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Thursday, 13 December 2012

“What Can I give Him, Poor as I am?” Or: Christina Rossetti & Our First Christmas Poem for 2012:

Christmas is almost upon us again, and I find myself in the familiar place of bringing you little-known Victorian Christmas poetry as has become my custom here for the last couple of years. However, for my first Christmas poem this year (last week’s was only a poem about winter) I have decided to opt for a piece of poetry by someone famous.

My usual source for Christmas poetry is Victorian periodicals, which published poems by members of the public, aspiring writers and little-known published writers alike. I must reiterate here that I am not into poetry, but I can appreciate a simple poem, and I find something a little more sincere and interesting about poetry written by non-famous Victorians.

That said, I have chosen to usher in the Christmas season this year with quite a famous poem by quite a famous Victorian poet.

Born in London in 1830, Christina Rossetti was, as you may have guessed, if you don’t already know, the sister of the great pre-Raphelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, as well as of the writer and founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood William Michael Rossetti and author Maria Francesca Rossetti. She was the youngest child in this great artistic family; and as well as her talented siblings, her father was an Italian poet, and her mother, whilst not herself of an artistic bent, was the sister of John William Polidori – the author of one of the first English vampire stories, The Vampyre, in 1819.

Christina, growing up in a household overflowing with artistic ideas, soon began to show promise as a poet. By the age of twelve she had written a book of poetry, and by eighteen she had published her first two poems (Death’s Chill Between and Heart’s Chill Between) in the literary magazine Athenaeum. Many of her early poems focused on death and loss and were somewhat melancholy. When she was nineteen Christina began contributing poems to the (ultimately unsuccessful) Pre-Raphaelite journal The Germ, under the pseudonym Ellen Alleyn.

Christina Rossetti by Dante Rossetti, 1866
Goblin Market and Other Poems – by far her most famous collection – was first published in 1862, when Christina was thirty-one. This was her first work widely available to the public and proved to be very successful, receiving critical acclaim from, not only the press, but eminent and popular poets of the day, including Tennyson. In the year prior to the release of Goblin Market the great female poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning had died in Italy, leaving her place as Britain’s premier female poet vacant. The success of Goblin Market and Other Poems saw Christina take on that mantle, becoming the most popular female poet in the country, although she never quite reached the same heights of fame and popularity as Browning.

Christina sat as a model for her brother, Dante, for some of his best known paintings, including his first oil painting The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, for which, at the age of eighteen, she was the model for the Virgin Mary. This painting was was the first instance of a piece of work bearing the initials ‘PRB’, which signified the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood.

In the paintings it is quite plain to see that she was a handsome woman; despite this, as well as her great talent, Christina never married. She was engaged to James Collinson, a painter and founding member of the pre Raphaelite Brotherhood, but his converting back to Catholicism following a crisis of conscience (having reverted to Anglicanism in order to marry Christina) caused staunch Anglican Christina to end the relationship in 1850. She also turned down the hand of Charles Cayley – the linguist best known for his translations of the work of Dante Alighieri – on religious grounds, and also the offer of painter and agnostic John Brett.
'The Girlhood of Mary Virgin' by Dante Rossetti, 1848
From 1859 until 1870 she volunteered at the St Mary Magdelene House of Charity in Highgate, which was a refuge for former prostitutes. Her experiences here with the fallen women lead many to believe the idea for her poem Goblin Market – the protagonists of which are two sisters, and there being a distinct undercurrent of sexual imagery throughout – to have been born there.

In the early 1870’s Christina was diagnosed with Graves’ disease, a thyroid disorder that includes insomnia, palpitations and hair and weight loss amongst a long list of possible symptoms. By the 1880’s the bouts of the disease had become so severe that she was made an invalid, but she continued to write. The following decade saw further health complications when, in 1893 she developed breast cancer. The tumour was removed, but returned in September 1894. Three months later she died in London.

Christina is buried in the Rossetti family plot in Highgate Cemetery West.

In the Bleak Midwinter by Christina Rossetti, c. 1872

Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty,
Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air,
But only His mother
In her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him,
Give my heart.

Christina never achieved the heady heights of success – in life or after – that her brother Dante did, but she did leave behind a body of work, which, unlike a lot of nineteenth century poetry, is quite accessible and enjoyable to read, particularly the fairy-tale-esque Goblin Market.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Pre Raphaelites, or seeing their work, the Tate is currently running an exhibition entitled ‘Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde’ but hurry, the exhibition ends on 13th January! See details here:

1 comment:

  1. This is such a wonderful and great Christmas poem. Though I really prefer some short Christmas poems, my likeness to classic and great poems like this one is immeasurable. Breathtaking. Love it!