A reading of a classic Rossetti poem by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘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). It is also, perhaps, one of the greatest birthday poems in the English language. 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.
A 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.
About Christina Rossetti
Christina Rossetti (1830-94) was one of the Victorian era’s greatest and most influential poets. She was the younger sister (by two years) of the Pre-Raphaelite artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Christina Rossetti was born in London in 1830, and lived with her mother virtually all of her life. She never married. Many of her poems engage with the question of religious belief, such as ‘Good Friday’ (a poem about honest religious doubt as much as faith) and ‘Twice’, about the importance of Christian forgiveness and redemption (the poem is spoken by a fallen woman, a theme that can also be seen in ‘Goblin Market’).
Christina Rossetti composed her first poem while still a very young girl; she dictated it to her mother. It ran simply: ‘Cecilia never went to school / Without her gladiator.’ Goblin Market and Other Poems was the first collection of her poetry to be published, and it was the book that brought her to public attention. The title poem is a long narrative poem which is often taken for a children’s poem because of its fairy-tale motifs and imagery; Rossetti, however, always denied that the poem was intended for children. Several of the poems in the volume, such as ‘Remember’ and ‘When I am dead, my dearest’, were composed before she had turned twenty.
Rossetti’s influences were as diverse as the many poetic forms in which she wrote: sonnets, ballads, narrative poems, lyrics, even Christmas carols (‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ to name but the most famous). She was remarkably prolific: the Penguin edition of her Complete Poems runs to well over 1,000 pages and is a treasure-trove for the poetry-lover.
Rossetti died in 1894 and was buried in Highgate Cemetery where fellow Victorian writer George Eliot had earlier been laid to rest. She went on to influence a range of later poets, including Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ford Madox Ford, and Elizabeth Jennings. Philip Larkin was an admirer, praising her ‘steely stoicism’.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Christina Rossetti by Dante Gabriel Rossetti; Wikimedia Commons.