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The untold life of the woman who wrote ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’

A detail from The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1848-9), by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Christina Rossetti had a deep love for the natural world

This, surely, is one of the most poetic of Christmas carols:

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.

Christina Rossetti’s language is so simple, and yet the imagery is so rich and original with its invocation of the natural world, of weather and winter, water and snow.

In a new study published this year of the Victorian poet’s life, Professor Emma Mason places Rossetti as a spiritual pioneer of “ecotheology” – a theology that is in tune with ecology and the natural world, in the tradition of St Francis of Assisi.

Rossetti, an Anglo-Catholic, was a profoundly spiritual writer and poet, and wholly committed to a wide Christianity. But she interweaves harmoniously the natural and the supernatural world in her thinking and in her verse. When she died in 1894, aged 64, she had arranged a “green” funeral, with a wicker basket coffin which would be perishable, so her earthly remains would blend into the earth, adorned with flowers and herbs.

She was born into a fascinating family. Three of her grandparents were Italian, and while she was baptised into the Church of England, the Catholic tradition was also part of her heritage. She had none of the petty sectarianisms which sometimes occurred in the Victorian age (Victoria herself had a horror of what she called “Ritualism”). Christina’s elder brother was the painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti and she was involved with the remarkable movement of artists known as the Pre-Raphaelites. She knew William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Ford Madox Brown.

Christina sat for the figure of Mary in her brother’s renowned picture The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, painted in 1848-49. Emma Mason tells us that she also stood for the figure of Christ in Holman Hunt’s Light of the World, which became one of the most popular religious paintings ever.

Christina received three proposals, but never married. It has been suggested that she broke off her engagement with the artist James Collinson because he became a Catholic, but Professor Mason dismisses this view. Her spiritual life – and her dedication to anti-vivisection and anti-slavery – was so intense that she may well have decided that marriage just wasn’t for her.

It’s clear she fell in love, from her poem My Heart is Like a Singing Bird, which again draws on the natural world: “My heart is like a singing bird / Whose nest is in a water’d shoot / My heart is like an apple tree / Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit.” The poet is happy “because my love is come to me”. It is one of the most anthologised poems in the English language, and especially popular for birthdays.

She expressed a “loving faith”, writes Emma Mason, “in the created world and its trees, plants and animals”. For Rossetti, nature and faith are interlinked: “The incarnational nature of God’s being in Jesus was a constant reminder to Christina that all of creation is made of the divine, and so interdependent with itself.”

“Tread softly!” Christina wrote, “All the earth is holy ground / It may be, could we look with seeing eyes / This spot we stand on is a Paradise.”

She was a champion of cherishing the planet and all its creatures. She was David Attenborough before Attenborough himself. “Hurt no living thing,” she wrote in another verse. “Ladybird / not butterfly / Nor moth with dusty wing.”

Rossetti lived mostly in London, though she spent time on the south coast to remedy her health, which was never robust. In middle age, her health deteriorated and she eventually died, with much suffering, of breast cancer, complicated by Graves’ disease.

Her poem about remembrance never fails to reduce me to tears: “Remember me when I am gone away / Gone far away into the silent land / When you can no more hold me by the hand / Nor I half turn to go, yet turning, stay.”

She had, says her biographer, “an interconnectedness with the material world”: she fused faith, spirituality, nature and humanity into her life’s vision.

Christina Rossetti: Poetry, Ecology, Faith is published by OUP.
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