For years now, a favorite book in my library has been an old worn copy of The Poetical Works of Christina Georgina Rossetti, published in 1904. A brief note in fountain pen ink inside the cover says that it was given as a Christmas gift in 1908, and a sticker in the back identifies the vendor as a bookshop in Belfast.
Christina Rossetti (1830-1894), was one of the most important women poets in Victorian England. A devout evangelical Anglican, she spurned one offer of marriage because her suitor converted to Roman Catholicism, and another because she “enquired into his creed and found he was not a Christian.” She never married or left home.
Her father was Italian and her mother English. Her godmother was Napoleon’s niece. Though she had wide exposure to a variety of people and cultures, her family was relatively poor and she spent most of her life involved in activities at home, with parents and siblings. In the memoir included in the book, her brother wrote, “…the life of Christina Rossetti presents hardly any incident.”
Christina was a scrupulous adherent of her faith. It is said she gave up playing chess because she found she enjoyed winning too much! Though she mixed with many prominent authors and artists in her day, she did not uniformly approve of their works. She pasted strips of paper over certain passages in Swinburne’s Atalanta in Calydon because she considered them anti-religious and offensive, and after doing so, she found herself able to enjoy the poem. After the death of her beloved brother Dante Gabriel, Rossetti became a recluse and stayed home, concentrating on her own religious life. Her older sister Maria, likewise observant, became an Anglican nun.
From the age of fifteen, Christina Rossetti endured a life of poor health. As her brother describes it:
…any one who did not understand that Christina was an almost constant and often a sadly-smitten invalid, seeing at times the countenance of Death very close to her own, would form an extremely incorrect notion of her corporal, and thus in some sense of her spiritual, condition. She was compelled, even if not naturally disposed, to regard this world as a ‘valley of the shadow of death,’ and to make near acquaintance with promises, and also with threatenings, applicable to a different world.
Her faith was simple, submissive and passionate. She practiced religion as a true devotee with rigorous attention to fulfilling her duties. Rossetti’s scrupulosity provoked within her a constant spirit of despondency and led her to focus unremittingly upon her deficiencies and shortcomings. Critics have criticized her poetry as being “morbid,” with its emphasis on sin, death, and longing for the life beyond. Some of this must certainly be attributed to her physical condition, as well, perhaps, to early disappointment in love. Despite the dark themes that often marked her writings, Christina Rossetti had a vibrant and vivid inner life, evidenced in her poems.
At this time of year, I pull my book of Rossetti poems off the shelf and read them as a regular part of my seasonal devotions. Her Christmas poems are treasures. They evoke both the darkness and light of Advent and Incarnation as few writings can. Who has painted a better picture of the cheerless chill of a world without Christ?
In the bleak midwinter
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 midwinter, Long ago.
Or who has more simply and eloquently expressed the gratitude for the light and warmth Jesus brings?
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.
In similar fashion, I love this study in contrasts as she reflects on “Christmas Eve”:
Christmas hath a darkness
Brighter than the blazing noon,
Christmas hath a chillness
Warmer than the heat of June,
Christmas hath a beauty
Lovelier than the world can show;
For Christmas bringeth Jesus
Brought for us so low
Sweeter words were never written to describe the infant Savior than Rossetti wrote in her poem, “Christmas Day”; sweet descriptions that turn and bite without warning at the end of each stanza.
A baby is a harmless thing
And wins our hearts with one accord,
And Flower of Babies was their King,
Jesus Christ our Lord.
Lily of lilies He
Upon His Mother’s knee;
Rose of roses, soon to be
Crown with thorns on leafless tree.
A lamb is innocent and mild
And merry on the soft green sod;
And Jesus Christ, the Undefiled,
Is the Lamb of God.
Only spotless He
Upon His Mother’s knee;
White and ruddy, soon to be
Sacrificed for you and me.
Nay, lamb is not so sweet a word,
Nor lily half so pure a name;
Another name our hearts hath stirred,
Kindling them to flame.
Is music and melody.
Heart with heart in harmony
Carol we and worship we.
You have probably sung or heard one of Rossetti’s most familiar Christmas poems that mirrors the Good News of John 3:16 and other Scriptures that affirm God’s loving purpose in sending his Son into the world:
Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, love Divine;
Love was born at Christmas,
Stars and Angels gave the sign.
I love these poems most of all because they keep Christ central and in focus at all times.
Before the paling of the stars,
Before the winter morn,
Before the earliest cock-crow
Jesus Christ was born.
Born in a stable
Cradled in a manger,
In the world His hands had made
Born a stranger.
Jesus on His Mother’s breast
In the stable cold,
Spotless Lamb of God was He,
Shepherd of the fold.
Let us kneel with Mary Maid,
With Joseph bent and hoary,
With Saint and Angel, ox and ass,
to hail the King of Glory.
You can’t have my 1904 edition — I’ll treasure that forever. But you can get a Penguin Classics collection of The Complete Poems of Christina Rossetti at Amazon or other booksellers.
Here is the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, singing “In the Bleak Midwinter”: