April is poetry month, so it is fitting to remember one of the most celebrated poets of the 19th century, Christina Rossetti. Poetry was her profession and she was a serious poet, but her life was also dedicated to her religion. Her religious convictions were strict and she gave up many of the normal joys of life to dedicate herself to them. In her poem “A Portrait” she might have been talking about herself:
She gave up beauty in her tender youth,
Gave all her hope and joy and pleasant ways;
She covered up her eyes lest they should gaze
On vanity, and chose the bitter truth.
Harsh towards herself, towards others full of ruth,
Servant of servants, little known to praise,
Long prayers and fasts trenched on her nights and days:
She schooled herself to sights and sounds uncouth,
That with the poor and stricken she might make
A home, until the least of all sufficed
Her wants; her own self learned she to forsake,
Counting all earthly gain but hurt and loss.
So with calm will she chose and bore the cross,
And hated all for love of Jesus Christ.
Neither her poetry nor her religious beliefs were the whole of her life, of course. Christina Rossetti was born in London in 1830 and grew up in a large artistic family. Her father was a poet and a political exile from Italy, and her brothers Dante and William were among the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of artists who strongly influenced British painting and the artistic climate of England. Both her sister Maria and William also became writers.
The men in the family were not particularly religious, but Christina’s mother and sister became deeply devout members of the Church of England. When Christina was fourteen she suffered some kind of nervous breakdown, perhaps caused by the stress of having to transform herself from a lively child into a modest Victorian young lady. It was at this time that she turned to religion as a source of comfort and inspiration. As her brothers moved into manhood and went out into the world, Christina, like other women of her generation, led the limited life of middle-class English girls, socializing only with family and friends and seldom moving into a wider circle. All her life she suffered from recurring bouts of melancholy, although these episodes did not keep her from writing her poetry and publishing it.
As an attractive young woman, Christina was not without admirers. She became engaged to a friend of her brothers, James Collinson, but when he reverted to Catholicism, she decided their religious beliefs were too incompatible to allow her to marry him. Later she had a warm relationship with Charles Cayley, a friend of her brothers, who asked her to marry him. But he too was unacceptable because their religious beliefs were incompatible. Finally she appears to have rejected an offer of marriage from John Brett, another friend of her brothers, and a painter. Once again it appears that religion was the obstacle, although evidence is difficult to find. After that, Christina’s life was devoted to her poetry, her family and friends, and a few social causes including humane treatment for animals and the rescue of “fallen” women.
Even as her poetry became widely known, Christina led a quiet life. She continued to suffer from periods of melancholy and her health became poor as she grew older. When she was about 60, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Even though the tumor was removed, the cancer recurred and she endured a long and painful illness. Her brother William and others tended her with loving care, but her last months were filled with depression and pain. A neighbor reported hearing her shrieking and crying hysterically, whether from pain or despair it is impossible to know.
Was she perhaps regretting how many chances for happiness she had given up in her pursuit of devotion? Did it sometimes seem that the God she had served for so many years had turned against her? We will never know what thoughts went through Christina Rossetti’s mind as she died in 1894, although you can learn more about her entire life by reading a biography such as Christina Rossetti: A Writer’s Life by Jan Marsh, which gives a thorough account of her achievements as well as her sorrows.
I like to remember Christina Rossetti as the author of one of the loveliest expressions of exuberant joy I have ever read. This poem tells me that she had some moments of happiness and knew the feeling of joy:
My heart is like a singing bird
Whose nest is in a water’d shoot;
My heart is like an apple-tree
Whose boughs are bent with thick-set fruit;
My heart is like a rainbow shell
That paddles in a halcyon sea;
My heart is gladder than all these,
Because my love is come to me.