Of all female Victorian poets, the works of Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) have stood the test of time with most success. She was born into a remarkable family of artists, scholars and writers. Her father was an exiled Italian revolutionary and poet; Rossetti and her brothers were founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite art movement. Rossetti is remembered for her acerbic love poetry, vivacious ballads and nursery rhymes. She is probably best known today for writing the Christmas carols In the Bleak Mid-Winter and Love Came Down at Christmas. Critic Basil de Selincourt’s assessment of her is that she was “all but our greatest woman poet and incomparably our greatest craftswoman”.
Although Rossetti was devoted to her Anglican faith throughout her lifetime, she questioned her beliefs from time to time. In the 1850s, she suffered a religious crisis, which provided the material for her later devotional poems. Love for Christ is also a key theme. For Rossetti, divine love gave purpose to her existence, and this is evident in her most famous carol, In the Bleak Midwinter.
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Although Rossetti did not fully identify with the nascent feminist movement, she recognised the injustices that women faced every day. Goblin Market confronts the subject of sexual desire, which was taboo at the time for women, although just starting to be discussed. Laura craves the taste of the fruit, but Lizzie warns her that she will lose her youth (a euphemism for her virginity).
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Death was a major feature of Rossetti’s life. Her father died when she was in her early 20s, while inner-city poverty and illness were rife in the London of Victorian England in which she lived. Rossetti's devotion to the church led her to spend long periods of time contemplating human mortality. Accepting death in the belief of the afterlife is a key part of the Christian message.
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Christina Rossetti’s life almost mirrors the reign of Queen Victoria. During Rossetti’s lifetime, Britain underwent changes that transformed the lives of its people: its population more than doubled as its cities exploded into the centres of world industry. In The Face of the Deep, about the final book of the Bible, Rossetti writes that England is “full of luxuries and thronged by stinted poor”.
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The Pre-Raphaelite school of thought placed a high value on the idea of unattainable and unrequited love, harking back to medieval notions of courtship. A knight would contemplate the virtues of his beloved from afar, with the distance serving to further guard her virtue. Rossetti explores this several times: for example, Maude Clare is separated from Thomas because he marries another woman.
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