In Our Time
Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the life and work of the Victorian poet Christina Rossetti.
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“One of the most important female writers of the 19th century, Christina Rossetti is remembered for her acerbic love poetry, vivacious ballads and nursery rhymes. She is probably best-known today for writing the carol In the Bleak Mid-Winter.
Rossetti was born in London in 1830 into a remarkable family of artists, scholars and writers. Her father was an exiled Italian revolutionary and poet and her brothers William and Dante Gabriel Rossetti were founding members of art movement the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Christina had her own first book of poetry privately printed by her grandfather when she was 12 years old. Aged 19 she contributed poems to Pre-Raphaelite journal The Germ, under the pseudonym Ellen Alleyn.
The women in her family were committed High Church Anglicans and as a teenager, Christina suffered a nervous breakdown that was diagnosed at the time as ‘religious mania’. Rossetti fell in love with several suitors, but rejected them all because they failed to share her precise religious convictions. In 1862, at the age of 32, she published her first full collection, Goblin Market and Other Poems. A sensuous fairy story,Goblin Market is a heady tale of repressed sexuality and sisterhood. Her concern with female fellowship was played out in real life as Rossetti devoted ten years as a volunteer at St Mary Magdalene’s penitentiary for prostitutes and unmarried mothers in Highgate.
Religious themes dominate her work but Rossetti never preaches, instead exploring the tensions between earthly passions and divine love. Graves Disease took its toll on Rossetti in later years, and the loss of beauty was a recurrent theme: “Youth gone and beauty gone, what doth remain?/ The longing of a heart pent up forlorn” (Youth Gone, And Beauty Gone). She died in 1894.”