Among the leading painters of the Victorian Pre-Raphaelite school of artists was Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882). And among his finest paintings is that entitled Ecce Ancilla Domini (1850; Tate Gallery, London) in which Rossetti depicts the Virgin Mary being addressed by the Angel Gabriel. If one looks closely at the woman depicting Mary, and one is familiar with what Rossetti’s sister looked like in her younger years, one would clearly see that the model for Mary is none other than Christina Rossetti, the finest poetess of the Victorian era. There appears to be a sadness to Christina’s face which says more about her life than it does necessarily about Mary’s.
Her life—a sketch
Christina was born into a remarkably gifted family in London, December 5, 1830. Her parents, Gabriele and Frances Rossetti, were emigrés from Italy. Though the family was gifted artistically, they had little money and seem to have struggled financially, despite the fact that her father was a Professor of Italian at King’s College, London. It was from her mother that she imbibed her Evangelical faith.
As a teenager Christina was quite beautiful. In 1848 she became engaged to James Collinson, one of the minor Pre-Raphaelite painters, but Christina ended the engagement in 1850 when he re-joined the Roman Catholic Church. Collinson went on to enter a Jesuit college, though he would leave without being ordained. It was that same year that Christina sat for her brother’s painting Ecce Ancilla Domini.
When her father’s failing health and eyesight forced him to retire from teaching in 1853, Christina and her mother attempted to support the family by starting a day school, but had to give it up after a year or so. In the early 1860s she was passionately in love with a man by the name of Charles Cayley. Cayley had a remarkable facility for languages, being a master of Hebrew, Homeric and classical Greek, and Italian. He even oversaw a translation of the New Testament into Iroquois. In 1864 he proposed to Christina, but according to her brother William Michael, she refused to marry him because “she enquired as to his creed, and she found that he was not a Christian; either absolutely not a Christian, or else so far removed from fully defined religious orthodoxy that she could not regard him as sharing the essence of her own beliefs.” Thereafter she led a very retiring life, interrupted by recurring illnesses. Her final three years—she died on December 29, 1894—were spent suffering from breast cancer, which involved surgery at home in 1892 and much pain and suffering.
Expressing her faith in poetry
Her faith was deeply tested by these illnesses, and though there is sometimes a morbid, introspective streak in statements she made at this time and in her poetry, her Christian faith—to some degree influenced by Anglo-Catholicism, but having a decidedly Evangelical cast—shines through in her poetry. Ponder, for instance, this poem, written in 1893, near the end of her life. It is a poem that echoes the watch-cry of the Reformation—Christ alone.
None other Lamb, none other Name,
None other Hope in heaven or earth or sea,
None other Hiding-place from guilt and shame,
None beside Thee.
My faith burns low, my hope burns low,
Only my heart’s desire cries out in me
By the deep thunder of its want and woe,
Cries out to Thee.
Lord, Thou art Life tho I be dead,
Love’s Fire Thou art however cold I be:
Nor heaven have I, nor place to lay my head,
Nor home, but Thee.
In the bleak mid-winter
Evangelicals are probably most acquainted with Rossetti through her Christmas carol, In the bleak mid-winter. It first appeared in Scribner’s Monthly, a New York magazine, in January 1872. It was written in the midst of Christina’s suffering from a condition known as Grave’s disease.
Christina sets the birth of Christ against the backdrop of the bleakness of a chilly English winter, and gives a series of vivid contrasts between his heavenly state and that to which he stooped when he became a human being.
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
Enough for Him whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Throng’d the air,
But only His mother
In her maiden bliss
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.
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.
What is the key-word in the first stanza? “Bleak.” Christina is not merely describing the weather, but speaking of an inner winter. And the word “bleak” prepares the reader for the intense images that follow: the wind that “made moan,” the earth as stiff and solid as iron, and the water so frozen it was like a stone. And the way she drops these intense images one on top of another is like what is described in the second half of this verse: layer upon layer of snow. The repetition of the first line reinforces the picture that Christina wishes to depict: the utter bleakness of the winter.
The second stanza comes “seemingly out of nowhere.” From a picture of bleak winter we are taken to the theme of the governance and upheaval of the universe. The first two lines come from 1 Kings 8:27, and Christina is seeking remind us of the greatness of God—the awesomeness of his person. Lines 3 and 4 are from Revelation 20:11: “Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away.” Here, from another angle, the awesomeness of our God is being stressed. Before him the universe will melt.
Commonly linked to Christmas in the Christmas tradition is the Second Coming. The link obviously is the fact that both involve the coming of Christ to this world. But how different they are: at his Second Advent, Christ will come as an awesome warrior-king who will re-create the entire universe. But at his first coming: a stable was sufficient to house him—this One whom the universe cannot contain (note the reference to Jesus as “Lord God Almighty,” drawn from texts like Revelation 1:8, 11, 17; 21:22). Finite earth and heaven are far too small a container for the Infinite God. Yet, when he comes as the Incarnate One, he enters this world in the cramped quarters of a stable.
In stanzas 3 and 4 there is again a vivid contrast. In heaven the angelic worship of Christ’s glorious being is never-ending and unceasing. But when he comes to dwell on this earth, Christina depicts him as content with the worship of animals—though we might well ask, did the animals worship?—and of his virgin mother. Were there angels to worship at the birthplace of Christ? We are not told so in the nativity stories in Matthew and Luke. But, in this regard, see Hebrews 1:6. Also note that Christina makes it clear that his mother worshipped him, a clearly Protestant note.
But central to Christina’s meditation on the meaning of Christmas is not simply its mysterious paradoxes, but this question: how should we properly respond to the coming of Jesus Christ, the Lord God Almighty, into our world? The shepherds and the Magi have gifts that match the parts they play in the Christmas story—but what of us, what can we give? Christina sees herself as having nothing to give, for she is “poor.” Her poverty is her whole self.
But she, and we, can give to him something unique and therefore doubly precious: our hearts, the centre and core of our beings. As she wrote in A Carol for Children:
I must be like those good Wise Men
With heavenward heart and look:
But shall I give no gifts to God?
What precious gifts they took!
Lord, I will give my love to Thee,
Than gold much costlier,
Sweeter to Thee than frankincense,
More prized than choicest myrrh…