Christina Rossetti 1862
While nearly all of Christina Rossetti’s other love poems focus on themes of loss and isolation, “A Birthday,” which was first collected in Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862), articulates the ecstasy of found love. In it, the speaker grasps joyously to identify those images and comparisons which might accurately express her exhilaration. She searches first in the realm of the natural, attempting to equate her emotions with a “singing bird,” “an apple tree” heavy with fruit, and “a rainbow shell” in the sea. But none of these natural wonders can compare: in love, her heart “is gladder than all these.” In the second stanza, the speaker abandons the search for the perfect simile, or comparison, and instead demands action. In honor of her figurative “birthday,” she demands the construction of a lush dais replete with “silk and down,” “doves” and “peacocks with a hundred eyes,” gold and silver. Such a construction, ornamented with images from nature, can better represent her love because it is a lasting artifact, like poet John Keats’ Grecian urn in his “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Unlike nature, which perishes, the dais will always mark the day in which “love has come” to the speaker.
Christina Rossetti’s work is representative of the Pre-Raphaelite movement founded by her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The movement, which started in 1848 and influenced both poetry and painting, celebrated the devotional spirit found in Italian religious art of the pre-Renaissance. Some characteristics of the Pre-Raphaelite sensibility apparent in “A Birthday” include pictorial richness and attention to detail, sensuousness, and a concern for symbolism.
Rossetti was born in London, England, in 1830 to Gabriele Rossetti and Frances Polidori Rossetti. Her father was an Italian exile who had moved to London some four years earlier. As a child Rossetti lived in Buckinghamshire in England’s countryside and often visited her maternal grandfather, Gaetano Polidori, who lived nearby. These experiences gave her a lifelong love for nature and animals. In 1839 the Rossetti family moved to London where Christina was to spend her adolescent years. Her father taught Italian at King’s College and tutored students privately as well. As his health declined, the family developed other sources of income. For a time Rossetti’s mother became a governess and opened a small school in London. In 1853 the family moved to Somerset to run a school, but that effort ended a year later in failure. Rossetti’s brother William, who worked for the Inland Revenue Office and wrote for newspapers, was to provide the bulk of the family’s income. Rossetti demonstrated her poetic gifts early, writing sonnets in competition with her brothers William and Dante Gabriel. Her first published poem appeared in the Athenaeum magazine when she was eighteen. Dante Gabriel founded the journal The Germ in 1852, and Rossetti became a frequent contributor. Her book Goblin Market and Other Poems appeared in 1862 in an edition for which Dante Gabriel provided two illustrations. He also designed and provided woodcut illustrations for Rossetti’s next book, The Prince’s Progress and Other Poems (1866).
In 1848 Rossetti became engaged to a painter named James Collinson. Collinson was, with Dante Gabriel, a member of the group of young artists known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and he had exhibited his work at the Royal Academy. Religious differences finally pulled the couple apart; Rossetti, a strict Anglican, could not accept Collinson’s conversion to Catholicism in 1850. During the 1860s Rossetti again came close to marriage, this time with Charles Cayley, a linguist and translator. Although religious differences again played a part in their eventual break-up (Cayley was not a Christian) the two remained friends.
Subsequently, Rossetti lived a quiet and sheltered life. She lived with her mother until her
mother’s death in 1886 and then took care of two elderly aunts until they passed away in the 1890s. Only twice did she travel outside England. In 1862 she went with her mother and her brother William to France; in 1865, the three visited northern Italy. During much of her life Rossetti suffered from various illnesses, including Grave’s disease and bouts of what doctors at the time attributed to “religious mania,” probably psychosomatic in origin. In the 1860s Rossetti served for a time at the House of Charity, an organization in Highgate working with prostitutes and unwed mothers. During the 1880s she began working with the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, publishing devotional books with them. In 1892 Rossetti was diagnosed with cancer, went through surgery, and died in January of 1894.
My heart is like a singing bird
Whose nest is in a watered shoot;
My heart is like an apple tree
Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit;
My heart is like a rainbow shell 5
That paddles in a halcyon sea;
My heart is gladder than all these
Because my love is come to me.
Raise me a dais of silk and down;
Hang it with vair and purple dyes; 10
Carve it in doves and pomegranates,
And peacocks with a hundred eyes;
Work it in gold and silver grapes,
In leaves and silver fleurs-de-lys;
Because the birthday of my life 15
Is come, my love is come to me.
The speaker opens with a simile, or a figure of speech expressing the similarity between two seemingly unlike things. Here, she compares her heart with a “singing bird,” which suggests pure happiness and energy, and herself to a “watered shoot” in which the bird has nested. A shoot is a young branch or leaf that develops from a bud. By using this simile the speaker implies she feels as if she were newly born, as the title figuratively suggests. But while a shoot is brought to life by water, the speaker has come alive with love.
In these lines the speaker continues to search for the perfect simile to express her love. First she compares her heart to “an apple tree” whose branches are so heavy with sensuous, life-giving fruit that they are “bent.” Next she compares it to “a rainbow shell,” bright with color and paddling in the “halcyon,” or peaceful, sea. Each of the similes in the first six lines tries to describe the speaker’s emotion in a different way. This frenzied approach reveals the speaker’s urgent need to express her joy. Yet the comparisons also share one quality: each is from nature, implying that love is above all a natural, and therefore innocent, wonder.
In the last two lines of the first octave, the speaker decides that none of the similes in fact suffices. Though all are glad images, her “heart is gladder than all of these” because “love has come” to her.
In the second octave, the speaker abandons her attempt to compare her love with the miracles of nature. Instead, she commands the listener build her a “dais,” or a platform built in a hall to honor someone. She wants the dais to be lush, layered in “silk and down” and covered with “vair,” or squirrel fur, and “purple dies.” This ornate spectacle, we might
- The songs from a musical adaptation of Goblin Market can be heard on a CD put out by CDJay Records in 1996. The music is by Polly Pen.
- Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (1969) is a BBC film on the life of Rossetti’s brother and his circle of fellow artists (of whom Rossetti herself was a marginal member).
guess, is to celebrate her “birthday.” Because her love has elevated her to such lofty heights, the splendid dais seems like one fit for royalty. Also notice the shift in voice from the declarative of the first stanza to the imperative, or command form, of the second stanza. The speaker is no longer tentative, no longer gropes for the proper images. She now knows what she wants and commands that it be done.
In these lines the speaker describes exactly how she would like her dais to be built. It should be sculpted with “doves” and “peacocks with a hundred eyes,” with “pomegranates,” “gold and silver grapes” and “silver fleur-de-lys,” or iris, the symbol of French royalty. In contrast with the first stanza, these images are not directly from nature but are “carved” representations of natural objects. Unlike phenomena of nature—like birds, apples, and shells—these carved renditions do not perish. Rather, they stand eternal, calling to mind the natural objects the way Keats’ Grecian urn forever immortalizes youth long passed. Thus, the dais is a more fitting symbol of the speaker’s love because it will not perish.
In the final lines, the speaker confirms the meaning of the poem’s title, which is a metaphor— or an implied, rather than directly stated, comparison between two things—for the way she feels. Though it might not be her chronological birthday, it seems to her that love has brought new life, or made her “reborn.”
Love and Passion
“A Birthday” celebrates romantic love. The speaker expresses the joy of falling in love and knowing that she is loved in return. In the first stanza the poet describes the private emotion of realizing and recognizing love. The speaker seems to be treasuring her feelings, perhaps not ready to share them with the world. In the second stanza, though, she demands a public celebration, with elaborate decorations, of her happiness.
The poet begins by developing similes in which the heart is compared to something in nature. Each simile shows a different aspect of falling in love. In the first, the speaker is jubilant and wants to sing out. In the next simile (lines 3-4), her heart is full, like a tree with ripe fruit. The third comparison is slightly more complex: the speaker’s heart is a beautiful shell on a halcyon, or calm, sea, as if she finds peace by being in love. However, halcyon also means carefree, so the poet may be showing that she no longer worries of whether or not she is loved in return.
As beautiful as these images are, they are not enough to express this feeling of love: the speaker must share her feelings with the world. In the second stanza the poet’s images come from works of art, and the setting is public. Now love is honored with lush materials—the purple of royalty, designs in gold and silver. All of this decorative art commemorates the speaker’s new life, which is brought on by love.
Nature and Its Meaning
Rossetti’s nature imagery ranges widely in this short poem; she describes inanimate objects, plants, and animals. All these images reveal the poet’s sensuous experience of the natural world. The singing bird connotes (suggests) ecstasy, providing a picture of a bird opening its beak and trilling with abandon. The images in lines two through four relate to growth and reproduction. The nest, the site of eggs or just-born birds, sits on a young branch of a tree that is watered and thus healthily growing. The apple tree is glutted with fruit, proof of its fertility. These descriptions of the nest and trees represent the happy development of love and imply sexuality and reproduction that may be a part of love. The love grows like plants and animals in
Topics for Further Study
- In a poem that has a distinct rhyme scheme, describe what you think would be the best possible celebration of your birthday?
- Read “Silent Noon,” which was written by the author’s brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti. What similar concerns do you see in the works of these two siblings? What is different in their styles? What is the same?
- What is the relationship between the nature imagery in the first stanza and the imagery in the second? Are they to be considered opposites? Or part of the same thing?
nature, and the lovers may experience ecstasy and fruit, or children of their own. The nature of human love is portrayed as something as beautiful and innocent as the seasonal rebirth that takes place in the natural world.
With the image of the “rainbow shell,” the poet turns to a quieter aspect of nature—and of love. The shell is beautiful—many-colored, possibly shining—and it moves in a gentle sea. Here the inanimate object, which also represents the speaker’s heart, “paddles” in the body of water, which symbolizes love. After the singing and growing of the earlier lines, this image describes peacefulness.
At the end of the stanza, Rossetti includes human nature in this scenario. Despite the beauty and joy of the natural world, the human speaker is more fortunate than all the images meant to express her joy. Love between people is a deeper emotion than can be expressed even by natural images of rapture and abundance.
Rossetti reveals her aesthetic sense, or her perception of what is beautiful, throughout this poem. Her appreciation for nature, one aspect of this sense, is clear in the first stanza. In the second stanza the poet moves into the realm of artifacts, or human-made things. She describes ornate works of decorative art. The dais, or platform, seems designed for a queen, with its “silk,” “purple dyes,” and “fleurs-de-lys.” Both the color purple and the fleurs-de-lys are traditional symbols of royalty. Much of the design, while artificial, is derived from nature. The speaker asks for representations of “doves,” “pomegranates,” and peacocks” to be carved into the dais, and for “gold and silver” “grapes” and “leaves” to be included. The natural objects are transformed into fanciful, elaborate works of art.
In these aesthetics, Rossetti shows what she shares with ideas of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB), a movement of artists and poets that was founded by her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Members of the PRB promoted ideal representations of nature, often in a fantastic, dreamlike manner. Since Rosetti moves in “A Birthday” to the description of works of art in order to better express the speaker’s feelings about love, we may assume that she gave the artistic a higher status than the natural. However, she makes it clear that the art has its basis in nature.
Rossetti’s aesthetic sense includes her appreciation for the music of lyric poetry. The poem has a regular meter, or rhythm of lines, and a consistent rhyme scheme. She uses ordinary language, though she creates extraordinary pictures with it. “A Birthday” is an ideal lyric poem: it is song-like and it expresses the speaker’s feelings.
“A Birthday” is written in two octaves, or stanzas of eight lines each. Rhetorically, the octaves parallel one another, each attempting to construct a way to express the speaker’s love and each reaching a climax in the final two lines. By dividing the lines of the first stanza into feet, or units of rhythm, we can see that they are written in iambic tetrameter. This means that each line consists of four iambs, or two-syllable segments in which the first syllable is unstressed and the second is stressed. As an example of iambic tetrameter, consider the following line from the first stanza:
My heart is like a singing bird
If we divide the four iambs from one another and mark the unstressed and stressed syllables, the line appears like this:
Myheart / islike / a sing / ing bird.
The strongly accentuated syllables in each iamb give a rapid pace to the line and to the stanza, imitating the ecstatic energy of the speaker.
Christina Rossetti’s life (1830-1894) closely coincides with the reign of Queen Victoria (from 1837 to 1901). The British Empire was at its height during this period: Britain’s navy dominated the seas, enabling the country to expand its holdings around the globe, and the Industrial Revolution was well-advanced, making England the world leader in manufacturing and trade.
However, there were problems that accompanied this military power and economic success. Factory workers toiled long hours for little pay; and there were a million and a half people living in poverty at mid-century. Laissez-faire economics, which means no government intervention in the economy, was the prevailing policy, and it seemed to doom much of the population to dire circumstances.
Much of the blame for economic problems was placed on the rapidly growing middle class. This group included small businessmen and shopkeepers, but it also encompassed factory owners, bankers, and entrepreneurs. The high status of business interests and the predominance of materialism seemed to define the economic situation.
In response to a wide gap between the poor and those of moderate means, many people fought for reform during the Victorian Era. There were movements to allow more people the right to vote and to protect workers and children. Furthermore, some English citizens did not favor their country’s overseas expansion, and they supported home rule for Ireland and attempts by India to win independence from Great Britain. Many Victorian writers and artists denounced the materialism of the business-oriented Empire.
As a writer and a member of the middle class, Rossetti was affected by the events of her day. In one of her poems, “Counterblast on Penny Trumpet,” she praises a government minister who resigned his post in protest over a British attack on Egypt. Rossetti was opposed to war and violence; she volunteered as a social worker to help prostitutes and unmarried mothers; and she supported a movement to prevent child prostitution. After
Compare & Contrast
- 1867: Women’s suffrage societies are formed in England and the United States.
Early 1970s: A new wave of feminism and women’s movement begins. One outcome is a renewed interest in literature by women.
1980s: The rise of feminist literary criticism contributes to an increase in scholarly studies of Rosetti’s poetry and prose.
learning about vivisection, the practice of dissecting living animals for physiological research, she became an ardent antivivisectionist.
Women and Society
Despite her status in society and her popularity as a poet, Rossetti faced disadvantages as a woman artist. Although she had ambitions and apparently desired fame, she was constricted by the social taboo on women “displaying” themselves publicly. Even after publishing some well-received poems in magazines, she was unable to find a publisher for her first book and had to rely on her brother’s assistance. Like other women writers, Rossetti was expected to limit her subjects to matters suitable for women. “A Birthday,” like many of her lyric poems, was considered acceptable because it dealt with love, an approved theme.
Because of Rossetti’s acceptance of these restrictions on women, modern readers may view her work with some reservations. However, she was rebellious in her own terms. She did not always bow to her brother’s advice on artistic matters, and she resisted efforts by her publisher to have her simply continue writing on themes that had been well received by the public.
Science and Religion
During the Victorian Era, many people became less fervent in their religious beliefs. Part of the cause was the development of science, which challenged some fundamental religious teachings about life. Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, a treatise on evolution published in 1859, helped influence this change. Rossetti, however, remained a deeply devout Anglo-Catholic (as opposed to a Roman Catholic) throughout her life. She believed that each person could have a direct relation with God, and thus had a duty to speak to Him.
Christina Rossetti’s work attracted many admirers during her time. After the 1890 publication of Poems, which contains “A Birthday,” many critics remarked upon the spirited yet controlled pathos of the poem. Writing in 1896, Edward Gosse argues that “there is not a chord of a minor key in ’A Birthday,’ and yet the impression which its cumulative ecstasy leaves upon the nerves is almost pathetic.” He comments that few poets share Rossetti’s “rare gift of song writing.” Like other critics, he notes that the love poem is one of Rossetti’s few “jubilant” ones. In an 1893 essay, Katherine Hinkson agrees that “Miss Rossetti’s poetry has always been … melancholy with the half sweet trouble of a young imagination.” Yet she argues that a melancholy spirit does not “always have to be sad.” In “A Birthday,” Hinkson writes, Rossetti shows an imagination “full of joy.” It is this scope that compels Hinkson to place Rossetti’s work at the pinnacle of Victorian literature: “As a mere personal judgment, I should rank the poetry of no other living poet beside Miss Rossetti’s.” More modern critics as well have noted the dualities in Rossetti’s work. Theo Dombrowski, writing in 1976, comments that Rossetti’s poems try to “resolve or control an underlying tension” by examining the “destructive conflict of opposites.” As an example, he cites “A Birthday,” “where the comparatively subtle shift from the inward-looking first stanza … to the imperative stance of the second … is central to the success of the poem.”
Katrinka Moore teaches writing at Long Island University in Brooklyn, New York, and is a poet whose work appears in anthologies and literary journals. In this essay, she discusses “A Birthday” in light of Christina Rossetti’s conflict between her passion for poetry and her life as a Victorian woman.
In an 1895 essay on the poetry of Christina Rossetti published in The Westminster Review, Alice Law compared Rossetti’s lyrics to the “loosening of the imprisoned notes in a bird’s throat,” whose rich sounds “swell and fall, and burst upon one another in their hurry to be out.” Law could be identifying the poet with the “singing bird” in the first line of “A Birthday.” Critics from Rossetti’s own day to modern times have speculated on the tension between her “imprisoned notes” and their need to “burst” out.
Author Ford Madox Ford, analyzing Rossetti’s body of work nearly twenty years after her death, considered her range of subjects “limited very strictly within the bound of her personal emotions.” However, he adds, “within those limits she expressed herself consummately.” It is at least partly the conflict between what Rossetti felt and what she believed she should write about that gives her poems their energy. As Ford explained, her “infectious gaiety” shows through in the “metre of the verse” (the rhythm of her poems). Despite her suppression of subject matter that she feared was “too pagan or too sensual,” Ford wrote, Rossetti’s “faculty for pure delight and for esthetic enjoyment was expressed all the more strongly in her metre.”
H. B. de Groot, writing in 1985, agreed with Ford, stating that Rossetti’s “strong lyric gifts are often held in check by her moral and theological scruples, but at times it is that very tension which gives her best poems their distinctive quality.” Her song seems determined to come out, whether in the content or the form of her poetry.
While Ford and de Groot found in Rossetti’s poetic rhythm a vibrant expression of her feelings, not all her contemporaries concurred. Some, like Alice Meynell in her 1895 New Review article, objected to the poet’s “lax metres which keep more or less musical time.” And back in 1862 in an Athenaeum review of Goblin Market and Other Poems, in which “A Birthday” first appeared, an anonymous reviewer praised Rossetti’s originality but regretted that she “should at times employ discords with a frequency which aims at variety but results in harshness.” It may come to a surprise to modern readers, used to free verse (more loosely structured lines) and finding Rossetti’s structure formal, that her experimentation with rhythm was considered daring by some of her fellow Victorians.
Despite the fact that not all critics approved of her techniques, Rossetti was popular in her lifetime, largely because of her ability to express moods and emotions. “A Birthday” stands out among many of her poems for its celebratory tone. As Edmund Gosse wrote in the 1890s, Rossetti’s “habitual tone is one of melancholy reverie.” However, whether she wrote of love or death, her work was charged by her intense aesthetic appreciation of beauty. “A Birthday” is full of detailed descriptions of beautiful things that occur in nature or were made by humans through art.
This is a love poem, specifically about loving and being loved in return. Rossetti reveals two sides to the experience. In the first stanza she describes the speaker’s heart, showing the intense private joy of romantic love. This private view is symbolized by images from nature—a bird on its nest, an apple tree heavy with fruit, a shell in the sea. In the second stanza the speaker imagines a public pronouncement of that love. This takes place in the world of people, decorated with beautiful artistic objects. Here the birds and fruit are carved or formed in gold and silver. Although each stanza has the same meter and rhyme scheme, the tone changes dramatically. The beginning images are almost child-like in their view of the natural world. The description of the dais, on the other hand, is from the point of view of a woman directing a scene.
The overall effect of “A Birthday” is jubilation, but there is a tension between the two reactions to love. One way is a quiet, pure emotion, and the other is proud, a showing-off. In Victorian society a woman was expected to be modest and have humility, rather than exhibiting evidence of pride. As long as the love is self-effacing, the emotion is acceptable. However, the speaker first describes her heart as “gladder than all these” images from nature, then proclaims that love has brought about “the birthday of my life.” There is a need, the poet seems to say, for both kinds of love.
Examining this tension is helpful in analyzing “A Birthday.” Two Rossetti scholars, Lona Mosk Packer and Hoxie Neale Fairchild, explore specific connections to Rossetti’s life to explain this conflict between private and public. They arrive at very different interpretations.
So convincing is the description of love that Packer, in a 1963 biography of Rossetti, explored the possibility that the poem was addressed to a specific person. It is well documented that Rossetti received two offers of marriage, one in 1848, when she was seventeen, and the other in 1866, when she was thirty-six. In both cases a difference in religious beliefs led her to refuse the proposals. However, “A Birthday” was written in 1857, at which time Rossetti was not known to be involved with anyone. While it is certainly possible that Rossetti could write love lyrics without being that moment in love, Packer suggests that the poet had a secret lover, a detail not noted in her earlier biographies.
According to Packer, the object of Rossetti’s love was a Scottish painter and poet, William Bell Scott, who was married to another woman. Rossetti and Scott were friends and met at times in London; she visited him and his wife in Scotland, as well. Packer develops her idea by researching biographical information on both Scott and Rossetti. In addition, she studies the content of many of Rossetti’s poems, especially the more melancholy ones, explaining the basis for the poetry about lost love and guilt for moral transgression. In Rossetti’s world view, the thought of adultery was almost as serious an offence as committing it. Since Packer concludes that “A Birthday” was written at a happy time in Rossetti’s and Scott’s relationship, her thesis allows for the tension between the private and public views of love that are expressed in the poem. However, this hypothesis has not been proved indeed, it may be impossible to prove one way or the other and, thus, is not widely accepted.
Fairchild, in a 1957 essay, analyzes “A Birthday” as a religious poem. This view can be supported by biographical information. Rossetti was devout; she developed her own personal theology as well as being attached to the Anglo-Catholic church. She especially felt a closeness to Jesus, writing in The Face of the Deep, a work of religious prose, that she felt “towards the Divine Son as if he alone were our Friend.” Fairchild, then, has a basis for suggesting that the love in “A Birthday” is holy, rather than human.
A review of the poem’s images supports this view. The speaker first savors the sweetness by comparing her heart to natural things. It makes sense that a celebration of the natural world would follow a “mystical apprehension,” or a belief arising from awareness, of Christ. The speaker’s call
“Her song seems determined to come out, whether in the content or the form of her poetry.”
for the dais in the second stanza is also logical; she designs a beautiful place worthy for Jesus. Purple may symbolize the coming of Christ, and the dais could be construed as an altar. However, since Rossetti wrote many religious poems and did not actively acknowledge “A Birthday” among them, Fairchild’s theory is no more widespread than is Packer’s.
There may be yet another way to approach the poem in light of Rossetti’s life. While “A Birthday” is obviously a love poem, whether to a particular subject or not, it may also refer to Rossetti’s poetic art. That is, the poem may contain a subtext, or secondary meaning, in which the poet takes the opportunity to celebrate her joy of writing.
The images in the first stanza can be seen as connected to the creative process. Writing a poem is a private act, and one that gave Rossetti pleasure. The singing bird’s nest and the tree laden with fruit may symbolize creation. The “rainbow shell” may represent the beauty of a poetic idea. In the last two lines of the stanza, the speaker says she is glad because her “love is come,” which could be a reference to the muse (her source of inspiration). In the writing of a poem, the poet/speaker experiences a simple happiness.
The images in the second stanza refer to artistic creation, which relates to the creation of a poem. They describe works of art drawn from living things in nature a process not unlike Rossetti’s own. Also, this stanza may be construed as a demand for public acknowledgement, with its directive to build a dais and decorate it so profusely. Rossetti was torn between her ambition for fame as a poet and her desire to be a modest, religious woman.
Here again is the tension found in her work as a whole, and it is revealed in the slight change in the structure of the last two lines. Line fifteen is the only line in the poem that is enjambed; that is, the reader must continue onto the next line to finish the sense of the phrase “Because the birthday of my life.” All of the other lines in “A Birthday”
What Do I Read Next?
- Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850) is Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s (1806–1861) most popular collection. She may have been a role model for, if not a direct influence on, Christina Rossetti’s career as a poet. When Rossetti’s first public book of verse was published around the time of Browning’s death, the younger poet was hailed as the logical successor to Browning.
- Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1881) and Through the Looking Glass (1872) by Lewis Carroll (1832–1898). Fanciful as they are, the Alice books may shed light on a young person’s life in Victorian England. Carroll suggested in 1892 that Christina Rossetti should succeed Alfred, Lord Tennyson as Poet Laureate of England. Carroll, who was a photographer as well as a writer, photographed Rossetti and her brother Dante Gabriel in 1863. Like Carroll, Rossetti also wrote for children.
- Emily Dickinson (1830–1886) was an American contemporary of Christina Rossetti. Rossetti admired Dickinson’s work, which she first read in 1890, citing its “startling recklessness of poetic ways and means.” Acts of Light contains selected Dickinson poems as well as an essay on her life in Amherst, Massachusetts.
- A younger poet who was influenced by Christina Rossetti was Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1889). Like Rossetti, Hopkins celebrated the physical and spiritual world. And like Rossetti, Hopkins incorporated his religious beliefs in his mature poetry.
are self-enclosed, or end at the close of a phrase or sentence. Line sixteen is different from the other lines in meter. While it is still iambic tetrameter, there is a slight pause at the comma, so that the line sounds a little different in rhythm from the rest of the poem. The significance of this “glitch” in the meter no accident for a poet of Rossetti’s skill comes as the speaker announces the arrival of her “birthday.” Perhaps Rossetti is saying to the world that she is a poet, she has found her calling, and means to stay with it for her life. And she does.
Source: Katrinka Moore, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 2001.
Elizabeth Judd is a freelance writer and book reviewer with an M.F.A. in English from the University of Michigan and a B.A. from Yale. In this essay, she discusses the ways in which Rossetti uses rhyme and rhythm to heighten and then complicate the speaker’s emotions in “A Birthday.”
One of Rossetti’s best-known and most-often-quoted love poems, “A Birthday” is, in subject matter and tone, a departure from most of her other work. On the surface, “A Birthday” is a rhapsody on found love, an ecstatic outpouring of joy from a speaker who’s finally come to be born through emotional fulfillment. Most of Rossetti’s other poems are concerned with failed love, a morbid sense of impending death, and a lover who will not or cannot return the speaker’s feelings. “A Birthday” is such an unexpected work from Rossetti—who was known for her reserved, serious demeanor and religious intensity—that its first line inspired a cartoon by the writer and artist Max Beerbohm. In that cartoon, Beerbohm depicts Christina Rossetti, dressed all in black and wearing a large dark hat that conceals most of her downturned face, being questioned by her more flamboyant brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who asks, “‘Well, Christina, your heart may be like a singing bird, but why do you dress like a pew-opener?’”
No matter how significant a departure the subject matter of “A Birthday” is, its meter and breathless, unforgettable rhythms are characteristic of Rossetti’s poetry. “A Birthday” is a very carefully constructed poem. It consists of two octaves, or stanzas of eight lines each. The second and fourth lines of each stanza rhyme, as do the sixth and eighth lines. The poem is also written in iambs, or two-syllable pairs where the second syllable is the one on which the emphasis is placed. John Hollander demonstrated how an iamb works in this line from Rhyme’s Reason: “Iambic meter runs along like this.” Often, as in Hollander’s example, iambs have such a strong rhythm that they can propel the poem forward in a rush of energy, a pattern that perfectly suits the excited speaker in Rossetti’s poem.
In the first octave of “A Birthday,” Rossetti uses repetition to give the impression of someone who’s frenzied and anxiously trying to find a simile, or a comparison, that will aptly describe her happiness. The first three words of the first, third, fifth, and seventh lines are the same: “My heart is.” In the speaker’s first attempt to capture her own feelings, she compares her heart to “a singing bird / Whose nest is in a watered shoot.” The “watered shoot” is a young branch that has grown out of a bud. Just as the shoot blossomed with water, the speaker has come alive with love. In the second comparison, the speaker likens her heart to “an apple-tree / Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit.” In a third try at finding a simile, the speaker compares her heart to “a rainbow shell.” These three comparisons are similar in that they’re derived from nature. In the seventh line, the speaker begins with the exact same pattern only to abruptly abandon it. Here she notes that the similes from nature are not sufficient because her emotions are more intense than these images can convey:
My heart is gladder than all these
Because my love is come to me.
The first octave ends in a hint that language can’t fully capture the thrill of emotions that the speaker is experiencing. The second octave confirms that point by taking up a new strategy for expressing her emotions. Instead of searching for a simile, the speaker now suggests that a concrete action be taken—“Raise me a dais of silk and down”—so that she can convey her love in the creation of a work of art that employs elements of the natural world to her own ends. There is a suggestion that the carved representations will last, unlike the things of nature which are fleeting. Instead of comparing her love to a singing bird, the speaker now asks that the beautiful dais be carved with birds, specifically doves and “peacocks with a hundred eyes.” In the second octave, the speaker is far less tentative and is now fully in command. It’s as if the arrival of love has given the speaker a strength and confidence that she previously lacked.
Critics have noted that the shift in stanzas works very well. Theo Dombrowski said that in “A Birthday” “the comparatively subtle shift from the inward-looking first stanza … to the imperative stance of the second … is central to the success of the poem.” And Katherine J. Mayberry noted, “Simile has collapsed into metaphor, experimentation has given way to command, and impermanence has been replaced by stability, but all these changes have been made possible by, and occurred within, the poem itself. In “A Birthday” we see the power of poetry to express strong feeling and to put it into more stable form.”
“No matter how significant a departure the subject matter of “A Birthday” is, its meter and breathless, unforgettable rhythms are characteristic of Rossetti’s poetry.”
One mystery of “A Birthday” is the identity of the love that the speaker celebrates as having “come to me.” Critics have speculated about whom this ecstatic love poem was written. Rossetti wrote this poem in November 1857, when she didn’t seem to have close relationships with anyone outside her immediate family. Deepening the mystery is the fact that the two poems on either side of it in Rossetti’s manuscript notebook were the exact opposite in mood: gloomy and regretful, instead of ecstatic. In one of the poems, “Memory,” she writes, “My heart dies inch by inch; the time grows old / Grows old in which I grieve.” And in the other, “An Apple Gathering,” the speaker is mocked by her neighbors for being “empty-handed” when apple season comes because she’s plucked the pink blossoms from her apple tree to wear in her own hair. These poems of thwarted fulfillment suggest that perhaps the love Rossetti describes in “A Birthday” was imagined rather than known through firsthand experience. Some critics have interpreted “A Birthday” as a religious poem, one about the speaker’s rebirth through her love for Christ. Although this is a distinct possibility, neither Rossetti nor her brother William Michael Rossetti classified “A Birthday” among her other devotional poems.
No matter who, if anyone, the poem was written for, it is remarkable for its strong lyrical sense, its ability to capture in sound the heightened emotions of new love. “A Birthday” has an inescapable energy, and in that sense it’s similar to some of Rossetti’s children’s poems, including:
Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you:
But when the leaves hang trembling
The wind is passing through.
Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I:
But when the trees bough down their heads
The wind is passing by.
In both poems, Rossetti describes something unseen—in “A Birthday” love, and in the child’s poem, the wind—by showing the dramatic effects that these forces can have on nature and on people. The wind makes the leaves tremble and the trees “bough down their heads,” as if human. And in “A Birthday” love makes the speaker rush around to construct comparisons and then build a work of art in appreciation and gratitude. In both poems, the sounds of the words enhance their meaning. The rhythms carry the reader along with the speaker and with the wind itself.
Rossetti’s greatest achievement in “A Birthday” rests in the music of her words. Virginia Woolf, a famous English novelist, praised Rossetti for the pureness of her tone and her wonderful ear: “Your instinct was so clear, so direct, so intense that it produced poems that sing like music in one’s ears.”
And yet what’s ultimately most compelling about “A Birthday” is its strangeness. The identity of the speaker’s beloved isn’t the only mystery. The speaker’s own state of mind, despite the fact that she speaks directly and emphatically, remains uncertain. There’s an odd giddiness in the speaker’s tone, something too frenzied in her habit of rushing from image to image, from singing bird to apple tree to rainbow shell. When she discards all of those images as inadequate, the speaker’s emotions become suspect. Edmund Gosse, writing in 1896, said that “there is not a chord of a minor key in “A Birthday,” and yet the impression which its cumulative ecstasy leaves upon the nerves is almost pathetic.”
A reserved woman who never married, was often ill, and was deeply religious, Rossetti was considered almost unknowable by her family members and later by her biographers. There’s a sense that Rossetti may have learned to write what’s acceptable or expected, rather than what she truly felt. Elizabeth Bishop, a twentieth-century American poet, wrote,
The art of losing isn’t hard to master; So many things
seem filled with the intent to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Modern readers quickly realize that Bishop isn’t saying what she means, but is in fact asserting the opposite. By putting on a brave front, Bishop shows us how unacceptable and deeply felt the pain of loss can be. Many decades earlier, Rossetti wrote words in a similar vein:
Not to be first: how hard to learn
That lifelong lesson of the past
Line graven on line and stroke on stroke:
But, thank God, learned at last.
Although Rossetti professes to be thankful for having learned to put her own desires second, this is a message that’s hard to accept at face value. Equally, there’s something in the manic ecstasy of “A Birthday” that doesn’t sound like pure and natural joy so much as a conscious decision to act joyous, to announce the rebirth of love whether it’s true or not. “A Birthday” may be a poem that apparently announces its intentions clearly, but behind the clarity lies doubt, and it’s this doubt that makes the poem haunting and memorable.
Source: Elizabeth Judd, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 2001.
Lutz is an instructor at New York University and has written for a wide variety of educational publishers. In the following essay, she explores how the simplicity of “A Birthday” masks its deeper meanings.
The short poem “A Birthday” by Christina Rossetti diverges in tone from many of her other works. The feminist literary critics Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar describe Rossetti’s style as an “aesthetic of renunciation.” In other words, they see in Rossetti’s poems a desire to renounce her own desire and to deny her feelings of passion and love. Again and again in her poetry do Gilbert and Gubar see Rossetti turning away from pleasure or fulfillment. In their assessment, “Rossetti, banqueting on bitterness, must bury herself alive in a coffin of renunciation.” “A Birthday” stands in stark contrast to this aesthetic. This poem seems purely celebratory as the narrator relishes the coming consummation of her love, a love that on the surface appears to be both passionate and physical.
The first stanza begins with three similes that are separated by semicolons: “My heart is like a singing bird / Whose nest is in a watered shoot; / My heart is like an apple tree / Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit; / My heart is like a rainbow shell / That paddles in a halcyon sea.” The effect of these three clauses is to compare the narrator’s heart with images found in nature. By connecting her emotions to the physical world, the narrator suggests that it is natural to express her love. She could no more suppress her feelings than the bird could stop singing or the apple not weigh down the bough. Such a love seems unbidden, not looked for by the narrator, but accepted as a gift of nature.
In the last couplet of the first stanza, however, the narrator stops using similes to describe her heart. As the long sentence of the first stanza ends, the narrator exclaims, “My heart is gladder than all these / Because my love is come to me.” She holds herself superior to the natural images with which she began. The bird singing, the bough bending, the shell floating are all suspended in time. Their fates are precarious, and as literary critic Antony Harrison has argued, “the idealized images of nature that appear in the first stanza carry with them the inevitability of their own destruction.” For the bird in its “watered shoot” is exposed to danger; the ripe apples threaten to fall to the ground or break the bough; and the shell that now floats in tranquil waters is, as Harrison shows, “vulnerable, as a delicate object, to the changing moods of the potentially destructive ocean.” For these reasons, the narrator distances herself from these images. Her heart may be “like” the bird, the tree, and the shell, but it is not them. Her fate is not precarious because the suspense is over. She loves, and her lover has returned those feelings.
In the second stanza, then, as Harrison argues, the narrator signals her “need to retreat from mutability.” She must move away from the natural world so as not to admit the possibility that her love or lover could change with time. In this second stanza, then, the narrator turns her gaze from the outside to the inside. Instead of looking at real manifestations of nature, the narrator wants the changeable physical world enshrined in art. Represented in art, the bird or the apple is frozen in time, impervious to change. The doves, pomegranates, peacocks, and grapes that are described in the second stanza, therefore, do not occur in nature, but only as images carved into a dais, or wooden platform. Is the narrator inferring, as Harrison suggests, “that the only true and permanent fulfillment of love is to be found in the art it gives birth to”?
Other readings could also explain the move from nature to art. Part of the narrator’s desire to enshrine her love, to hold it unchangeable forever, is evident in the ceremony she demands in the second stanza. In the first stanza, the narrator describes the state of her heart, and it is unclear to whom she is speaking. In many ways it is as if she, like the bird she compares her heart to, is simply singing out loud the overwhelming emotions she feels. But in the second stanza, she is more concerned with audience. The first three couplets contain commands
“The precariousness of the natural world, then, springs not from the transience of erotic love, but from the transience of human existence.”
to unknown servants: “Raise me a dais of silk and down; / Hang it with vair and purple dyes; / Carve it in doves and pomegranates, / And peacocks with a hundred eyes; / Work it in gold and silver grapes, / In leaves and silver fleur-de-lys.” Causing a platform to be raised, the narrator infers that she wants a public celebration of her love. Natural love and passion, it seems, are unstable because they are potentially illicit. Marked by a ceremony, such as a wedding, this love becomes stable and legally binding. The delicate shell of a Victorian woman’s desire can be potentially crushed by an ocean of social condemnation. Only when the love is publicly acknowledged, is she truly free to love.
The language of public ceremony, however, is overly exalted in the second stanza. The images used suggest a coronation, rather than a wedding. Purple is the color of royalty, and the fleur-de-lys is the symbol for the French royal family. A dais is commonly used as a platform for a throne. The narrator infers that love turns her into a queen. This image is both empowering and forbidding. Her passion “reigned” in, the narrator depends on outward symbols rather than the natural feelings of her heart to represent the strength of her love.
But, as the second stanza ends, the narrator returns to the simple declarative style she used in the first stanza, even repeating the same language, “my love is come to me.” This repetition signals a return to the inward self. The outward show represented by the trappings of royalty and ceremony, after all, merely indicates the narrator’s joy at fulfilled love. The last couplet, “Because the birthday of my life / Is come, my love is come to me,” argues that life itself begins only in returned love. Reborn through love, the narrator has gained all the wealth in the world. The royal treasure, then, of “silk and downs,” “peacocks,” and “gold and silver” is a metaphor for what she has acquired through love.
A final question of the poem remains: of what type of love is the narrator singing? Harrison, for one, notes that “the poem is significantly ambiguous in defining the nature (erotic or spiritual) of the described love.” Deeply religious, Rossetti refused two marriage proposals on the grounds that her suitors did not share her beliefs. Certainly, the idea of a rebirth, the “birthday of my life,” can indicate a baptism, being spiritually born again. The precariousness of the natural world, then, springs not from the transience of erotic love, but from the transience of human existence. The permanence suggested in the artistic work that will enshrine her love is nothing to the permanence of Christian love. The narrator’s command to the unseen servants to “Raise me” may, as Harrison suggests, refer to resurrection. In the promise of the next world, the narrator can confidently believe in the immutability of love. In the simple and sing-song-like “A Birthday,” Rossetti raises profound questions about the nature of love.
Source: Kimberly Lutz, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 2001.
Arsenau, Marie, Antony H. Harrison, and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, eds., The Culture of Christina Rossetti, Ohio University Press, 1999.
Deutsch, Babette, Poetry Handbook, A Dictionary of Terms, Harper Collins, 1974.
Dombrowski, Theo, “Dualism in the Poetry of Christina Rossetti,” in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 14, No. 1, Spring, 1976, pp. 70-76.
Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic, Yale University Press, 1979.
Gosse, Edmund, Critical Kit-Kats, Scholarly Press, 1971, pp. 135-62.
Harrison, Antony H., “Aestheticism and the Thematics of Renunciation,” in his Christina Rossetti in Context, University of North Carolina Press, 1988, pp. 89-141.
Hinkson, Katherine, “The Poetry of Christina Rossetti,” in The Bookman, Vol. 5, No. 27, December, 1893, pp. 78-79.
Hollander, John, Rhyme’s Reason: A Guide to English Verse, Yale University Press, 1981, p. 8.
Mayberry, Katherine J., Christina Rossetti and the Poetry of Discovery, Louisiana State University Press, 1989, pp. 39-40.
Marsh, Jan, ed. Christina Rossetti: Poems and Prose, Everyman, 1996.
Smulders, Sharon, Christina Rossetti Revisited, Twayne Publishers, 1996.
Trilling, Lionel, and Harold Bloom, Victorian Prose and Poetry, Oxford University Press, 1973.
Woolf, Virginia, Fortnightly Review, Vol. LXXXI Old Series, p. 403.
Arsenau, Marie, Antony H. Harrison, and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, eds., The Culture of Christina Rossetti, Ohio University Press, 1999.
Subtitled “Female Poetics and Victorian Contexts,” this book collects essays based on the most recent wave of Rossetti scholarship, beginning in the 1980s. This work is necessarily feminist, and is a revision of stereotypes of both the poet and her fellow Victorians. Most interesting to readers of “A Birthday” may be the final essay, “Dying to be a Poetess,” by Margaret Linley, which describes some of Rossetti’s conflicts as a woman and a poet in her time.
Marsh, Jan, ed., Christina Rossetti: Poems and Prose, Everyman, 1996.
This volume contains a timeline and chronology of Rossetti and her era, biographical information, selected poetry, fiction, and excerpts from her nonfiction and letters. Its notes and background material provide a helpful overview for readers new to Christina Rossetti.
Smulders, Sharon, Christina Rossetti Revisited, Twayne Publishers, 1996.
As part of the Twayne English Author series, Christina Rossetti Revisited is a critical study of the poet’s life and works. Like The Culture of Christina Rossetti, it offers a modern viewpoint of Rossetti’s career in the Victorian period. Compare Smulder’s chapter interpreting Rossetti’s famous Goblin Market with the essay “Tasting the Fruit Forbidden’” by Catherine Maxwell in The Culture of Christina Rossetti.
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