The time period in which this poem, ‘Cousin Kate,’ was written makes the message all the more meaningful. The writer, Christina Rossetti, was a woman of the Victorian era. Born in 1830, Rossetti lived during a time when women had no choice but to be chaste. Anything else was to be outcasted from society. On the other hand, men were known often to use prostitutes as an outlet for their sexuality until (and sometimes after) they were married.
However, during this period, women were also thought to be inferior to men in many ways, including physically and intellectually. However, they were thought to be superior to men morally. Thus, a much higher moral expectation was placed on women. They were thought to have little to no sexual desire aside from for the purpose of becoming a mother. Therefore, when a woman was found out to have had sexual relations outside of marriage, it was treated as something entirely different from when men had premarital sex. It was looked upon as an act of defiance for women against family, society, and God. For men, it was seen as a moment of weakness in which they gave in to an overwhelming sexual desire.
During this time, women were also considered the property of men. They were to obey them. This presented a problem for women. If a Lord, Duke, or perhaps even the King wanted to have a woman sexually, she was expected to obey him. And when he was done using her, she bore the shame of losing her virginity before the marriage. This poem speaks to that exact kind of circumstance.
Summary of Cousin Kate
The speaker in ‘Cousin Kate’ was lured away by a lord. His magnificence and place in life probably made her feel intimidated. Her whole life, she was taught that a woman’s role was to obey men, especially a man in a position of authority. Thus, when the lord sought her out, it was natural for her to obey. Her cousin, Kate, watched the whole thing. Then, when the lord was tired of the speaker, he went after her cousin, Kate. Kate, having seen her cousin brought to shame by the lord, denied him sexually. Because she did this, the lord married her, and she was brought to a place of honor while her poor cousin was destined to live the rest of her life in shame.
Analysis of Cousin Kate
WAS a cottage maiden
Hardened by sun and air,
Contented with my cottage mates,
Not mindful I was fair.
Why did a great lord find me out,
And praise my flaxen hair?
Why did a great lord find me out
To fill my heart with care?
‘Cousin Kate’ begins with the description of a beautiful young maiden who spent her days out in the sun and the air. This young maiden was content to be with her cottage mates. She had no thought for a man and no desire for anything that she did not already have. She claims that she did not even know that she was a beautiful girl until a great lord found her out. She asks, “Why did a great lord find me out,/ And praise my flaxen hair?” The tone of this question suggests that the affair with the great lord will not end well for the speaker.
She asks again, “Why did a great lord find me out to fill my heart with care?” This reveals that the great lord made the speaker feel something for him. While she was once a beautiful young maiden without a care in the world, the attentions of the great lord caused her to become a young maiden quite in love with someone much above her in social status.
Of course, during the Victorian era, few people married for love. Most men married when a handsome dowry could be offered, and most women sought to marry in such a way that would move them up the societal ladder.
He lured me to his palace home–
Woe’s me for joy thereof–
To lead a shameless shameful life,
His plaything and his love.
He wore me like a silken knot,
He changed me like a glove;
So now I moan, an unclean thing,
Who might have been a dove.
The speaker uses the word “lured” to suggest further that the great lord did not have pure intentions in his praise of her. The speaker says that when he took her into his home, he “woe[ed her] for joy thereof.” Here, the readers can see that what the great lord did for his own joy was the woe of the young maiden. She says that he took her “to lead a shameless shameful life” and to make her “his plaything and his love.” The way the speaker describes her life as the mistress of the great lord reveals that he used her for his own satisfaction without a thought for the way that it would alter the course of her life for the rest of her days.
In the sixth line of this stanza, the speaker reveals that he finally set her aside completely. She says, “He changed me like a glove.” She clearly felt that she was nothing more than a toy or an article of clothing to this man. He would use her while she was new and exciting, but he would set her aside when he was done with her. He had no concern for what it would do to her. But she cries out to tell her story through these words. She says, “So now I moan, an unclean thing who might have been a dove.” Her place in society, her future, and her value for herself were all destroyed and all so that a powerful man might use her to amuse himself for a while.
O Lady Kate, my cousin Kate,
You grew more fair than I:
He saw you at your father’s gate,
Chose you, and cast me by.
He watched your steps along the lane,
Your work among the rye;
He lifted you from mean estate
To sit with him on high.
There is a shift with this stanza so that the speaker is not talking to the readers anymore but to her cousin, Kate. It is possible that she has been talking to Kate all along. When she calls her “Lady Kate,” she makes it clear that her cousin has risen in social status to become a Lady. The speaker reveals that her little cousin grew to be more beautiful than she was herself. And the great lord saw her at her father’s gate, chose her, and cast aside the speaker.
Because you were so good and pure
He bound you with his ring:
The neighbours call you good and pure,
Call me an outcast thing.
Even so I sit and howl in dust,
You sit in gold and sing:
Now which of us has tenderer heart?
You had the stronger wing.
With this stanza, the speaker reveals that Kate was “good and pure” and so “he bound [her] with his ring.” The lord married her because Kate would not allow the great lord to take her to his bed without marriage. Thus, she rose to the position of a lady. The speaker says to her, “the neighbors call you good and pure, call me an outcast thing.”
Then she says that she sits in the dust and howls. This imagery comes from the biblical book of Job, and the description of sitting in the dust and howling is well known as the epitome of despair. The speaker contrasts herself with Kate, saying that Kate sings while she sits in gold. This is a stark contrast to the speaker, who howls in the dust.
But then, the speaker asks Kate a question. She says, “Which of us has a tenderer heart?” The question implies that the speaker believes herself to have a more feeling heart than Kate.
In the last line of this stanza, the speaker claims that Kate “had the stronger wing,” but her previous question leaves the readers with a picture of the speaker as the sweeter and more tender of the two, while Kate was the stronger.
O cousin Kate, my love was true,
Your love was writ in sand:
If he had fooled not me but you,
If you stood where I stand,
He’d not have won me with his love
Nor bought me with his land;
I would have spit into his face
And not have taken his hand.
With this stanza, the speaker begins to draw a more distinct line between herself and her cousin. She appeals to her, exclaiming, “O cousin Kate, my love was true, Your love was writ in sand.” This reveals that the speaker did feel herself in love with the lord, though he used her as he did. She compares her true love with the love of her cousin, which she claims was not true and deep love, but one that was written in the sand and could have been washing away by the tide.
The speaker continues to explain her heart to her cousin. She says, “If he had fooled not me but you,/ If you stood where I stand, He’d not have won me with his love.” Kate was fortunate enough to be able to watch what happened with her cousin before the lord took an interest in herself. The speaker says that if it had been the other way around, and the lord had seduced Kate first, and she herself “would have spit into his face and not have taken his hand.” The speaker clearly regrets that she allowed herself to care for this man and to go into his bed. She wants Kate to know that the difference between the two of them really came down to the coincidence that the lord went after the speaker first and Kate second.
Yet I’ve a gift you have not got,
And seem not like to get:
For all your clothes and wedding-ring
I’ve little doubt you fret.
My fair-haired son, my shame, my pride,
Cling closer, closer yet:
Your father would give lands for one
To wear his coronet.
In the final stanza, the speaker continues to contrast herself with Kate. Up until now, she has shown that she is living a life of shame while Kate lives a life of glory. She has shown that Kate was stronger, but the speaker’s own love was more true. Here, she says to Kate, “I’ve a gift you have not got and seem not like to get.” She goes on to dismiss Kate’s clothes and her wedding ring. She tells her cousin that she knows that she must fret about what she does not have.
Then she reveals what this gift is. The great lord had given her a “fair-haired son,” which she calls her “shame” and her “pride” in one breath. This son brought her shame in the eyes of society. And yet, as every mother can understand, the child was also her pride and joy. She does not consider him a curse but a gift. Then, she tells Kate, “Your father would give lands for one/ To wear his coronet.” A coronet, a small, simple crown, was often worn by lesser royalty. The speaker reminds Kate that although she is named a Lady and has a great husband, she herself will come to nothing without a son to inherit the wealth of his parents and grandparents.
Women were married away with a dowry during this time, but they were not given an inheritance. It is not clear whether Kate was unable to have children or whether she seemed to have only baby girls. Whatever the case, the speaker asserts that Kate seemed likely not to have a boy. It is very likely, then, that the speaker’s own boy would inherit the wealth of his father. Often if there were no legitimate son to inherit wealth, an illegitimate son would be named heir. Thus, despite losing her husband and place in society, the speaker clings to the hope that one day her son will have a better life through inheriting the wealth of his father.
Christina Rossetti Background
Given the author’s background, ‘Cousin Kate’ is somewhat ironic. One might expect to find that Rossetti had once been in the same position as the speaker, but it does not appear so. From what is known about Rossetti, she was a highly religious woman who never married and even broke off an engagement because her fiance had become a Roman Catholic. She was a loyal member of the Anglican church. Perhaps her adherence to her beliefs led her to this kind of sympathy for a woman in the position of the speaker of ‘Cousin Kate’. After all, Jesus himself had a heart for the woman who was caught in the very act of prostitution.
Likewise, though seemingly pious and religious, Rossetti shows sympathy for her fellow women who were not so fortunate as to have escaped being lured in by a man. Her poem particularly shows sympathy for women and the skepticism of men. The man in ‘Cousin Kate’ is clearly vile, and the women are at his mercy. Perhaps this fear of men and their power over women is what lead Rossetti to remain single, though she received two offers of marriage.
Christina Rossetti received a second offer of marriage – her suitor in this instance, being a man of letters and pre-eminently a scholar. Again, she was favorably disposed to her suitor and again actuated by religious scruples, and she was constrained to reject his offer (Bell).
This reveals that the author had probably been in love more than once in her life, but that she was afraid to do the wrong thing and sought to adhere to the church rather than marry when she was not sure that it was entirely right to do so. Although the author could not entirely identify with her speaker in ‘Cousin Kate,’ she clearly was able to have empathy for all the women in her society who had given in to their passions and been ruined by them. ‘Cousin Kate’ also reveals the fear that she may end up cast aside if she responds to her suitors.
- Bell, Mackenzie. Christina Rossetti: A Biographical and Critical Study. Thomas Burleigh, 1898.
- Murray, Janet Horowitz. Strong-minded women: and other lost voices from nineteenth-century England. Pantheon, 1982.