The Curious, Poetic Lives of the Rossetti Siblings

There are thousands of poets in the world, both living and dead, who don’t receive their fair share of notoriety. Among their ranks are Christina Rossetti, author of “The Goblin Market,” and her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Dante’s works have not weathered the decades as well as his sister Christina’s body of poem—being full of references to Arthurian myth and heavy Medievalism—but his strange biography is intriguing enough to warrant a quick glance back into Victorian London.

Siblings Christina and Dante Rossetti would respectively become some of the most famous poets of the Victorian era.

Born to an exiled Italian literary scholar obsessed with the works of Dante Alighieri, siblings Christina and Dante Rossetti would respectively become some of the most famous poets of the Victorian era. There were two other children in the family (Maria and William), but neither were as prolific or successful in their artistic endeavors. Little Dante spent much of his early education at home, where he was exposed to a healthy dose of Shakespeare, Dickens, and Lord Byron (parents, take note). Both Rossetti siblings would later befriend the famous Lewis Carroll, among many other well-known writers.

The Perfect Muse

Dante is best known as one of the founding painters of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, but he began writing poetry at a very young age. He contributed poems to the Brotherhood’s short-lived magazine, called The Germ. It was around this time that Rossetti first encountered the most powerful artistic influence of his life in Elizabeth Eleanor Siddall, a beautiful milliner’s assistant. Siddall went on to feature in his paintings over and again, posing as heroines and saints. She was known to sit completely still while modeling, not daring to move a muscle even in the most uncomfortable conditions.

Christina offers some insight on the intensity of their relationship in her poem, "In an Artist's Studio":

One face looks out from all his canvases
One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans…
He feeds upon her face by day and night
And she with true kind eyes looks back on him

Rossetti married his muse in 1860, but it wasn't to last. “Lizzie,” as she was known, had been taking laudanum in increasing doses for years. Not long after their marriage, she died of an overdose that was ruled accidental by the coroner, but has long been surrounded by suspicions of suicide. This is where things began to get weird. Dante retreated to his home in London, where he cultivated a menagerie of exotic animals that was said to include “peacocks, raccoons, kangaroos and armadillos, to zebus, marmots, a brahmin bull and a wombat. In the house he kept mice, parrots, owls and woodchucks.”

He also held séances to contact Lizzie and became fixated on retrieving a book of poems he had left in her coffin during the funeral. Finally, Rossetti’s agent arranged to have Siddall exhumed, and the poems removed in the dead of night. Worms had reportedly burrowed through parts of the manuscript, making it difficult to read. Rossetti later published some of them anyway, although he claimed to regret the exhumation.

The Other Emily

Christina Rossetti, author of “The Goblin Market,” was quite a different person from her eccentric brother. Sometimes compared to Emily Dickinson by modern critics, she suffered from a kind of religious mania that imbued many of her poems with dark themes of repression, possibly incest, sin, and mortality.

“The Goblin Market” tells the story of two sisters who come upon several goblins selling fruit. One of the sisters gives in to temptation and indulges, only to grow ill and practically waste away for want of more forbidden fruit. The poem has been interpreted as an erotic metaphor, rife with psycho-sexual insinuations. It does after all contain several lines like this: “Lizzie uttered not a word;/ Would not open lip from lip/ Lest they should cram a mouthful in;/ But laughed in heart to feel the drip/ Of juice that syruped all her face.” 

Duke University’s Lionel Stevenson called the poem “two sides of Christina’s own character, the sensuous and the ascetic.” Not too surprisingly, this view has often been contested, but an examination of Christina’s life makes one wonder whether it might have some merit. According to VictorianWeb, Christina “pasted paper strips over the anti-religious parts of Swinburne's 'Atalanta in Calydon' (which allowed her to enjoy the poem very much); objected to nudity in painting, especially if the artist was a woman; and refused even to go see Wagner's Parsifal, because it celebrated a pagan mythology.”

So there you have it— two eccentric but loveable Victorian poets.

Leah Dearborn

Column by Leah Dearborn

Leah Dearborn is a Boston-based writer with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in international relations from UMass Boston. She started writing for LitReactor in 2013 while paying her way through journalism school and hopping between bookstore jobs (R.I.P. Borders). In the years since, she’s written articles about everything from colonial poisoning plots to city council plans for using owls as pest control. If it’s a little strange, she’s probably interested.

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