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Just Listen Podcast: Poetry - Christina Rossetti

Christina Georgina Rossetti, born on December 5, 1830,  was an English poet who wrote a variety of romantic, devotional, and children's poems. She is famous for "Goblin Market" and "Remember.” She wrote the words of two Christmas carols well known in the British Isles: "In the Bleak Midwinter,” later set to music by Gustav Holst and by Harold Darke, and "Love Came Down at Christmas,” also set by Harold Darke and by other composers.

Rossetti's most famous collection, Goblin Market and Other Poems, appeared in 1862, when she was 31. It received widespread critical praise, establishing her as the foremost female poet of the time. Hopkins, Swinburn, and Tennyson lauded her, and with the death of Elizabeth Barrett Browning in 1861 she was hailed as her natural successor.  

The poem “Goblin Market” is one of Rossetti's best known. Although it is ostensibly about two sisters' misadventures with goblins, critics have interpreted the piece in a variety of ways, seeing it as an allegory about temptation and salvation, a commentary on Victorian gender roles and female agency, and a work about erotic desire and social redemption. Rossetti was a volunteer worker from 1859 to 1870 at the St. Mary Magdalene House of Charity in Highgate, a refuge for former prostitutes, and it is suggested that Goblin Market may have been inspired by the "fallen women" she came to know there.

Christina Rossetti’s life was filled with complications. For years she waited on an ailing father, wrestled with depression and illness herself, became the poetic voice of the new Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (an avant garde artistic group that included her brother, the painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, for whom she posed as a model in several of his paintings). She struggled with crises of faith, turning down three suitors on religious grounds and had to wrestle with the pressures of fame and notoriety.  Often living in a house with four or five other female extended family members, she developed a keen and wary sense of the struggles and conflicts among women and treated them, in her poems, with the same knowing care and solicitude with which she examined matters of faith and devotion.

Some of today’s critics claim that among English poets, Rossetti is second only to Tennyson in terms of musical sound and form.  Others find the resurgent interest in her work an anachronism; whatever one thinks of her, her influence on 19th century poetry is unquestionably rich and diverse.

We begin today with a selection of devotional poems, then turn our attentions toward other topics—love, jealousy, and the burgeoning world of Victorian society.