Up-Hill

Overview
This is a nice little poem symbolising the struggle to live a life of devotion and the battle between faith and doubt. Almost like a conversation the poem continually questions how long the difficult and challenging journey will last, whether she will make it and whether it will be worth it, these questions are answered by internal faith assuring her that it is a necessary journey.

Click the tabs on the left to view each stanza.

Stanzas 1-2Stanzas 3-4

Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
   Yes, to the very end.
Will the day’s journey take the whole long day?
   From morn to night, my friend.

But is there for the night a resting-place?
   A roof for when the slow dark hours begin.
May not the darkness hide it from my face?
   You cannot miss that inn.

Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?
   Those who have gone before.
Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?
   They will not keep you standing at that door.

Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
   Of labour you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me and all who seek?
   Yea, beds for all who come.  

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

ContextThemesContentLanguage and techniquesStructureTone

Context

This poem was written in 1861 and published the following year in Goblin Market and Other Poems.

At this stage of her life she has relatively recently turned down the proposal of John Brett and a decade earlier the proposal of James Collinson. The first of these rebuttals was done on the grounds of faith and she seems to have decided at this stage of her life to dedicate herself to faith (although she does have a wobble later in life when she struggles with conflicting emotions after growing close to Charles Cayley). This poem highlights, gently, her struggle to maintain her devotio-n and religious commitment.

 Themes

I reckon there are three main themes I would highlight here. Firstly this poem is deeply concerned with salvation, but we also have Rossetti struggling with the doubts about whether it exists or is worth it and her faith that convinces her heaven will be worth the effort.

 Content

Okay, so the poem works like a conversation. Each quatrain consists of two questions and then their responses. However, the lack of speech marks indicates that this is in fact an internal dialogue and the struggle between the poetic voice’s faith (the responses) and her doubts and fears about salvation not being granted or worth it (questions).

I’ll quickly run through the basic meaning and deal with significant connotations in the next section.

The opening stanza’s questions seem to complain about the difficulty and length of the journey (the path to salvation through devotion). The voice of faith confirms that the path is long and arduous.

Next the questions focus on the end of the journey: is there something good at the end (‘resting-place?’)? Is there any chance I’m going to miss it in the dark? This time faith steps up with some reassuring comments: there is an inn that you can’t miss.

In the third stanza the questions could be translated as: have others done the same journey? Will they welcome me when I arrive? Again we are reassured; others have made the journey before and once the journey has been walked you will be welcomed as a worthy guest (no weighing up moral value). The fact others have made the journey before is an assurance that she is not alone is facing this struggle and should give her strength when facing the difficult journey as she knows it is possible.

In the final stanza she questions what she will find once she reaches heaven and again whether it will be worth the effort. Her answer is that she will be rewarded for the effort she puts in. The last question asks about whether everyone who makes the journey is welcomed and she is assured that ‘all’ will find  a ‘bed’.

 Language and techniques

The first thing to deal with here is the rhetorical questions.

They are rhetorical questions because she is posing them to herself even though she already knows the answers. They are all about reassurance in the face of doubt. However, it is important to explain that although these questions allow her to reassure herself they are the manifestation of her doubts and strife about giving up an earthly life as mother, lover or wife.

Next you need to deal with the analogy. The whole poem compares her decision to forgo this earthly existence to devote her life to God to trekking a difficult mountain pass. The mutual connotations are obvious – a mountain is steep and it is tiring to conquer, thus her decision is a constant struggle. Clearly there is a lot of temptation to give up and it is always easier to go downhill rather than ‘up-hill’. However, this mountain road also ‘wind[s]’ which suggests that at times her salvation or what she is sacrificing her life for are not always visible or she sometimes loses sight of her goal.

Additionally, point out that heaven is represented through metaphor as ‘that inn’ with ‘beds for all’. Again the connotations we should read into this are relatively obvious – warmth, comfort and safety. An extension to this point is that by comparing heaven to this there is an opposite assumption that during her difficult journey she feels none of these things. In fact she goes as far as to say she is ‘travel-sore and weak’.

A quick comment on the line ‘Of labour you shall find the sum’ as my kids found it a little confusing. If you take the word ‘sum’ to represent ‘wages’ then you should get the idea. Whatever work you do, so the level of her devotion during this journey, will be repaid appropriately once you reach heaven. This is thus encouragement for committing oneself to faith rather than just repenting at the end.

 Structure

I’ve already talked about the reasons for the rhetorical questions, but there is also a good point to make about the nature of the answers given.

This is partly a language based comment, but notice that the majority of the answers are very short compared with the questions. The reason for this is that these are deliberately short to demonstrate certainty – there is no doubt whatsoever in the answers and responses are presented as definitive facts. This is representative of what faith is. The doubts are a bit more rambling, which again reflects the nature of doubt – confusion and distress.

 Tone

 A little mixed. We’ve got the nervous confusion in the questions, but I think this is overruled by the sense of calm certainty demonstrated in the answers that are filled with the confidence of faith.

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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