening lines for many of her poems and sometimes identical ones. In this selection alone seven titles are used twice, one title is the same as the opening phrase of another, untitled poem 'Eye has not seen', and four poems are called Song. There are also 18 first lines, which begin with the word 'Lord'. For this reason I have supplied as much reference information as possible, in the notes too if necessary, so that all poems can be individually identified and traced.

The list of poems in the Appendix, according to the collection in which they first appeared (p.) is designed to show which poems were originally published together and to give an idea of the proportion of poems drawn from each of Christina Rossetti's lifetime publications and from the posthumous collections. In this list I also show where each poem can be found in Crump's three volumed ‘Complete Poems’. Crump gives the variant readings of each poem, their dates of composition, if known, and dates of publication; also, in most cases, the location of the manuscripts of the poems. Back to Links Index

The Text Used, WMR's Editorship and Notes

The poems in this selection are drawn almost entirely from ‘Poetical Works’ (The Poetical Works of Christina Georgina Rossetti), edited by William Rossetti in 1904, with the exception of Guesses (p.37) and the sonnet Have You Forgotten? (p.12). These two poems are two of the 70 extant English poems which William Rossetti chose not to publish in ‘Poetical Works’ and he lists all the poems he has omitted in his Appendix B. {Most of the excluded poems are juvenilia but they are not without merit or interest and can be found in Crump’s Vol. III or in the section of Unpublished Poems in the Penguin Classics complete edition}. The 512 poems in this selection amount to over half the ‘Poetical Works’ collection.

The text used is generally William Rossetti’s text in ‘Poetical Works’ but sometimes I have followed Crump’s preferred reading, as in the case of Death is Swallowed Up in Victory, which William Rossetti should have laid out in terza rima format but chose not to, presumably for reasons of space; and Better So, which appears in its New Poems (1896) form, as in Crump. Very occasionally I have made my own editorial decisions and chosen a version of the poem which I believe to be preferable, as in the case of Downcast/ In Advent/After This the Judgement, which is presented in this selection, on p.46, as one poem, according to Christina Rossetti’s own original form. Any deviations from William Rossetti’s text or noteworthy differences from Crump’s preferred versions are made clear in my notes.

Some critics and scholars have cast doubt on William Rossetti’s editorship of his sister’s poems. In her introduction to her variorum edition, Crump says that his New Poems and ‘Poetical Works’ editions are "to some extent unreliable". However, she goes on to concede that his readings should be acknowledged, and she includes them, because "as her brother, he had access to materials no longer available" (Crump I. 231).

In any case, discrepancies between the variant readings of Christina Rossetti’s poems are fairly trivial. They largely entail differences in punctuation and spelling, indentation and layout or paragraphing; differences in wording are very rare. Crump’s versions tend to favour use of capitals rather than lower case, as in ‘Heaven’ rather than ‘heaven’ or ‘Autumn’ rather than ‘autumn’ but sometimes, in equivalent cases, the opposite applies. There are fairly numerous disagreements over the use of semi-colons rather than colons, and sometimes over the use of commas and full-stops and whether inverted commas are used to mark speech; (William Rossetti, incidentally, always uses single inverted commas for speech, Crump uses double). William Rossetti’s ‘through’ is almost invariably spelt ‘thro’’ in Crump, although sometimes ‘thro’’ can be found in his versions too. As far as indentation and layout is concerned, William Rossetti explains in his Preface to ‘Poetical Works’ the difficulties he had in reproducing consistently his sister’s flexible and varied use of line lengths (‘Poetical Works’, p.viii), and Crump’s typography, not subject to the same printing constraints, can almost certainly be regarded as more accurate. Having said that, marked discrepancies in layout and indentation do not occur very often and, even when they do, it is doubtful whether they make much difference to the meaning or effect of the poems on the reader.

In a handful of poems, some phrases or lines in William Rossetti’s text are different from Crump’s but the differences are not significant and they usually occur where William Rossetti favours an earlier version of the poem rather than its revision which Crump tends to prefer; but it is also possible that he had knowledge of his sister’s preferences (‘access to materials no longer available’), unknown to Crump. Contrary to misguided belief in some quarters, William Rossetti does not make any changes of his own to his sister’s poems, though on one occasion he felt compelled to compose some lines for her and on another he may have ‘touched up’ a line for her. In his note on a poem in New Poems which he calls ‘Life’, the first line being 'Oh intolerable life which all life long', he tells us that the manuscript of the poem was damaged and that he has ‘supplied’, i.e. invented, the missing or indecipherable words. However, he must have discovered a more legible copy of the poem after 1896 or realised that it actually appears in Verses (1893) with the first line, 'Scarce tolerable life, which all life long’, because in ‘Poetical Works’ the poem is restored in its correct form (see p.143). It is interesting to note, though perhaps not surprising, how much better the correct version is than his own! On the other hand, if the amendment to the last line of the second sonnet of Two Thoughts of Death (p.21) is his doing, as Crump suggests it might be, then he has certainly improved the line. (See note on that poem). What is certain, however, is that he does not interfere with his sister’s poetry. The claim, for instance, that he tampered with lines in the poem A Nightmare (p.51), called A Coast Nightmare in Crump, to make them more respectable or discreet, is false since the amendments allegedly made by him are actually in Christina Rossetti’s own handwriting. As a general rule, William Rossetti has been most scrupulous and conscientious in his reproduction of his sister's poems. He normally informs the reader in his notes in ‘Poetical Works’ of editorial decisions he has made, such as the cutting or inclusion of original lines, and he has clearly endeavoured, on the whole, to be faithful to his sister’s intentions or what he believed them to be. When, very occasionally, he follows his own preferred readings, which are hardly controversial, he also makes it plain in his notes. Likewise, he usually states in the notes where he has supplied titles to his sister’s untitled poems or favoured an original rather than revised title, though he does not always do so; there are a small number of brief untitled, unpublished pieces to which he gives his own titles, for presentation purposes and reference, without informing the reader.

Whilst it is true that William Rossetti’s arrangement of Christina’s poems seems cumbersome and somewhat muddled, it is not true to say, as Betty Flowers does in the Penguin Classics edition (p.lii), that he moves segments of her poems around in an arbitrary fashion and breaks them up into smaller poems. It was Christina herself who extracted stanzas from her unpublished poems and published in an abbreviated or modified form, principally in her devotional prose works. The recycled verse material in her devotional prose works reappeared in her collection Verses in 1893 which William then reproduced in its entirety in ‘Poetical Works’, though section by section, interlaced with other religious verse, not en bloc (leading to some confusion for the reader). Most abbreviated or modified versions of poems in ‘Poetical Works’ are, in fact, merely reproductions of Christina’s own earlier editing. Sometimes William prints separately the stanzas which his sister has omitted from her published version of a poem so that they are preserved in some form and not forgotten. The practice may be questionable but it does not amount to the deliberate breaking up of a poem and it is certainly not arbitrary. Occasionally, William reduces poems he believes are too long but, again, some of these poems had already been plundered by Christina for use elsewhere, so she was clearly unconcerned about those poems being trimmed, and she would, arguably, not have objected to his cutting down of other padded or longwinded unpublished poems since such editing was in keeping with her own practice. Back to Links Index

The Notes on the Poems in this Selection

I have reproduced most of William Rossetti’s notes from ‘Poetical Works’, and occasionally from New Poems, in the Notes section of this book. Today's readers should find them helpful or interesting and their personal character of special value. I warmly acknowledge my debt to him here for all his editorial work (as we all should), though where he appears to be ‘barking up the wrong tree’, or is in error, I say so. As far as errors are concerned, and there are some, we have to remember he was writing his notes after his sister’s death and a long time after many of the poems were first written. I have added notes of my own, supplemented for a number of key poems by substantial contributions from my assistant editor, Margaret Hunt, and have included introductory commentaries on the major poems. I have also provided background information and comment on poems which might be partially (or largely perhaps) autobiographical or ‘confessional’. Caution is always advised over autobiographical readings but they are sometimes valid and without any knowledge of the poet’s life no judgement on the matter can be exercised at all.

William Rossetti’s ‘Memoir’, included in ‘Poetical Works’, is an indispensable introduction to his sister's life and character, though his views might be challenged on some points, for instance his opinion that her "proper place was in the Roman Catholic Church". He is prepared to mention what he regards as defects in her character (actually he finds only one serious defect) as well as paying tribute to her, and gives a measured, well-balanced appraisal of her, though being an agnostic himself he had difficulties entering with full sympathy into her religious faith. Of her poems he ventures to say that whilst he recognises their limitations he believes that "on some grounds it is hardly possible to over-praise them."

When readers explore the full compass of her poetry, noting its exceptional qualities: its melodic grace and simplicity, often combined with the powerful immediacy of direct speech, its versatility and emotional range, its toughness and ‘passionate control’, they will, I am sure, reach a similar verdict. Christina Rossetti is not only the greatest English woman poet of the 19th century, she is also one of the greatest lyric poets in the whole canon of English verse. Back to Links Index

© M.A. Rice-Oxley, June 2004

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Almost Paradise: ISBN 0-9546139-0-2  292 pp    All material © Andrew Rice-Oxley 2004.