Happy Birthday Christina Rossetti

 

She was the sister of that somewhat roguish and notorious Pre-Raphaelite painter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and she often seems to be left in the shadows, both in life and death. But Christina Rossetti was an accomplished Victorian poet in her own right. Born on this day, December 5, 1830, she is best known for her collections of romantic and devotional poems.

Christina Rossetti was born in Charlotte Street in London, to Gabriele Rossetti, a poet and a political exile from Vasto, Abruzzo, and Frances Polidori, the sister of Lord Byron’s friend and physician, John William Polidori. With a pedigree like that, perhaps the Rossetti children were destined for greatness  

Christina was home schooled and by all accounts was a bright and lively child. She took  an early interest in poetry, especially that of John Keats, Sir Walter Scott and Anne Radcliffe. The family situation, however, was not always stable and they suffered extreme financial difficulties. In the 1840’s, her father had to leave his teaching position at King’s College due to health problems. Christina’s teenage years seem to have been clouded by isolation, poverty, depression and mental illness. (All of which are the fuel of great poetry!)

Christina served as an artist’s model for her brother Gabriel on several occasions. The most famous of these portraits  is Ecce Ancilla Domini (Latin: “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord”), or The Annunciation, in which she portrays the Virgin Mary.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti - Ecce Ancilla Domini! - Google Art Project.jpg

Christina Rossetti’s poems began to receive recognition in 1848, when she was just 18 years old. She published several sonnets and ballads, and wrote for literary magazines. In 1862 her most famous work,  Goblin Market and Other Poems, was first published.  It received widespread recognition and was praised by literary giants Alfred Tennyson and Gerard Manly Hopkins. Christina was considered one of the best female poets of her time.

The title poem, Goblin Market, has been interpreted in various ways. Upon first glance, it may appear to be a children’s poem about misadventures with goblins. Two sisters, Lizzie and Laura, hear the call of the goblin men, selling fruit in the market:

Morning and evening 
Maids heard the goblins cry: 
“Come buy our orchard fruits, 
Come buy, come buy: 
“Figs to fill your mouth, 
Citrons from the South, 
Sweet to tongue and sound to eye; 
Come buy, come buy.”

However, upon closer look we see that this is no children’s poem. It is a complicated work, full of double entendre as well as dark, erotic imagery.

“We must not look at goblin men, 
We must not buy their fruits: 
Who knows upon what soil they fed 
Their hungry thirsty roots?” 
“Come buy,” call the goblins 

Hobbling down the glen.

As the poem continues, the girls succumb to the temptation of the goblins and their fruit: We are told they’d “never tasted such before… She suck’d and suck’d and suck’d the more, fruits which that unknown orchard bore, She sucked until her lips were sore.”
 

Some critics have interpreted the poem as an allegory about temptation and salvation. It has also been seen as a commentary on Victorian gender roles — the girls being forbidden from the market in much the same way Victorian women were forbidden from many aspects of life. Others say it is a work about erotic desire and social redemption. Christina was a volunteer worker from 1859 to 1870 at the St. Mary Magdalene “house of charity” in Highgate, a refuge for former prostitutes. Some historians and critics have suggested Goblin Market may have been inspired by the “fallen women” she came to know.

In the scary world of Victoriana, with dangers lurking all about, Jack the Ripper on the loose and the daily horrors of poverty and the industrial revolution, The Goblin Market can be seen in many disturbing ways.

But don’t take their word for it! Decide for yourself…  Read the entire poem here.

In her lifetime, Rossetti supported several social causes. She spoke out against slavery, advocated for animal rights, and opposed the exploitation of young girls forced into prostitution. (She had, no doubt witnessed a good deal of this exploitation during her volunteer days at Mary Magdalene.)  Rossetti was a strong voice for women of the repressive Victorian Era.

She remained single throughout her lifetime, turning down three proposals of marriage. One was from the Pre-Raphaelite painter James Collinson, a colleague of her brother Gabriel. Another was from the linguist Charles Cayley. The third offer came from another painter, John Brett, whom she also turned down. This would have been pretty outrageous, considering the fact that most Victorian women had the “life style choices”  of wife, nun or whore. Yet Christina somehow managed to establish herself as a writer and poet.

In later life, Christina suffered from Graves Disease and breast cancer. She died in Bloomsbury December 29, 1894 and was buried in Highgate Cemetery.

The poet leaves us with these words:

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.

Happy Birthday Christina.

 

 

 

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Happy Birthday Lewis Carroll

 

Lewis Carroll

Today we celebrate the life of Lewis Carroll, best known for his books Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Through the Looking Glass.  He was an author, mathematician, Oxford don, part time babysitter, photographer, inventor, and a bit of an all-around inscrutable person.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you already know of my big obsession with Alice in Wonderland. I have long been fascinated by its white rabbits, mirrors, painted rosebushes, flamingo croquet, and the man who brought all these tales to life.

His given name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, but I will call him Lewis, since he is best known by his pen name Lewis Carroll. He was born on January 27, 1832 in Daresbury, Cheshire, England.  Yes, Cheshire! No evidence as to whether or not he had a cat 🙂

Cheshire_Cat

Carroll’s father was a conservative minister in the Church of England, one in a long line of Dodgson men who had respectable positions in the Anglican clergy. Lewis was home-schooled until the age of twelve and developed an early love for reading amd writing. He attended grammar school at Rugby in Warwickshire, and began study at Oxford University in 1850.  He earned a Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics and graduated with high honors.  In 1855 he won the Mathematical Lectureship for the college of Christ Church at Oxford, which he held for the next 26 years.

In 1856, a man named Henry Liddell took a position as Dean at Christ Church. Henry arrived in town with his young family, all of whom would eventually serve to influence Lewis’ writing. Lewis became close friends with  Liddell’s wife Lorina and their children, particularly the three sisters Lorina, Edith, and Alice Liddell.

LewisCarroll3

It was this Alice Liddell who served as the inspiration and namesake for the fictional Alice.  Lewis frequently took the children on outings. It was on one such outing, a rowing trip, that the girls begged to hear a story; the result eventually became Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

It is said that Carroll never intended to publish Alice’s adventures, but his friend, fairy-tale author George MacDonald convinced him to do so after Macdonald’s own children read the stories and and loved them. Good thing they did! Can’t imagine a world without Alice.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was first published in 1865. The book quickly became an international hit, and was liked and promoted by Queen Victoria herself! In 1871, Carroll published the sequel Through the Looking-Glass. The Alice books are still among the most popular in the world. Reportedly they are also among the most quoted, second only to the Bible and Shakespeare.  And many of those quotes are really phenomenal, full of wisdom and humor.  Some of my favorites:

“I’m afraid I can’t explain myself, sir. Because I am not myself, you see?”

“I give up,” Alice replied. “What’s the answer?”
“I haven’t the slightest idea,” said the Hatter. 

“I wish the creatures wouldn’t be so easily offended,” Alice thought to herself.

“Shall I never get any older than I am now? That will be a comfort, in one way — never to be an old woman. But then — always to have lessons to learn? Oh, I shouldn’t like THAT!” 

“How am I to get in?” asked Alice. “Are you to get in AT ALL?” said the Footman. “That’s the first question, you know.”  It was, no doubt; only Alice did not like to be told so.

“Well, now that we have seen each other,” said the unicorn, “if you’ll believe in me, I’ll believe in you.”

real

Lewis Carroll was also an amateur photographer. He ran in artistic circles with pre-Raphaelites Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Christina Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.

He took this photo of Alice Liddell. dated 1868. Alice would have been about six.

Alice LIddell

Years later, Julia Margaret Cameron photographed the grown up Alice.

Alice LIddell 2

Despite the fact that the Alice books brought him fame and fortune, Carroll never left his position as don at Oxford. Other than traveling a bit throughout Europe, he seems to have lived modestly. He wrote a few more books — The Hunting of the Snark, a fantastical “nonsense” poem, and Sylvie and Bruno, a fairy tale which satirized English society. Neither had the astounding success of the Alice stories. He also wrote several treatises  on mathematics, which he published under his real name, Charles Dodgson. His writings included works of geometry, linear and matrix algebra, mathematical logic and recreational mathematics. Yes, complicated stuff!

Carroll/ Dodgson’s mathematical contributions are noteworthy. Apparently, he was exploring The Matrix long before Keanu Reeves.

matrix

At Oxford he developed a theory known as the “Dodgson Condensation”, a method of evaluating mathematical determinants and patterns within equations. His work attracted renewed interest in the late 20th century when mathematicians Martin Gardner and William Warren Bartley reevaluated his  contributions to symbolic logic. This led them to the “Alternating Sign Matrix” conjecture, now a theorem. The discovery  of additional ciphers that Carroll had constructed showed that he had employed sophisticated mathematical ideas in their creation.  Perhaps he understood that through mathematics and chemistry, humankind may eventually reach the kind of alternate worlds he created for Alice.

alice matrix

“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Lewis Carroll died of pneumonia on 14 January 1898 at the age of 65.

Some Fun Facts:

  • He was one of eleven children, the oldest son
  • As a young child, he suffered a fever which left him deaf in one ear
  • He was six feet tall — really tall by Victorian standards.
  • A self- deprecating guy, he often referred to himself as “the dodo” and is said to have modeled the Dodo in Alice after himself!
  • In actuality he was hardly a dodo, more like a near genius.
  • He invented the earliest version of Scrabble — a type of word ladder in which the words were changed by adding one letter.
  • He was an ordained deacon of the Anglican Church.
  • Don’t let the stoic pictures fool you. Although he never married, his letters and diary entries indicate he had relationships with several women, both married and single, which would have been considered “scandalous” by Victorian standards.

 

Happy Birthday Lewis!

alice-vogue