Christina Rossetti. Life and Literary Works
The notion of repression was present in her life from the moment she was born, as her mother, Gabriele Rossetti, was a poet who was in exile from her home in Italy due to her political views. Christina therefore spent her childhood growing up with the knowledge that her mother’s true voice was always silenced, and that ability to learn how to repress innermost desires most likely transferred to the young Christina, and affected her in later life.
After a long period of what was perceived as experimental or explorative writing, Rossetti turned strictly to writing religious poetry in the middle of her life, possibly in an attempt to focus her mind onto what she thought she truly believed at that time. As sexual desire was a frequent topic of her past writings, this sudden disregard for her more unfocused writing of her youth suggests a need to abandon all sexual tension and replace it with the fulfilment she received from being a devout Christian. The poem “Goblin Market” is a good example of this change: “Sweeter than honey from the rock,/ Stronger than man-rejoicing wine,/ Clearer than water flow’d that juice;/ She never tasted such before,/ How should it cloy with length of use?/ She suck’d and suck’d and suck’d the more/ Fruits which that unknown orchard bore”. This quotation is full of extremely sensual and sometimes erotic imagery that show her desire for Jesus, a male figure who possessed the ability to fulfil her needs without mortal complications such as abandoning her or causing her hurt in some way. The poem “I Know You Not”, written in 1864, is an expression of similar sentiments to “Goblin Market”. The same longing for Jesus to fulfil each and every one of her needs is present in her writing, but this time it is reduced to the most basic level of human needs that is food and water: “I thirst for thee…/ My heart calls thine, as deep to deep…/Hungering, thirsting longing of my heart”. This quotation neatly shows how deeply rooted and fundamentally desperate her desire for religious fulfilment has become.
In the summer of 1845, when Rossetti was just 15, she suffered a serious mental breakdown that forced her to leave her school and not return, and it was following this difficult period in her life that her writing began to turn exclusively religious. However, although spiritual and emotional needs are primarily the focus of her writings after this period, her physical needs are not completely overlooked; the poem “Roses on a Brier” is a good example of this, as it is one of the best representations of her physical desires being fulfilled that she ever wrote and it is particularly grounded in sexual frustration, more so than “Goblin Market”. The opening stanza is particularly relevant: “Neither bud nor brier,/ Neither pearl nor brine for me:/ Be stilled my long desire;/ There shall be no more sea.” This clearly shows Rossetti’s deep dissatisfaction with the sexual desires she experiences, as it can never be a pure desire to harbour. It is also important to take note of the comparison of Rossetti’s sexual desire to pearls and wild roses. Pearls carry the obvious metaphor of new life due to being born out of the sea, and wild roses are not cultivated and they grow in the wild in an unprotected state similar to that which Rossetti would find herself in should she bow to the desires she implies here.
The poems “Like as the heart desireth the water brooks” and “Thy fainting spouse” are also relevant to the relationship between Rossetti’s devoutly Christian beliefs and her sexual frustration. Both poems show a strong lust for Jesus to enter her life, with “Thy fainting spouse” showing Rossetti as the wife of Jesus. It is important to note the title of this poem; regardless of the fact that Rossetti calls herself Jesus’ wife, she still feels weak, be it in terms of either physical or mental exhaustion in Jesus’ presence. “Thy trembling dove” reinforces this idea, but with the added tone of colloquialism of “dove” as a name one lover may use to refer to the other. “Like as the heart desireth the water brooks” is more openly lustful than “Thy fainting spouse”; there is a juxtaposition between the title, taken from the text of Psalm 42, and the lyrical quality of the poem, which emphasises Rossetti’s lustful longing. She states that as a deer longs for water at the “water brooks”, her heart “yearns” for Jesus as she cannot survive without the life-renewing properties he would bring her, similar to that of the water. Water allows all forms of life on Earth to survive, and as Jesus is portrayed as the one in control of the life-affirming “water brook”, he therefore has total control over Rossetti’s heart and desires.
The final aspect to Rossetti’s suppressing of her sexual desires that must be considered is the pressure that existed at the time for women to bear children. In the poem “The Long Barren”, Rossetti, in a similarly lyrical style to that of “Thy fainting spouse”, asks for God’s help to bear children and “bring forth fruit to Thee” whilst still remaining true to her religion and not bowing to her sexual desires. This idea is also present a little later in the poem, with the lines “strengthen me…that better fruit be borne”. This underlying sadness in the knowledge that she would never have children is present in much of her poetry, often in the form of a plethora of floral imagery and ideas surrounding the withering of nature before its time, for example her reference to her rapidly “fading beauty” in the collection of shorter poems, Flowers. “Dead before Death” also shows Rossetti’s despair in the knowledge that as far as society perceived her, her life would be fruitless and without reason if she never bore children: “…fallen the blossom that no fruitage bore,/ All lost the present and the future time”.
To conclude, Christina Rossetti lived her life constantly being undermined by a psychological battle between wanting to fulfil her sexual desires and also to stay true to her religious inclinations. She was trapped within the walls of a society where women were hugely limited in terms of sexuality, politics, education and, essentially, expression. It was impossible for this battle to ever be resolved, due to these cultural limitations that limited Rossetti in almost every aspect of her life.
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