Christina Rossetti – ‘A Birthday’
This wonderfully happy poem was written when the English poet Christina Rossetti was 27 years old, and expresses the tremendous joy and excitement that you may feel when you see or meet the person you truly love. Why, you may wonder, is it called ‘A Birthday’? Well, look what the poet writes in line 15, when she says that her love coming to her is “the birthday of my life”, the day, she suggests, when her life really begins.
Everything in the first stanza speaks of the happiness she sees around her, and the repeated expression ‘My heart is like . . . ‘ stresses this joy, but she says at the end of the first stanza that she is even happier than all of these things – why? The second stanza says that she would like to surround herself with the richest and most exotic things to celebrate the arrival of “my love”. Look at how the language changes between each stanza – in the first (apart from the word ‘halcyon’) it is simple and easy, while in the second it is much richer and less everyday. Choose a few words from each stanza to illustrate and support this idea.
What is the effect of concluding the both stanzas with the same line?
You may like to compare this poem with ‘Song’, written when she was just 18 years old; in this she writes of the contrast between another woman’s true happiness, and her own sense that this cannot continue (how do we know this?):
She sat and sang always
By the green margin of a stream,
Watching the fishes leap and play Beneath the glad sunbeam.
I sat and wept always
Beneath the moon’s most shadowy beam,
Watching the blossoms of the May Weep leaves into the stream.
I wept for memory;
She sang for hope that is so fair:
My tears were swallowed by the sea; Her songs died on the air.
There are many love poems in this anthology, but you should particularly compare Rossetti’s poem with at least two others: Henry Baker’s ‘Love’ (page 55) and John Clare’s’ First Love’ (page 131). Of these three, which seems to you most successfully to recreate the sense of young and truly innocent love? How does your choice succeed where the others do not?
Some useful material on Christina Rossetti’s life and work can be found on the following websites: