Christina Rossetti was the youngest child of an Italian father, Gabriele,
and Italian/English mother, Frances (Polidori). Christina was born on December 5, 1830 in London, England, where she would spend most of her life. She died there on December 29, 1894 at the age of 64.
Christina Rosetti and mother, painted by brother Dante Gabriel Rosetti
The Rossettis had four children: Maria, Gabriel, William and Christina, all
of whom showed a great deal of creative talent early on. Their father spoke Italian at home
and they were all bilingual. The Rossetti household was noted for entertaining visiting Italians, both distinguished and struggling artists were welcome and the children benefited from the influences their parents exposed them to. Christina was named after her godmothers, one of the nieces of Napoleon I (Princess Christine, daughter of Lucien Bonaparte, later Lady Dudley Stuart), and Miss Georgina MacGregor, whose governess Mrs. Rossetti had once been.
Mrs. Rossetti was a deeply religious woman who belonged to the Church of England, and raised her daughters, Maria and Christina, to be models of piety. Maria was 3 years older than Christina. She joined an Anglican religious order in her 40s. While Christina never married, the role of the spinster was not one fate bestowed upon her, but rather one she chose. She rejected two suitors because their religious views were incompatible with her own. Through her brother, Dante (Gabriel), she knew the Pre-Raphaelites, Hunt, Millais, Woolner, James Collinson and FG Stephens. Through the course of time, her circle came to include, among others, such notables names in literature as Ford Madox Brown, Coventry Patmore, Lewis Carroll, Jean Ingelow and William Allingham.
Christina enjoyed relatively good health until her 15th year, when she became ill. She was thought at first to have consumption. It was speculated that she would die at a young age. This must have had quite an impact on the young girl and while she did live into her 60s, death became a recurrent theme in her writings. She lived a reclusive life, although she did volunteer work for 10 years at the Mary Magdalene Home for Fallen Women, a refuge for reformed prostitutes. According to biographer, Jan Marsh, Christina was inspired to perform this service after reading Emma Shepherd's An Outstretched Hand to the Fallen (1857).
Although Christina Rossetti is often compared to other literary figures from her time period, such as Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, it is generally recognized that Rossetti's poetry had a natural lyrical quality unsurpassed by few women poets. Her brother, William, related that her poetry seemed to write itself and that she did not spend inordinate amounts of time writing. Her words poured forth from deep within. If you wish to know Christina Rossetti, you will find her in her works.
"... An anonymous purveyor of anecdotes has recently told how one of these more exquisite songs
called forth the enthusiasm of Swinburne. It was just after the publication of Goblin Market and
Other Poems, and in a little company of friends that erratic poet and critic started to read aloud from the volume. Turning first to the devotional paraphrase which begins with "Passing away, saith the World, passing away," he chanted the lines in his own emphatic manner, then laid the book down with a vehement gesture. Presently he took it up again, and a second time read the poem through, even more impressively. "By God!" he exclaimed at the end, "that's one of the finest things ever written!"
Passing away, saith the World, passing away:
Chances, beauty and youth, sapp'd day by day:
Thy life never continueth in one stay.
Is the eye waxen dim, is the dark hair changing to grey
That hath won neither laurel nor bay?
I shall clothe myself in Spring and bud in May:
Thou, root-stricken, shalt not rebuild thy decay
On my bosom for aye.
Then I answer'd: Yea.
Passing away, saith my Soul, passing away:
With its burden of fear and hope, of labour and play,
Hearken what the past doth witness and say:
Rust in thy gold, a moth is in thine array,
A canker is in thy bud, thy leaf must decay.
At midnight, at cockcrow, at morning, one certain day
Lo, the Bridegroom shall come and shall not delay:
Watch thou and pray.
Then I answer'd: Yea.
Passing away, saith my God, passing away:
Winter passeth after the long delay:
New grapes on the vine, new figs on the tender spray,
Turtle calleth turtle in Heaven's May.
Though I tarry, wait for Me, trust Me, watch and pray.
Arise, come away, night is past and lo it is day,
My love, My sister, My spouse, thou shalt hear Me say.
Then I answer'd: Yea.
And Swinburne, somewhat contrary to his wont, was right. Purer inspiration,
less troubled by worldly motives, than these verses cannot easily be found."