initial letter L ike Sappho, Christina Rossetti also wrote out of her assigned place in society. Unlike Sappho, there were a handful of women writing during Rossetti's own lifetime. Lately, there has also been a resurgence of scholarship concerning Christina Rossetti. She wrote roughly eleven hundred poems that were eventually organized into collections. She wrote children's poems, short stories, lyric poems, and sonnets, to name just a few; Rossetti was prolific to say the least. But while she was prolific, she was not necessarily accepted. Victorian codes still existed, and they restrained women from being as active as men in society. The sheer fact that she was a woman kept Christina out of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of writers and painters who included her two brothers. Christina Rossetti slowly, but surely, made her own mark on the Victorian world, a mark that took a long time to show because she was continually on the outside, in the margins.

Rossetti had her own circle in which she was educated: the coterie of the family. Christina and her sister Maria followed typical Victorian custom; girls did not attend a formal school as did the boys. All four Rossetti children learned at home until their mother could no longer accommodate their education. It was the boys, then, who were allowed to attend school to learn Latin in preparation for Kings College School (Marsh 28). Christina learned what she could from home, her brother's schooling, and her own personal reading. While Victorian England was much more flexible than was ancient Greece when it came to the role of women, there was still an acute restrain of women's voices.

What was it about Sappho and Christina Rossetti that spurred them to write? They were shuffled into the margins of Anglo-male history books, they were not allowed a legitimate place in all of history. Only now are we coming to realize that these two women writers were unusual for their time. They were unusual because we are now beginning to see that they had voices; more important, we are beginning to hear them. Cheryl Glenn makes an important statement: "But invisible and silent are not the same as absent . . . some women are silenced by others, but some use silence to their own ends" (2). In the cases of Sappho and Christina Rossetti, we now see that they were not absent, just quiet. When we delve deeper into their writing, their voices become stronger. Obviously, both Sappho and Christina Rossetti wrote from a different perspective than their contemporary male writers. Contributing a whole new set of experiences, these women write fresh and new. Both Sappho and Christina Rossetti, as women pushed to the margins by the male hierarchy, share commonalities in their writing. I see two "sharings" in their writing: the first is the change in the perspective of the speaker.

In ancient Greece, and later in Victorian England, the common subject of any kind of writing was male, or from a male point-of-view. If women were included in a piece of writing, they were usually positioned as objects; and quite often they were positioned as either the ethereal angel or the wretched whore. For Sappho and Rossetti, however, this subject changed. Sappho's subjects were not male aristocrats in the polis, but active, choice-making females in the thiasos. Sappho was interested in switching the gaze from male to female and she also addressed a world that most ancient Greeks did not know about, a world which included females as having identity. Paige Dubois says that "Sappho here seems to be concerned to say something new with the vocabulary, the terms of reference of her tradition, and to move toward a type of abstraction . . ." (108). In this excerpt, Dubois was talking about a particular poem; however, she did hit on something interesting: Sappho used language to do something new, to talk about her heritage and identity as a female in Greece. By writing poetry, Sappho exercised her voice which

presents a challenge to what has often been seen as a monolithically phallic economy, an untroubled history of symmetrical heterosexuality, of masculine domination and female submission triumphant through all of Western culture" (Dubois 11-12).

The above statement that Dubois made about Sappho could easily be said of Rossetti. Christina Rossetti wrote against a culture that excluded women from being anything other than trite objects. Rossetti also lived in a "monolithically phallic economy," that is, a stern, male-centered society. Christina battled against a solid idea that women were not to interpret scripture, a thing she was most ready to do. She was a devout Christian, read her Bible daily, and attended church services often. The single most important thing in her life, God, is who she wanted to learn and write about. Her every experience, both bad and good, revolved around her relationship with Jesus Christ. Most of Christina Rossetti's poetry has some sort of underlying religious or spiritual theme.

While most critics believe that she constantly battled her flesh and spirit, and that in her writing there is a sort of split between the two, I feel that she merely wrote from through her body from her spirit about issues she felt were important. In a stoic time where women never expressed their deep emotions, Rossetti willingly wrote about those emotions. Like Sappho, Christina Rossetti used women as subjects of her poems. She was a woman writing with a confidence and legitimacy in her voice. Elewhere in the Victorian Web Melanie Plowman says that Rossetti "did not feel her job to be recording of injustice, but providing an inner portrait of a poet who belongs nowhere." Rather, Rossetti did not feel it necessary to be a victim or an object with a pen, but a human being expressing emotion and experience that was not accepted by her culture.

Rossetti was not allowed membership into the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood because she was a woman; she was also denied the laureateship for the same reason. Jan Marsh said, "gender prejudice undoubtedly cost Britain the best poet laureate available" (560). Unlike Sappho, Rossetti had some support for her writing, support coming from mostly women, but also some men. But despite this "support," she was held back because of her sex. Marsh called it "gender prejudice," a power struggle based entirely on being male or female. In the struggle, Sappho and Rossetti "lost," and the penalty was having to live in the shadows of men.

Sappho and Rossetti both had the ability to manipulate the conventional mold of poetry into something uniquely transformed. Paige Dubois thinks that Sappho's "various elements in the poem, the opposition between love and war, between men and women, between past and present, serve the definition, create a web of particulars that works to establish that heading subsuming them all" (108). The poem Dubois is referring to is "Fragment 16" in which Sappho uses Helen of Troy as her "subject." In "Fragment 16" Sappho creates an individual who is never before seen in Homer: "The Helen of Sappho's Frament 16 is a figure from the epic cycle, a character of legend; yet she is made to signify something new here, to stand as an example of a general proposition about "the beautiful" (Dubois 107). Sappho uses poetical language in a way never used before by men, because a man never could use language the way Sappho, a Greek woman, could. In Sappho's poetry, women had a place not only to speak, but also to reside. Women became more than objects, more than uterus-carriers, more than slaves; they were human beings worthy of respect (even if they did not receive it) (Glenn 21).

In introducing her poetic symbolism, George P. Landow compares Christina Rossetti's writing with that of her male contemporaries: "Like many of her contemporaries, including her brother, Tennyson, both Brownings, and Hopkins, she occasionally makes elaborate uses of typological symbolism." While this is a rather recent comment (1980), he does seem to equate Christina Rossetti's writing with some of her male counterparts. There is much scholarship being done that discusses Rossetti's writing and the exceptionality of it. Christina Rossetti's writing truly was exceptional, for it was an exception to the stoic, male-dominated, woman-as-object poetry of the Victorian era. Rossetti wrote from the role of a woman, to women and about women's issues. She was never shy about her faith in God and the influence this faith had on her life. She considered her relationship with God just that: a relationship. As being in an interactive relationship with a Supreme God, Rossetti saw fit to interpret scripture. Much of her writing came out of her personal experience with scripture. Like Sappho, Rossetti considered her womanhood an advantage to writing, not a disadvantage. Rossetti thus took her vantage point as a woman and wrote out of her experience, manipulating traditional, poetic forms in order to touch her audience in a unique way. Laura Rennert suggests that Rossetti places herself in her poem "Monna Innominata" in order to create a "doubleness" (251). This "doubleness" then keeps Rossetti on the 'inside' and 'outside' of her writing. She is reader, writer, and actor; she is the omniscient narrator creating her own characters. Rennert also says that Rossetti challenges "poetic tradition" by finding for herself a place not made by men, but a place comfortable for transforming the conventional (Rennert 269).

Christina Rossetti may have created a place for herself through her poetry, but she certainly was not selfish. She created a place for Sappho, as well. Rossetti wrote two poems regarding Sappho: one, when she was a mere sixteen years old, was entitled "Sappho" and was followed by a poem produced a year later in 1847, a poem entitled "What Sappho would have said had her leap cured instead of killing her." Both poems contemplate the afterlife of Sappho (Prins 203). It was as if Rossetti anticipated an ongoing conversation about Sappho. Yopie Prins suggests Christina Rossetti seeks to "animate the motionless statue into a feminine figure oscillating between life and death." This moment revives Sappho so that "her song has been heard "assuredly for the last time"" (Prins 208). Rossetti worked hard to ensure Sappho would be heard, and in the process she blessed the voice of a silenced woman.

Christina Rossetti connected with something in Sappho. There was something deep inside of Sappho's story (whoever Sappho may be) that drew Rossetti to her. Jan Marsh said that it was unlikely Rossetti did not read Sappho because study of the classics was on a "low ebb" (66); however, I believe that Rossetti had to have read some Sappho in order to have written a poem to and about her — and to have written when she was only sixteen! Maybe Rossetti didn't read an excess of Sappho-but does that really matter? Is the amount of Sapphic fragments Rossetti read really the issue? Or is the issue the point that a Victorian woman related in some way to an ancient Greek woman. To me, this human relation is more astonishing than what Rossetti kept in her deteriorating library.

So where does this conversation leave me? Thanksgiving is over, the turkey has been put away, the ice has vanished into the pale amber tea. I am left with a pensivity about women, voice, writing, and hope. Whatever the connection Rossetti felt with Sappho, whatever heartstrings were pulled, whatever stories remain, I am left with two new relationships instead of one. There was a time when I knew nothing of Sappho, and everything of Rossetti. I felt a connection to her and her story. Rossetti introduced me to Sappho and I am enjoying the thiasos.

I am left wondering where this conversation will take me. Sappho, in some way, cracked the door for Rossetti to write; in return Rossetti left the door ajar for me. Now I stand here, the door opened, waiting to walk through.

Works Cited

Dubois, Paige. Sappho is Burning. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995.

Glenn, Cheryl. Rhetoric Retold. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois UP, 1997.

Rossetti materials in the Victorian Web.

The Walters Gallery.

Marsh, Jan. Christina Rossetti: A Writer's Life. New York: Viking, 1995.

Prins, Yopie. Victorian Sappho. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1999.

Rennert, Laura J. "Christina Rossetti's Purgatorial Poetics." Womens Studies 28:3 (1999): 249-280.


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Last modified 22 April 2000