Born in 1839 into a family of superlative artistic talents, Christina Rossetti, the youngest of the brood, developed her poetic skills amidst literary pursuits and paintings and the overall artistic ferveur of her family. If she’d wanted to become a chef or an artisan working with wood or leather, there might have been some pause given her as to her choice of creative direction in life. As it was, Christina excelled in poetry, in the written expression of a heart, and a soul, that sought to soar above words themselves.
Her father, Gabriele Rossetti, was an Italian poet and political exile from his native Italy who, upon immigrating in 1824 to England, became a noted scholar of Dante Alighieri and a professor of the Italian language in London. Two years later, in London, Rossetti wed a woman of half-Italian and half-English ancestry named Frances Polidori. She was a scholar of Dante and of the Italian language. The minds of these two individuals were certainly compatible, and it appears that theirs was a marriage of heart as well as soul.
Frances gave birth to four children, all of whom were intensely gifted creatively. The oldest child, Dante Gabriel, excelled in the realms of poetry and painting during this era, known as Victorian, and became the foremost proponent of the art movement known as Pre-Raphaelite. The philosophy and the forms of that art were boldly unique, almost immediately iconic in form, style, color and composition.
Dante Gabrielle Rossetti became superbly dominant and influential within this aesthetic “Brotherhood”. His youngest sibling, the passionate, sometimes turbulent, Christina, would develop her own form of creative expression and dominance within that mode of expression called poetry. She thrived in the creative fervent that was the atmosphere of her family, and, yet, she often needed to impose restraint and discipline upon her ardent and willful temper. Thus was a poetess born.
Her literary gifts shone with a soft brilliance that set her above and apart from all other poets, past, present, future. She dealt with profound emotions and strong sensations in the most profound and strengthening of ways, one of which was to subdue the sentiments of her interior world. She therefore enforced, or re-enforced, her expansive emotions. Through her self-imposed self-discipline, Christina endeavoured to become a unique individual, her own true self. She tempered her basically tempestuous nature through the art of poetry, words that resonated with intelligence and emotion, but emotion, the impulse of this rigorous, high-spirited striver, always prevailed over the intellect within Rossetti. Her style is direct, her message compressed. It’s almost as if she is speaking to the reader in a tranquil voice, in a room of comfortable intimacy.
Rossetti ultimately achieved, at some cost to her emotional and physical health, a remarkable degree of artistic self-restraint in a family that was fertilely able to create artistic visions as spontaneously as another family might produce carpenters or criminals. She seems to have been aware of her own challenges in imposing constraints upon her unbridled feelings. Poetry of intensity and economy was the overarching achievement of this artist attempting to curb her passions. At times, her poetry reminds me of the more cryptic, and terse, poetry of Emily Dickinson, about whom so little is known, largely because Emily wished it that way.
Comparisons have been, and will continue to be, made between the poetry of Rossetti and that of her contemporary, Elizabeth Barrett Browning; I’ve made them myself a time or two. Such comparisons are frequently wrongly made, as if the two women were rivals, or engaged in some modern form of creative competition, a Penning-for-the-Stars championship.
I highly doubt that Christina Rossetti possessed a competitive bone in her lively but sickly body; and I also highly doubt that Mrs. Browning cared about anyone other than her husband approving of her penned works.
Each poetess possessed a poetic vision that was immediate and intense, and each woman strove to express poetry in vastly different ways. I prefer Rossetti because of her superior lyrical quality, but also because every time that I read anything by this poetic artist, I feel the music of her poetry. She is less intellectual than Browning, and my aesthetic tastes in poetry run much more toward the sensual and the simple. In any poem by Christina Rossetti, the tone rings in a quiet yet powerful way; the form is unadorned; the phrasing and inflection are instinctive and natural to my mode of thinking poetically. Even the oppositional dualities that her intellect chose to depict in poetic form rhythmically fit into a lovely lilting line that the mind recalls in dulcet tones.
Christina Rossetti wrote many poems across varied genres: children, devotional, romantic. Her “Goblin Market” and “Remember” are among her most famous works. Her musical affinity is evidenced in the lyrics that she wrote for two Christmas carols, renowned in the United Kingdom: “In the Bleak Midwinter” and “Love Came Down at Christmas”.
Rossetti died on 29 December 1894 in Bloomsbury, in the West End of London and was buried in Highgate Cemetery. A simple stone tablet in Torrington Square forms the marking stone of her place of death. Her life resides, even triumphs, in all of her poetry.
I have chosen for this dramatic reading a poem entitled Monna Innominata [I loved you first]. It is verse of the highest order of passion sublimed into tender sentiment and the compare-and-contrast that any lover will engage in once the amour has ended, but has not lived out its time.
There are many ways to interpret such an outpouring and analysis of a loving heart. Mine is to simply read it, aloud, in the hope that the listener will understand that love sometimes goes unexpressed here on earth to the Lover, who then awaits, and, unexpectedly, receives, an avowed announcement of that love, pure, sweet, passionate and gentle, as the Beloved reaches down from Above, to touch his Innamorata.
Monna Innominata [I loved you first].
I loved you first: but afterwards your love Outsoaring mine, sang such a loftier song As drowned the friendly cooings of my dove. Which owes the other most? my love was long, And yours one moment seemed to wax more strong; I loved and guessed at you, you construed me And loved me for what might or might not be – Nay, weights and measures do us both a wrong. For verily love knows not ‘mine’ or ‘thine;’ With separate ‘I’ and ‘thou’ free love has done, For one is both and both are one in love: Rich love knows nought of ‘thine that is not mine’; Both have the strength and both the length thereof, Both of us, of the love which makes us one.