Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Off to America

Midwinter-blogging, essay 10 of 12 blog entries on
“In the Bleak Midwinter,” a poem by Christina Rossetti

Off to America

Christina Rossetti portrait by
Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
The American literary journal Scribner’s Monthly requested a Christmas poem from Christina Rossetti in 1872.  She sent them “In the Bleak Midwinter.”  As she tended to offer already-written poems when fielding requests like this, it’s difficult to determine when the poem was written.

The publication of the poem was a decidedly minor event in Rossetti’s life.  It didn’t pay much and didn’t receive much notice after it was released into the world.  Rossetti was recovering from a serious illness at the time, rarely venturing from the house or even from 
Scribner's Monthly, Dec. 1872.
her bed.  Most likely, she didn’t give much further thought to the poem after sending it off to America.

At this point in her life, Christina Rossetti had established a reputation for herself as one of England’s leading poetesses.  The very popular Elizabeth Barrett Browning had recently died and Rossetti was widely considered to be her successor.  But positive critical appreciation did not go hand in hand with financial success or commercial popularity.  She had to be content with intellectual admiration in the absence of a breakthrough work like Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese, a model for a woman poet’s potential for popular success in the Victorian era.

From both a commercial and critical standpoint, Rossetti’s most popular poem was “Goblin Market,” published ten years earlier in 1862.  “Goblin Market” tells a dark fairy tale of two sisters, one of whom makes a deal with local goblin merchants and nearly dies from the experience.  Rossetti was a very Christian writer, frequently drawing from her deeply held Anglican beliefs.  But while “Goblin Market” can be read as a sort of Christian moral story, its primary fascination has always resided in its uncanny and sexualized imagery.

Title page of Goblin Market and
Other Poems,
designed and
illustrated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
“Goblin Market” is an altogether different type of poem from “In the Bleak Midwinter.”  As Rossetti’s reputation has ebbed and flowed over the past 150 years, these two poems have come to represent Rossetti in the mass culture.  “Goblin Market” has remained the critical favorite, inspiring reams of academic interpretation.  By contrast, “In the Bleak Midwinter” has received scant critical attention, but it can boast the only Rossetti lyrics that are instantly recognized far and wide.

Curiously, Rossetti never lived to see the outbreak of popularity for her little poem.  It only began to receive attention after it was published in a 1904 “Collected Works” edition a decade after her death.

Rossetti knew her work was good and expected it to last.  But if she returned today to google her poetry to see which poems people were still talking about, she probably would expect to see “Goblin Market,” “The Convent Threshold,” “Birthday,” “Remember,” and other serious poems.   I imagine she’d be surprised to see a blog dedicating 12 entries to that little poem called “In the Bleak Midwinter” 149 years after she sent it off to a far-away publisher.

The Music Room

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa sings “In the Bleak Midwinter”…

Reference Sources

Poems of Christina Rossetti, edited by William M. Rossetti
Selected Poems of Christina Rossetti, edited by Marya Zaturenska
Christina Rossetti: A Writer’s Life by Jan Marsh
The Achievement of Christina Rossetti, edited by David A. Kent
Christina Rossetti (Bloom’s Major Poets), edited by Harold Bloom
Christina Rossetti’s Faithful Imagination by Dinah Roe
Christina Rossetti: Faith, Gender and Time by Diane D’Amico
Genius by Harold Bloom
The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford
The Pre-Raphaelites by Andrea Rose
Victorian Painting by Christopher Wood
... and an occasional sneak glance at Wikipedia entries (but always double-checking everything!)

© 2011 Lee Price

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