Childhood & Early Life
Christina Rossetti was born Christina Georgina Rossetti, on December 5, 1830, in Charlotte Street, London, England, to Gabriele Rossetti and Frances Polidori. She was the youngest of four children in the family with two brothers and a sister.
Her father, Gabriele, was an esteemed poet and writer of his time. He was a political exile from Abruzzo, Italy, and had settled in London in 1824. Her mother, Frances, was also a scholar and an artist.
Christina was blessed with the virtues of her parents from a very early age. She was home schooled for the most of her childhood. Her parents were highly religious and hence, most of Christina’s early education was centred on religious studies.
Christina grew up as a lively child and she narrated her first story to her mother before even she learned to write. She also indulged in studying religious books, fairy tales, and classic novels. She studied writers, such as John Keats, Sir Walter Scott, and Matthew Lewis deeply. She also had an Italian influence on her childhood. Italian writers, painters, and scholars visited their house quite frequently and their house was full of Italian classic artworks.
In the 1840s, the family faced severe financial difficulties owing to her father’s diminishing mental and physical health. He was suffering from depression and tuberculosis. At the age of 14, Christina had a nervous breakdown and she suffered intense bouts of depression herself. She quit her studies and her mother got her involved with the Anglo-Catholic movement.
Her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti went on becoming a painter; Christina sat as a model for several of his paintings.
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Although she had been writing poems since her childhood years, she began writing poems professionally in 1842, when she was only 12. Around that time, she also began keeping a track and dating her poems.
Most of her early poems were heavily influenced by her favourite poets. Some of them even seemed like blatant imitations. It was only during her late teenage years that she developed her own style, which was a mix of Bible verses, folk tales, and lives of famous Christian saints.
Around 1847, she began experimenting with styles - writing sonnets, ballads, and hymns. She was depressed mostly during that time and hence, most of her poems from that era reflected themes, such as sadness, death, and loss. However, she kept her work well within the Romance genre.
Her first published poems were ‘Death’s Chill Between’ and ‘Heart’s Chill Between,’ which she wrote for a literary magazine. She was 18 at that time. She took the pseudonym ‘Ellen Alleyne’ and published more of her poems in the literary magazine ‘The Germ.’
As she developed a more mature approach toward writing poems, she embarked on other genres than romance. In 1856, she published a poem called ‘In the Artist’s Studio’ for which her older brother Dante served as an inspiration. In the poem, she accused her brother and other painters of that era of ‘self-worshipping,’ as they presented their own versions of the characters of the female models.
In 1862, she published her poetry collection ‘Goblin Market and Other Poems.’ It happens to be her most famous poetry collection till date and it was a massive critical success upon its release. It contains some widely celebrated poems, such as ‘Goblin Market’, ‘Maude Clare’, ‘The Convent Threshold,’ and ‘Up-Hill.’ She was only 31 at the time of the publication of the collection and was widely hailed by the critics as the foremost female poet of her generation. The reputed poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning passed away in 1861 and Christina was hailed as her natural successor.
The collection also contained her famous poem titled ‘In the Round Tower at Jhansi, June 8, 1857,’ which talked about the Jhokan Bag Massacre at Jhansi during India’s first struggle for Independence.
Her work was seen as allegorical, symbolic, and abstract to some degree. She kept writing poems throughout the next few decades and published several other poetry collections, such as ‘The Prince’s Progress and Other Poems’ and ‘A Pageant and Other Poems.’
In 1859, she began to volunteer at St. Mary Magdalene House of Charity in Highgate. It was a rehabilitation center for former prostitutes. It is also known that the ‘Goblin Market’ poem was partly inspired from her experiences working there.
She suffered a lot throughout her life, most of it being psychological suffering. Many of her poems dealt with the issue of female suffering, but most of them had mixed feelings about it. Several scholars also claim that there were ‘feminist’ undertones in many of her poems as well.
She was also a leftist liberal by ideology. She extensively criticized slavery in America, along with animal cruelty and exploitation of girls.
In the later parts of her life, she mostly wrote poetry for children and devotional poetry. In the 1890s, she published two of her famous works from her later career - ‘Sing-Song’ and ‘The Face of the Deep.’
Although she was a fairly popular figure during her time, her popularity did not hold at the beginning of the 20th century, especially after her death. However, in the recent past, she gained reputation yet again, as many of her works were found to be touching Freudian themes, such as sexual repression.
Personal Life & Death
Christina Rossetti never married, but was involved in many romantic relationships. She first became engaged to painter James Collinson, but the engagement broke. She later dated famous linguist Charles Cayley but did not marry him as well due to religious reasons. Painter John Brett also approached her for marriage, but she refused him in the same way.
In the early 1890s, her health began declining. She suffered from Graves’ Disease and Breast Cancer. She died from the complications of cancer on December 29, 1894.