Friday, April 27, 2012

Christina Rossetti: Queer writer of Christmas carols and lesbian poetry

Cover illustration for Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market and Other Poems” (1862) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti)

Portrait of Christina Rossetti
by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Christina Georgina Rossetti was a 19th-century English poet whose work ranged from Christmas carols to sensuous lesbian love poetry. A devout Christian who never married, she has been called a “queer virgin” and “gay mystic.” Her feast day is today (April 27) on the Episcopal and Church of England calendars.

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 surprisingly erotic poem about the redemptive love between two sisters who overcome temptation by goblins. The imagery is unmistakable in verses such as these:

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.

There is no direct evidence that Rossetti was sexually involved with another woman, but the imagery in her writing is unmistakable. 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 and 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.

Rossetti (Dec. 5, 1830 - Dec. 29, 1894) 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 and dating her poems starting at age 12.

When Rossetti was 14 she began experiencing bouts of illness and depression and 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.

Christina posed
for this Annunciation
by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
During this period she served as the model for the Virgin Mary in a couple of her brother’s most famous paintings, including his 1850 vision of the Annunciation, “Ecce Ancilla Domini” (“Behold the Handmaid of God”)

Starting in 1859, Rossetti worked for 10 years as a volunteer at the St. 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.

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 vivid 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 juicy kisses revive Laura and the two sisters go on to lead long lives as wives and mothers.

“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” are often interpreted as lesbian lovers, which means that Lizzie can justifiably be interpreted as a lesbian Christ.

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.

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, but “In the Bleak Midwinter” continues to be sung in churches, by choirs, and on recordings by artists such as Julie Andrews (video below), 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
Long ago.

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,
Jesus Christ....

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 may well have felt ambivalent about being honored by the church and outed as a queer. 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.


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Related links:

Goblin Market (complete text)

In the Bleak Midwinter lyrics

Love Came Down at Christmas lyrics

Christina Rossetti profile (glbtq.com)

Christina Rossetti's Amazon.com page



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This post is part of the GLBT Saints series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints, martyrs, mystics, prophets, witnesses, heroes, holy people, deities and religious figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) and queer people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.

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8 comments:

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I remember hearing 'whispers' in choir about Rossetti but thought they were more a reflection on the choir director's penchant for cattiness than anything grounded in truth. It's lovely to have this affirmation that members of our tribe have been around in church in various capacities for centuries. Thank you.

SCG said...

I regret that I didn't read this before serving at the noon day Eucharist on Friday. This entry means more to me than what I heard preached. Thanks for the background, and different connection to Christina Rossetti.

Kittredge Cherry said...

Elizabeth and SCG, I’m glad that you share my enthusiasm for Christina Rossetti. Researching this piece led to joy and spiritual renewal for me. While I was working on it, my partner and I read some of her poetry out loud -- a practice that I recommend. Thank you for letting me know that this blog fills a gap left by choir directors and preachers!

Andrew Craig Williams said...

Hi Kitt, I've always loved In The Bleak Midwinter too. In fact, some years ago, I made a few different versions of it, if you'd like to hear them?
http://www.last.fm/music/Fflwcs/dolig+EP/In+the+Bleak+Midwinter
and
http://www.last.fm/music/Fflwcs/dolig+EP/Plastic+Winter (a more modern sounding one).
Andy x

Kittredge Cherry said...

Andy, it took me a while, but I finally listened to your renditions of “In the Bleak Midwinter.” Nice! I prefer your more traditional-sounding one. Thank you for the links. Love for this Christmas carol is just one more thing that you and I have in common.

Lee Smith said...

I am so glad I was sent here by a dear friend. As a still-practicing Catholic lesbian, it's a joy to find kindred spirits. And I'm ashamed to say, I'd never heard of Rossetti until now. I'm richer for my discovery.

Sarah Bowen said...

This is truly heartwarming and inspiration. I was looking for some short Christmas poems to use in my Christmas cards and i came across to this post. I so love it. I like Christina Rossetti and glad to come across to this.

JCF said...

Hey, Kittredge (hello again), just got hat-tipped over here by AfterEllen ( afterellen.com ) no less! [Am always thrilled when secular LGBT media shakes off its near-kneejerk anti-religiosity/anti-Christianity for a change].

In my choir (St Michael's Episcopal, Carmichael CA), we often sing Robert H Young's setting of "Incarnate Love" (text, Rossetti's "Love Came Down at Christmas").

"Love Came Down": if that's not language strongly redolent of female sexuality, I don't know what it is! ;-p