Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 805

The poem “Uphill” (sometimes titled “Up-Hill”), by the English poet Christina Rossetti (1830-1894), might be called an allegorical dialogue about life, death, and heaven. The poem, which is Christian in emphasis, is consoling and encouraging, suggesting that although life may be a long, hard, sometimes dark and difficult journey, peaceful rest in heaven lies at its end.

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Appropriately enough, the phrasing of the poem is extremely simple and clear. Rossetti is not interested in creating the kind of stylistic fireworks one might find, for instance, in one of the “Holy Sonnets” by John Donne. Instead, her poem is closer in style to the Biblical parables that Jesus often used when teaching. Every question raised in this poem has an immediate and simple answer. Clearly the poem was designed to reaffirm the faith of the faithful and to encourage faith in anyone who may have worries or doubts.  

The opening lines of the poem might at first seem to refer to a literal, physical journey. The first hint that something more may be implied appears, perhaps, with the reference to “the very end” in line 2. Neither one of the speakers in the conversation is identified, making them seem generic rather than individualized persons. The brevity of the reply given in line 2 suggests the authority and self-assurance of the speaker who answers. This is a person who seems to have firm knowledge and who willingly shares it in order to help others, motivated by a spirit of amity and even love.

In line 3, Rossetti especially reveals her skill in using sound effects when the question-asker refers to “the whole long day.” All three of the final words here are strongly emphasized by the meter, so that they drag out and (appropriately) take time to pronounce. This effect is enhanced by the fact that each word is built around emphatic vowel sounds that slow down the pace of the line. The effect would have been different if Rossetti had emphasized vowel sounds that take less time to speak, such as the short “i” sound (as in “a quick nip”). Although the language of the poem seems simple, it is not lacking in artistic skill.

In line 4, the answerer reveals that she (or he) is not only knowledgeable but also literally friendly and affectionate. She offers information not simply because answering a direct question is the polite thing to do but because she seems to genuinely care about the inquirer. The fact that each question and each answer in the poem is only one line long, and that each question is immediately followed by a firm answer, makes the tone and method of the work seem simple and straightforward. The uncomplicated style and structure of the text are appropriate to the clear and easy lessons it teaches. Indeed, most of the poem’s words are monosyllabic. 

The comparison of heaven to an “inn” seems appropriate in a number of different ways. Inns are places of rest after journeys. They are “homes away from home” and, in the nineteenth century, they would have provided not simply beds but also food, drink, warmth, and companionship to people who might otherwise be strangers. All these traits of nineteenth-century inns seem figuratively and metaphorically fitting to the notion of heaven as an inn and, perhaps, even to the idea of God as an inn-keeper.

Although the first few lines of the poem emphasize the journey (that is, life), most of the poem describes the inn (that is, heaven). The inn, in fact, deserves far more emphasis than the journey, since the afterlife in heaven is far more important than one’s brief sojourn here on earth. The poem closes by emphasizing metaphorical “beds” and thus the idea of peace, rest, and the cessation of labor. Nothing in this poem is designed to present Christianity as a challenging, demanding, austere religion. The poem does not stress the worship of God but rather promises relief for the weary. There is not even much emphasis on the necessity for faith, obedience, or self-examination. The metaphorical inn seems figuratively open to anyone who arrives.

Rossetti’s poem does not imply such Calvinist ideas as eternal damnation, the fact that God has predestined only a very few for eternal salvation, or that all humans are polluted with sin from the very days they are born. Instead, her work is the sort of dialogue—a highly reassuring catechism—a mother might engage in with a child. Spiritual “darkness” (that is, sin) will not hide the inn from the traveler’s face (7). The inn is a destination that simply cannot be missed (8). Some Christian believers might find the theology of this poem naïve, but most readers will see the poem as comforting and reassuring in ways that are also true of so many poems by (for instance) George Herbert.

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