Rossetti's Poetry

Book Tickets

Posted 29th January 2019

Rossetti's Poetry

Dr Susan Owens, exhibition co-Curator

Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) is among the greatest Victorian poets. Her lucid yet enigmatic verse still speaks powerfully to us today.

When Rossetti's poems first began to be published they were illustrated by members of the Pre-Raphaelite group, and its central figure, her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti, designed her most important books, a selection of which are discussed below.

The Prince's Progress

The Prince's Progress and Other Poems was Rossetti's second collection, published in 1866 with illustrations and an innovative cover design by Gabriel. The title poem tells the story of a bride waiting for the arrival of her prince. He dawdles on his journey, giving way to various temptations, and when he finally arrives the princess is dead. Her grieving attendants admonish him:

Too late for love, too late for joy,
Too late, too late!
You loitered on the road too long,
You trifled at the gate:
The enchanted dove upon her branch
Died without a mate;
The enchanted princess in her tower
Slept, died, behind the grate;
Her heart was starving all this while
You made it wait.

Goblin Market

Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862) was Rossetti's first commercially published book. The title poem is about two sisters, Laura and Lizzie, who are tempted by goblin merchants to buy enchanted fruit. Despite Lizzie's warning – 'We must not look at goblin men, / We must not buy their fruits: / Who knows upon what soil they fed / Their hungry thirsty roots?' – Laura exchanges a lock of her golden hair for a taste and becomes dangerously ill. Lizzie tries to buy fruit from the goblins as an antidote for her sister, but they attack her, smearing it over her face as they vainly attempt to make her eat. When Lizzie returns home, Laura kisses the juice from her face and is saved.

Rossetti composed 'Goblin Market' in 1859 while volunteering at the St Mary Magdalene Penitentiary for 'fallen women' in Highgate. Illustrated with striking and sensuous designs by Gabriel, the book was a critical and popular success. Numerous later illustrated editions confirmed its status as a classic.

Books for Children

Rossetti published two books for children. Some verses in Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book (1872) are playful rhymes for infants:

Mother shake the cherry-tree,
Susan catch a cherry;
Oh how funny that will be,
Let's be merry!

Others are profound meditations on human life and the passage of time:

What are heavy? sea-sand and sorrow:
What are brief ? today and tomorrow:
What are frail? Spring blossoms and youth:
What are deep? the ocean and truth.

Speaking Likenesses (1874) is a fantasy book for older children in the same mould as Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass (1871). Both of Rossetti's books were illustrated by one of her favourite illustrators, Arthur Hughes, an artist with close links to the Pre-Raphaelites.

Images: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Portrait of Christina Rossetti, 1848, oil on canvas. Private collection; Christina Rossetti, The Prince's Progress and Other Poems (London: Macmillan & Co., 1866). Collection of Stephen Calloway; Christina Rossetti, Sing-Song (London: George Routledge and Sons, 1872). Collection of Stephen Calloway.

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