A Birthday

A Birthday
 Overview

It’s obvious, isn’t it? It is about a birthday!

Well, actually, maybe not. Rather this is the day she feels like it is the day she has been reborn or got the biggest present of all as a result of finding love. However, the question is: in what way?

This poem reads as if Rossetti is singing for joy, she wants the whole world to know just how glad she is. This birthday is also synonymous with the day she has met/found the love of her life.

But who is it? I’ll leave that up to you to decide.

 

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 halycon 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;
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 is come to me.

Christina Rossetti (1830-94)

Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.


ContextThemesContentLanguage and techniquesStructureTone

Context

Bless Christina Rossetti, she had a rough life (well, when Wikipedia sums it up). An interesting family background, but that’s not particularly relevant to understanding this poem.

What is relevant is her faith, the failure of three engagements and she never had children. Much of her poetry has clear biblical roots, but her later poetry also expresses her desire for a husband, true love and to feel like she is fulfilling her role as a woman by being a mother. Any of these could be hold the key to the interpretation of this beaut of a poem.

 Themes

Again this depends to a certain extent on your overall interpretation. Love, but also potentially religion. There is heavy comparison with nature to try to explain emotions, so that’s in the bag as well.

Content

First of all, I want you to acknowledge that this is beautiful; it’ll help if you acknowledge this as you’ll be able to more ably explain what she is feeling. I read this with a big grin on my face, I’m delight for Christina!

The opening stanza begins with three nature based comparatives to show her joy. She is searching for the apposite (exact/perfect) image from nature to show just how ecstatic she is feeling, but none of those she chooses adequately reflect how her heart is feeling as she is ‘gladder than all these’. I’ll discuss the specific images and their significance in Language and techniques.

The second stanza is a description of how she wants to celebrate this ‘birthday’. Again, we’ll explore the imagery next, but all the things she’s asking us to prepare are things of beauty, luxury and privilege. This day needs to be celebrated in the same way as a royal coronation or marriage, such is the grandeur and significance.

Language and techniques

This is teeming with different techniques and beautiful imagery and in my opinion would be one of the easiest poems to write and write about.

Repetition in the first stanza is used by Rossetti to try to communicate how overjoyed she feels, but she is never quite successful at telling us what her ‘heart is like’. The images she conjures through each of the three similes she uses are all rich and interesting. ‘A singing bird’ gives us an idea that she feels fulfilled and wants the whole word to know; while the ‘apple-tree’ is significant because it is ‘thickset’ with fruit again suggesting fulfilment or perhaps fertility if you are pursuing the baby interpretation; and the ‘rainbow shell’ should create an image of colour and joy, the opposite of dullness, and the fact it is in a ‘halcyon sea’ also creates the impression of tranquillity.

We also have the repetition of ‘my love is come to me’ at the end of each stanza reinforces the fact this is not an actual birthday, but rather the day she has found love of some sort. This would fit with ideas of being a born again Christian, but could equally indicate the joy she anticipated she would find when she finally found true love with a man or had a baby.

The second stanza is all about the language. The words are so rich and express an elegance and grandeur in her feeling towards whoever she is in love with. A ‘dais’ is one of those things Asterix depicts Roman Emperors being carried around on and all the things it is adorned with also reflect an idea of royalty and huge significance. ‘Silk’ is expensive and soft, ‘purple’ is the colour of Kings and carving with ‘doves’ and ‘peacocks’ is a sign that this ‘dais’ was expected to be extraordinary as these are two natural images associated with beauty: the peacock with it’s amazing plumage (tail feathers, she picture above) and the dove as a simple of purity and innocence. I don’t need to explain gold and silver, but ‘fleur-de-lys’ was a design associated with the French monarch so again has connotations of importance and wealth.

The obvious assumption is that she wants to celebrate her love for a King, maybe Jesus. However, I prefer to read the poem as this is just about her heart feeling this person is so significant that the whole world should come out on parade and celebrate their magnificence. I also think the associations with innocence and tranquillity make this more likely to be about giving birth than about the feelings of passionate love, which are most often depicted as anything but smooth.

Structure

The regularity of each stanza indicates that this is not uncontrolled passion, but rather controlled, joyous contentment. I like to think of this as a repetitive song being sung by someone consumed with joy.

Notice that the lines work in pairs in the opening stanza. The indentation indicates and the enjambment (no punctuation at the end of the first line of each pair) allow Rossetti to explore each of her similes clearly and give the reader the exact idea of why she feels like each of these natural images.

The second stanza is a list. We are ordered to make this ‘dais’ and it is vital that each of the items on the list is met to ensure that this is perfect and fit for the most important person in her world.

Tone

If you want to write that Rossetti’s tone is happy, you are an idiot and I would kindly ask you to leave this page. She is consumed with joy and is literally singing for all the world about how overjoyed her love has made her.

Bless her and her little cotton socks!

Author: Mr Sir

Although I've only been teaching Literature since 2011 and did my degree in History, I think that makes me better placed than many Lit teachers to provide notes that make sense and aren't garbled and wrapped up with inaccessible terminology and effluent nonsense. After adventures in Uganda and Uzbekistan, I am now settling down in the Netherlands. However, currently I am just about as unsettled as I have ever been, with a new job, a new baby, a new country and a hundred other things going on! Ask me a question, collaborate or abuse me.

6 thoughts on “A Birthday”

  1. She never got married so I don’t think the poem is about her love or having a baby. It has to do with her remembering the day she was reborn when she received Jesus as her lord and personal savior

    1. Yeah, highly likely. However, not all poems are directly about what happens to us. Rossetti (and I’ve now analysed a large section of her work) was also interested in the idea of becoming fulfilled as a woman and felt guilt that she never had the chance to be a mother.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *