‘What Would I Give?’ by Christina Rossetti is a three-stanza poem that is divided into sets of three lines, or tercets. The text conforms to a simple pattern of rhyme: aab ccd eef. There are additional rhymes to be found in the text, known as internal rhymes. If one reads closely it becomes apparent that the third line of each stanza is separated into two parts. They are broken up by what is known as a “caesura.” For example, in the third line of the first stanza the words “small” and “all” rhyme. They end the two phrases that are separated by a comma.
One of the most intriguing elements of this piece is the fact that so little information is provided. A reader gets an intimate peek into the speaker’s mind, but that is all. There are no details about how the speaker got to where she is or why exactly she has become so cold and troubled. The poem is a snapshot of her current mental state. This fact allows a reader to cast themselves as the speaker. One can feel and consider their own problems through the text.
The absence of detail also adds a mood of mystery to the short stanzas. One is left to wonder what terrible thing could’ve happened to this woman to make her hate herself so completely. There is no conclusion in the forcing on the wondering infinitely. This mirrors the speaker’s own state which doesn’t seem close to improving.
Summary of What Would I Give?
The poem begins with the speaker wondering over what she’d do to have a warm heart. Her own heart is the exact opposite of what a heart is supposed to be. It is cold, small, and like a stone in her chest. It does not allow her access to the feelings she needs in order to create lasting relationships. In the second stanza, this plays out. Her state of being influences her ability to communicate. She mourns her lack of words—for both her friends and God. Due to this struggle, she does not have any external warmth either.
Rossetti concludes the poem with a wish that her speaker feels “scalding tears.” These burning drops of water would wash away the past. The speaker sees herself at the mercy of a black mark. Perhaps she would be free of all of her restraints if only she could cry.
Analysis of What Would I Give?
What would I give for a heart of flesh to warm me through,
Instead of this heart of stone ice-cold whatever I do;
Hard and cold and small, of all hearts the worst of all.
In the first stanza of this piece, the speaker begins by utilizing a short refrain. It appears at the beginning of each starting line and poses an internal question. She is debating the lengths to which she would go (in the first stanza) to have a “heart of flesh.” It would provide her with a warmth that simply does not come from her own organ. She is yearning passionately for something in her life to change. If only she could feel as she expects others to feel, then her body and soul would be warm.
The speaker compares her own heart to a “stone ice-cold.” It does nothing to move her emotionally and seems to suck up all the warmth her life could provide her. Her dislike for her own heart goes even farther though. She tells the reader that it is, “Hard and cold and small.” It pales in comparison to all the other hearts. It is impossible to understand why the speaker feels this way. A reader might wonder what happened in her life to lead to such a conclusion about herself.
What would I give for words, if only words would come;
But now in its misery my spirit has fallen dumb:
O, merry friends, go your way, I have never a word to say.
In the next tercet, the speaker once more begins with the refrain. This time she wonders over what she “would…give for words.” The opening lines of the stanzas are interesting to ponder in and of themselves. The structure of the statement automatically places a high value on the thing she is seeking, whether it be a new heart or words. One can assume she’d be willing to pay or do anything to have her life improved.
In this particular situation, she is agonizing over the fact that no “words” come to her when she needs them. She is unable to participate in the lives of her “merry friends” nor is she adequately able to speak with God. Her “spirit has fallen dumb,.” In this instance, the word “dumb” is defined as silent. It was commonly used to refer to someone who could not speak, usually due to a disability.
The speaker knows that it’s no use to try and live her life as her friends live theirs. She tells them that they might as well go away as she will “never a word…say.” It is unclear at this point whether or not the absence of her friends made her heart grow cold and small or it if the disintegration of her heart resulted in the loss of her friends. Or, alternatively, perhaps she has always been this way and is now giving up trying to be someone she is not.
What would I give for tears, not smiles but scalding tears,
To wash the black mark clean, and to thaw the frost of years,
To wash the stain ingrain and to make me clean again.
The final three lines also begin with the refrain. This time she is asking for “tears…scalding tears.” It is clear that the speaker’s sense of self has been significantly degraded. It becomes clear that something happened in her life to make her think she needs tears to wash away a “black mark.” She feels more deserving of grief and sorrow than of “smiles.” They would only worsen her mental situation.
The tears, in their “scalding” state, would play two roles. The guilt she feels, or the reputation she carries, would leave her, and they would also “thaw the frost of years.” Whatever event occurred in the past and made her who she is would disappear. Finally, the poem concludes with Rossetti’s speaker wishing that she would have the stain on her life removed and live “clean again.”