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By Frances Thomas
Two images of Christina Rossetti - the first, a young girl, bright-eyed, alert and eager, with a sharp and precocious turn of phrase. The youngest daughter of a gifted and loving family, she has a princess for her godmother. Her family, though poor, is well-connected. She reads and writes avidly - at sixteen, she has published a volume of poetry. You would imagine, her brother said, that this girl would grow into ‘a woman of expansive heart, fond of society and diversions, and taking a part in them of more than average brilliancy.’
Then, we jump half a century or so, to a stout, sallow woman, dressed unremittingly in black, who seldom leaves her house except to go to church, where she worships a God who is implacably stern. Her presence at a social gathering can clear a cold black space around her. She has no children of her own, few friends, and of that large and vibrant family only one brother remains.
For the years in between these images, evidence is often scanty and contradictory. Several events seem to have blighted her youth: her father’s illness plunged the family into poverty, her own health became poor, and a broken engagement to the artist James Collinson affected her for years. The particular brand of High Anglicanism that her mother and sister thrived on only served to increase her low feelings of self-worth. A second engagement, years later, to the shy and scholarly Charles Cayley, came to nothing. She did not make friends easily, preferring to stay within the confines of her family, devoting herself to her mother, whom she adored. Probably an inherited tendency to depression darkened her early years. Yet she struggled against this, with far greater success than her brother Dante Gabriel managed to do, and in later life, she could say, with some truth, that though she had been a melancholy young girl, she was a very cheerful old woman. When I wrote my biography of Rossetti, I set myself the question ‘Who was the real Christina Rossetti?’ and had to admit that at the end, the question still remained essentially unanswered. She eluded most attempts to pin her down. In her letters, she was polite and formal, even to close family. Anecdotes about her, especially those of her later life, tended to dwell on her seriousness and gloom. She herself destroyed any papers that were too personal.
Yet there is a place where she is to be found - and it is here, between the pages of this book. Only in her poems will you find Christina Rossetti’s own voice speaking out loud and clear. She can be passionate, contradictory and fearless. She can be witty and sharp-tongued, gentle and contemplative. Her tone is often unexpected, and, even when she deals with religious matters, is unpredictable, sometimes daring. She is by no means the safe lady poet her detractors imagine her to be.
Andrew Rice-Oxley has set about the enterprising task of publishing an extensive selection of her poems, and setting them out in chronological order. A selection of some sort is desirable, as her poetic output was huge. Many poems were not published in her own lifetime, some because they were perhaps too personal, others because Rossetti may have felt that they did not quite reach her exacting standards. Moreover, there is a degree of repetition, especially in some of the religious poems, which she wrote in large numbers, partly out of a sense of duty to her Church. Yet many shorter selections of her poems do not do justice to her range, often concentrating on the thinner, more melancholy poems, thus reinforcing the prejudice that this is all there is to her work.
Also the innovative decision to group poems in chronological order is one that I think will be helpful and revealing. It enables the reader to track the emotional biography that is present in the poems, from the often melodramatic romantic themes she loved in her youth, full of violent passions and drama, (poems she was anxious that her readers should not mistake for ‘love personals’), to the astonishing imaginative burst of her early maturity that gave us Goblin Market, Winter, My Secret, and A Birthday, right through to the mellow thoughtfulness of her later sonnet sequences. From the start, her poetic voice was assured and confident, the language strong and direct. It was this that led Virginia Woolf to say of her ‘I doubt that you developed very much. You were an instinctive poet. You saw the world from the same angle always.’ But this does not do Rossetti justice. She always searched for new insights and images, even in her familiar themes, and she worked with care and precision to ensure clarity. She made sure of even the smallest details; when her brother Dante Gabriel made some criticism about the way she described the fur of a mole, for example, in the poem Mirrors of Life and Death, she took pains to explain (in a letter to Dante Gabriel in March 1877) - ‘perhaps you have not noticed the fact of his skin having no right-and-wrong way of the grain (as for instance a cat’s has); it grows like the biasless nap of velvet, and as a naturalistic fact, this is explained as adapting him to his career of grubbing to and fro.’
At first glance, her themes seem simple and unvarying. She writes of God, and Death, and Love, and Love and God and Death. But within this range, there is great variety, and some astonishing beauty. Most people know at least one poem by Christina Rossetti, and her admirers are many and different. Some love the religious poems, such as Uphill. Others are devoted to the melancholy notes of Remember and When I am dead, my dearest. Feminists can find feminism in her work, radicals see subversion and sly dissent. Psychologists can have a field day with the imagery of Goblin Market. For myself, I like best the clear voice of Winter, My Secret and the Monna Innominata sonnets. When I was a child, many of her children’s poems found their way into my consciousness, too. There are many routes to enjoying Christina Rossetti’s work.
And she was a writer conscious of her audience, wanting them to read her with pleasure and attention. ‘One wants to be read,’ she admitted to her brother, and to her sister-in-law, ‘tho’ I like to bring out a fresh volume, it strains ones nerves to do so.’ Although her early poems were once rejected by an editor as being ‘too full of Tennysonian mannerisms’, in fact her language is clear and remarkably free of poetic diction and archaism; she once said that to be concise was always one of her clear aims. Although as a woman she was reserved, as a poet she strove to be approachable.
One of the best and most sensitive studies of Christina Rossetti was written in 1955 by Margaret Sawtell. She writes largely from a Christian perspective, but avoids the bland hagiography of many of the writers who take this angle. She is perceptive about Rossetti’s weaknesses and quirks without sneering or belittling her. It is pleasing therefore to discover that Andrew Rice-Oxley is Margaret Sawtell’s grandson, and that his valuable work is part of a family tradition. This volume should serve to make Christina Rossetti’s poetry accessible to a new generation of readers, while those who are already lovers of her work will find many different facets of it, and perhaps some surprises, in this volume.
Almost Paradise: ISBN 0-9546139-0-2 292 pp All material © Andrew Rice-Oxley 2004.