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   What are the themes, tone, and literary/poetic devices in "A Birthday", a poem by...

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ktsuda | Student | eNoter

Posted May 18, 2013 at 7:20 AM via web

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 What are the themes, tone, and literary/poetic devices in "A Birthday", a poem by Christina Rossetti?

 

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henryscholar | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Assistant Educator

Posted May 19, 2013 at 3:53 AM (Answer #1)

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At a cursory reading, "A Birthday", by Christina Rossetti seems to be nothing more than the poet exultantly rejoicing over the return of her beloved. Yet many of the images employed, the balance of the natural world in the first stanza with the realm of artifact in the second, and even the title itself leads the reader to the almost inescapable conclusion that this poem - like many of Rossetti's poems - is devotional in nature.

In the first stanza the poet offers three similes in which she compares her glad heart to features of the natural world: these are a "singing bird...in a water'd shoot", an "apple tree", and a "rainbow shell". While the image of a singing bird is one that appears frequently in Romantic poetry, it also connotes with the biblical image of believers who are like a well-watered garden tended lovingly by God. While the image of an apple tree laden "with thickset fruit" indicates fruition and plenty, it also betokens the biblical tree of life, a tree which blesses those who lay hold of it. While "a rainbow shell/that paddles in a halcyon sea" signifies comfort and tranquility, it is also the biblical symbol par excellence (under the appearance of a rainbow) of creation restored by God. As the poet concludes the first stanza with

My heart is gladder than all these
                  Because my love is come to me.

it is not difficult to see in these words an echo of the consummate love poem of the Old Testament, the Song of Songs, a poem transmuted by centuries of Christian eisegesis into a dialogue of the soul beloved of God.

In the second stanza, the poet creates a conceit, or elaborate metaphor, made up of images of the temple:

Raise me a dais of silk and down;
                  Hang it with vair and purple dyes;
Carve it in doves and pomegranates,
                  And peacocks with a hundred eyes;
Work it in gold and silver grapes,
                  In leaves and silver fleurs-de-lys;
 
From a dais or throne covered with fine fabric and dyed with purple, the colour of royalty, to doves and pomegranates, the symbols respectively of peace and priesthood, to peacocks, traditionally the bird that symbolizes an all-seeing God, the entire stanza is redolent of the descriptions given in the Book of Samuel of Solomon's temple. However, if "A Birthday" is a devotional poem, then these allusions to the ancient temple also connote with the Christian understanding of the soul as the dwelling place of God. But what attests to the devotional nature of the poem are the concluding lines of the poem:
 
Because the birthday of my life
                  Is come, my love is come to me.
 
where the poet looks back at a life lived in the presence of God, and forward to her dies natalis, the saint's birthday into heaven.
 


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