Reassessing Christina Rossetti's pure, passionate poetry

Selected Poems of Christina Rossetti, edited by C. H. Sisson. Manchester, England: Fyfield Books, Carcanet Press. 161 pp. $7.50 (paper). (Carcanet Press books are distributed in the United States by Harper & Row.) Dogged by ill health, scrupulous in church (high Anglican) matters, loyal in her participation in a household bursting with artistic and political activity, Christina Rossetti is now attracting readers for reasons unrelated to any of the prominent facts of her life. It is time for a reassessment.

Born in 1830, the youngest of four children, Christina Rossetti was the daughter of Gabriele Rossetti, a refugee from Naples, Italy, whose politics did not please the Bourbon King of Naples after the breakup of Napoleon's hegemony. In London he held the unremunerative post of professor of Italian at King's College. At home he played host to a constant stream of Italians, ``exiles, patriots, politicians, literary men, musicians, some of them of inferior standing; fleshy and good-natured Neapolitans, keen Tuscans, emphatic Romans,'' remembers his son, William Michael.

Christina's other, more famous, brother was Dante Charles Gabriel, the flamboyant standard-bearer of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (so-called because of its adherents' admiration for the Italian quattrocento and defiance of the influence of Raphael on 19th-century painting). He flouted sexual conventions by living with the wife of William Morris; but then William, one of the most influential men of the day, was there as well -- his poem ironically (to me) titled ``Love is Enough'' was written while the three cohabited at Kelmscott Manor.

Enough! Our subject, Christina Rossetti, needs not the foil of the likes of these. It is interesting, on the other hand, that, read in this context, her poems do bear a family resemblance to Pre-Raphaelite art in general. Clear in outline, lucid in imagery, serious in tone, the best art -- painting, poetry, and architecture, including furniture -- of this group is one of the remarkable products of Victorian England.

But the poems of Christina Rossetti have other assets as well. Chief among these is the purity of her diction. Her language is vigorous and colloquial. As C. H. Sisson notes in the valuable introduction to this fine Carcanet Press book, the following stanza has virtues we would do well to attend to:

I took the perfect balances and weighed;

No shaking of my hand disturbed the poise;

Weighed, found it wanting; not a word I said,

But silent made my choice.

``That is the essential Christina,'' says Sisson, ``at once controlled and passionate, unshakable when her mind was made up. . . . The style is the woman and nothing could be more unaffected than her use of language, designed not to impress or to amuse but to say what she has to say as simply as she can say it. This is the central core of all good writing. Christina's range may be small, but within that range she is complete master.''

The central core of all good writing: You have it in these poems, time after time. Reading them aloud one becomes aware of the presence of other voices -- Shakespeare, Blake, the ballads, the songs -- and of Christina singing along with them, her pure mezzo-soprano riding the crest of time. ``While her gifted but arty brother and his friends were intent on amazing the world,'' says Sisson, quoting Ford Madox Ford, `` `up in the fireless top back bedroom on the corner of the cracked washstand, on the backs of old letters Christina sat writing.' ''

Others have found her poems morbid and sentimental, and have become petulant when confronted by her insistent melancholy, by the themes of ``asleep from risk, asleep from pain,'' of ``weary in well-doing.'' Our more positive, our indeed frantically optimistic age, has little truck with a sense of values as old as English civilization itself.

I hope indeed; but hope itself is fear

Viewed on the sunny side;

I hope and disregard the world that's here,

The prizes drawn, the sweet things that betide;

I hope, and I abide.

The image of human durability in these lines is indeed astonishing and needs no commentary.

Tom D'Evelyn edits the book pages of the Monitor.

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