A Birthday by Christina Rossetti

The poem, A Birthday, with its sixteen lines of distilled beauty is one of Christian Rossetti’s most popular poems and one of the most frequently quoted and anthologized 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 critics and readers ever since its first publication. Today the poem is often used in greeting cards and wedding invitations. But there is more spiritual depth to it than the pretty surface suggests. Once it is identified as a devotional poem, alternative patterns of reading begin to emerge.

The poem, A Birthday, can in fact be viewed as a poetic vision of transcendent love, wherein Rossetti combines intense sensuousness with Christian devotion, and in ways which are not incompatible with Milton’s Protestant poetics.

A Birthday by Christina Rossetti

 

Summary

A Birthday’ by Christina Rossetti talks about the delight of the narrator who is shown to be very excited and jubilant for the birthday of her life.

The meaning of the word ‘life’ in the second last line of the second stanza of this poem indicates the narrator getting ready to celebrate either the birthday of her love or her lover. But no particular gender has been divulged in the poem. The narrator, who is supposed to be voicing Rossetti’s own views, is depicted as comparing her heart to a variety of things in nature.

For example; she makes use of the images of a songbird, a fruit-laden apple-tree, and a rainbow for the expression of the depth of her love. In order to celebrate her love’s or lover’s birthday, the narrator demands an elaborate golden throne carved in wood. She is in fact very joyful to celebrate the birthday of her love and her life.

 

A Birthday Analysis

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.

The sixteen- line poem, A Birthday by Christina Rossetti, has been divided into two eight-line stanzas, each stanza of the poem having an irregular rhyme pattern. As we read through the first line of the first stanza of this poem, we find that the narrator is expressing her feelings on the occasion of her life’s birthday, and begins each comparison in the first stanza with “My is heart is like”. The poem is also seen as an expression of joy at the poet’s reunion with Christ. There are, however, problems with a purely religious interpretation. However, when Rossetti opens the second stanza with ‘Raise me’, she means that she wants herself to be raised in his (Christ) honor.

Rossetti never tried to hide the religious meaning of her poetry. Moreover, the use of biblical imagery does not necessarily make a poem a devotional one. The use of images in the first stanza are not only figures ‘recalled in their natural element’, but each represents a moment of fulfillment in a sense both sensual and sexual. Let’s take for example; the ‘singing bird’ has found a mate and expresses his joy in song – as the poet wishes to express hers. The apple tree represents another time of fulfillment in nature, as is the shell which simply suggests the highest expression of fulfillment which nature has to offer in its hint of the birth of Aphrodite. All these images in A Birthday are very effective.

Just as Rossetti uses anaphora, which becomes evident with the repetition of “My is heart is like” in every line of the first stanza, it shows the narrator is not able to express her joy through language. That is; the joy of the narrator is inexpressible, and cannot be defined in words. Her feelings abound and make her unable to articulate what she wants to. She keeps on searching for a suitable simile for her feelings, as a result, makes use of the natural symbols that bring about images of happiness and celebration.

When she says: “My heart is like an apple-tree, Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit;” she compares her heart to the apple-tree, which is laden or bent because of thickset fruit and gives a promise of the nourishment of fruit. On the other hand, the use of the image of the rainbow in the fifth line of the first stanza is a symbol of God’s promise to Noah and mankind that he won’t flood the earth again.

By virtue of these similes, the narrator tries to vent out her jubilation or happiness about the arrival of her love. Now the point to be noted is that the love the narrator is talking about could either be in terms of a man or a kind of festive celebration, for example; the Easter and the arrival of spring. Besides, this ‘love’ is also supposed to be the narrator’s Christian faith. However, the way the images have been used in this poem, it seems that the narrator is waiting for the arrival of spring.

This is because Rossetti has frequently been found referring to the ‘The Second Coming of Christ’ as the ultimate ‘birthday’ her many of her works. Please mind it here that ‘The ‘The Second Coming’ plays a key role when it comes to Christian faith. This is because it is a symbol of the fresh kingdom replacing the old Earth. When the poet describes the purple throne, she brings to light the imagery of the ‘Temple of Jerusalem’ from the Old Testament, which suggests that God does exist on Earth.

From the very start of A Birthday, it’s quite evident that the narrator, notwithstanding, whom the “love” signifies, is shown feeling extremely excited and joyful at his/her arrival. A singing bird makes use of melody for expression of itself just as humans use words. Likewise, the narrator divulges the desire of her heart with the freedom of a bird. She anthropomorphizes the other objects, infusing them with human emotions and capabilities. This relation between the divine and nature is very commonly found amongst Pre-Raphaelite artists and poets.

The Pre-Raphaelite components are so apparent in Rossetti’s poetry that we find ‘carved pomegranates’ and ‘gold and silver grapes’ as well as veritable still life of statuesque fruit in an uncanny banquet of the dead, such as in ‘The Dead City’. The photographic detail and colorful abundance of her fruit actually recalls the decorative fruits of Pre-Raphaelite art. And the Pre-Raphaelite influences shaping Rossetti’s verse would certainly have heightened her desire to represent faithfully and at length the variety in the natural world.

But her desire to revel in and poetically glorify the splendor of the natural world was mitigated by her religious apprehension that nature must be scrutinized for its moral and sacred meanings. She blends the use of precisely described sensory detail with a sacramental aesthetics, in which spiritual truths are always described through physical symbols. And the literary potency of such an attitude can be evidently seen in ‘A Birthday,’ which many readers have taken to be entirely secular.

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  • Avatar Bruno says:

    “A Birthday” makes me as happy as the speaker in the poem. I have always considered it a secular poem, but given the author’s profound religiosity I can go along with at least a biblical coloring of some of the images. What strikes me is how the poem manages to be so exuberant without deviating from a strict metrical scheme. In the hands of a lesser poet this could result in something jingly and trite. The first stanza is strictly iambic. In the second stanza she begins each line with a trochee. Trochaic substitution is nothing unusual–look at the opening line of any Shakespeare sonnet–but following the unimpeded lilt of the first stanza, and paired with the imperative verbs “raise,” hang,” “carve,” “work” it takes on terrific power. Poetry can gather strength by deviating from an established pattern, but this example proves that less is more. Also the enjambment (phrase continuing past the end of a line without a pause) in the next-to-last line is especially effective because it only happens this one time. One correction to Mr. Kumar’s analysis: the rhyme pattern is not irregular. In each stanza the odd-numbered lines are unrhymed and the 2nd and 4th, and the 6th and 8th lines are full rhymes, and the 6th and 8th are the same rhyme in both stanzas. Note: while the French would sound the final s in “fleur-de-lys,” English speakers generally do not, so it rhymes with “me.”

    • Avatar marc-antoine says:

      Dear Bruno,
      Very well said. We cannot and should not underestimate the power and beauty of hidden or more apparent rhythms and rhymes in poetry. Rossetti is truly a master.
      Marc-Antoine

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