Rossetti, Christina Georgina (DNB00)

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Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 49
Rossetti, Christina Georgina

by Richard Garnett
1904 Errata appended.
Contains subarticle Maria Francesca, (1827–1876).

ROSSETTI, CHRISTINA GEORGINA (1830–1894), poetess, younger daughter of Gabriele and Frances Mary Lavinia Rossetti, was born in Charlotte Street, Portland Place, London, on 5 Dec. 1830. Some account of her father will be found in the memoir of her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti [q. v.] She enjoyed the same educational advantages as the rest of the family, and manifested similar precocity. Her first recorded verses, addressed to her mother on the latter's birthday, were written on 27 April 1842, and were printed at the same time by her maternal grandfather, Gaetano Polidori (1764–1853), at his private press. A little volume of verse was printed in the same manner in 1847, and when her brothers and their friends established ‘The Germ,’ in 1850, Christina, though only nineteen, contributed several poems of great beauty, under the pseudonym of ‘Ellen Alleyne.’ She took her full share in meeting the distressed circumstances which shortly afterwards befell the family through the disablement of its head by illness, assisting her mother in teaching a day school at Camden Town and afterwards at Frome. Like her brothers, she composed freely in Italian, in which language several of her poems were written. After a while she was enabled to devote herself to domestic duties and works of charity.

Miss Rossetti's temperament was profoundly religious, and she found much congenial occupation in church work and the composition of devotional manuals, and works of religious edification. As sympathizing (at least in early years) with the Italian cause, she was averse from Roman catholicism; but her devotion assumed a high Anglican character. This had the unfortunate result of causing an estrangement between herself and a suitor to whom she was deeply attached. This circumstance explains much that would otherwise be obscure in her poetry, and accounts for the melancholy and even morbid character of most of it. Few have expressed the agonies of disappointed and hopeless love with equal poignancy, and much of the same spirit pervades her devotional poetry also. In her first published volume, ‘Goblin Market and other Poems,’ with two designs by D. G. Rossetti (Cambridge and London, 1862), she attained a height which she never reached afterwards. Her ‘Goblin Market’ is original in conception, style, and structure, as imaginative as the ‘Ancient Mariner,’ and comparable only to Shakespeare for the insight shown into unhuman and yet spiritual natures. ‘The Prince's Progress’ (1866) and ‘A Pageant’ (1881) are greatly inferior, but are, like ‘Goblin Market,’ accompanied by lyrical poems of great beauty. In many of these—perhaps most—the thought is either inadequate for a fine piece or is insufficiently wrought out; but when nature and art combine, the result is exquisite. ‘Dream Love,’ ‘An End,’ ‘L. E. L.,’ ‘A Birthday,’ ‘An Apple Gathering,’ may be cited as examples of the perfect lyric, and there are many others. She had also a special vocation for the sonnet, and her best examples rival her brother's, gaining in ease and simplicity what they lose in stately magnificence. Except in ‘Goblin Market,’ however, she never approaches his imaginative or descriptive power. Everywhere else she is, like most poetesses, purely subjective, and in no respect creative. This, no less than the comparative narrowness of her sympathies, sets her below Mrs. Browning, to whom she has been sometimes preferred. At the same time, though by no means immaculate, she greatly excels that very careless writer in artistic construction and purity of diction.

Mrs. Browning, however, went on improving to the last day of her life, and the same can by no means be said of Christina Rossetti. After producing ‘Commonplace’ (stories) in 1870, ‘Sing Song’ (nursery rhymes) in 1872, and ‘Speaking Likenesses’ (tales for children) in 1874, she devoted herself mainly to the composition of works of religious edification, meritorious in their way, but scarcely affecting to be literature. They obtained, nevertheless, a wide circulation, and probably did more to popularise her name than a second ‘Goblin Market’ could have done. They include ‘Annus Domini’ (prayers), 1874; ‘Seek and Find,’ 1879; ‘Called to be Saints: the Minor Festivals,’ 1881; ‘Letter and Spirit,’ notes on the Commandments, 1882; ‘Time Flies: a Reading Diary,’ 1885; ‘The Face of the Deep: a Commentary on the Revelation,’ 1892, and ‘Verses,’ 1893.

Christina Rossetti long led the life of an invalid. For two years—from 1871 to 1873—her existence hung by a thread, from the attack of a rare and mysterious malady, ‘exophthalmic bronchocele,’ and her health was never again good. She died of cancer after a long illness at her residence in Torrington Square, London, on 29 Dec. 1894, and was buried at Highgate cemetery on 2 Jan. 1895. Her portrait, with that of her mother, drawn in tinted crayons by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, is in the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Her unpublished poems, with many collected from periodicals, were printed by her surviving brother, Mr. W. M. Rossetti, in 1896 as ‘New Poems.’ Prefixed is a portrait of her at the age of eighteen, from a pencil sketch by her brother Dante. These verses are in most cases too slight in theme or too unfinished to add anything to her reputation. But Christina Rossetti's character was so interesting, and her feeling so intense, that few of even her most unimportant lyrics are devoid of some touch of genius worthy of preservation. At the same time her reputation would certainly have stood higher if she had produced less or burned more. No excision, however, could have removed the taint of disease which clings to her most beautiful poetry, whether secular or religious, ‘Goblin Market’ excepted.

Her sister, Maria Francesca, (1827–1876), the oldest of the family, was born on 17 Feb. 1827. She was apparently the most practical of the group, and the most attentive to domestic concerns. She had a remarkable gift for educational work, and, besides two small Italian manuals, published ‘Letters to my Bible-Class on Thirty-nine Sundays,’ 1872. She was withheld in her early years from the religious life only by a strong sense of duty. According to her brother William she was ‘more warmly and spontaneously devotional than any person I have ever known.’ In 1873, the year preceding her brother William's marriage, she felt at liberty to follow her inclination by entering a religious [Anglican] sisterhood at All Saints' Home, Margaret Street. Her health soon failed, and she died there on 24 Nov. 1876, leaving, however, an adequate memorial of herself in ‘A Shadow of Dante: being an Essay towards studying himself, his World, and his Pilgrimage’ (1871), a manual highly valued by Dante scholars.

[The best information respecting Christina Rossetti is to be found in the Memoirs and Letters of Dante Rossetti, but most writers upon him notice her. Miss Ellen A. Proctor, who knew her in her latter years, wrote a miniature biography (1895), and Mr. Mackenzie-Bell is preparing one of greater extent. See also obituary notice in Athenæum, 5 Jan. 1895, by Theodore Watts-Dunton.]

R. G.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.239
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line  
282 ii 30 Rossetti, Christina G.: for Lavinia read Frances Mary Lavinia
10f.e.  after illness. insert She assisted her mother in teaching a day school at Camden Town, and afterwards at Frome.
283 i 2-3  for As an ardent Italian patriot read As a sympathiser (at least in early years) with the Italian cause
6f.e.  after 1872, insert and ‘Speaking Likenesses’ (tales for children) in 1874,
ii 2  omit ‘Speaking Likenesses,’ 1874 ;
6f.e.  for Upon her brother read In 1873, the year preceding her brother
5f.e.  for she felt at liberty to follow read she followed