Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. V. Browning to Rupert Brooke
Critical Introduction by Percy Lubbock
Christina Georgina Rossetti (18301894)
[Christina Georgina Rossetti was born in London on December 5, 1830. She was the youngest child of Gabriele and Lavinia Rossetti and a sister of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Her first published verses were printed in the Pre-Raphaelite magazine, The Germ, in 1850. Her father died in 1854, and thenceforward she lived, always in London, with her mother. Her first volume (other than a little privately printed experiment issued in 1847) was called Goblin Market and other Poems, and was published in 1862. Other volumes of poetry followed in 1866 and 1881, and she also published several devotional works in prose. A considerable number of unpublished poems were collected and issued after her death by her surviving brother, Mr. W. M. Rossetti. Her life was one of great seclusion, devoted to religious exercises and works of charity. A very severe illness in middle life left her health gravely affected, and for many years before her death she was much of an invalid. She died on December 29, 1894.]
THE PECULIAR gift of Christina Rossetti is one of the rarest in poetry, if not of the greatest: it is the gift of song. She had a fountain of music within her which never ceased altogether in her life, strangely as her life seemed to narrow itself and her shy difficult spirit to shrink from experience. She was a cloistered soul that mistrusted the attraction of the world, turning away from it, not indeed in fear, but with a conviction of its vanity. The world had all the charm for her that it has for an exquisite and sensuous nature; yet her rejection of it, with whatever sacrifice of herself, was sober and deliberate, for she did not know the great disruptive forces of illumination and conversion. She was inexperienced even in the fevour of her saintliness. Her fine powers of mind and imagination were kept in a narrow groove by a puritan rule which she adopted from the very first and held to the end. She would not move outside it, surrounded though she was with some of the fullest and most striking opportunities, æsthetic and intellectual, of her generation. It is a curiously grey and insular story for a poetess of her origin and endowment, and the strangest part of it all is that her vivid lyrical impulse never entirely left her or lost its freedom.
The world of her own, the world she elected to live in, had this one opening towards the outer air, but she made the most of it. Having protected herself against life, once for all, by a code of duty unnaturally arid, in her poetry she drew close to a kind of beauty that was all earthly warmth and fragrance. She who moved in fact through a maze of anxious scruples could here pass out, with a power of undimmed enjoyment, into an almost Hellenic sunshine. There is to be found in her earlier poems, and not only in these, a franker and simpler delight in the budding and flowering and fruiting of nature, in the turn of the quick tractable English seasons, in the happy grace of birds and furry creatures, than has often been seen in a literature in which, for the most part, the natural world is made the very groundwork of philosophy. Christina Rossetti had no need of a philosophy, for she never doubted the meaning of life, sorely as she might doubt herself. When she could escape from this perplexity, therefore, she was as free as a swallow, and her native humanity, clear and sane and direct, enjoyed the earth and its increase without a question. The dawn and flush of spring, the rapture of young love, the lark-song of a summer cornfieldshe knew and uttered such moments with a music that has their very own sense of wonder and newness and liberation. She does not study or describe, but her verse is continually full of country weather, airs blowing and sunlight fallingimages caught and reflected in a memory as lucid, as keen and thoughtless, as a childs.
The beautiful originality of her poems in this mood is of a kind that makes her the truest Pre-Raphaelite of all the famous group. If the word was meant to imply a way of looking at things with new eyes and an ingenuous mind, it suited her long after her brother and the rest had diverged upon their different lines. They were soon corrupted by knowledge and reflection, and passed on to maturity. Christina never matched their achievement, but neither could they show anything like the spring-charm, the wild-fruit savour that her work so often had even in later years. Her fine felicity in romance sprang straight from an imagination which in a sense was always as bare and clear as the room where she sits in her brothers painting of the Annunciation. She could let her fancy riot, as in Goblin Market, with wayward profusion; but its opulence is that of a dream, with no attachment to life and ready to vanish in a moment. It was an imagination acutely sensitive to the colour and shape and touch and taste of thingsof queer and grotesque things as much as any other. But the mere world could not lay hold on it, and for this very reason it stands out with a singular shining freshness. If ever in her work she ventured, as she seldom did, into actual life, it was evidently because she was tempted by the example of Mrs. Browning; and she was then betrayed into a kind of sentimentality very unlike Mrs. Brownings passionate intellectual honesty. In the world of dreams her brilliance, audacity, even humour, are always alive and true.
Her lyrical youth survived in her, then, carrying with it youths obstinate anxieties, but never absorbed, either to its enrichment or its extinction, in a wider range of interests. She clung to the faith she had found in her earliest years and allowed it, for hard reasons that seemed good to her, to cut her off from a fuller emotional life. It was not so much any mystical ardour that saved her from embitterment as the mere kindly naturalness of the impulses she crossed. The flame of her spirit was bright, by its own human virtue, through all her long and grievous self-vexation; and there are poems of hers, those that are now perhaps most often returned to, in which it glows with a profoundly attaching and appealing beauty. It might be a slender handful of experience that fed the fire; but there could be nothing loftier than the sincerity with which the single-minded votaress of an ideal passion refused to misunderstand or to misprize the memory she guarded. The poetry she dedicated to it has the charm of a perfect loyalty to the sweetness of earthly love. If, for trust in its power, she lacked a certain generosity of soul, she would not for that deny it, or attempt to give it any name but its own. No songs or elegies of love show a simpler and straighter sense of its magic than do hers, and in few is it expressed with a melody more fervent and eager. Their pathos is very great, for even in disappointment and disillusion they retain the sensitive candour of youth, with all its power of suffering and all its instinct for happiness.
But the burden of her creed lay heavily on herso heavily, so little to her encouragement or even her peace of mind, that it seems alien to her, as though it must have been imposed, as perhaps it was to some extent, by a stronger will from without. Her elder sister was apparently altogether satisfied and reassured by the support of a narrow faith; but Christina was not satisfied, she was only determined to be; and she was far indeed, even to the end, from ever being reassured. She was haunted and dismayed by the thought of her unworthiness, not inspired by it; and this discord in her nature affected her genius unfortunately, as was natural; the wonder is that it did not ruin and stifle it. A monotony of mood asserted itself more and more in her work. She held fast to the idea that the only road to harmony is through renunciation; but the passion she poured into the act of self-sacrifice, strong as it was, had not the substance, had rather, perhaps, a too pure and artless simplicity, to create a positive life for her in the ideal. She missed the freedom of adventure and exultation that is discovered there by the true mystic. The poetry of Christina Rossetti touches this height at moments, but generally it is caught by the way on the thorny sense of her own ingratitude and faithlessness, and preoccupied to excess with the stern contrast between the enchantments of the world and the promises of eternity.
None the less her devotional poetry, though wanting vigour of thought, is always distinguished, and of rare splendour at its best. The movement of her genius had a peculiar dignity; and though she wrote much that has no great value, much that is merely tentative and but half-expressed, she wrote almost nothing which does not show the controlled nerve of an admirable style. Her command of rhythm and metre, by no means faultless, had a very remarkable scope. She adopted or invented a great variety of measures, and used them with an ease which falls short of real mastery only through lacking the last edge of care; her spontaneity is equally unforced, whether it flings out its own irregular but living shape or whether it fills a traditional one, and some of her effects of repeated rhymes and refrains have the happiest originality. And mastery, with no qualification whatever, is displayed in the robustness and purity of her diction. She learned it from the Bible, of course, but there was something in it which she perhaps learned also from the only other book she studied much, the Divine Comedy. If she could marshal a pomp of words with prophetic fervour, she could give to homely turns and phrases a stateliness and gravity which at times is not far from the art of Dante. Such sympathy for words, such perception of their value and ring, is for whatever reason rarely a feminine gift; and in all this Christina Rossetti had a wider reach and a surer taste than any woman who has written our languageshe, the one to whom it was not native.
But her place among all great poets is not less certain. In spite of her limitations and her thwarted development, she had the true heart of song; and by virtue of it she has her own supremacy. Song which seems to draw its life from the dew and breeze of summer, warm ripeness that is yet freshness, transparent sunshine that has still the suggestion of clean showerssuch is the song of Christina Rossetti, and her slender achievement is in its way unique. Life should have fostered a genius and nature like hers. Her instinct was entirely lyrical, and even when she wished to write allegories and moralities, The Princes Progress or the Convent Threshold, pure irresponsible music would break out uncontrollably in her argument. It must seem one of the calamities of poetry that she should have missed a fuller growth and that so much of her work should have been overhung with sterile shadows. Away from them she uttered some of the most singing melodies, blithe and sad, to be found in English verse.