Cousin Kate

Cousin Kate
Overview
A very similar poem to Maude Clare where we follow the tale of a girl who has had a roll in the hay before she’s got a ring on her finger and then been cast out by her lover and society. Her cousin, who played hard to get and insisted on a ring, has secured a marriage with this chap and is judged by all as being somehow more worthy than our protagonist. However, the sting in the tale is that the speaker carried the chap’s son, something he was desperate for, while cousin Kate seems to be struggling to get pregnant and thus worried about her status.
Stanzas 1-3Stanzas 4-6

I was a cottage maiden
Hardened by sun and air,
Contented with my cottage mates,
Not mindful I was fair.
Why did a great lord find me out,
And praise my flaxen hair?
Why did a great lord find me out
To fill my heart with care?

 He lured me to his palace home–
Woe’s me for joy thereof–
To lead a shameless shameful life,
His plaything and his love.
He wore me like a silken knot,
He changed me like a glove;
So now I moan, an unclean thing,
Who might have been a dove. 

O Lady Kate, my cousin Kate,
You grew more fair than I:
He saw you at your father’s gate,
Chose you, and cast me by.
He watched your steps along the lane,
Your work among the rye;
He lifted you from mean estate
To sit with him on high.

Because you were so good and pure
He bound you with his ring:
The neighbours call you good and pure,
Call me an outcast thing.
Even so I sit and howl in dust,
You sit in gold and sing:
Now which of us has tenderer heart?
You had the stronger wing.

 O cousin Kate, my love was true,
Your love was writ in sand:
If he had fooled not me but you,
If you stood where I stand,
He’d not have won me with his love
Nor bought me with his land;
I would have spit into his face
And not have taken his hand.

 Yet I’ve a gift you have not got,
And seem not like to get:
For all your clothes and wedding-ring
I’ve little doubt you fret.
My fair-haired son, my shame, my pride,
Cling closer, closer yet:
Your father would give lands for one
To wear his coronet.

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

ContextThemesContentLanguage and techniquesStructureTone

Context

This one was written in 1860 and published in Goblin Market and Other Poems. The themes and ideas relate to her work at St Mary Magdalene’s with fallen women as we again are presented with a narrator who is clearly meant to be a figure worthy of sympathy.

 Themes

As above. Rossetti again tackles the prejudice against women who fall victim to sexual temptation and lust outside of marriage. However, the poem is more specifically addressed to other women as opposed to Maude Clare where we examine male shame and inequality.

Content

We begin with a background to our narrator. She tells us she was a simple country girl who had her life corrupted by the influence of a randy lord who sought her out for her sexiness. Her language suggests he is some sort of evil wizard leading her astray and diminish her own sense of responsibility for her actions – leading a life of sexy sin.

In the third stanza we learn who the poem is addressed to. This is a monologue meant for her cousin Kate, who we learn is now the ‘lady’ to this lord. Again the lord picked her out for being a bit of all right, despite her modest country background, but the difference with our narrator is that she waited until he offered her a ring before allowing him access to her feminine assets. As a result of her resistance she not only improved her social status, but she was also praised by their ‘neighbours’ while our narrator was roundly castigated and called nasty names, no doubt!

Cousin Kate then gets an earful about how she has only married for advantage, while our narrator really did love the lord. She is also slagged off for not spitting in the lord’s face, knowing how poorly he treated our narrator, her cousin, previously. Our narrator assures us that if the roles were reversed, then she would have told the lord where to go. Hmmm!

This anger directed towards cousin Kate continues and our narrator becomes pretty nasty. She mocks Kate as she is struggling to bear the lord a child, particularly a son, that he desperately desires, while she has been left with an illegitimate son from their naughty shenanigans out of wedlock. This situation has put ‘Lady Kate[‘s]’ position in jeopardy and the implication is that the lord may be looking elsewhere.

Language and techniques

Our narrator begins in self-defence, trying to salvage her reputation. Rossetti has her describe herself as ‘a cottage maiden’, which suggests simplicity, naivety and virginity. Her life is ‘contented’ and she is devoid of vanity as she was not ‘mindful [she] was fair’. This paints the image of a perfect, respectable young woman, with no ideas of sin or naughtiness about her. I am sure we are all guilty of the same thing, not acknowledging our faults and always seeking to blame others wherever possible (or is this just me?).

Contrast her self depiction with the way she describes the lord. He ‘filled my heart with care’, which presumably means that she played no role in their hanky panky… if you believe that you’ll believe anything! In addition, he ‘lured’ her to his palace, which may as well be a sex den for the way she talks about it. The emphasis is on the lord committing all the offences and her being powerless to stop him; you should be able to see this in the repetitive use of the personal pronoun ‘he’ and ‘his’ demonstrating his complete control. To a certain extent, as a lord, he would’ve been an imposing figure to resist, but the fact she expresses her love later (‘my love was true’) in the poem suggests that she was not completely miserable about this ‘shameless shameful life’ she was living with him.

Notice the derogatory manner in which she claims the lord treated her. ‘His plaything’, ‘wore me like a silken knot’ (don’t explore that as a piece of imagery!), ‘changed me like a glove’, all suggest that he has used and abused her. Of course, we know he has got rid of her (‘cast me by’), but he can’t have been all bad if she claims to love him.

Rossetti clearly positions our narrator as a victim and her words condemn the lord for his heartless exploitation of her naivety, but she also leaves enough room for us to recognise the flaws of the narrator and her role in her fall from grace and respectability. We are not necessarily meant to read this poem and hate men as a result, but Rossetti sets the scene for us to understand the hypocrisy of the situation for the man and woman, while also feeling sympathetic for our narrator who purely followed her heart.

In the third stanza, we learn that this moaning is directed towards cousin Kate. Rossetti chooses to have her referred to initially as ‘Lady Kate’ and subsequently as ‘cousin Kate’ to emphasise the fact that she doesn’t recognise Kate as her superior in any way, almost as if she dismisses the title. In addition, this serves to remind Kate of their relationship and with that you would presume the level of respect and care that they have for each other. This is clearly done as our narrator feels like Kate has let her down as if she’d found herself in Kate’s position she would’ve ‘spit into his face’.

In stanza four, notice how lines one and three describing Kate are significantly longer than the rest of the stanza. I feel this is deliberate because our narrator is presenting this idea as a contrast to how she is viewed and thus she finds it hard to spit it out. In the first ‘you were so good and pure’ and in the third, ‘the neighbours call you good and pure’. The second statement is a weakening of the sentence, it is just a question of people acknowledging her status as being better than that of our narrator, when in reality there is only one tiny difference in their behaviour. This has resulted in our narrator being treated as ‘an outcast thing’. This is powerful because we see that she is not just dealing with heartbreak at losing the man she loved, but also feels like she has been kicked out of society due to her indiscretions. An ‘outcast’ has connotations of loneliness, misery and persecution.

Also, check out the verb choice in the second line. Kate has been ‘bound’ by the ring, again making the lord seem like some sort of villain.

What about her comparison between her own love and Kate’s? Do we take it that Kate is playing the lord in order to gain status and thus her affection is ‘writ on sand’ (unstable, likely to collapse) or is this in reference to the lord? I think you can interpret it either way as Kate seems to have been ruthless about securing the marriage despite the lord’s actions towards her cousin, but also the final stanza suggests the lord might ditch her if she doesn’t deliver him an heir.

Rossetti includes a contradiction in the fifth stanza when our narrator criticises Kate for by ‘his land’, while we know that she had been seduced in the same terms. Her criticism reads as jealous anger at what she has lost, but is noticeably directed at Kate rather than the chap. This could reflect societal values that pit women against each other while men are allowed to be as promiscuous as they please without consequence. This is also clear in the final stanza when she taunts Kate, suggesting she must ‘fret’ or worry about her failure to produce an heir to take on the lord’s land and titles. However, the revelation that she has a son from the lord who is described as both her ‘shame’ and ‘pride’ gives her some justification in feeling so bitter. However, I think Rossetti deliberately wants us to question whether the bitterness is being directed in the right way.

Structure

This is a traditional ballad, mostly following a regular structure in terms of syllable count (alternately 8 and then 6 syllables) and rhyme (every other line rhymes within each stanzas).

There is not a lot to mention here, other than the slightly irregularity with the line lengths in the fourth stanza discussed above.

Tone

We sway between melancholy at the state our narrator has been left in (when she could quite easily have been in Lady Kate’s position and with her spotless reputation) and then extreme bitterness directed towards Kate who she feels has done her over.

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.

2 thoughts on “Cousin Kate”

    1. Oh sorry, that’s very colloquial! Basically I mean that she has been treated poorly by him – he’s done her over!

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