‘The Rainbow’ by Christina Rossetti is a short ten-line poem that is contained within one block of text. The lines follow an interesting rhyme scheme that mostly depends on assonance, or vowel rhyme. The pattern is ABCBABDBCB.
In regards to the rhythm, there is also a distinctive pattern. The majority of the lines are written iambic trimeter. This means that the lines contain three sets of two beats. The first of these is unstressed and the second is stressed. A perfect example of this metrical pattern working is in line two.
There are a few lines that do not conform to this pattern. Lines three, five, seven, and nine are in iambic tetrameter. This means that there are four, instead of three, sets of two beats per line. The rhythm remains the same, the lines are simply longer.
The poem begins with the speaker describing how both ships and boats sail. One can find ships on the sea and boats on the river, but both operate in the same way. She adds, that clouds are in the sky and they also sail. They are able to do the same things that man-made water vessels can, and they are far prettier.
In the next lines, she compares bridges, which are quite lovely as well, to rainbows. The winner of this competition is clear. The rainbows, which can reach from the earth to the sky are far more beautiful than the simple bridges that go over rivers.
One of the most important themes of ‘The Rainbow is man-made versus natural or God-made. There are two different comparisons Rossetti’s speaker makes in this text between things made by human hands and things created within nature, or by a higher power. The first is between boats, ships, and clouds. They are all beautiful and they all sail, but the clouds win (on beauty alone) by far.
In the second half of the poem, she compares a bridge to a rainbow. Both appear in the same shape, and span a distance, but the rainbow takes one from the earth to the sky, rather than from one patch of earth to another. It is clearly superior.
One of the most prominent techniques used in this text is repetition. A number of the line’s ending words are repeated. For example, “rivers” ends two of the lines, as does “sky.” While Rossetti did not give this poem a particular setting, the use of repetition with these image-evoking words create a similar mood throughout the piece. It is clearly focused on the beauty of nature with nature-related words, such as “rivers,” “seas,” “clouds,” and “sky” occurring throughout the text.
A reader can also see anaphora, the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of a line, occurring in lines two, eight, and nine. This is a common technique that helps increase the rhythmic quality of a poem.
Analysis of The Rainbow
Boats sail on the rivers,
And ships sail on the seas;
But clouds that sail across the sky
Are prettier than these.
In the first lines of ‘The Rainbow’ the speaker begins by describing the movement of boats on rivers. This first phrase, like most of those to follow, is straightforward. Rossetti is describing something simple. There is no added detail about what kind of boats these are, or where exactly they are sailing. This adds to the mystical and mysterious quality of the setting.
She adds to the events of the poem by mentioning “ships.” These larger vessels can be found sailing on the seas. In this line a reader should take note of the way that the alliteration in “ships,” “sails” and “seas” carries the line along. The “s” sound mimics the sound of the water. Alliteration is one of the most important techniques in this piece. In fact, there are six words, in just the first four lines, that begin with “s.”
The alliteration appears again in the next line with the phrase “But clouds that sail across the sky.” She is making an exception to her thus far established rule of water-based sailing. Rossetti is playing with the word “sail” and surprising the reader by speaking on “clouds” as things that sail as well. They are of course found in the sky.
In fact, in order to create an even greater contrast with the sea-bound, manmade creations, the speaker adds that the clouds are “prettier than these.” They are more attractive than the ships and boats.
There are bridges on the rivers,
As pretty as you please;
But the bow that bridges heaven,
And overtops the trees,
And builds a road from earth to sky,
Is prettier far than these.
In the next line of ‘The Rainbow’ the speaker introduces bridges into the equation. The setting is growing and the landscape is developing. One can now consider the ships on the seas, the boats on the rivers, and bridges spanning overtop of them. All of this exists under the clouds, which are still the “prett[iest]” of all.
It is the shape of the bridge that is important to Rossetti in this line. It mimics the shape of the main focus of the poem, the rainbow. Although it is never mentioned by name, the next lines make clear that the speaker is looking for something in the sky that is similar to the bridge. There is nothing else it could be, especially considering the title of the poem.
She refers to another “bow” in the seventh line. This is one that “bridges heaven.” It can stretch from the earth, over the trees, and into the sky. It is a rainbow, and it even prettier than the bridges on earth. She thinks of the rainbow as a kind of road one could follow up to heaven. It is a naturally occurring path that all can see.