Christina Rossetti: A Brief Biographical Note

Christina Rossetti (Dec. 5, 1830 - Dec. 29, 1894) was born in London as the youngest child of Gabriele Rossetti, an Italian poet and political exile, and the half-English, half-Italian Frances Polidori. Her eldest sister was Maria Francesca, born in 1827, and her two older brothers were Gabriel Charles Dante (best known as Dante Gabriel), born in 1828, and William Michael, born in 1829.

This was an immensely talented family. Maria was the author of a number of respected books, and became an Anglican nun. Dante became a famous Pre-Raphaelite poet and artist, who used his younger sister as a model in his paintings several times, including his noted 1850 vision of the Annunciation, “Ecce Ancilla Domini” (“Behold the Handmaid of God.”). William was a noted editor and art and literary critic.

Christina received a classical education at home, and began writing poetry by at age 12. But at 14, she began experiencing bouts of illness and depression, and became deeply involved in the Church of England, the beginning of a pattern that would dominate her life. She broke off three engagements – two on religious grounds – and ultimately remained single throughout her life. She enjoyed a wide-circle of friends. She was described as a vivacious, out-going and happy child, but, as an adult, extremely self-controlled. Her brother William wrote “In innate character she was vivacious, and open to pleasurable impressions; and, during her girlhood, one might readily have supposed that she would develop into a woman of expansive heart, fond of society and diversions, and taking a part in them of more than average brilliancy. What came to pass was of course quite the contrary.”

She had strong impulses towards service to others. In 1854, she volunteered to join Florence Nightingale as a nurse during the Crimean War, but was not accepted. In 1859, at age 29, Christina began 10 years of work as a volunteer at the St. Mary Magdalene “house of charity” in Highgate, a shelter for unwed mothers and former prostitutes. But in 1872 she was diagnosed with Graves Disease, an auto-immune thyroid disorder; she was only 42. She spent her last 15 years as a recluse in her home, dying of cancer on Dec. 29, 1894 at age 64. Her brother William published “The Poetical Works of Christina Georgina Rossetti” in 1904; her complete works were published in three volumes in 1979; see Rebecca W. Crump, ed., The Complete Poems of Christina Rossetti: A Variorum Edition, 3 volumes. (Baton Rouge & London: Louisiana State University Press, 1979-1990). The Episcopal Church honors Christina with a feast day on April 27.

Spoken of as the successor to Elizabeth Barrett Browning – although the two had very different styles – Christina composed a large body of both secular and spiritual poetry. Her first publicly-published poems appeared in 1848, when she was 18. Her famous collection, “Goblin Market and Other Poems,” appeared in 1862, at age 31; widely praised, later critics have interpreted the title work in numerous ways. She also published a large number of children's poems. One of her best known poem-carols, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” was written in 1872, although not published in her lifetime; it became popular after composer Gustav Holst set it to music in 1906, and it is sung frequently in churches and by choruses and choirs; it has been often recorded. Another well-known poem-carol was her 1885 poem “Love Came Down at Christmas.” This page has nearly three dozen of her Christmas-tide poems, drawn from the 1904 collection edited by her brother William.

She published at least 19 volumes of poetry and prose, both fiction and non-fiction, plus numerous publications in various periodicals. As an introductory sampler, see The Project Gutenberg eBook of Poems, by Christina G. Rossetti (1876, rev. 1906).

There are several biographies online:

The Poetry Foundation has a lengthy and illuminating article concerning Christina and her family, Christina Rossetti.