To Lalla, reading my verses topsy-turvy

To Lalla
Overview
A bit of a change from our normal dreary fair, this poem is a celebration of the innocence of youth and a reflection on how this state of youthful ignorance may be the best state of existence. 

Click the tabs on the left to view each stanza.

Stanzas 1-3Stanzas 4-6Stanzas 7-8

Darling little Cousin,
With your thoughtful look
Reading topsy-turvy
From a printed book

English hieroglyphics,
More mysterious
To you than Egyptian
Ones would be to us;

Leave off for a minute
Studying, and say
What is the impression
That those marks convey.

Only solemn silence
And a wondering smile:
But your eyes are lifted
Unto mine the while.

In their gaze so steady
I can surely trace
That a happy spirit
Lighteth up your face;

Tender happy spirit,
Innocent and pure,
Teaching more than science
And than learning more.

How should I give answer
To that asking look?
Darling little Cousin,
Go back to your book.

Read on: if you knew it,
You have cause to boast:
You are much the wiser
Though I know the most.

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

ContextThemesContentLanguage and techniquesStructureTone

Context

This poem was first published in 1896 after Christina Rossetti’s death by her brother; however, it had been written almost half a century earlier in 1849. It is written about Rossetti’s much younger cousin, Henrietta, with Lalla serving as a pet name. The fact the poem is penned to this pet name immediately indicates it is a poem full of warmth and affection as does the fact Henrietta would have been only 3 at the time of composition.

 Themes

At first glance this seems to diverge from the path of the rest of the poems in this selection, but actually there is some reflection on our role on earth and the battle between earthly desires and religious devotion, which I will explain below.

Content

The poem follows Rossetti’s contemplation of her cousin attempting to read a book of her poetry. Obviously the three year old cannot understand the meaning, but despite this lack of understanding we see happiness and joy at studying something new and the wonder of discovery that is innate in most children.

Rossetti seems to reflect that the happiness and innocence of her cousin is something that even the most educated of adults could learn from and suggests that in her youth she has more wisdom than any adult. We’ll explore the significance of this in the language section.

Language and techniques

Okay, so the first thing to comment on is the semantic field of adoration addressed towards the subject of the poem. The fact it is ‘To Lalla’ rather than Henrietta indicates Rossetti’s love, but this impression is consolidated throughout the poem with the repeated description of her as a ‘darling’ and fond expressions or observations such as ‘tender happy spirit’ and ‘innocent and pure’ (notice how many positive descriptive phrases are strung together in this stanza). All these phrases work together to give a deep impression of the affection Rossetti holds for Lalla.

You should also consider the oxymoronic statements about Lalla finding her poetry more ‘mysterious… than Egyptian hieroglyphs’ and yet being described as ‘solemn’, ‘wondering’ (both words suggest someone who is thoughtful and considering things carefully), ‘teaching more than science’ and being ‘much the wiser’. How is this possibly? On the one hand she is an idiot (she’s holding the book upside down for godsake – ‘topsy-turvy’) as all kids are until they spend some time in my Literature class. However, it is her childish sense of wonder and innocence that enable her to be such a happy little thing and this spirit is something Rossetti clearly admires and feels she and other adults could learn from. Wisdom is distinguished from knowledge her, being wise is all about knowing the right thing to do rather than knowing everything. Traditionally wisdom is associated with wise elders, but Rossetti recognises it in the simple happiness of an ignorant child.

To explore this further and in relation to other Rossetti poem, think about what her life (if her poems are actually biographical) is like and the struggle she has with her desires and her commitment to God. Life doesn’t seem so great for Rossetti and happiness is not a key theme of any of the other poems in this selection, so we shouldn’t be surprised when she recognises Lalla as being superior to her in this respect. Her learning hasn’t helped her achieve the state of supreme, innocent joy. In the poem she refers to this directly when she asks rhetorically ‘How should I give answer to that asking look?’, which is an admission that she is not suitably qualified to answer Lalla’s questions and wonderings as Lalla seems to have a better handle on the way to enjoy the world.

Wow, this is the most succinct I’ve ever been!

Structure

This is broken into eight stanzas which follow the same rhyme scheme ABCB. The regularity reflects the simple joy and happiness of the poem.

The only other thing to comment on would be the pace of the poem, which is quick and merry due to the consistent use of enjambment throughout the poem. This reflects the joy and happiness of Lalla that Rossetti wanted to capture in the poem.

Tone

As above, very merry and full of affection celebrating the innocent wonder of youth.

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.

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