Partly because of her shyness and partly just because she was a woman, Christina Rossetti was never completely a part of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Nevertheless, her Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862) was the first unalloyed literary success the Brotherhood enjoyed, and there is a loose parallel between her fondness for the rhythms of folk songs and the Pre-Raphaelite interest in things medieval. Since she began with such success, both her brother and her publisher were eager that she follow it up at once, but her next volume of poetry, The Prince's Progress and Other Poems, was not ready until 1866. It sold well, but the critics saw at once that the best poems in it were not quite the equal of the best in her first collection. In fact, "Goblin Market," one of her first poems, remains her best.
Themes of frustrated love and an understated tension between desire and renunciation characterize her more serious work. Separated lovers often appear in her poems, and regret for life unfulfilled alternates with what one critic calls a death wish. But there is another strain in some of her poetry that can be called Gothic or even macabre--goblins, serpents, wombats, ratels, and lizards turn up in her verses. Growing up, the Rossetti siblings read Crabbe, Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats, to be sure; but they also read with delight Ann Radcliffe (Christina at one time undertook to write a biography of Mrs. Radcliffe but was unable to gather the necessary materials) and Monk Lewis. Consider the following fragment:
I have a friend in ghostland, —
Early found, ah me how early lost! —
Blood-red seaweed drips along that coastland
By the strong sea wrenched and tost.
If I wake he hunts me like a nightmare:
I feel my hair stand up, my body creep:
Without light I see a blasting sight there,
See a secret I must keep.
Virginia Woolf's appreciation of her strikes the same notes:
Death, oblivion, and rest lap round your songs with their dark wave. And then, incongruously, a sound of scurrying and laughter is heard. There is a patter of animals' feet and the odd guttural notes of rooks and the snufflings of obtuse furry animals grunting and nosing. For you were not a pure saint by any means. You pulled legs; you tweaked noses. You were at war with all humbug and pretence.
Perhaps she realized that she was unable to write anything better than "Goblin Market," or perhaps her "failure" to surpass herself is explained by her turn away from poetry to children's stories and religious materials. Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book came out in 1872, and after 1875 she was very much involved with the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, for whom she wrote several prose works, including Called to be Saints (1876). But she never entirely stopped writing poetry; A Pageant and Other Poems (1881) includes the "Monna Innominata" sonnets, which are among her best.
Last modified 1988