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BBC Poetry Season: Christina Rossetti

The Rossetti family. Getty Images
Christina with brother Dante, sister Maria and mother in Chelsea in 1863.

As part of the BBC Poetry Season to find the nation's favourite poet, we appraise Christina Rossetti.

Dr Ana Parejo Vadillo
Birkbeck, University of London

Though mythologized by some of her contemporaries as the pious recluse of 30 Torrington Square (Bloomsbury), where Christina Rossetti lived from 1873 until her death in 1894, the truth is that she loved London.

The late-Victorian writer William Sharp remembers a conversation between the poet and a friend about the poetic advantages of living in the countryside. Rossetti made her position very clear.

"I am", she said, "not only as confirmed a Londoner as was Charles Lamb, but really doubt if it would be good for me, now, to sojourn often or long in the country."

"But", the lady insisted, "let me ask, do not you yourself find your best inspiration in the country?"

Rossetti's answer could not have been more emphatic: "Oh dear, no!" "My knowledge of what is called nature is that of the town sparrow which makes an excursion occasionally from its home in Regent's Park or Kensington Gardens."

"I am fairly sure", Rossetti added, "that I am in the place that suits me best."

Christina Rossetti.
Christina Rossetti.

Born and raised in Charlotte Street (Regent's Park), Rossetti belonged intellectually to London.

She was part of both the Pre-Raphaelite circle (which included poets such as her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti, George Meredith and A.C. Swinburne) and the London's Ritualist scene of Anglo-Catholicism, one of whose centres was Rossetti's own church in Albany Street (Regent's Park).

Though Rossetti did not use London as the subject of her poetry, her observations of life in London (always framed in the context of her religious beliefs) influenced her view of the world and her poetry.

Her poetic allegories were often critical of materialism, capitalism, consumer culture and social inequity.

A rare autobiographical reference to one of her early experiences of the metropolis shows how London's cultural milieu affected her work.

"A great many years ago," wrote Christina Rossetti in "Time Flies: A Reading Diary" (1885), "I visited a large waxwork exhibition brilliant with costumes, complexions, and historical effigies."

This was no other than Madame Tussaud's Waxworks, then situated in the Baker Street Bazaar in Portman Square, which was at a walking distance from her home in Charlotte Street.

In the late 1840s, Madame Tussaud's biggest waxwork attraction was the "Royal Family At Home!" The exhibition included a "Magnificent Display of Court Dresses, of Surpassing Richness including Twenty Five Ladies' and Gentlemen's Costumes, introduced to convey to the Middle Classes an idea of Regal Splendour."

"His Majesty Louis Phillipe" and "The Magnificent Coronation Robes of George IV, worn and designed by himself and worth upwards of £18,000" were also on display.

My knowledge of what is called nature is that of the town sparrow which makes an excursion occasionally from its home in Regent's Park or Kensington Gardens
Christina Rossetti

The visit left a strong impression on the young poet. "Entering that gorgeous assembly I literally felt shy! The real people present did not abash me", she explained in Time Flies, "it was the distinguished waxen crowd which put me out of countenance."

She was awed by the exhibition because it seemed to the poet "to furnish a parable of many passages in many lives":

"Things are seen as that waxwork, things unseen as those real people.

Yet, over and over again we are influenced and constrained by the hollow momentary world we behold in presence, while utterly obtuse as regards the substantial eternal world no less present around us though disregarded."

Rossetti's response to this experience appears in one of her most important poems of this early period, "The Dead City" (1847), a poem that foreshadows the way in which she will tackle social criticism in her poems.

Christina Rossetti's home in Torrington Square.
Christina Rossetti's home in Torrington Square.

An allegorical reading of the phantasmagoria of materialism and consumer culture, the poem begins with a speaker rambling in what appears to be a pre-Edenic world, full of beatitude and blessed solitude.

But "at length" a light appears in the horizon and, "as in a dream;/ A strange dream of hope and fear", the speaker arrives to "A fair city of white stone" where all is "utter loneliness" and "deathless desolation".

But, suddenly, the speaker sees a "tent that shone" where "not one was gone":

Then the breezes whispered me:
Enter in, and look, and see
How for luxury and pride
A great multitude have died:--
And I entered tremblingly.

A splendid feast is laid out in the tent. Luscious fruits ("juicy in their ripe perception") are presented in "vessels of gold/ set with gems of worth untold."

The feast "lacked no guest":
To my great astonishment
To the feasters up I went -
Lo, they all were turned to stone.

Yea they all were statue-cold,
Men and women, young and old;
With the life-like look and smile
And the flush; and tall the while
The hard fingers kept their hold.

In their desire for unlimited riches and luxury, the guests have lost their humanity, their souls trapped in bodies of stone.

Like Madame Tussaud's waxworks, they are the ghosts of the city, warning us about the dangers of materialism:

And none broke the stillness, none;
I was the sole living one.
And methought that silently
Many seemed to look on me
With strange stedfast eyes that shone.

Full of fear I would have fled;
Full of fear I bent my head,
Shutting out each stony guest: --
When I looked again the feast
And the tent had vanished.

The poem ends with the suggestion that the experience has been a form of awakening for the speaker: "What was I that I should see/ so much hidden mystery? /And I straightway knelt and prayed."

"The Dead City" is an example of Rossetti's use of allegory in her poetry to highlight the phantasmagoria of urban materialism.

The poem, like much of Rossetti's poetry, suggests not only the need for a spiritual awakening but also the necessity of living outside the materialism of everyday life: the topic of perhaps her best poem, "Goblin Market" (1862).

Dr Ana Parejo Vadillo's new book "Michael Field, The Poet: Published and Manuscript Materials" (with Marion Thain) is published on 15 July by Broadview Press

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