The truth is, you’ve probably encountered work by Rossetti without even knowing it. She may also have liked it best this way. She was notoriously reserved, described on the Poetry Foundation website as ‘shrinking from worldly concerns’ - though they also note her humanitarian work and feminist zeal. In some respects, she embodies a tension experienced by many of us involved in making art, between the need to influence the world around us yet at the same time longing to escape it. Truly a poet for our painful political times, Rossetti is something of an inspiration for us here at D[W]PS.
Although no longer a household name, Rossetti was one of (if not the) most successful English woman poets of her time, and an active part of the literary and artistic establishment. She came from a family of intellectuals. Daughter of the Italian poet Gabriele Rossetti, her sister Maria was also a scholar, whilst her brother went on to gain particular notoriety as a painter. Despite this, Rossetti’s poetry is not especially intellectual. Its widespread popularity can probably be attributed to the poet’s appeals to common emotions such as grief, themes community and solidarity (she was especially interested in ‘sisterhood’), and her tendency to write devotional poems affirming the popular (Christian) consensus of her time and environment.
Rossetti wrote for children as well as adults. Her popular children’s poem The Prince’s Progress, in which the princess dies whilst waiting for her prince to rescue her, could be read as a cautionary tale for girls against dependence on men - a somewhat unusual message even in children’s literature today! Her poem The Goblin Market has also received special attention from feminist critics over the years, exploring her proto-feminist fascination with the figure of the ‘fallen woman’ in society. This has in fact been a common theme so far in D[W]PS resurrections, fixated on by Dead [Woman] Poets both before and after her time.
The poem you’ve almost certainly heard, however, is her occasional poem In The Bleak Midwinter, known to most as an English language Christmas carol. The poem, which you can read here, is written in Rossetti’s typically straightforward and unfussy style. Although arguably not the most interesting of Rossetti’s poems (not a lot at stake here, just a telling of the nativity scene), it clearly demonstrates her immense skill as a writer with great sensitivity to the musicality of language. The line ‘Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow’ is perhaps the best evocation of snowfall ever achieved in writing.
Our version of the song, with a contemporary accompaniment provided by Joe Howson, aims to highlight the searching nature of the poem and in Rossetti’s writing more generally. We view her question, ‘what can I give?’, as first and foremost an existential question. Putting the religious connotations aside, here is perhaps a question we all ask ourselves at this time of year or in periods of rest and reflection. If you’re looking for somewhere to give, we’d encourage you to donate to Sisters Uncut - a grassroots movement we’re confident Rossetti would approve of - who we’ll be fundraising for in 2020 starting with the publication of a zine. The zine itself is also currently open for submissions.
We hope you enjoy the song, and wish for you all the happiest possible of bleak midwinters.
Jasmine and Joe