A Brief Biography of Christina Georgina Rossetti

Christina Georgina Rossetti (1830-1894) was the youngest of four children born to Frances Polidori Rossetti and Gabriele Rossetti, an Italian immigrant. Growing up in a bilingual household that valued artistic and intellectual achievement, the Rossetti children assimilated both Italian and English literary traditions. Like their maternal uncle, John Polidori, author of The Vampyre (and physician to Lord Byron), and their father, an influential Dante scholar, the Rossetti siblings all became published writers. Dante Gabriel (1828-1882), the eldest brother, was both a poet and a celebrated painter, as well as a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. William Michael (1829-1919), a writer and critic, became Christina’s first editor and biographer after her death. Her beloved only sister, Maria Francesca (1827-1876) published a commentary on Dante Alighieri before joining the Society of All Saints, an Anglican sisterhood. 

Rossetti was involved in the Pre-Raphaelite movement from its inception in 1848. Although her gender barred her from becoming one of the seven “Brothers” along with Dante Gabriel and William Michael, she shared the group’s verbal-visual aesthetic and was involved in a number of their collaborative projects. Notably, she was the model for Dante Gabriel’s first two oil paintings, The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1848-49) and Ecce Ancilla Domini! (1849-50). Rossetti was the only female contributor to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s magazine of art and poetry, the Germ, publishing seven poems in three of its four issues (under the alias Ellen Alleyne). Her poetry was illustrated in periodicals and books by some of the leading Pre-Raphaelite artists, including John Everett Millais, Frederick Sandys, and Arthur Hughes. Rossetti’s collaboration with her brother on her first two poetry collections,Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862) and The Prince’s Progress and Other Poems (1866), was crucial to her vision for these works. The frontispiece and title-page designs Dante Gabriel provided for each were so important to her that she was willing to delay publication until they were ready for the press.

In addition to the Pre-Raphaelites, the Oxford Movement of the Anglican Church—and particularly Tractarianism—influenced Rossetti’s visual imagination and poetics. Both early Pre-Raphaelitism and Tractarianism saw the sensuous world as a symbolic expression of inherent spiritual truth. Rossetti’s secular and her devotional verses show this “double vision,” with the symbolic and the allusive overlaying the literal level of her poetic language. Even in Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book (1872), with its apparently simple poems for the pre-literate child, Rossetti employs her method of surface and symbol. Her illustrator, Arthur Hughes, followed Rossetti’s manuscript drawings for these verses in his own designs, which work interactively with the text to illuminate meanings. Hughes also illustrated Rossetti’s second book for children, Speaking Likenesses (1874). By 1881, Rossetti had achieved such a stature with her publisher that Macmillan accepted A Pageant and Other Poems (1881) for publication without reviewing the manuscript beforehand. The first collection of Rossetti’s poetry published without illustrations, this volume contains the remarkable sonnet sequences “Monna Innominata: A Sonnet of Sonnets” and “Later Life: A Double Sonnet of Sonnets.” In these complexly organized cycles, Rossetti shows her mastery of the sonnet form and an intellectually sophisticated and complex engagement with its traditions. 

Although in her letters Rossetti sometimes described herself as a "semi-recluse,” her church attendance, domestic life, and travels around the United Kingdom suggest that for an unmarried Victorian woman, she was actually quite social. Rossetti had an international reputation: her highly crafted poetry was well reviewed and widely admired across Britain and the United States. When her five books of religious prose commentary with inset verses appeared between the 1870s and the 1890s, these were also well received. Verses: Reprinted from “Called to be Saints,” “Time Flies,” and “The Face of the Deep” (1893) collected the poetry from these devotional books into a single volume. Rossetti’s last book of poetry proved to be her most popular, selling in far larger numbers than her earlier verses. 

After Rossetti’s death in 1894 and the flurry of eulogistic articles that subsequently appeared, her brother William Michael edited both her Poetical Works, with a Memoir (1904) and her Family Letters (1908).  Also in 1908, Mackenzie Bell published a family-authorized full-length biography of Rossetti. Other biographies appeared, one every two or three decades throughout the century, but there was almost no serious critical analysis of her work until a handful of scholarly articles emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. The common view among the academic authors of these articles was that Christina Rossetti was a Victorian “poetess” with a limited range compared to male counterparts like Alfred Tennyson, Robert Browning, William Morris, Algernon Swinburne, or Gerard Manley Hopkins, and even compared to her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti.  Her work was also unfavorably contrasted with that of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. In short, through most of the twentieth century Christina Rossetti fell into disregard and relative disrepute. That is, until a true resuscitation of her work began in earnest in the late 1970s, launched by the publication of Rebecca Crump’s three-volume variorum edition. Since 1979, well over one hundred book chapters and articles have discussed and analyzed Rossetti’s work, and more than a dozen critical books and biographies have appeared, along with a four-volume edition of her letters.  Not only has Rossetti’s star now fully risen, but most current anthologies also consider her to be one of the finest of the Victorian poets.

Selected Works by Christina Rossetti

1862            Goblin Market and Other Poems. London: Macmillan.

1866            The Prince’s Progress and Other Poems. London: Macmillan.

1870            Commonplace and Other Short Stories. London: F.S. Ellis.

1870            Seek and Find: A Double Series of Short Studies of the Benedicite, London, SPCK.

1872            Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book. London: Routledge.

1874            Annus Domini: A Prayer for Each Day of the Year. London: James Parker.

1874            Speaking Likenesses. London: Macmillan.

1881            Called to be Saints: The Minor Festivals Devotionally Studied. London: SPCK.

1881            A Pageant and Other Poems. London: Macmillan, 1881.

1883             Letter and Spirit: Notes on the Commandments. London, SPCK.

1885            Time Flies: A Reading Diary. London: SPCK.

1892            The Face of the Deep: A Devotional Commentary on the Apocalypse. SPCK.

1893            Verses. London: SPCK.

1896            New Poems. Ed. William Michael Rossetti. London: Macmillan.

1897            Maude: A Story for Girls. Ed. William Michael Rossetti. London: James Bowden.

1904            The Poetical Works of Christina G. Rossetti. With Memoir and Notes by William Michael Rossetti. London: Macmillan.

1908             The Family Letters of Christina Rossetti. Ed. William Michael Rossetti.

1979-1990    The Complete Poems of Christina Rossetti. Variorum ed. Ed. R. W. Crump. 3 vols. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

1997-2004    The Letters of Christina Rossetti. Ed. Antony H. Harrison. 4 vols. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.