Click the tabs on the left to view each stanza.
I took my heart in my hand
(O my love, O my love),
I said: Let me fall or stand,
Let me live or die,
But this once hear me speak-
(O my love, O my love)-
Yet a woman’s words are weak;
You should speak, not I.
You took my heart in your hand
With a friendly smile,
With a critical eye you scanned,
Then set it down,
And said: It is still unripe,
Better wait a while;
Wait while the skylarks pipe,
Till the corn grows brown
As you set it down it broke-
Broke, but I did not wince;
I smiled at the speech you spoke,
At your judgment that I heard:
But I have not often smiled
Since then, nor questioned since,
Nor cared for corn-flowers wild,
Nor sung with the singing bird.
I take my heart in my hand,
O my God, O my God,
My broken heart in my hand:
Thou hast seen, judge Thou
My hope was written on sand,
O my God, O my God:
Now let Thy judgment stand-
Yea, judge me now
This contemned of a man,
This marred one heedless day,
This heart take Thou to scan
Both within and without:
Refine with fire its gold,
Purge Thou its dross away-
Yea, hold it in Thy hold,
Whence none can pluck it out.
I take my heart in my hand-
I shall not die, but live-
Before Thy face I stand;
I, for Thou callest such:
All that I have I bring,
All that I am I give,
Smile Thou and I shall sing,
But shall not question much.
Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.
Although this poem seems to preach that God’s love is better than man’ love, it wasn’t included as a devotional poem when it was published in Prince’s Progress and Other Poems in 1866 having been composed a couple of years earlier.
While we may seek biographical comparison to Rossetti’s life, be careful that you also consider her work with vulnerable – so called – ‘fallen’ women who have had their lives ruined in some way or another by men. Certainly the poem presents a sympathetic image of the female character and relates it to the discourtesy of the male figure (he’s not rude, but I will explore why he is a bit of a sh*t later).
You could probably connect this to all of the major themes that I identify in this selection. The most obvious is the struggle between faith and earthly fulfillment, but there is also clearly a comment on gender struggles and inequity. In addition, if we do associate the poem with Rossetti’s personal life then the opening three stanzas could explore her lack of self-worth, which then seems to be recovered through God’s judgement seemingly deeming her worthy.
We start out with a desperate woman putting her heart on the line to confess her love for a man. There is a load of stuff going on in this stanza, but I will detail it in the language and techniques section.
Anyway, she has completely surrendered her heart to this chap and left herself vulnerable. Although he doesn’t seem to be deliberately nasty, he rejects her and seems to suggest she is not mature enough. Presumably this relates to her asking for a commitment to marriage and him choosing to walk away.
Obviously this is always going to be painful, but as a woman of Victorian times we can see that her heartbreak has to hidden because it was not an acceptable state. She smiles and accepts his judgement, but inside is broken and comes to spurn all her previous hopes and joys. The end of the third stanza almost sounds as if she has completely given up on life.
However, she finds life and meaning again through God. The fourth stanza begins the second half of the poem and you’ll notice how it mirrors the opening stanza. The worship that was once reserved for her lover is now directed at God and she emphasises her confidence in his judgement and sees loving him as his love is secure and stable, as opposed to man’s love. She presents God as being able to not only judge her, but – through devotion to him – also able to refine her and make her better as a person.
Her death or denial of life at the end of the third stanza is overcome in the sixth. Through loving God and dedicating herself to him she will live again and with God’s recognition. She promises to dedicate her whole being to God and be obedient and never open her heart to questions about earthly love again.
Language and techniques
Tons going on here.
First, let’s comment on the mirroring of stanza one and four. Both open with the idea of emotional exposure with ‘my heart in my hand’ conjuring imagery or how easy it would be to hurt her; however, notice the tenses – stanza one is past tense and indicates that she is beyond this, while stanza four is present tense demonstrating that she is continually committed to God and continues to trust her heart in his hands.
The other major mirror between the paragraphs is the repetition of ‘O my love’ vs. ‘O my God’. The repetition and the framing of these phrases makes it sound like a line of worship and links earthly love to worship and devotion. However, notice the key difference is that in the first stanza the phrase is always contained within brackets. I see two reasons for this: (1) it was not conventional for a girl to express her emotions and desires in Victorian England and maybe she feels she can only whisper her desires or has to be timid about her feelings; (2) because she is nervous about his reaction to her feelings, she is timid about expressing her ideas. This changes when she addresses God as she knows she is secure in his love and will never be rejected. You can support any comment on this by quoting the phrase ‘my hope was written on sand’ (fourth stanza) which indicates her previous earthly affection was precarious, while suggesting that is not the case for her redirected love and worship towards God.
Okay enough with the mirroring. Two other interesting phrases in the opening stanza are ‘let me fall or stand’ and ‘let me live or die’. These both indicate the intensity of her emotional exposure. She feels like she has to tell her lover how she feels, but knows it will either result in a high or a low – he’ll either sweep her off her feet and make her deliriously happy or he’ll reject her and break her heart. Rossetti makes the inequality between genders clear here as she says ‘a woman’s words are weak’, which implies it is both difficult for her to confess her love based on societal expectations and the aftermath of exposing herself in such a way has much more dire consequences than it would for a man. If a man is rejected he can move on, but for a rejected woman she is seen as tainted and unworthy of marriage. This is particularly true if we presume they have been sexual active prior to this point and now she is being turned down.
Now Rossetti doesn’t condemn this man completely. There must have been some worth in him for our poetic voice to love him in the first place, and he is described as having a ‘friendly smile’ as he breaks her heart. This could well be interpreted as Rossetti suggesting that men are not malicious in their treatment of women, but rather ignorant of the impact of their actions and dalliances that leave women broken or with tainted reputations. You can also see the lack of malice in the fact he ‘set [her heart] down’ rather than throwing it or kicking it, he’s trying to be as gentle as he can be. His rejection is communicated using pathetic fallacy, he suggests she is ‘unripe’ and needs to wait while the ‘skylarks pipe’. Larks are associated with early morning, new beginnings and youth and this connects with the idea of her not being ready for marriage; ‘unripe’ has clear connotations of fertility and is perhaps our clearest link to the idea that this is a marriage proposal as he is telling her he doesn’t think her suitable to bear children with for whatever reason.
So, he breaks her heart. Bastard! The repetition of ‘broke’ after a short pause makes me think of her choking on the word as she writes it, but at the very least the repetition emphasises the impact of his actions on her. The word implies that she cannot work anymore and indeed we see her unable to function as before as she can’t take pleasure in the world. I’ll leave it up to you to decide if the things she no longer enjoys have any greater significance, but I’d just lump them together and see them as a rejection of earthly life and living.
Notice in stanza four the repetition of ‘judge’ and ‘judgement’ (three times). Why is she stressing this? She desperately wants to be judged by God as he is the only person who can calculate our worth. She mentioned she felt ‘your judgement’ – in reference to the man who rejected her – and I feel the stressed fact she wants to be judged before God is meant to emphasis the fact that man should not be able to measure anyone’s worth.
There is a certain element of anger and resentment here and it almost becomes bitter in the following stanza as she denounces the man as being ‘contemned’ (worthy of contempt or to be looked down upon) and as having ‘marred’ or ruined her life without thinking – ‘heedless’. Is this hatred directed at one individual or this passion meant to indicate how earthly love can inflict so much pain and is nothing next to the love of God? You decide.
We also have an image that Rossetti has used before in A Better Resurrection of God (or Jesus in A Better Resurrection) reshaping her character like a blacksmith or pottery. Here it is a blacksmith refining ‘gold’, which is a suggestion that though we may see a fallen woman in negative terms, Rossetti is recognising the value and worth of the individual.
In the final stanza, mention the repetitive insistence on the totally of our poetic voice’s devotion: ‘All that I have I bring,/All that I am I give’. Again this is just about emphasising her promise and the extent of her abandonment of earth and devotion to the big man. There is also an interesting line about God’s recognition as she says ‘I, for Thou callest such’, which implies God is recognising our poetic voice and therefore deeming her worthy of recognition.
The final line is also something to ponder. It almost sounds like a negative when she says she ‘shall not question much’, but this could just mean that she is firm in her decision and will not dally between man and God in terms of her affection. That last word is intriguing too – ‘much’? So she will question a bit? Does this mean she still has lingering doubts despite the strength of her earlier pledges? I like to think so, as we see elsewhere how Rossetti struggles to break free from earthly thinking throughout her life/poetry.
I’ll keep this brief.
Talk about the mirroring of stanza one and four and explain how this shows the struggle and balance between earth and heaven. Also mention the use of brackets and none use of brackets and what they signify.
I think this splits. We have a melancholy opening that gives way to an almost arrogant tone, with a hint of bitterness, when she positions God as being more important and a better lover (that sounds dodgy!).