The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

V. The Rossettis, William Morris, Swinburne, and Others

§ 12. Christina Rossetti

The first number of The Germ contained, as well as Rossetti’s My Sister’s Sleep, a sonnet by his brother William Michael and two lyrics by his sister Christina Georgina Rossetti. Christina, born in 1830, produced her earlier work under the pseudonym Ellen Alleyn. The two lyrics in question, Dream Land and An End, are the natural outcome of a mind that instinctively translates its passing dreams into music as faint and clear as the horns of elf-land, such music as is heard at its perfection in the lyrics of Shelley. A song, Oh roses for the flush of youth, in the second number of The Germ, has the same unsought grace. Together with this appeared the more elaborate A Pause of Thought and A Testimony, the second of these founded on the recurrent theme of Ecclesiastes and employing scriptural language with the skill and ease manifested by Rossetti in The Burden of Nineveh and by Swinburne in countless poems. Unlike her brother, whose sympathy with religion was purely artistic, and still more unlike Swinburne, whose attitude to the orthodox conceptions of Christianity was openly hostile, Christina Rossetti was, to the end of her life, a devout Christian, finding the highest inspiration for her song in her faith and investing Anglican ideals of worship with a mystical beauty. Her volumes of collected verse, beginning with Goblin Market and other poems in 1862 and ending with New Poems, collected in 1896, two years after her death, by her brother William, are permeated, even when they deal with subjects not primarily religious, with this devotional feeling. Goblin Market and The Prince’s Progress, her two chief narrative poems, are both, in effect, allegories, the first obvious in its application, the second capable of more than one interpretation, of the soul in its struggle with earthly allurements. Her sequences of sonnets, Monna Innominata and Later Life, are filled with her sense of the claims of divine love over human passion. While her brother, in The Blessed Damozel, drew the picture of an immortal spirit yearning for the love it has left behind and translating the joys of heaven into concrete imagery, Christina Rossetti embodies the desire of the soul on earth to climb

  • the stairs that mount above,
  • Stair after golden skyward stair
  • To city and to sea of glass,
  • and the heaven which she sees is the mystical city of The Revelation of S. John. In her Martyrs’ Song, the blessed ones who “lean over the golden bar” have no regret for earth: amid the welcoming angels, painted in verse that translates into words the visions wrought in tapestry and stained glass by Burne-Jones and Morris, they find “the rest which fulfils desire” in the light of the divine presence. Such verse has a natural kinship with the religious poetry of the seventeenth century, and especially with George Herbert and Henry Vaughan, where their excessive ingenuity in metaphor gives place to spontaneous lyric fervour. The clear notes of Herbert’s Easter Song and the calm rapture of Vaughan’s “My soul, there is a country” find their closest echo in Christina Rossetti’s devout songs, and she adopted instinctively the free metrical forms of rimed stanza in which they clothed their thought.

    While all her thoughts were drawn together towards one central ideal and her verse was ruled by the supreme conviction that

  • in la sua volantade è nostra peace,
  • she expressed herself with a variety of metre and rhythm and a musical power unequalled by any other English poetess. If she had less intellectual force and a more confined range of subject than Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who certainly, by virtue of her more liberal sympathies, makes an appeal to a wider audience, Christina Rossetti unquestionably had the advantage in melodiousness. Goblin Market, written in paragraphs of varying length with short lines and rimes binding them together at irregular intervals, is an example of a form which, adapted by a careless writer even with considerable imagination, might easily become mere rhythmical prose. While the language is of the most simple kind and the lines run freely into one another, the music of the rimes, half unheard, is, nevertheless, strongly felt. Whether moving in these lightly fettered cadences or in the stricter confinement of the stanza, her lyric verse is always remarkable for its combination of strength and seriousness of sentiment with simplicity of expression. Mystic though she was, her thought never found refuge in complicated or obscure language, but translated itself into words with the clearness and definiteness which were among the aims of the pre-Raphaelite associates of her girlhood. In such short bursts of song as A Birthday, simile and coloured phrase came to her aid, without effort on her part, to adorn a crescendo which rises to a climax of innocent happiness. Her A Christmas Carol cannot be matched among Christmas songs for its union of childlike devotion and pathos with pictorial directness: Morris’s “Outlanders, whence come ye last”? and Swinburne’s “Three damsels in the queen’s chamber” are not less beautiful and are more elaborately pictorial, but they are designedly archaic in style and are without her earnestness and concentration of feeling. It is true that there are poems by Christina Rossetti in which her sense of the necessity of simplicity is too apparent, either in the intrusion of too homely words or in occasional metrical weakness. Her ballads of everyday life, such as Maude Clare and Brandons Both, inevitably recall to their own disadvantage, the successes of Tennyson in the same field. On the other hand, where her imagination pursued a higher path, as in the allegorical visions of A Ballad of Boding, the note which she sounded was clear and unfaltering. In the third of her Old and New Year Ditties, the famous “Passing away,” she showed herself no less capable than Swinburne of wedding appropriately majestic music to her theme, varying the cadence of her verse upon the ground-work of a single sound, the passing bell which is heard at the end of each line, and gradually relieving the melancholy of her opening passage, until, in the last notes, new hope is heard. The range of her verse was, naturally, somewhat limited by her preoccupation with religious subjects. Contemporary movements touched her lightly, and it was seldom that, as in the two poems entitled The German-French Campaign, she referred to them. If this aloofness from the world precludes her from an uncontested claim to the position sometimes given to her as the greatest of English poetesses, no religious poet of the nineteenth century, even if we take into account the brilliant but more turbid genius of Francis Thompson, can be said to challenge comparison with her whose “shrine of holiest-hearted song” Swinburne approached with reverent admiration of her single-heartedness and purity of purpose.