Sunday, April 8, 2012

National Poetry Month—Christina Rossetti "A Better Resurrection"

Christina Rossetti in a sketch by her brother Dante.

How better to celebrate Easter than with a poem from the English poet with the Italian name, Christina Rossetti.  The extremely devout youngest daughter of a talented family she became one the most admired female British poets of the 19th Century.

She was born in London on December 5, 1830.  Her father, Gabriele Rosetti was a poet and scholar from the town of Vasto on the Adriatic coast.  An ardent supporter of Italian nationalism and constitutional government, he had been forced into exile in 1821, eventually settling in London and becoming a teacher.  Her mother, Frances Polidori was the daughter of another political exile and the sister of Lord Byron’s friend and traveling companion John William Polidori.  Her siblings, Dante, William, and Maria were all artistic.  

William and Maria each became writers.  Dante became an accomplished painter and was at the heart of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Christiana dictated a story to her mother before she could write.

Dante evidently doted on his youngest sister frequently using her as a model while she was in her teens.  As they grew older she was drawn into the circle. 

Rossetti’s mother imbued her with  deep spiritualism reflected in attachment to the Anglican liturgy and faith.
She was wooed and became engaged to one of her brother’s friends, James Collinson.  But after two years, in 1850, she broke the engagement when Collinson converted to Catholicism.

Meanwhile, ill health forced her father’s retirement,  Christine and her mother attempted to sustain the family by opening a school, which failed.

Christine, at the urging of her brother, began submitting her poems and stories for children to The Germ, a Pre-Raphaelite periodical edited by her brother William.  Within a few years her reputation was growing.  It was made secure with the publication of her widely admired, Goblin Market and Other Poems, which appeared in 1862 when she was 31.  Dante provide the illustrations for the volume.

Despite recurring illness, and what might seem to be extreme prudishness and religious bigotry, Christine was popular among her brother’s friends, returned their friendship and was courted again.  She turned down a proposal from Charles Cayley, with whom she was quite enamored, when she, “enquired into his creed and found he was not a Christian.”

Rossetti’s Christian scruples were so stringent that she pasted paper over passages of her friend Algernon Charles Swinburne’s Atalanta in Calydon that she considered irreligious so she could read the rest.  She was opposed to nude in art and refused to attend Wagnerian opera because of its pagan themes.  Yet many critics found her work infused with a kind of Romantic eroticism and suppressed lesbian themes.  She was considered a feminist for the strong women in her story-poems, yet she was ambivalent about suffrage.

After the late 1860’s Rossetti’s health rapidly deteriorated, suffering from Graves Disease and she was kept mostly home bound, although her many friends continued to visit her there.  Many poems had explicitly religious themes.  One of them was adapted to the carol In the Bleak Midwinter.

At Rossetti’s death on December 29, 1894 of breast cancer her reputation as a poet was at its zenith.  However it was eclipsed by the popularity of the early 20th Century modernists.  It has revived at the hands of feminist critics who see in her a prototypical.
The Anglican Church acknowledges Rossetti steadfast loyalty by designating an annual feast day in her honor.

A Better Resurrection

I have no wit, no words, no tears;
         My heart within me like a stone
Is numb’d too much for hopes or fears;
         Look right, look left, I dwell alone;
I lift mine eyes, but dim’d with grief
         No everlasting hills I see;
My life is in the falling leaf:
         O Jesus, quicken me.

My life is like a faded leaf,
         My harvest dwindled to a husk:
Truly my life is void and brief
         And tedious in the barren dusk;
My life is like a frozen thing,
         No bud nor greenness can I see:
Yet rise it shall—the sap of Spring;
         O Jesus, rise in me.

My life is like a broken bowl,
         A broken bowl that cannot hold
One drop of water for my soul
         Or cordial in the searching cold;
Cast in the fire the perish’d thing;
         Melt and remould it, till it be
A royal cup for Him, my King:
         O Jesus, drink of me.

—Christina  Rossetti

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