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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Christina Georgina Rossetti (1830–1894)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by William Morton Payne (1858–1919)
 
ENGLISH poetry enjoys a unique distinction in the possession of two women whose works must be ranked with all but the highest achievements of our song. It is neither misplaced sentiment nor mistaken chivalry, but the dispassionate verdict of a searching and objective criticism, that claims for Elizabeth Browning and Christina Rossetti two seats in the temple of fame not far below those in which the greatest English poets of the Victorian era are enthroned. It is idle to inquire from which of the two we have received the more enduring work; but a brief comparison in general terms may be found instructive. Mrs. Browning has undoubtedly won a wider acceptance than Miss Rossetti, and enjoyed a greater popularity; on the other hand, the acceptance won by the latter poet has probably included the more distinguished suffrages, while her popularity has of recent years grown apace, and may in time outstrip that of the older singer. Again, the matter of Mrs. Browning’s work was to a considerable extent timely, which does not often mean of lasting interest; the achievement of Italian unity has somewhat outworn the passion of ‘Casa Guidi Windows,’ and the problems of ‘Aurora Leigh’ are not exactly the problems of the present day. But time is not so likely to wither the flower of Miss Rossetti’s work; for there is little of the temporal about its themes, which are as a rule the everlasting verities of the spirit. Finally, it must be allowed that Miss Rossetti was endowed with a more exquisite perception of poetical form than was attained to by Mrs. Browning, and that her work as a whole has a higher degree of purely artistic finish. The rich emotional nature of the former woman was too frequently content to rely upon the first impulsive form with which the thought became clothed in the white heat of her imagination; in the case of the latter, with no less of imaginative glow at heart, there were superadded the powers of intellectual control and artistic restraint.  1
  Christina Rossetti was born December 5th, 1830; the youngest of the remarkable group of four children that, with their parents, made up the London household of the exiled Italian patriot and philosopher, Gabriele Rossetti. She died December 29th, 1894, after an externally uneventful life of sixty-four years,—a life happy in its domestic relations, and in its intercourse with the circle of distinguished people that were gathered about the Rossettis; but darkened by much physical suffering, and in its closing years by a painful and incurable disease. She was one of the most precocious of poets, and began at the early age of eleven to write verses, which have been carefully preserved, and which her brother, Mr. W. M. Rossetti, has thought it worth while to publish in the posthumous collection edited by him not quite two years after her death. A volume of her ‘Verses’ was privately printed as early as 1847, and in 1850 she was a contributor to the Germ. Nearly all of her work that calls for serious consideration is included within the three volumes (‘Goblin Market and Other Poems,’ 1862; ‘The Prince’s Progress and Other Poems,’ 1866; and ‘A Pageant and Other Poems,’ 1881) published during her lifetime, and the posthumous volume of ‘New Poems’ (1896) to which allusion has already been made. The titles of her other books, most of which are of a devotional nature and in prose, are as follows: ‘Commonplace and Other Short Stories,’ ‘Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme-Book,’ ‘Speaking Likenesses,’ ‘Annus Domini: A Prayer for Every Day in the Year,’ ‘Seek and Find,’ ‘Called to the Saints,’ ‘Letter and Spirit,’ and ‘Time Flies.’ These books would be noticeable enough if they stood alone; but the thoughts and the moods which they embody find a far more intense and rapturous expression in the four volumes of poems upon which the author’s reputation is so securely based.  2
  Very varied are the contents of these volumes, which range from a divine simplicity to a richness that is the very ecstasy of religious utterance; from a cloying sweetness of diction to a noble austerity; from a picturesque and almost dramatic style to one so chastened and so ethereal that the spirit soars with it to a higher than the earthly plane. Yet certain insistent characteristics may hardly be missed anywhere in Christina Rossetti’s work: certain qualities of dreamy tenderness and ardent mysticism, a certain strain of pensive melancholy, based upon a recognition of the essential vanity of the external forms of human existence, and upon an unshaken faith in the reality of that “city of the soul” whereof poets and philosophers have in all ages dreamed. It is indeed as the poet of religious aspiration and spiritual vision that she is pre-eminent among English singers. Compared with her work, the best of Newman and Keble seems forced and formal; the inspiration of Herbert and Vaughan seems to flash out but fitfully when contrasted with the steady glow of hers. Such poems as ‘Up-Hill,’ ‘Amor Mundi,’ and ‘Old and New Year Ditties’ must be ranked among the very noblest examples of the religious lyric to be found in English literature. And although these poems, together with their many fellow-songs, were inspired by the doctrines of the Anglican communion, of which the author was ever a devoted adherent, there is nothing narrow or dogmatic about them; rather do they appeal to the general religious consciousness that is shared by all fervid and lofty souls: while their stately harmonies of thought and of emotion move in a region in which all symbols are valued but as symbols, in which theology becomes but the handmaid of religion, and in which all technical differences of belief fade in the effulgence of the vision vouchsafed to the spirit.  3
 
 
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