Christina Rossetti: The Complete Poems

Christina Rossetti: The Complete Poems

Middleton, David

Text [edited] by R. W. Crump. Notes and Introduction by Betty S. Flowers. New York: Penguin Books, 2001. lv + 1221 pp. $17.00 (paper).

Born on December 5, 1830, in London, Christina Rossetti was the youngest member of one of the most interesting families of nineteenth-century England: her father, an exiled Italian poet; her Italian-English mother, a devout Christian to whom Christina dedicated every one of her many books of verse; her elder sister Maria, an Anglican nun of the All Saints’ Sisterhood; her brother Dante Gabriel, the famous Pre-Raphaelite painter and poet; and her brother William Michael, the editor of the works and chronicler of the lives of Christina and Dante Gabriel.

Like her mother and sister, Rossetti was a devout Anglican deeply affected by the Oxford Movement and the recovery of High Church practices. She adhered faithfully to the church calendar, kept fasting days, remembered the saints on their days, and led, according to Betty S. Flowers, “an exemplary moral, almost nun-like existence.” Ironically, Rossetti’s best-known poem, “Goblin Market”-a study in temptation, addiction, and a celebration of vicarious sacrifice and sisterly love and written in, as Flowers puts it, “richly imaginative, surprisingly sensual and innovative, informal verse,” is not representative of Rossetti’s poetry as a whole, which, in this edition, reaches to nearly nine hundred pages. The popular, yet atypical, “Goblin Market,” as well as the life and work of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, have far too long obscured Rossetti’s primary achievement: the writing of some of the finest verse on Christian themes in the Anglican literary tradition.

Her best devotional verse exhibits what Flowers rightly praises as “the beauty of her lyricism, the perfect pitch and clarity of her line, the subtle effects of rhyme and rhythm.” Two such poems, “A Christmas Carol” (“In the bleak midwinter”) and “Christmastide” (“Love came down at Christmas”), are familiar to Episcopalians as Hymns 112 and 84 in The Hymnal 1982. The first of these opens by evoking the traditional manger scene: “In the bleak mid-winter / Frosty wind made moan, / Earth stood hard as iron, / Water like a stone; / Snow had fallen, / Snow on snow, / In the bleak mid-winter / Long ago.” The poem closes with the poet wondering what gift she might have which is worthy enough to give to the Christ child: “What can I give Him, / Poor as I am? / If I were a shepherd / I would bring a lamb, / If I were a wise man / I would do my part- / Yet what I can I give Him, / Give my heart.” Flowers states that Rossetti wanted to write a great hymn; surely she has written, at the very least, two.

Other poems deal with a wide array of Christian subjects. The poems in the long section “Some Feasts and Fasts” in Verses (1893) rival Keble’s The Christian Year (1827) in comprehensiveness as they take us from one Advent to the next. Rossetti often writes of the “soul’s sleep” between death and judgment, as in “Dream-Land”: “Rest, rest, a perfect rest / Shed over brow and breast; / Her face is toward the west, / The purple land. / She cannot see the grain / Ripening on hill and plain; / She cannot feel the rain / Upon her hand.” Rossetti also frequently yearns to escape this life for the life beyond-“Oh why is heaven built so far, / Oh why is earth set so remote?” (“De Profundis”). And although she recognizes earths beauty-“The hills are crowned with glory, and the glow / Flows widening down apace”-she knows such earthly beauty can never match the heavenly: “How tired a face, how tired a brain, how tired / A heart I lift, who long / For something never felt but still desired: / Sunshine and song, / Song where the choirs of sunny heaven stand choired.” Life on earth remains a journey for the Christian, as in “Up-Hill,” where the upward path to an inn and rest is a path all believers must take: “Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak? / Of labour you shall find the sum. / Will there be beds for me and all who seek? / Yea, beds for all who come.” This poem invites comparison with George Herberts great “Love (III),” where heaven is seen as a tavern and God-as-Love as the waiter ready to welcome the poet’s soul to the heavenly banquet. (Vincent van Gogh, as a young preacher, quoted from “Up-Hill” in a sermon delivered in London.)

Christina Rossetti’s life was not an easy one. She endured poor health from the age of fifteen, rejected two suitors-one because of his Roman Catholicism (James Collinson), another because of his religious doubts (Charles Cayley), suffered the disfiguring effects of Graves’ disease, outlived many of her closest relatives as well as all of her immediate family except William, and underwent breast cancer surgery in 1892. She died in 1894. Probably her final poem, “Sleeping at Last,” describes an exhausted soul ready for its rest: “Sleeping at last, the trouble & tumult over, / Sleeping at last, the struggle & horror past, / Cold & white out of sight of friend & of lover / Sleeping at last.”

Admired by Hopkins and Swinburne, an influence-“Goblin Market”-on Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and spoken of by some in 1892 as a possible successor to Tennyson as poet laureate, Christina Rossetti has emerged completely now from her brother Dante Gabriel’s shadow as an important poet in her own right. This enhanced status as a significant nineteenth-century English poet is due in large part to the decades-long labor of the textual editor R. W. Crump, whose three-volume edition of Rossetti’s complete poems (1979-1990) is the text presented here.

As Betty Flowers says in her introduction, “Now, over a hundred years since her death, Rossetti is assuming a much more important place in the history of English poetry.” Flowers is also right to note that Rossetti often writes well of love, of the loss or refusal of love, and of the loss of youth and beauty. But the assertion that although “in her outer life, Rossetti chose to submit to the discipline of religion, her essential independence of spirit shines through her work” needs qualifying. Christina Rossetti is one of the great devotional poets in the rich Anglican tradition of such poets. Her faith and her poetic virtues are inseparable. This well-annotated and reasonably priced edition of R. W. Crump’s painstakingly accurate text of all known poems by Rossetti now allows readers to make this discovery for themselves.

Copyright Anglican Theological Review, Inc. Winter 2003

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