My Heart Is Like a Singing Bird: Emily Dickinson and Christina Rossetti

September 17, 2019 Updated: September 17, 2019

Both women were born within five days of each other in 1830.

Both came from families prominent in their communities.

As young teenagers, both suffered a breakdown and subsequent melancholia.

As adults, both became caretakers for family members.

Both suffered at times from ill-health.

Both were deeply spiritual.

Both remained unmarried.

And both were two of the greatest poets of the 19th century.

Black-white_photograph_of_Emily_Dickinson
A daguerreotype taken Dec. 1846 or early 1847; the only authenticated portrait of Emily Dickinson after childhood. Amherst College Archives & Special Collections. (Public Domain)

Though her verse was little known while she lived, many critics today rank Emily Dickinson (1830–1886) as one of the world’s finest English-language poets. Born in Amherst, Massachusetts, a town she rarely left, Dickinson had a happy childhood, especially while attending school. Her father was an attorney with an interest in politics—he served a single term in the House of Representatives—and the townspeople respected the family for their contributions to the community. Emily had a younger sister, Lavinia, and an older brother, Austin.

Christina_Rossetti_by her brother
A portrait of Christina Rossetti, September 1866, by her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti. (Public Domain)

Across the Atlantic, her contemporary in Great Britain, Christina Rossetti (1830–1894), won acclaim for her verse while she lived. Her father was a political exile from Italy, a poet, and a teacher. Rossetti’s mother taught her at home and later, because of the family’s straitened financial circumstances, began instructing other students as well. Rossetti had two brothers, Dante Gabriel, a well-known painter and poet, and William, also a writer. Her sister, Maria, worked for a time as a live-in governess, but like her siblings took up the pen.

As adults, Rossetti and Dickinson lived very different lives. Fewer than a dozen of Dickinson’s poems were published during her lifetime, while writers and critics hailed Rossetti as the successor to Elizabeth Barrett Browning. In Amherst, Dickinson gained a reputation for various eccentricities, maintained most of her friendships by correspondence, and became such a recluse in her later years that she rarely spoke to visitors except through a closed door. Rossetti reveled in the company of others and was part of a large circle of friends, including the Pre-Raphaelites, which her brother Dante Gabriel had helped found. She also performed charity work, including 11 years as a volunteer worker in a home for former prostitutes.

Despite these differences, we find in these two poets several shared interests. Both had a love for nature and a sharp eye for describing its bounty. Dickinson drew much of her inspiration from the large grounds surrounding her home, resulting in poems like “I Taste a Liquor Never Brewed.” Though a child of London, Rossetti spent time as a young girl on her grandfather’s cottage 30 miles from the city, developing there a lifelong delight in the natural world.

Their deep faith also found a voice in their works. Rossetti was a practicing Anglo-Catholic whose devotional poetry often reveals a sensual thirst for the Divine. In “Like as the Hart Desireth the Waterbrooks,” she writes:

My heart is yearning:
Behold my yearning heart,
And lean low to satisfy,
Its lonely beseeching cry,
For Thou its fullness art…

Because of her self-imposed exile from public life and an aversion to organized religion, Dickinson never attended church as an adult. She would be one of those who today describe themselves as spiritual rather than religious, as demonstrated in “Some Keep the Sabbath Going to Church.”

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –
I keep it, staying at Home –
With a Bobolink for a Chorister –
And an Orchid, for a Dome –

That death was a common topic in the poetry of both women should come as no surprise. With its high infant mortality rates and the inability of the medical community to ward off diseases and infections now easily treated, the 19th century was no stranger to the hearse and the graveyard. From the maudlin to the austere and profound, much of the verse of that age mourn the loss of loved ones and contemplates the mysteries beyond this world.

Both Dickinson and Rossetti wrote poems in which they envisioned their own demise. In one of her best-known poems, “Remember,” Rossetti writes:

Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you plann’d:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.

Two of Dickinson’s poems on death typically find a home in our anthologies of literature. The first, “Because I Could Not Stop for Death,” recounts the journey of the poet riding in a carriage with Death toward a graveyard and “Eternity,” arriving eventually at a “House that seemed a Swelling of the Ground.” In “I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died,” Dickinson addresses the arrival of death at a bedside:

I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –

The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –

I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly –

With Blue – uncertain – stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –

In Emily Dickinson and Christina Rossetti, we find kindred spirits: women hard-pressed by familial obligations and interior struggles, two poets who never met but whose written words reveal shared passions.

Christina Rossetti once wrote, “My heart is like a singing bird.” Read the verse of these two women, preferably aloud, and you will hear them singing still.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com  to follow his blog.

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