Click the tabs on the left to view each stanza.
I, a princess, king-descended, decked with jewels, gilded, drest,
Would rather be a peasant with her baby at her breast,
For all I shine so like the sun, and am purple like the west.
Two and two my guards behind, two and two before,
Two and two on either hand, they guard me evermore;
Me, poor dove, that must not coo – eagle that must not soar.
All my fountains cast up perfumes, all my gardens grow
Scented woods and foreign spices, with all flowers in blow
That are costly, out of season as the seasons go.
All my walls are lost in mirrors, whereupon I trace
Self to right hand, self to left hand, self in every place,
Self-same solitary figure, self-same seeking face.
Then I have an ivory chair high to sit upon,
Almost like my father’s chair, which is an ivory throne;
There I sit uplift and upright, there I sit alone.
Alone by day, alone by night, alone days without end;
My father and my mother give me treasures, search and spend –
O my father! O my mother! have you ne’er a friend?
As I am a lofty princess, so my father is
A lofty king, accomplished in all kingly subtleties,
Holding in his strong right hand world-kingdoms’ balances.
He has quarrelled with his neighbours, he has scourged his foes;
Vassal counts and princes follow where his pennon goes,
Long-descended valiant lords whom the vulture knows.
On who track the vulture swoops, when they ride in state
To break the strength of armies and topple down the great;
Each of these my courteous servant, none of these my mate.
My father counting up his strength sets down with equal pen
So many head of cattle, head of horses, head of men;
These for slaughter, these for breeding, with the how and when.
Some to work on roads, canals; some to man his ships;
Some to smart in mines beneath sharp overseers’ whips;
Some to trap fur-beasts in lands where utmost winter nips.
Once it came into my heart, and whelmed me like a flood,
That these too are men and women, human flesh and blood;
Men with hearts and men with souls though trodden down like mud.
Our feasting was not glad that night, our music was not gay;
On my mother’s graceful head I marked a thread of grey,
My father frowning at the fare seemed every dish to weigh.
I sat beside them sole princess in my exalted place,
My ladies and my gentlemen stood by me on the dais;
A mirror showed me I look old and haggard in the face;
It showed me that my ladies all are fair to gaze upon,
Plump, plenteous-haired, to every one love’s secret lore is known,
They laugh by day, they sleep by night; ah me, what is a throne?
The singing men and women sang that night as usual,
The dancers danced in pairs and sets, but music had a fall,
A melancholy windy fall as at a funeral.
Amid the toss of torches to my chamber back we swept;
My ladies loosed my golden chain; meantime I could have wept
To think of some in galling chains whether they waked or slept.
I took my bath of scented milk, delicately waited on,
They burned sweet things for my delight, cedar and cinnamom,
They lit my shaded silver lamp, and left me there alone.
A day went by, a week went by. One day I heard it said:
‘Men are clamouring, women, children, clamouring to be fed;
Men like famished dogs are howling in the streets for bread.’
So two whispered by my door, not thinking I could hear,
Vulgar naked truth, ungarnished for a royal ear;
Fit for cooping in the background, not to stalk so near.
But I strained my utmost sense to catch this truth, and mark:
‘There are families out grazing like cattle in the park.’
‘A pair of peasants must be saved even if we build an ark.’
A merry jest, a merry laugh, each strolled upon his way;
One was my page, a lady I reared and bore with day by day;
One was my youngest maid as sweet and white as cream in May.
Other footsteps followed softly with a weightier tramp;
Voices said: ‘Picked soldiers have been summoned from the camp
To quell these base-born ruffians who make free to howl and stamp.’
‘Howl and stamp?’ one answered: ‘ They made free to hurl a stone
At the minister’s state coach, well aimed and stoutly thrown.’
‘There’s work then for the soldiers, for this rank crop must be mown.’
‘One I saw, a poor old fool with ashes on his head,
Whimpering because a girl had snatched his crust of bread;
Then he dropped; when some one raised him, it turned out her was dead.’
‘After us the deluge,’ was retorted with a laugh:
‘If bread’s the staff of life, they must walk without a staff.’
‘While I’ve a loaf they’re welcome to my blessing and the chaff.’
These passed. The king: stand up. Said my father with a smile:
‘Daughter mine, your mother comes to sit with you awhile,
She’s sad to-day, and who but you her sadness can beguile?’
He too left me. Shall I touch my harp now while I wait, –
(I hear them doubling guard below before our palace gate -)
Or shall I work the last gold stitch into my veil of state;
Or shall my woman stand and read some unimpassioned scene,
There’s music of a lulling sort in words that pause between;
Or shall she merely fan me while I wait here for the queen?
Again I caught my father’s voice in sharp word of command:
‘Charge!’ a clash of steel: ‘Charge again, the rebels stand,
Smite and spare not, hand to hand; smite and spare not, hand to hand.’
There swelled a tumult at the gate, high voices waxing higher;
A flash of red reflected light lit the cathedral spire;
I heard a cry for faggots, then I heard a yell for fire.
‘Sit and roast there with you meant, sit and bake there with your bread,
You who sat to see us starve,’ one shrieking woman said:
‘Sit on your throne and roast with your crown upon your head.’
Nay, this thing will I do, while my mother tarrieth,
I will take my fine spun gold, but not to sew therewith,
I will take my gold and gems, and rainbow fan and wreath;
With a ransom in my lap, a king’s ransom in my hand,
I will go down to this people, will stand face to face, will stand
Where they curse king, queen, and princess of this cursed land.
They shall take all to buy them bread, take all I have to give;
I, if I perish, perish; they to-day shall eat and live;
I, if I perish, perish; that’s the goal I half conceive:
Once to speak before the world, rend bare my heart and show
The lesson I have learned which is death, is life, to know,
I, if I perish, perish; in the name of God I go.
Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.
For once I’ve got loads to say in this section!
This was written in 1851, but it was only published in 1863 at the height of the American Civil War. Whether the poem was inspired by an earlier crisis or history, it found resonance with English cotton workers at the time it was published. The theme can be appreciated universally, regardless of time period, as the oppression or exploitation of the poor.
England was hugely reliant on American cotton to supply the mills that were the primary industry of the North-West of England (Lancashire: Manchester, Burnley, Blackburn, Bolton, Bury, Oldham), but the Civil War saw many major ports in the US shut down. The resulting shortage of cotton had dramatic implications for cotton workers as huge numbers of mills closed down and left their workers unemployed. They went from being the most prosperous towns to being some of the most impoverished, often the authorities were seen as not doing enough to support their citizens and several riots followed.
However, there were a number of charities or committees set up to raise funds and support cotton workers. The poem was published in an anthology featuring work from a range of poets, that was sold in order to support these charities at the height of this crisis.
It was later published in The Prince’s Progress and Other Poems in 1866, a collection of her own work, and the princess is often compared with the prince in the eponymous poem from the collection.
Quite a few to talk about here.
We have a clear political message about society where Rossetti positions the ruling elite as cruel and uncaring, luxuriating while the working population struggle. In addition to this we have a clear message about the meaning of life and a clear suggestion that wealth and privilege do not necessarily equate to happiness, while a more modest existence is more connected with contentment.
Alongside any political message or idea, we have a strong link to gender and the qualities of womankind. Compared with the lazy oaf of a prince in The Prince’s Progress (not part of our collection and you don’t need to read it) she is shown to be compassionate, bold and resolute. Our princess also highlights the problems with treating women as simply wives and daughters, as she is isolated from life and confined from happiness.
I will break this up into discussions of four stanzas at a time so you can keep a track of my points.
The opening two stanzas describes the princess in relation to all her privileges and riches, but contrasts this with her feeling of being entrapped of joy and life. Surrounded by guards at all times she is unable to find freedom to fulfill her dreams or experience life. She is to be trapped as an innocent and pure girl forever (seemingly).
She begins to explain exactly why her life ain’t all that – isn’t filled with the happiness you’d expect loads of money to bring. She is isolated from others as a result of her wealth and status, just as her father stands above all else as king, she feels she stands apart and cannot fit. This culminates in a lot of alone time and her feeling as though she hasn’t got a single friend, which makes all the presents and luxuries seem completely useless.
Her father’s power is addressed. Clearly he has got to the top through being ruthless and determined, fighting his neighbours and being recognised as being the top dog thanks only to his military might. His followers now are seen as being suppressed, but also as opportunists who would turn against the king in a second, if it was in their interests.
All those the king has conquered have become servants as a result of his ruthlessness, but not friends. No wonder, when in the tenth stanza he considers men as a resource, alongside animals, to be used as and when he pleases and with no especial consideration. They are worked hard and seemingly in similar ways to the animals.
Such is her father’s contempt or inhuman treatment of his people that his daughter has only just realised the cruelty of his rule. She recognises that they have feelings like her own and are worthy of being respected as humans, but are deeply miserable as a result of the king’s animalistic treatment of them.
Now we return to the castle and see a scene of opulence in their feast, but not matched by cheered spirits. The whole royal family seem consumed by their worries and cares and the princess feels prematurely aged by her misery,
In contrast, she notices her maids all looking pretty happy and imagines their lives being filled with romance, laughter and contented sleep. I’d take this to be more a reflection of her own hopes than any deep knowledge of their personal lives. In her privileged circle they have dancing and music, but no one seems to have high spirits or joy.
She returns to her room after her dinner and has her maid help her undress. While a necklace is removed, she ponders the misery of those her father has imprisoned permanently with chains and feels a sense of guilt.
Stanza eighteen once more presents the luxury of her existence to serve as a contrast to the lives of the ordinary people that she is beginning to sympathy with and wish to be a part of.
In the next two stanzas things start to get interesting. We’ve skipped forward a week or so and she now hears her maids and servants whispering at her door. As she is eavesdropping they don’t distort the truth or present a sensitised and sanitised version of the world outside the castle walls. We learn that the people are starving on the streets. The guards rather nastily compare them to dogs, this zoomorphism is a recurring idea in the poem.
The princess continues listening and again the zoomorphic comments continue. The maids joke about the peasants as if they are unimportant claiming they don’t need to save them all, they just need a pair of them for the ark, think Noah’s ark.
Now some heavier steps are heard outside, presumably guards or male servants. They seem more serious and reveal that soldiers have been summoned to end the peasants’ protests, with one revealing the violence that has begun to appear in the protests. The other suggests that they need to be brutal and mow them down.
They continue to reveal the truth of what is going on outside the castle. Peasants are fighting with each other in order to keep alive, stealing bread from the mouths of others who are starving. The guards now laugh that the peasants will need to do without this support and are unwilling to share anything but their crumbs with the peasants.
As they depart the king arrives and wants to shut away the princess with the queen to keep them out-of-the-way as the fighting begins in earnest. Our princess is none to happy about being asked to go on as if nothing is happening, continuing the indolent and luxurious hobbies of royalty: harping and sewing gold lace.
Stanza twenty-nine continues the list of ridiculously relaxed activities they could do, while a crisis erupts. This list serves to illustrate how ridiculous their lack of exposure to the reality of the world is; they are supposed to continue as if nothing is happening, while the poor starve and riot.
The princess hears her father barking orders to suppress the rebels. It is clear he wants them dead and no mercy shown in the process. However, their gates are being assaulted and the revolt has taken to attempting to burn down the castle.
The voice of the peasants is heard for the first time. Their anger over the continued opulence of royalty while they starve is articulated in stanza thirty-two as they cry for the royals to be roasted to death with their bread and meat.
The princess is spurred into action. Her mother does as the king has asked, but she goes down to join the peasants. She refers to delivering them a ‘ransom’, which could mean literally in terms of items of wealth such as her ‘gold and gems’, but really in herself she has handed them the power as they will be able to hurt her father.
She recognises the hatred they feel towards her as a result of her father’s rule and wants to make amends by sacrificing herself. By giving herself to them, she is giving them the power to pursued the king to give them bread and she doesn’t care if it results in her own death or her being banished by her father.
In the final stanza we are taken back to the misery and isolation she revealed at the beginning of the poem. She wants to just once to be a part of the world, to show her compassion and love. Although her actions will almost certainly result in her death, she feels as if it will be the first time she has really lived. She is content to know that if she dies it will be doing something that God would be proud of her for!
Language and techniques
Bloody hell, I hope you are reading this in chunks. I’ve taken a two-week ‘break’ (I’ve actually been writing reports, marking assessments and doing last-minute revision lessons) so please forgive me if I totally contradict myself now.
Rather than approach this stanza by stanza, I’m just going to pick out key ideas running throughout and link relevant quotations or techniques. I’ve divided this up with a kind of subtitling within the text, which you should notice with bold text.
First let’s deal with the contrast Rossetti creates between the affluence of the princess and her misery. Suggestions of how lavish her lifestyle is run throughout, for instance the opening line tells us she is ‘decked with jewels’ – an image that almost makes them seem like a burden as to be ‘decked’ means covered. This is appropriate because it is her wealth and privilege that seems to stifle her existence. She is also describes as ‘shin[ing] so like the sun’, which is a reference not just to beauty and jewels again, but also positions her at the centre of the universe and thus more important than everyone else. Of course she doesn’t believe this, but her position means she is treated as such.
I won’t explore everything in detail as you can do it yourself, but Rossetti also uses imagery of magnificent fountains, sensory details about the expensive aromas that seem to adorn not her, but her home to really emphasise the grandeur of her existence. However, Rossetti positions this luxury as being decadent and over the top, we are not meant to be in awe, but rather disgusted. There is also an intriguing line about her ‘walls [being] lost in mirrors’, which is at once linking to luxury (expensive at the time and not to be found in any pauper’s house even now), while also suggesting the vanity of her family or the rich in general. If you are surrounded by mirrors then all you ever see is yourself and thus she is blinded from the reality of the world and consumed by self-interest. As if to make the point, note the repetition of ‘self’ in this fourth stanza (five times in two lines).
However, despite the luxurious imagery Rossetti presents, the princess who gives voice to this poem adds a critical gloss to every element. She ‘would rather be a peasant’, which might make you think back to A Mind Content and comments on the worries associated with power and privilege set against the carefree nature of the poor (of course, and I’ve commented about this before, this is a very arrogant stance as the poor have their own troubles). There is also a sense that she feels unfulfilled as the peasant she dreams of being also has ‘her baby at her breast’. This is a common idea in Rossetti’s work, that women can find fulfillment through motherhood (An Apple Gathering) and to a lesser extent by becoming wives. The life of idle luxury is presented as being undesirable.
We also see criticism when she details how many servants and guards she has, by presenting them as imprisoning her rather than protecting her. Rossetti’s repetition of ‘two’ in the second stanza serves to makes us feel surrounded and trapped at every twist and turn. However, the final line uses a metaphor about a ‘poor dove, that must not coo’ to criticise the state of perfection and virginity her parents consider her to be being kept in, as she feels like an ‘eagle’ that as a result of her parents clipping her wings ‘must not soar’. Thus Rossetti turns a popular symbol on its head; the dove is normally a positive association for young girls as it represents virginity, purity and innocence (although I read an interesting diatribe recently that suggested the association is all wrong and doves are actually pretty sex/kissing mad, but loyal to their partners – in The Island of the Day Before by Umberto Eco, which I would wholeheartedly not recommend). An eagle might be a baser creature, but it is used here to emphasise the sense of freedom that she desires to attain.
In addition, she criticise the mirrors mentioned above. When she describes herself as being ‘lost’ in them she implies that she cannot find reality, is stuck in this fantasy of perfection and extravagant waste. Again Rossetti uses repetition, this time with the word ‘self’ to show us just how isolated her wealth makes her. This is further developed with the imagery of her ‘ivory chair high’, which should be linked to the idiom Looking down from your ivory tower. Ivory is a luxury, particularly in Europe as it has to be shipped a considerable distance at a considerable price, and the idiom above is used to show the ignorance of the rich, who consider things through their own eyes and in relation to their experience of the world, when their reality is as far removed from that of the everyday people or the poor as is possible to image. Thus when her family sit on their ivory thrones they cannot possibly appreciate the life of their subjects who as the poem progresses are revealed to be starved.
The impact of her surrounding and position in the world is best summed up in stanza six with the repetition of ‘alone’ and Rossetti’s assonant moaning of ‘O my father! O my mother!’ being coupled with a rhetorical question implying she feels the family’s power and wealth has isolated them from friends.
Now let’s examine the presentation her father who can be roughly viewed as the elite of the country – if we view the poem in relation to the Cotton Crisis. He is described as ‘lofty’, which combines with the earlier image of his ivory throne to suggest he shares very little in common with his people. However, it is also revealed that he has gained his power through a ‘strong right hand’, implying violence and brutality. His position is in no way ordained from above as might have earlier been a common concept of royalty (the divine right to rule) and rather he is shown to be a ruthless ‘vulture’ who ‘swoops’ when his prey, ‘long-descended valiant lords’, is weak and when they are thus exposed he ‘quarreled’ and ‘scourged’ them from existence in order to cement his own position. The fact his foes, who now appear to become his vassals, are described as ‘valiant’ is a deliberate attempt from Rossetti to contrast them with the king. Valiance is associated with honour, loyalty and trustworthiness, which suggests the king does not possess these characteristics.
I’m not going to go into detail, but note that they become ‘courteous servant[s]’ as opposed to ‘mate[s]’, which links back to the idea of loneliness and the idiom it’s lonely at the top that has just sprung to mind.
Okay, still with the king, consider the way he thinks about his subjects. He counts them alongside his livestock, ‘so many head of cattle, head of horses, head of men’. Rossetti then makes no distinction in how the king considers using them for work and it is not clear whether the grueling jobs he sets are for cattle, horse or man. Skipping a bit forward we see that this attitude has become the standard for the whole royal retinue, who must all enjoy privilege over the rank and file peasants. A maid describes ‘men like famished dogs are howling’ as she mocks their protests about starving, and ‘grazing like cattle’ in the desperate scrounging for sustenance. As if that wasn’t enough there is a joke about saving ‘a pair of peasants [for the] ark’ in reference to Noah and his marine menagerie. Guard later describe their revolt as their ‘howl and stamp’, again comparing them in animalistic terms, and later even baser describe them in terms of weeds that ‘must be mown’. This level of disrespect should be used as a reflection on how the ruling class treat the poor, as if they were subhuman or another species unworthy of the same care and quality of life as the rich and privileged.
Focusing again more directly on the top dog, Rossetti highlights his cruelty. His command is ‘sharp’ as he twice orders his soldiers to ‘smite and spare not’. There is no compassion for the suffering of his people, but instead he ruthlessly sets well armed soldiers on them with instructions not just to drive them back and suppress the revolt, but to slaughter them.
The final big thing I am going to comment on is the condition of the peasantry. Remember this is not to be considered in isolation, but necessarily must be viewed in contrast to the royal grandeur. We view the peasants through the princess’ compassion. She is shocked to realise that ‘these too are men and women’, as if their treatment suggests they are seen as less than this (as we’ve seen above). They are not just impoverished, but she sees their ‘hearts… [and] souls though trodden down like mud’, which show that they have been squashed by the king to the point where they feel their lives have no meaning.
A quick aside here. The way others are treated as subhuman by the royal family is called into question in the fifteenth stanza. The fact her maid are ‘all… fair’ and ‘plump’, while in the previous stanza she described herself as ‘old and haggard’ show that she is in no way superior to her subjects, except in relation to her wealth and status. It also links back to the idea of simplicity leading to contentment.
Back to the peasants, we’ve already commented on how their condition and actions are described in animalistic terms through the royal retinue, but I hadn’t touched on the extent of their suffering. A tale recounted by a guard suggests there is desperate infighting as one ‘snatched… [another’s] crust of bread’ causing the other to ‘drop’ to the floor ‘dead’, presumably not just because he is starved, but because this represents the last ounce of hope escaping from him. The fact it is a ‘crust’ shows just how severe the situation is as the peasants fight over the most meagre amounts and poorest sort of food.
This desperation is also conveyed by Rossetti in their angry protests. As they storm the castle they ‘shriek’ for some revenge, wanting the royal family to ‘roast there with [their] meat’ – ‘roast with your crown upon your head’. This is cruel and sick, but comes from a deep held bitterness about the way they are and have been treated.
I suppose I should comment briefly (ha!) on the end of the poem too. The princess’ decision to sacrifice herself and realisation and recognition of the peasants’ suffering is a clear message to the ruling elite at any time, but is also an expression of the misery caused by isolation that power can bring. The idea of sacrifice for others is clearly linked to Biblical ideas (‘in the name of God I go’) and if Jesus died for our sins, the princess will ‘perish, perish; [that] they to-day shall eat and live’. By surrendering herself to the mob she ensures that they can command her father (or if you want to view this really basely, maybe they can feast on her flesh!).
The message to the ruling class is that they must empathise with the plight of their people and rule for them. She stands ‘face to face’ emphasising the fact that she considers them her equals and thus deserving of respect.
If you’ve read all this I imagine it is too late now, you’ve probably missed your exam!
No, not doing it. I’ve included some salient points in my Language and Techniques sections, such as the constant use of repetition, which emphasises the loneliness and emptiness of the princess’ life.
Make the point that the really dramatic action and the revealing of the reality of the world that the princess (sort of) inhabits comes through the snatches of dialogue from her father, maids and guards.
You could also mention that the poem consistently reverts back to the pronoun ‘I’ while telling the story. The princess is desperately searching for an identity and the narrative of her woe, alongside that of the peasants, serves as the first time she is able to have independent thought and free herself from the shackles of status.
In addition, the poem is read at a pace with long lines of twelve and fourteen syllables rather than the typical eight to ten, matched with constant enjambment. This reflects the frustration of the princess and also the nature of the events unfolding at the end of the poem.
I’d say melancholy best characterises the first part of the poem, but this later becomes laced with anger and then the bitterness of the populace.