Christina Georgina Rossetti (Dec. 5, 1830 – Dec. 29, 1894) was a 19th-century English poet. A devout Christian who never married, she has been called a “queer virgin” and “gay mystic.” Her feast day is April 27 on Episcopal and Church of England calendars.
Rossetti was born in London as the youngest child in an artistic family. Her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti became a famous Pre-Raphaelite poet and artist. Encouraged by her family, she began writing poems starting at age 12.
When Rossetti was 14, she started experiencing bouts of illness and depression. She became deeply involved in the Anglo-Catholic Movement of the Church of England. The rest of her life would be shaped by prolonged illness and passionate religious devotion. She broke off marriage engagements with two different men on religious grounds. She stayed single, living with her mother and aunt for most of her life.
Starting in 1859, Rossetti worked for 10 years as a volunteer at the Saint Mary Magdalene “house of charity” in Highgate, a shelter for unwed mothers and former prostitutes run by Anglican nuns. Some suggest that “Goblin Market” was inspired by and/or written for the “fallen women” she met there.
In 1872 Rossetti was diagnosed with Graves Disease, an auto-immune thyroid disorder, which caused her to spend her last 15 years as a recluse in her home. She died of cancer on Dec. 29, 1894 at age 64.
Many consider her to be one of Britain’s greatest Victorian poets. Rossetti’s best-known works are the Christmas carol, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” and “Goblin Market,” a poem about the redemptive love between two sisters.
“Goblin Market” was published in 1862, when Rossetti was 31. The poem is about Laura and Lizzie, two sisters who live alone together and share one bed. They sleep as a couple, in Rossetti’s words:
Cheek to cheek and breast to breast
Lock’d together in one nest.
But “goblin men” tempt them with luscious forbidden fruit and Laura succumbs. After one night of indulgence she can no longer find the goblins and begins wasting away. Desperate to help here sister, Lizzie tries to buy fruit from the goblins, but they refuse and try to make her eat the fruit. She resists, even when they attack and try to force the fruit into her mouth. Lizzie, drenched in fruit juice and pulp, returns home and invites Laura to lick the juices from her in the verses quoted earlier. The juices revive Laura and the two sisters go on to lead long lives as wives and mothers.
She cried, “…Did you miss me?
Come and kiss me.
Never mind my bruises,
Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices
Squeez’d from goblin fruits for you,
Goblin pulp and goblin dew.
Eat me, drink me, love me…”
She clung about her sister,
Kiss’d and kiss’d and kiss’d her…
She kiss’d and kiss’d her with a hungry mouth.
“Goblin Market” can be read as an innocent childhood nursery rhyme, a warning about the dangers of sexuality, a feminist critique of marriage or a Christian allegory. Lizzie becomes a Christ figure who sacrifices to save her sister from sin and gives life with her Eucharistic invitation to “Eat me, drink me, love me…” The two sisters of “Goblin Market” can be interpreted as lesbian lovers, which means that Lizzie can justifiably be interpreted as a Lesbian Christ.
There is no direct evidence that Rossetti was sexually involved with another woman, but historian Rictor Norton reports that her brother destroyed her love poems addressed to women when he edited her poetry for publication. Rossetti is included in Essential Gay Mystics by Andrew Harvey. A comprehensive chapter titled “Christina Rossetti: The Female Queer Virgin” appears in Same Sex Desire in Victorian Religious Culture by Frederick S. Roden. Rossetti is also important to feminist scholars who reclaimed her in the 1980s and 1990s as they sought women’s voices hidden in the church’s patriarchal past.
She wrote the words to “In the Bleak Midwinter” in 1872 in response to a request from Scribner’s Magazine for a Christmas poem. It was published posthumously in 1904 and became a popular carol after composer Gustav Holst set it to music in 1906. Her poem, “Love Came Down at Christmas,” (1885) is also a well known carol. “In the Bleak Midwinter” continues to be sung frequently in churches, by choirs, and on recordings by artists such as Julie Andrews, Sarah McLaughlin, Loreena McKennitt and James Taylor. The haunting song includes these verses:
In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
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,
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.
The Episcopal Church devotes a feast day to Christina Rossetti on April 27 with this official prayer:
O God, whom heaven cannot hold, you inspired Christina Rossetti to express the mystery of the Incarnation through her poems: Help us to follow her example in giving our hearts to Christ, who is love; and who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
Rossetti herself was ambivalent about fame. She shared her own thoughts for posterity in her poem, “When I am dead, my dearest” (1862):
When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.
I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on, as if in pain:
And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget.
Cherry, Kittredge. “Christina Rossetti: Queer writer of Christmas carols and lesbian poetry,” Jesus in Love Blog, http://www.jesusinlove.blogspot.com/2014/04/christina-rossetti-queer-writer-of.html, 2014.
Harvey, Andrew. The Essential Gay Mystics. Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim, 2002.
Norton Rictor. “The Suppression of Gay and Lesbian History” in Gay History and Literature: Essays by Rictor Norton, http://rictornorton.co.uk/suppress.htm.
Roden, Frederick. Same Sex Desire in Victorian England. New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2002.