The rap on Victorian literature is that it's full of fuddy-duddies. Popular thinking about English society at this time was that manners, and the appearance of propriety, were everything. Even saying the word "leg" could raise an eyebrow in Victorian circles.
The truth, of course, is a bit more complicated than that (the truth tends to be like that). Victorian writers were interested in lots of things besides good manners—social class, technology, international relations, and, yes, God. Enter Christina Rossetti—the English daughter of Italian parents, sister to poet and artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and a devout poet herself whose work often expressed an intense religious conviction.
Born in 1830, Christina Rossetti was writing poetry by the time she was twelve. By the time she was twenty, she was publishing work in a literary magazine run by another of her brothers, William Michael. She then started to submit work to the influential Macmillan's Magazine, which published "A Birthday" in 1861.
The poem, which reappeared the very next year as part of Rossetti's collection Goblin Market and Other Poems, is essentially a celebration. Using a variety of Christian symbolism (which became a trademark of Rossetti's writing), its speaker describes the deep peace, joy, and satisfaction of having God in her life. Interestingly, God is not actually named in the poem, which has led some critics to speculate that Rossetti was actually describing some other, less divine, fellow.
Whether it's God or just a mere mortal is something we'll leave for you to figure out. And, as you've probably guessed by now, the best way to make up your mind is to tuck your pants into your socks, and then dive right into "A Birthday." We hope you brought a present.
If you've ever sat down to dinner with your extended family, you know that everyone has his or her own ideas about religion. Whether you're a believer or an atheist, though, you can still appreciate how great it must feel to be all in on the prospect of having God on your side.
Think about it for a second: the idea of a religious salvation has to do with the fact that God—who's ordinarily thought of as a pretty busy being—pays direct attention to you. That, in and of itself, is pretty remarkable. That's not all, though. Salvation also means that God's absolved you of all the wrong you've done (after you've sufficiently repented) and is essentially granting you a pass to heaven. How great is that?
According to the speaker, who seems to be describing this very scenario, it's…pretty great. Actually, it's more than that. It's a huge double-scoop good-feels sundae with extra sprinkles on top.
Whether you're into religious salvation or not, of course, is up to you. The great thing about this poem, ultimately, is not that it tries to convince you to believe in God. It really doesn't seem to care what your beliefs are. Instead, it just points out how totally awesome it feels if you actually do experience that kind of religious commitment.
In that way, Christina Rossetti's "A Birthday" is a great illustration of the benefits of faith. Whether you buy into it or not is a whole separate story, but reading this poem is a great way to see how the world looks through the eyes of someone with God in their corner.
Web of Rossetti
This is a great resource, with links to articles, poems, criticism, biography—you name it.
It may not be trimmed with squirrel fur, but you'll like this Foundation just the same.
Rossetti's Bio & Works
Poets.org offers up a short, but sweet, biography and links to Rossetti's work.
The actress is this video seems sufficiently smiley.
If you like classical music and star wipes, this video is for you.
Gielgud Does Rossetti
This is pretty cool. It's an old recording of British acting legend Sir John Gielgud reading "A Birthday."
This interpretation really gets the sense of contentment across.
This is a photo of the poem's original publication in Macmillan's Magazine. You may have to squint to read it, though.
Happy To Be Here?
There aren't very many…happy images of Christina Rossetti. This is one of her least grumpy-looking portraits.
"Christina Rossetti: Gender and Power"
This article from the British Library discusses Rossetti's work in the context of women in Victorian society.
Don't break the bank getting caught up. We love these Dover Thrift editions.
The Complete Poems
Get 'em all right here.