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A Birthday By Christina Rossetti
“A Birthday” is one of Christina Rossetti’s most popular poems and one of the most frequently quoted and anthologised of all her works. It is an unusual poem in Rossetti’s production as it expresses pure, undarkened joy. Its happiness and its ringing melody have delighted readers and critics ever since its first publication.
Read Also: Birthday Wishes
A Birthday By Christina Rossetti
SUMMARY OF THE POEM A BIRTHDAY
The narrator of the poem expresses her delight about her love’s upcoming birthday. The narrator, who most likely voices Rossetti’s own views, compares her heart to various things in nature. In a series of brilliant and densely beautiful comparisons, the poet says that her heart is full. It is like a singing bird, an apple bough laden with fruit, a rainbow that bridges the sky. Nay, her heart is “gladder than all these”. It is as though she has run out of similes. In the second stanza, she demands that she be made a dais richly decorated with “silk and down”, with carvings of “doves and pomegranates” (all symbols of romance and luxury) worked with images of peacocks and silver fleur-de-lys or lilies, that symbol of purity, because this day she is reborn as her love is coming to her.
The narrator expresses the fullness of her heart upon the occasion of her love’s birthday by starting every comparison in the first stanza with “My is heart is like”. Rossetti’s use of anaphora, evident in the repetition of this line, emphasizes the narrator’s inability to articulate her joy through language. She continues to search for an appropriate simile for her feelings, using symbols that invoke images of celebration and happiness. The laden apple-tree promises the nourishment of fruit. The rainbow signifies God’s promise to Noah and mankind that he will not flood the earth again.
Through these similes, the narrator attempts to express her joy about the arrival of her love. But there is more spiritual depth to the poem than the pretty surface suggests. This “love” could be a man, but this is unlikely. It is probable that her “love” is somehow connected to her Christian faith. The love could represent Easter and the arrival of Spring, which signals rebirth and rejuvenation. The images in this poem could certainly pertain to the arrival of spring.
Despite the poem’s lack of direct references to the Bible, Scripture resounds from its very title. For the titular birthday hardly refers to just some merry event with a cake and candles on the table. Rather, it refers to the birthday of the soul, whether by being “born again” in Christ while alive or by being resurrected, that is, lifted by Christ out of literal death into eternal life. The concept of spiritual rebirth goes back to the Bible.
It is clear that regardless of whom the “love” represents, the narrator feels extreme joy at his or her arrival. A singing bird uses melody to express itself similar to the way that humans use words. Similarly, the narrator reveals the longing of her heart with the freedom of a bird. She personifies the other objects, imbuing them with human capabilities and emotions. This connection between nature and the divine common amongst Pre-Raphaelite poets and artists.
STYLE OF THE POEM
Rossetti divides this sixteen- line poem into two eight-line stanzas, each with an irregular rhyme pattern.
In the first stanza, a series of similes are introduced, simply in
the first line of each couples with a slight modification in the second. In each couplet, the first half sets up an equivalence
between the poet’s heart and an object: “My heart is like a
singing bird”, “My heart is like an apple tree”, and “My heart is
like a rainbow shell”. The second half of each couplet alters the
radiant purity of each image, in a not so straightforward way.
The “singing bird” is in a “watered shoot”, and so our sense of
its freedom is somewhat altered. The boughs of the apple tree
are “bent with thickset fruit”, an image of potential and
fecundity, but again of a kind of restraint, or restriction that is at
its limit case. In each case, the modification of the image
produces an excess, in order to support the final claim that the
poet’s heart is “gladder than all these”.
halcyon – calm and peaceful
dais – table of honor
vair – fur
fleurs-de-lys – an iris
Questions and Answers
1. What is the relationship between the first stanza (with its similes) and the second stanza?
Answer: The first stanza contains a number of similes that compare the joy and love of the speaker’s heart to natural occurrences and places. The second stanza explains why her heart feels that way.
2. What kinds of images does Rossetti use in the last stanza? What do the images have in common? Why do you think she chose these images?
Answer: The speaker chooses images of physical worth that signify wealth and abundance. She names silk and down, purple dies, doves, pomegranates, peacocks, gold and silver grapes, and fleur-de-lys. She may have chosen these images to show the reader how valuable her love is to her, or how wealthy in spirit she feels because she found it.
3. The last few lines tell the reader that the speaker feels it is “the birthday of my life” because she has found love. What do you think is meant by such a statement?
Answers may vary. Example: The speaker may feel that when she found her love, she started her life over again, or perhaps just began living. It is a figurative birthday for a new beginning.