Christina Rosetti wrote lots of poems. Probably hundreds. And how many of them reflect a lesbian love interest? Well, only one is routinely quoted. It is, critics, say her best poem, and it is centered around two sisters who defy goblin like creatures. Here is the section that is most often quoted to establish Christina’s credibility as a lesbian:
Golden head by golden head,
Like two pigeons in one nest
Folded in each other’s wings,
They lay down their curtained bed:
Like two blossoms on one stem
Like two flakes of new-fall’n snow,
Like two wands of ivory
Tipped with gold for awful kings.
Moon and stars gazed in at them,
Wind sang to them lullaby,
Lumbering owls forbore to fly,
Not a bat flapped to and fro
Round their nest:
Cheek to cheek and breast to breast
Locked together in one nest.
Now these two “golden heads” were sisters in the poem “Goblins Market”. In that poem, goblins sell their fruit in the market, and haunt the two sisters at night to buy some. One of the sisters does buy some fruit, and pays with a lock of her hair, facing dire consequences. The other sister tries to rescue the first sister by getting some more fruit, and ends up getting it literally thrown in her face. Critics seem to get hung up on the two sisters in bed together, cheek to cheek, and breast to breast. Honestly, there isn’t a silly thing about this excerpt that sounds like it is describing lesbians. In fact, there is another section that is far more lesbian-suggestive than the one above, also from “Goblins Market”. It is when the second sister returns from the goblins’ market dripping in fruit juices:
She cried, “…Did you miss me?
Come and kiss me.
Never mind my bruises,
Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices
Squeez’d from goblin fruits for you,
Goblin pulp and goblin dew.
Eat me, drink me, love me…”
She clung about her sister,
Kiss’d and kiss’d and kiss’d her…
She kiss’d and kiss’d her with a hungry mouth.
“Goblins Market”, a highly allegorical, symbol rich poem that has been analyzed from a lot of different angles. The whole things could be a religious allegory, Christina being a deeply religious person. It could, in particular, address issues of temptation and redemption, for Christina did indeed believe that we are all equal in the eyes of God. It could be a commentary on the wretched lives of women, especially prostitutes, in England at that time, a subject dear to Christina’s heart. Or perhaps a combination of those two concepts.
And it could be a reference to Christina’s latent lesbian leaning, but in truth I don’t think so.
There are critics who point to Christina Rosetti’s sonnet “The World” to demonstrate her attachment to women. It does start out admiring a woman, “By day she woos me, soft, exceeding fair”, but quickly evolves into a diatribe of disasters:
But all night as the moon so changeth she;
Loathsome and foul with hideous leprosy
And subtle serpents gliding in her hair.
It doesn’t get any gentler in the next two stanzas. She just doesn’t sound like a woman who loves other women.
The biggest fact placing Christina Rosetti in the non-lesbian camp is that there is just nothing else in her life to support that notion. There were no special female friends, no one to whom she wrote poetry. She didn’t share a house with any women, and was fairly anti-social. True, she never married, but that could have been for any number of reasons, not the least of which is that she was one very sharp, very talented lady who just couldn’t find her match.
And there is woeful little poetry from a rather large body of work that even remotely suggests a lesbian connection.
The most likely explanation is that Christina Rosetti was a devout Christian who simply couldn’t find her place in life, who longed for love that she saw others having, even lesbians. There is, in fact, one very interesting poem by Christina that she titled “Sappho”
I sigh at day-dawn, and I sigh
When the dull day is passing by.
I sigh at evening, and again
I sigh when night brings sleep to men.
Oh! it were far better to die
Than thus forever mourn and sigh,
And in death’s dreamless sleep to be
Unconscious that none weep for me;
Eased from my weight of heaviness,
Forgetful of forgetfulness,
Resting from care and pain and sorrow
Thro’ the long night that knows no morrow;
Living unloved, to die unknown,
Unwept, untended, and alone.
Christina Rosetti’s poems ranged from nursery rhymes to poems of death, like this one titled “When I am Dead, My Dearest”, presented by Brigette Bordeau:
Christina Rosetti is still the greatest woman poet of her time (along with Elizabeth Barrett Browning), and her poetry is captivating. I so admire the way she tackles a topic, relying solely on truth rather than on social mores. I would like to see better proof that she was a lesbian. If anyone has such proof, please do send it to me.