Today is the birthday of Christina Rossetti, born in 1830. I remember first discovering her in graduate school, when we read "Goblin Market," and I felt all my assumptions about Victorian literature and nineteenth-century poetry explode. I thought, why didn't we read this in my undergraduate classes? I had a similar experience when I read Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh.
When I look at the books we used in my undergraduate Victorian Lit classes, long ago in the mid 80's, the presence of women was sparse. In terms of female poets, we got the love sonnets of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and a few of the tamer poems of Christina Rossetti.
I find it amazing the "Goblin Market" was first seen as a tale for children--all that that licking and sucking! Of course, if I look at literature we've traditionally read to children--the pre-Disneyfied versions--they are fairly shocking in their violence and sex. Earlier generations didn't have the same view of protecting children from the evils of life as we do.
I had actually known about Rossetti for years, although I didn't know I did. The Christmas song "In the Bleak Mid-winter" has her poem as its lyrics.
Christina Rossetti was a satellite member of one of the literary groups I love, one of the ones I'd be willing to risk time travel to meet: the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Well, maybe I wouldn't actually want to meet them, as women didn't fare particularly well in that group. Or perhaps, as I'm remembering the literary biographies, the trick would be not to get emotionally/sexually involved with any of them.
Christina Rossetti fascinates me because she worked with prostitutes and other fallen women, and because she became more spiritually focused as she grew older. I see her struggling with the questions which haunt me: How do I best serve, with the gifts and talents I've been given? How much time should I devote to my art, my quest for social justice, my spiritual development? How do I attain balance?
So today, in the midst of your holiday preparation, listen to "In the Bleak Mid-Winter." Or read "Goblin Market," which with its themes of sin, sisterly love, and redemption, can fit nicely into holiday themes. Lift a Christmas cookie or a champagne flute in a toast to Christina Rossetti, a surprisingly modern Victorian poet who paved the way for many of us, even if we might not know it.
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