Assignment 3 – Poetry
Compare and contrast ‘Cousin Kate’ and ‘The Birthday’ by Christina Rosseti.
Your response should explore the meaning of each poem, the similarities and differences between the poems and the impact they have on you.
Christina Rosseti was an 19th century poet. She was born in London on the 5th December 1830 to Gabriele and Frances Rosseti. In 1848 she became engaged to James Collinson, one of the pre-Raphaelite brethren. The engagement fell through when he became Roman Catholic. From the early 1860’s on she was in love with Charles Cayley but refused to marry him because he was not a Christian and Milk-and-water Anglicanism was not to her taste. She was proud of her expertise at the game of chess that she liked to win but felt guilt at taking pleasure in winning. So she gave up chess because she enjoyed it so much. She also pasted paper strips over the antireligous parts of Swinburne’s Atalanta in Calydon; objected to nudity in paintings, especially if the artist was a women; and refused to go see Wagner’s Parsifal, because it celebrated a pagan mythology.
My heart is like a singing bird
Whose nest is in a watered 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.
The simile used in the first verse are all derived from beauty as it might be seen to be expressed in nature. The poem is all joyful and uplifting. In view of the poet’s evangelical christian convictions it seems likely that the ‘love’ referred to is the ‘agape’ love referred to in the New Testament rather than sexual or romantic love. And that this was the poet’s intention. However a powerful repressed erotic component can be easily attributed to this verse. For example, if the term ‘heart’ is substituted, then comparisons to ‘watered shoot’s, ‘thickset fruit’ and ‘rainbow shells’ have a powerful sexual element. In that fruit is only produced by a plant for reproduction. On the other hand, taken at face value the poem has a lyrical ‘brightness’. Possibly in an era when Victorian sexual prudery is widely believed to mask desperate sexual repression dark and lustful motives are found where none actually exist.
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Raise me a dais of silk and down;
Hang it with vair and purple dyes;
Carve it in doves and pomegrantes,
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.
In the second verse the imagery becomes more religious, and perhaps more sinister. The ‘dias’ described sound like the exotic trappings of royalty as described in the old testament, particularly when associated with the colour purple. Although the furniture described may seem to resemble a throne it could also resemble a Hindu funeral bier. The references to peacocks and pomegranets seems particularly and evocatively Eastern, althuough it is also probably influenced by her reading of the Book of Solomon. Also the reference to the ‘peacocks with a hundred eyes’ could have a meaning as being a sign of fertility or other sexual reference because the peacocks tail is only their to attract a mate and falls out after the mating season. Although this could also show eastern richness. The association of beauty with fertility "thickset fruit," and "choice fruits" (Solomon 4:13) is imagery typical of this portion of the Old Testament.
There is some evidence from accounts the poet had been in love with both Collison and Cayley during her life. Although they were romantically inclined she seemed not to have returned these feelings. The way the poem ‘The Birthday’ is laid out seemed to send out the message that she is in love with Brett or she enjoys being chased by him. Brett an artist friend of her brother had apparently declared within it the commentators have proposed that this poem that is inspired by her relationship his love notion that it is she not the lover who is in the dominant position here. It seems not unreasonable that her pleasure at being in the dominant position in a romantic series of encounters with a man who desired her should be expressed in poetry, but the true feelings disguised in a religious allegory.
In either case she feels guilt for doing so. Because of this she has disguised her feeling in the poem by suggesting she is going to die or has died and that ‘her love’ is the love of God.
I 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?
This is a narrative poem that tells of a girl who goes from being a poor maiden to a mother of a lord’s son.
The first thing we learn about the narrator, in the first stanza is that she is a maiden so she is unmarried and young. The lines ‘hardened by sun and air’ suggest she lives out in the country and her family works the land.
He lured me to his palace home-
Woes 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 way the second stanza starts saying the narrator was ‘lured’ to the lords palace shows she was tricked into coming close and she feels like his prey. Thus is because a lure is something used when hunting to get the prey close enough to catch.
The two lines describing the lord wearing her like a ‘silken knot’ and ‘ changed me like a glove show how the narrator has been dehumanized and used. The narrator sees herself as an ‘unclean thing’ because she was the Lords lover outside of marriage and this was scorned upon when the poem was written (the Victorian era). The narrator goes on to say she might have been a dove meaning all good and pure. The dove was associated with all things good because according to the holy Bible when john baptized Jesus the Baptist a dove appeared in the sky above them and the voice of god was heard. This also reflects back to Christina Rossetti’s belief in Christianity.
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.
The narrator addresses her cousin as Lady Kate because she is now married to a Lord and has gained the tittle of ‘Lady’.
The narrator tends to blame the lord for what’s happened because she refers to him doing everything like ‘He lured me’ and ‘He wore me’ showing how he used her. However the narrator also blames herself for what happened because she went willingly.
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.
Here the narrator compares herself to her cousin Kate. She says Kate is ‘good and pure’ whereas she referees to herself as an ‘outcast thing’. The last sentence, ‘you had the stronger wing’ shows that the narrator believes Kate had better means than she did to get to a higher social position. Kate goes from being a cottage maiden to a lady.
The question ‘Now which of us has tenderer heart?’ shows that the narrator believes her love was stronger than cousin Kate’s. The second line of the fifth stanza reinforces this; ‘your love was writ in sand’. If something is written in sand then its there for all to see but is soon washed away. So the narrator is partly blaming her cousin here.
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.
Here the narrator seems to partly blame her cousin for what’s happened and says that if she had been in Kate’s place she wouldn’t have married the Lord She would have ‘spit into his face’, and what Kate did wasn’t right. She also blames the lord for what happened saying how he ‘fooled’ her. This seemed to say that the lord led her to believe he loved her and would marry her but was only using her.
Yet I’ve a gift you have not got,
And seem not like to get:
For all your cloths and wedding ring
I’ve little dought 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.
This is where the story is brought to an end, although the narrator seems to have nothing left we now learn that she is a mother but Kate is not and may never be.
For the Victorian times when Christina Rosette was writing people frowned greatly on nudity and sexual references (they even covered the legs of tables so the sight of a naked leg didn’t shock women). So she must have suffered great criticism for most of her work including ‘The Birthday’ and ‘Cousin Kate’.
These poems are both about love but are hard to compare, as the Birthday is purely about emotion where as the Cousin Kate poem is narrative.
Both poems talk about love. The Birthday talks about positive things and
Cousin Kate is negative, from the narrators point of view she has lost everything because she loved the lord.
Christina Rosetti was very inflexible so why would she write such strong poems with what would seem sexual references when she objected to nudity in paintings? Perhaps the birthday is like the Song of Solomon in that it describes what appear to be sexual things but is actually talking about beauty, the beauty of God’s kingdom.