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A Short Analysis of Christina Rossetti’s ‘A Birthday’

A reading of a classic Rossetti poem

‘My heart is like a singing bird’: ‘A Birthday’ is one of the most widely anthologised poems by the Victorian poet Christina Rossetti (1830-94). The poem was published in Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862), Rossetti’s first poetry collection.

My heart is like a singing bird
Whose nest is in a water’d shoot;
My heart is like an apple-tree
Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit;
My heart is like a rainbow shell
That paddles in a halcyon sea;
My heart is gladder than all these
Because my love is come to me.

Raise me a dais of silk and down;
Hang it with vair and purple dyes;
Carve it in doves and pomegranates,
And peacocks with a hundred eyes;
Work it in gold and silver grapes,
In leaves and silver fleurs-de-lys;
Because the birthday of my life
Is come, my love is come to me.

Love poetry is obviously common enough in English literature, but there are actually few truly great poems about being in love (and being happy). Many of the most critically celebrated and popular poems in English literature are instead about frustrated, lost, unfulfilled, or unrequited love, whether it’s the courtly love tradition of the Elizabethan age (Sir Thomas Wyatt and Sir Philip Sidney, for instance), the sexual frustrations and jealousies of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, or the love-gone-wrong of, say, Tennyson’s Tithonus or the love-of-someone-now-dead in Thomas Hardy’s Poems of 1912-13. All the more reason, then, to celebrate Christina Rossetti’s ‘A Birthday’, for giving voice to the exhilarating happiness that finding that special someone provides.

Christina Rossetti 2A brief summary of ‘A Birthday’, first, before we proceed to the analysis. The first stanza is descriptive, while the second stanza is written in the imperative mood (giving direct commands, e.g. ‘Raise’, ‘Hang’, ‘Carve’). In the first stanza, Rossetti likens her heart to a singing bird, denoting happiness; to an apple-tree, with plenty of ripe fruit on its branches; to a rainbow shell (a species of ocean-dwelling mollusc, or abalone) paddling in a calm and peaceful sea; but although her heart is like all these, her heart is ‘gladder’ than them all because the speaker’s beloved has come to her.

In the second stanza, Rossetti’s speaker shifts from describing the happiness in her heart to commanding for things to be done to honour the love and happiness she feels. She wants a dais – that is, a platform particularly associated with royal throne rooms – built out of silk and soft feathers (‘down’); the plush luxuriance continues with her request that this be hung with ‘vair’ (expensive squirrel-fur) and purple dyes (purple is a colour associated with royalty); she wants images of doves (symbols of peace) and pomegranates (which has royal connotations again, as well as being purple) as well as peacocks carved into this royal platform. She wants gold and silver grapes carved into the dais, and fleurs-de-lys – the French flower associated with royalty. She then ends the same way she concluded the first stanza, by announcing

Because the birthday of my life
Is come, my love is come to me.

A few words by way of analysis of ‘A Birthday’. Given all of these images associated with imperial grandeur and royalty, the second stanza reads like somebody preparing for a royal visit. The speaker’s beloved is like a king, and must be treated accordingly. But another celebration for which these preparations are being made is, of course, the speaker’s birthday – or rather, ‘the birthday of [her] life’. Her life has only now truly begun, when her love has come to her. (It’s worth comparing Rossetti’s ‘A Birthday’ with another of her poems, ‘The First Day’.) Because the coming of her love has changed everything for the speaker, transforming her life into something special and rare, she feels the love should be honoured in a fitting way.

What of those images that populate the first stanza? Are they simply meant to be analysed and interpreted as symbols of happiness? Well, yes and no. The singing bird starts off that way, but the detail regarding its nest suggests that the speaker has now truly found someone to make a life with – a home and, perhaps, a family. (Rossetti herself never married, so how autobiographical the poem is meant to be we wouldn’t like to say.) This suggestion of homemaking and starting a family, which we often associate with nests (the ‘nest instinct’, for instance) is then developed in the next image of the apple-tree with its ‘thickset fruit’, suggesting ripeness and fecundity (or fertility). The ‘rainbow shell’ in the ‘halcyon sea’ suggests the exoticism we encounter in the second stanza (suggesting that the speaker’s love is worthy of all the lush ceremony being prepared) but also ‘halcyon’, a poetic word for the kingfisher, summons up the air of royalty (in kingfisher) that dominates the poem’s second stanza.

Like many of Christina Rossetti’s poems, ‘A Birthday’ resembles a song as much as a poem. It can be read and appreciated without a word of interpretation or commentary, but the effects of its poetic images are also subtle and worth closer analysis.

Image: Christina Rossetti by Dante Gabriel Rossetti; Wikimedia Commons.

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About interestingliterature

A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

Posted on November 29, 2016, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Interestingly, only on Monday night we had a discussion about the difficulties of writing about being happy at my Creative Writing class. Thank you so much for reminding me of this awesome poem with such a fabulous analysis:).

  2. This sort of brilliancy is not premeditated . It slides out of the conscious poetical mind without planning and sets training at naught.

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