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literature

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Rossetti, Christina (1830-1894)  

Her sexuality repressed by religion, Christina Rosetti wrote poetry that included highly-charged erotic female-to-female affection.

Rossetti was born on December 5, 1830, to Gabriele and Frances Polidori Rossetti. Her father was Italian, her mother half English and half Italian, and Rossetti grew up speaking both languages. Her family was skilled in literature and the arts. Her sister Maria was to write a study of Dante and eventually become an Anglican nun, her brother Dante Gabriel was to become a famous painter and poet, and her brother William a literary critic and the family's chronicler.

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Rossetti seems to have been a bright, happy child, but her temperament mysteriously changed in her early teens, and she became serious and introspective. The Rossetti household had always been a religious one of an Evangelical cast. In the 1840s, the family turned to Anglo-Catholicism. The rituals and beliefs of Christina's religion were to influence the direction of the rest of her life very deeply. From ages eighteen to twenty, she was often ill; one doctor diagnosed her illness as "religious mania."

Just before she turned seventeen, she accepted a proposal of marriage from a minor artist of her brother's circle, James Collinson, a recent convert from Catholicism. She broke off the engagement when he converted back. To break off an engagement on religious grounds was not unusual for a devout woman of the nineteenth century, but the experience was to become emblematic of the life of renunciation that she would lead.

Rossetti was a precocious versifier, though she had some trouble publishing her work. She published verses in the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood's short-lived publication The Germ in 1850. Later in the decade, her brother Dante Gabriel tried to get John Ruskin to promote her verse, but he demurred.

Public attention did not come until Macmillan's published her short lyric "Up-Hill" in 1861. Alexander Macmillan was to publish her first volume of verse, Goblin Market and Other Poems, in the following year. The Prince's Progress followed in 1866, and other volumes were published on a regular basis.

Rossetti's poetry is marked by its euphony of sound and mastery of technique. In her later volumes, Rossetti concentrated on religious verse, and she published her works with the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge. These works included a commentary on the Apocalypse, The Face of the Deep (1892). Her religious verse exhibits the same technical skill as her secular writing and exhibits an unusual combination of intensity and sincerity.

Rossetti's personal life was not happy. She was often ill and was misdiagnosed with tuberculosis twice. In the 1860s, she again refused a suitor on religious grounds. This time the man was Charles Cayley, an absent-minded scholar who seems to have proposed to Rossetti in the middle of the decade. Though she may have loved Cayley and remained friends with him, he was an agnostic.

In 1871, Rossetti developed Graves' disease. She lost much of her hair and her skin turned brown, and the illness rendered her a near-invalid for the rest of her life.

Rossetti's poetry has a sexual element resulting from the repressions her religion engendered and from her life-long interest in "fallen women" and their redemption. Rossetti worked for ten years in the House of Charity, a penitentiary for unwed mothers and other "fallen women" run by Anglican nuns.

Her most powerful sustained work, Goblin Market, exhibits an interest in redemption in vigorous female terms. In the poem, the sisters Lizzie and Laura, who live together in a house on the moors, are tempted each night by the cries of goblins selling fruit. One evening Laura walks out of the house and purchases some fruit with a lock of her blond hair. She eats her fill in front of the goblins and returns.

On the following evenings, Laura is struck by an immense craving for the fruit, yet she can no longer hear the goblins selling their wares, even though her sister still can. She begins to pine away. Lizzie approaches the goblins hoping to purchase some more fruit to restore her sister's life. Though she offers them money, she refuses to part with her hair. The goblins pelt her with their fruit in disgust and run off. Laura is restored to health by licking the fruit juices off Lizzie's face and body.

Though the poem has been variously described as an allegory of Christian redemption and as a warning against the temptation of sexuality, it creates a powerful, erotically charged version of female-to-female affection.

The language of the poem is resolutely sexual. The sisters walk "With clasping arms and cautioning lips / With tingling cheeks and finger tips." When Lizzie returns covered in the pulp of the goblin fruit, she says to Laura: "Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices." Laura in return kisses her with a "hungry mouth."

In other poems, Rossetti imagines female sexuality in deep detail. The "Babylon the Great" section of The World delineates the Woman of Revelation as a sexualized Medusa figure. A sonnet, also entitled "The World," figures the secular world as a sexual temptress: "By day she woos me, soft, exceeding fair."

Rossetti's last years were marked by the deaths of her mother and sister and by her increasing devotion to her religion, of which she always felt somewhat unworthy. Her final months were spent in great physical pain. She died of cancer on December 29, 1894.

James Najarian

     

 
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    Bibliography
   

Battiscombe, Georgina. Christina Rossetti: A Divided Life. London: Constable, 1981.

Homans, Margaret. "'Syllables of Velvet': Dickinson, Rossetti, and the Rhetorics of Sexuality." Feminist Studies 11 (Fall 1983): 569-593.

Jones, Kathleen. Learning Not To Be First: The Life of Christina Rossetti. Gloucestershire: Windrush Press, 1991.

Mermin, Dorothy. "Heroic Sisterhood in Goblin Market." Victorian Poetry 21 (Summer 1983): 107-118.

Rosenblum, Dolores. "Christina Rossetti: The Inward Pose." Shakespeare's Sisters: Feminist Essays on Women Poets. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, eds. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979. 82-98.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Najarian, James  
    Entry Title: Rossetti, Christina  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated March 1, 2004  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/rossetti_c.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  
 

 

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