For the first half of her career until 1874, Christina Rossetti demonstrated a sustained interest in the field of children's literature. In her large body of work from this period are short stories and poems that are rewritings of fairytales or inspired by nursery rhymes and fantasy. In addition to some short stories in Commonplace and Other Short Stories, however. Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book and Speaking Likenesses are the only two books she specifically directed at children.
The large body of critical material to emerge from the late twentieth-century interest in Christina Rossetti's work has until recently ignored her work for children. In addition, contemporary criticism has only recently begun to acknowledge the centrality of features that are generally associated with children's literature in work not principally directed at children such as "Goblin Market" and "The Prince's Progress."
With particular emphasis on Sing-Song, this thesis will examine Rossetti's engagement with the field of children's literature. It makes the assumption that "Goblin Market" and "The Prince's Progress" are representative of Rossetti's early engagement with the field, which was moreover fairly conventional in its use of fantasy and fairytale. Nonetheless, these poems provide an insight into the mode adopted by the poet when she directed her efforts at the children's market. Building on existing discussions, I show that there is evidence here to indicate that the poet constructed narratives that would suggest a distrust of fantasy, fairytale, and ultimately, the authority of the storyteller and the generation of meaning.
"Discordant Tunes: Christina Rossetti's Sing-Song" aims to demonstrate that the stylistic shift away from the fantastical worlds of the two long poems is significant. The thesis explores the significance of this shift, evident in the return to a more didactic impulse. The nursery rhymes engage with a wide variety of issues by adapting a large range of symbols, and the thesis explores the operation of these symbols, which has only received cursory critical attention to date. The form of the nursery rhyme encourages a challenge to conventional wisdom, as each is self-contained, but also operates as part of the whole carefully constructed book. Ultimately, the mode adopted enabled the poet to maintain a particularly empowered position, making this a firmly feminist text that speaks from a position of authority rather than repression.
The analysis closes with a consideration of Sneaking Likenesses, a work that reinforces the position adopted in Sing-Song. Furthermore it is a direct indication of Rossetti's response to the changing literary fashions. The history of the development of children's literature is characterised by a male appropriation of a female oral tradition. Rossetti's participation in this long tradition of nursery rhyme/fairytale generation and regeneration represents her efforts to reclaim it. Ultimately, the discordant tunes that are Sing-Song are suggestive not only because they are challenging, elliptical, and employing a wide variety of symbols that succeed in confronting conventional ideology, but also because this suggestiveness poses a critical challenge in finding a different locus from which to assess children's literature.