Christina Rossetti’s “A Birthday” (1861)
Christina Georgina Rossetti (b. 1830) was the youngest of four siblings, all of whom exhibited literary and/or artistic leanings: Maria Frances, a writer; Dante Gabriel, a renowned painter, co-founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, poet; William Michael, a writer, critic, biographer. Rossetti began writing poetry in 1842; her first efforts were published in 1847 by her grandfather Polidori’s private press. From the outset, her brothers (as editors, liaisons and, in the case of Dante Gabriel, illustrator) mediated her entry into the marketplace. She contributed to the short-lived Pre-Raphaelite journal The Germ from January-April 1850, Macmillan’s Magazine, and published volumes of collected works—commencing with her 1862 collaboration with Dante Gabriel, Goblin Market and Other Poems. Subsequent volumes of poetry and prose followed, including The Prince’s Progress (1866), Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book (1872), Commonplace and Other Stories (1870), in addition to religious works such as Called to Be Saints: The Minor Festivals Devotionally Studied (1881) and The Face of the Deep: A Devotional Commentary on the Apocalypse (1892) penned for London’s Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (S.P.C.K.). Hailed by many as a successor to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Rossetti was admired by contemporaries Hopkins, Tennyson, and Swinburne.
A Birthday (1857) was first published in the April 1861 issue of Macmillan’s Magazine (see image above), a popular monthly periodical aimed at an upper middle class readership (“Macmillan’s Magazine”, Waterloo). An offshoot of Macmillan Publishing (which published Rossetti’s first volume of selected poems in 1862), the shilling magazine was an illustrated family-oriented monthly that included: serial stories and serialized novels; poetry; literary criticism; essays; reviews; literature; and political philosophy. Boasting a circulation of 20,000 in 1860 (75,000 by 1868), Macmillan’s provided valuable exposure for emerging authors seeking to establish a foothold in a competitive literary milieu; the later success of the first edition of Rossetti’s Goblin Market and Other Poems (a 750 copy run selling for 31shillings apiece, published 1862), was facilitated by her work’s familiarity with Macmillan’s broad readership.
A brief lyric poem, A Birthday is a treasure trove of lush, tumbling imagery that presages her subsequent longer work, Goblin Market (1862). Scholars are divided regarding to whom it might refer; one likely candidate may have been suitor Charles Bagot Cayley, a linguist whom she adored to the end of her life but rejected because of his Agnosticism. Indeed, Christina’s obdurate religiosity and her propensity for self-denial have invited comparisons with George Eliot’s Middlemarch character Dorothea Brooke. Glenn Everett recounts that “Christina gave up chess because she found she enjoyed winning; pasted paper strips over the anti-religious parts of Swinburne’s Atalanta in Calydon (which allowed her to enjoy the poem very much); objected to nudity in painting, especially if the artist was a woman; and refused even to go see Wagner’s Parsifal, because it celebrated a pagan mythology.”  Scholar Anthony Harrison acknowledges that “Rossetti’s devout religiosity distinguished her from the other Pre-Raphaelites” (35), yet the tension between such disparate world-views remains startling and one marvels that such an elaborately sensual paean to love should spring from the pen of one so resolute.
Densely visual, A Birthday’s two emotionally charged eight-line stanzas are a riot of intricately extravagant metaphors that invite readers to reflect on the emotive capacity of language to convey a sensual ideal. The poem’s first stanza is exterior and expansive; the speaker embraces the natural world and parallels her experience of burgeoning love with examples of nature’s fecundity (trees bent low under the weight of ripening fruits, birds singing in their nests) and a deceptively simple evocation of exquisite, but fragile, beauty (a “rainbow shell, [t]hat paddles in a halcyon sea”) that suggests the ephemerality of human life adrift in a limitless dispassionate universe. The second stanza transports readers to an opulent enclosed interior through a litany of material luxuries that encompass the beautiful, the rare, and the exotic: a silk-draped dais embellished with carven doves and pomegranates, grapes wrought of precious metals, silver fleurs-des-lis, and other splendors emphasize the speaker’s wonder and boundless joy. Throughout, the poem’s intense visuality underscores the influence of Pre-Raphaelite aesthetics on the author’s sensibility; a sensibility undoubtedly honed by an intimate connection to the Brotherhood and her multiple roles within it: sister, muse, model, and ostensible “queen.” Indeed, Rossetti’s A Birthday was the first successful Pre-Raphaelite literary work and was, posthumously, set to music by American composer H. T. Burleigh in 1898.
Harrison, Anthony H. Christina Rossetti in Context. North Carolina: UP (1988).
Rossetti, William Michael. The Pre-Raphaelites and Their World. London: Folio Society (1995).
Waterloo Directory of English Newspapers and Periodicals, 1800-1900. http://www.victorianperiodicals.com.ezproxy.library.uvic.ca/Series2/ShowArticle.asp?id=93164
 In a discussion of Christina’s refusal of her second suitor (Cayley) on the grounds of religious incompatibility, W. M. Rossetti rued his sister’s propensity for self-denial, stating: “while I honour Christina’s strength of principle and courage of will […] I am far from thinking that a contrary resolution would have been in any way unbeseeming […] she would have been far happier […] broader in mental outlook, and no one would have been any the worse for it” (107).