About Christina Rossetti

Many readers first come across Christina Rossetti as the writer of the words of the carol 'In the Bleak Midwinter', or the deceptively simple, but actually strange and powerful, fairy tale in verse, Goblin Market. But her work ranges widely, including ballads, love lyrics, sonnets and devotional poetry, often suffused with sadness and marked by her deeply religious temperament.

Christina Rossetti was born in 1830, the youngest of four children, and one of her brothers was the Pre-Raphaelite poet and artist, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. She was educated at home, shared her brother's creative interests and contributed to their childhood family journals. Just before her eighteenth birthday she accepted a proposal of marriage from a member of her brother's Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the artist James Collinson. He inspired Christina Rossetti's brilliant, though melancholy, poem 'When I am Dead my Dearest'. However, after two years, Collinson decided to join the catholic priesthood and the marriage never took place.

'Birthday' was written during Rossetti's late twenties, a time of loneliness and depression, and its exuberant joy comes as a surprising departure from the tone of other poems she wrote at this time. Then, in 1859, Goblin Market was completed. Rossetti always denied that this was anything more than a simple fairy story, but its implications resonate. There are two sisters, perhaps two sides of her own nature: one sensible, the other more daring. The goblins are described vividly in terms of animals she had seen at the zoo, and the daring sister is tempted to enjoy wicket delights: 'she sucked and sucked and sucked the more'. Punishment follows (at one level it is a Victorian cautionary tale for children) and the sensible sister has to come to her rescue by offering to subject herself to suffering and humiliation. It is possible to interpret the poem as an exploration of sexual temptation, or as a Christian morality tale, but it escapes narrow explanation and remains a teasing mystery.

'Cousin Kate' reads like a traditional ballad; this tale of the corruption of the cottage maiden by the great lord tells its story with forceful directness. 'Promises like Pie Crust', written at around the same time, conveys a calm acceptance of the limits of human happiness and of the attractions of ordinary forgiving friendship. Both poems exhibit the restrained sadness, expressed in homely language, that is characteristic of this fine poet.

Later in life, Christina Rossetti achieved widespread recognition for her writing; by the time of her death in 1894 she was established as one of the most original voices of her century.

Christina Rossetti: The Complete Poems (Penguin Classics...

Christina Rossetti: Selected Poems (Penguin Classics,...


Christina Rossetti

Christina Rossetti Downloads read by Helen Dunmore

1Cousin Kate


2A Birthday


3Promises like Pie-Crust


4When I am dead, my dearest


5Goblin Market