Friday, 27 April 2012

Remembering Christina Rossetti

Remembered today in the Church of England Lectionary is Christina Rossetti, poet and sister of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, of the famous Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which wrote and painted its way through the 1840s to the 1880s, producing such classics as Millais' Ophelia and Holman Hunt's The Hireling Shepherd.

Christina was never a formal member of the Brotherhood, Victorian gender roles disallowing such such a thing, but unofficially she was an important member of the inner circle, whose considerable poetic prowess revealed a life of rather sombre self denial and consequent devoted Christian faith.

She was twice unlucky in love. Her engagement to the minor Pre-Raphaelite, James Collinson, was called off after he became a Roman Catholic, and her love for Charles Cayley came to nothing when she became convinced he was not a Christian.

Her poetry is harshly uncompromising about the brevity of life and sweetly sad about the certainty of death.

                                When I am dead, my dearest,
                                               Sing no sad songs for me;
                                               Plant thou no roses at my head,
                                               Nor shady Cyprus tree.
                                               Be the green grass above me
                                               With showers and dewdrops wet;
                                               And if thou wilt, remember,
                                               And if thou wilt, forget.

She can do sensuous too, though, as in Goblin Market - a poem about female desire and temptation (is it God or patriarchal society which determines what is forbidden?) 

                              She cried 'Laura' up the garden,
                                             Did you miss me?
                                             Come and kiss me.
                                             Never mind my bruises,
                                             Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices
                                             Squeezed from goblin fruits for you,
                                             Goblin pulp and goblin dew.
                                             Eat me, drink me, love me:
                                             For your sake I have braved the glen
                                             And had to do with goblin merchant men
(definitely not a children's poem...)

For my money she is best when she turns her thwarted feeling towards the consolation of faith, as in the middle verse of the perfectly constructed A Better Resurrection:

                                           My life is like a faded leaf,

                                           My harvest dwindled to a husk;
                                           Truly my life is void and brief
                                           And tedious in the barren dusk;
                                           My life is like a frozen thing,
                                           No bud nor greenness can I see:
                                           Yet rise it shall - the sap of Spring;
                                           O Jesus, rise in me.

Her passionate nature was drawn to both ends of the Anglican spectrum - first Evangelical, then Tractarian, so today there is much to celebrate - Anglicanism in all its many hues; a woman railing against patriarchy; a Pre-Raphaelite poet and a Christian who found that putting one's hopes in this life alone is ultimately futile.

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