Bitter Hearts and Asexuality
Kayla Carden (she/her)
The lyrics of Christina Rossetti’s posthumously published poem, “The Heart Knoweth Its Own Bitterness” overflow with images of sex. From the speaker outright proclaiming, “I long to pour myself” into some “vessel,” their desire for one to “stir my deep,” and the seventh verse’s description of sensuous skin contact, modern readers might be surprised to learn that Rossetti was proudly ascetic in every sense of the word.
Her most famous poem, “Goblin Market,” written in 1859 and published later in 1862, with its similar reliance on erotic, and particularly homoerotic imagery in the relationship between the poem’s two main characters, has long led to speculation that Rossetti was queer. Reclusively residing with her mother or siblings for most of her life, Christina Rossetti was viewed by her contemporaries as a talented poetess, with very little else available to the public to know. Her brother William Rossetti notes in the posthumous Poetical Works of Christina Rossetti that most of her life was characterized by absence; according to him, hers was a “life which did not consist of incidents,” as she was plagued by a lack of good health, with her greatest flaw in character compounding this, her extreme devotion to Anglo-Catholic morality supposedly forcing her “naturally warm and free” self to become “‘a fountain sealed,’” a line snagged from “The Heart Knoweth Its Own Bitterness” (lviii, lxviii).
In the Freudian and post-Freudian cultures of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, theories that Christina held some attraction to women began to pop up. For instance, historian Rictor Norton claims on his Gay History & Literature website that William destroyed some of Christina’s love poetry addressed to women, which we of course do not have any way of verifying.
We do not necessarily need to go fishing for love letters and signs of sexual relationships in her poems to see where Rossetti’s lived queerness breathed, however, as her celibacy and homoerotic devotion to God above all else took on an air that Frederick S. Roden aligns with “queer virginity” (35), and which modern critics might align more closely with the asexuality spectrum. In particular, the pathologization of Rossetti’s views on physical desire and her criticism of material humanity and its norms resonates with the burgeoning field of asexuality studies.
Rossetti never married and spent most of her life caring for her mother and, following her mother’s death, her aunts. Biographer Jan Marsh chronicles three failed romantic prospects in Rossetti’s life: pre-Raphaelite painter James Collinson, who proposed marriage to her when she was around seventeen; Italian scholar Charles Cayley, whom she remained good friends with until his death; and another member of the Pre-Raphaelite circle, John Brett. She rebuffed all three men supposedly due to religious differences, but Anthony H. Harrison also notes that one cannot neglect including Rossetti’s negative views of the institution of marriage, and of sex more significantly, in factoring why she did not accept any marriage proposals through her life (xxviii).
Jeanette Foster’s seminal 1957 anthology, Sex Variant Women in Literature, made one of the earliest steps in canonical history to consider Goblin Market a crucial part of “variant or even lesbian” literature (75). Foster herself is somewhat skeptical of this popular interpretation of Rossetti’s work because of Rossetti’s ambiguous sexual identity, instead suggesting her “cloistered” lifestyle was a result of her experiences with her male suitors, as she might have experienced an acute disgust that someone would be willing to compromise their morals for sex (76). In a move that should look familiar to the queer community, Foster also suggests that Rossetti’s choice to remain celibate was somehow responsible for her lifelong illness and eventual death. Similarly, Marsh’s feminist evaluation in her 1994 biography of Rossetti makes the larger leap in logic that Rossetti’s celibacy was a result of sexual abuse her father, Gabriele Rossetti, may have committed against her in adolescence (264), another claim we have no way of substantiating. Even Roden’s more recent analysis of Rossetti’s writing, celebrating the idea that Rossetti’s non-normative life can be read for her “lesbian-like” queer overtures, still associates “asexuality” with a total lack of desire, a common misreading for those on the asexuality spectrum who may still experience some degree of desire or at the very least partake and represent these desires just as anyone else can (38).
Rossetti’s poetic and fictional oeuvre is famous for its engagement with carnal desires, even if her constant themes treat normative sexual activity with skepticism. As mentioned before, Goblin Market is her most famous work, likely because of its vivid depictions of lascivious fruit eating, of monstrous goblin men assaulting and tearing away the clothes of the “royal virgin”-like Lizzie, and the climactic embrace and kissing between Lizzie and her sister Laura, who is “Like a vessel at launch / When its last restraint is gone.” Like other adult readers of this popular poem at the time, William delicately admits there is something “suggestive” about the poem, but Christina’s insistence that she did not mean for this narrative to suggest anything “profound” outside of what it says haunts the critical drive to find something normative (and particularly heteronormative) out of the narrative’s insistence on the power of sisterhood, and later a kind of sexless motherhood, over all other forms of love. In the same collection as Goblin Market, Rossetti’s sonnet “A Triad,” which she would later remove from further reprintings of her Goblin Market era of poems, paints a picture of three archetypal women, the “sluggish” wife, the prostitute doomed to die, and the “famished” virgin pining for a partner, all deemed “short of life” because of their “songs of love.”
Her earliest piece of prose fiction, a novella titled Maude, also displays similar feminine archetypes that befriend the eponymous and unmarried poet heroine; one of “Maude’s” intertextual poems, “Three Nuns,” shows a struggle to reconcile heterosexual institutions and the homoerotic adoration one might find in a holy sisterhood, as each of the nun’s “hearts” sigh for some fulfillment that is not quite material and nearly illegible. Most scholars focus on Rossetti’s fears of female sexuality in her poetry, with Marsh’s biography and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra writing that “Goblin Market” could be read as a specific didactic allegory since it was written after Rossetti’s work with “fallen women” at Highgate Penitentiary (252-253). However, Rossetti was just as critical of male heteronormative desire, as seen in her more cynical fairy tale poem, “The Prince’s Progress,” which eschews the redemptive happy ending of “Goblin Market” for the death of the titular prince’s princess once his suggestive dithering takes too long.
Beyond the troublesome first-person pronoun that sometimes leads to slippery collapses between poetic persona and actual writer amongst biographers and critics, Rossetti’s devotional nonfiction elucidates her complex relationship with sex. In the 1883 Letter and Spirit: Notes on the Commandments, Rossetti’s meditation on the Ten Commandments leads her to outline what she sees as the virtues and sins of both unmarried and married women. She spends a bit longer painting the unmarried woman, perhaps because this archetype is closest to her own lived experience, who loves God to such an extent that she is sometimes “jealous that she cannot love Him more.” She concludes that the virgin “tends to become narrow self-centered; the Wife to worship and serve the creature more than the Creator,” with the semicolon and parallel grammar designed to display where the boundaries between virgin and wife, supposedly split by spiritual/physical desire, are not so easily defined (285). Rossetti’s criticism of the virgin, a self-critique as she was wont to self-criticism, suggests that her adoration for the archetype of virginal nuns (which Roden relies on for his analysis of her “lesbian-like” characteristics) has limits whenever adoration for God begins to approach any heteronormative excesses.
Contrary to stereotypes, the kind of asexual dynamic described does not mean an incapacity to love deeply. Rossetti was, according to most people she was close to, quite affectionate, even if she was aware that her lifestyle and preference for lifelong friendships were not “normal.” In the diary form of Time Flies, Rossetti remarks upon the wonders of people finding love in other imperfect people through friendship across a few September entries. The problem arises in that which she calls “human love,” something that does not suffice when measured against “Divine Affection” (324). It might too easily lead to one “worshipping and serving the creature more than the Creator,” echoing her earlier usage of Romans 1:25 to vilify romance and marriage. Jacinthe Flore makes the poignant note that the rise of asexual identities and their pathologization is an inevitable result of the growing desire in the nineteenth century to normalize heteronormative sexuality; beginning later in Christina’s life, when she was composing Time Flies, most of the sciences that came to define what it meant to be “human” necessarily came to equate humanity with sex and sexual reproduction especially, so that only binaries in gender and sexual identities could be conceived of, and the absence of sexual desire came to be seen as the absence of anything human, emotional, or affectionate (55-56).
Returning to the surprisingly sensual poem at the beginning, “The Heart Knoweth Its Own Bitterness” illustrates Rossetti’s struggles to express herself as fully capable of human desires even if she personally rejected sexual desires. A poem that William believed most conferred her “innermost self,” its flaunting of physical intimacy is always negated, and its rhythmic logic suggests the radicality of Rossetti’s own rejection of physical manifestations of love. Following a strict ababcddc scheme of eight lines for seven stanzas, the speaker usually begins each verse paragraph by invoking images of physical pleasure between an “I” and “you,” all surface-level “scratchings” and “strokings” of the skin; in the concluding enclosed rhymes these desires are then torn down, anaphoras of forgetting, “nay,” of “no…nor.” The ending, which envisions the speaker only truly satisfied in Christian heaven, gives us the line, “I full of Christ and Christ of me” to tie together the enclosed rhymes that order the speaker’s “world of hope deferred,” rendered most problematic because it “separates” and differentiates individuals, delivering us the binaries of man/woman, married/unmarried, virginal/sexual. Though we can hear the sound of “I” within Christ already, the reader must make note of the absent “Jesus” to help with the internal “me” rhyme to complete the speaker’s fullness. Harrison correctly points out that Rossetti’s desires for Jesus are libidinal (425), but there must be the caveat that Rossetti also believes that any union with Christ would be an obliteration of gender and sexual differentiation: we can look no further than in another piece of her nonfiction, Seek and Find, where she takes great solace in the idea that “in Christ there is neither male nor female, for we all are one” (32).
Recent scholars like Diane D’Amico and Amanda Paxton have done better at taking Rossetti at her own word when she tries to articulate what we might call an early expression of asexual feeling. They agree that Rossetti’s poetic and prosaic enshrining of physical lust denied is the apex of Rossetti’s happiness. D’Amico’s reading of “The Heart Knoweth Its Own Bitterness” is important, as she reiterates Rossetti’s rejection of gendered sex through the ambiguous, sometimes masculine, gender identity of the speaker, yearning for marriage with Christ to embrace the non-normative (D’Amico 14-15). D’Amico also points out that Christina only approved publication of a revised version of this poem in her lifetime, the shorter “Whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive.” As D’Amico says:
In the revised version, the speaker imagines not a personal relationship with Christ; rather, she imagines merging into the oneness that is Christ, a oneness that includes all the redeemed. In revising ‘The Heart Knoweth Its Own Bitterness,’ Rossetti transforms the speaker from one who is focused on his or her own heart's longing for spiritual fulfillment to a speaker who, while still concerned about her own salvation, nevertheless speaks primarily to comfort others. (161-162).
Against critical struggles to fit her into normative categories, Rossetti’s comfort with joining her friends and loved ones in a disembodied utopia reigns supreme.
D’Amico Diane. Christina Rossetti: Faith, Gender, and Time. LSU Press, 1999.
Harrison, Anthony H. “Christina Rossetti: Illness and Ideology.” Victorian Poetry, Vol. 45, No. 4 (Winter, 2007), pp. 415-428.
—. The Letters of Christina Rossetti: Volume I, 1843-1873. The University Press of Virginia, 1997.
Kooistra, Lorraine Janzen. “Modern Markets for ‘Goblin Market.’” Victorian Poetry, vol. 32, no. 3/4, 1994, pp. 249–77. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40002818.
Marsh, Jan. Christina Rossetti: A Writer’s Life. Viking, 1994.
Norton, Rictor. “The Suppression of Lesbian and Gay History.” Gay History & Literature: Essays by Rictor Norton, 12 February 2005, https://rictornorton.co.uk/suppress.htm.
Paxton, Amanda. Willful Submission: Sado-Erotics and Heavenly Marriage in Victorian Religious Poetry. University of Virginia Press, 2017.
Roden, Frederick S. Same-Sex Desire in Victorian Religious Culture. Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.
Rossetti, Christina. The Poetical Works of Christina George Rossetti, edited by William Michael Rossetti, Macmillan and Co., 1904.
—. Seek and Find: A Double Series of Short Studies of the Benedicite. Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1879.
—. Selected Prose of Christina Rossetti, edited by David A. Kent and P. G. Stanwood, St. Martin’s Press, 1998.
Flor, Jacinthe. “Mismeasures of Asexual Desires.” Asexualities: Feminist and Queer Perspectives. Routledge, 2014, pp. 17-34.