Study Guide

A Birthday Analysis

By Christina Rossetti

  • Sound Check

    "A Birthday" is singing a happy song. It's a praise poem, really, one that celebrates the speaker's relationship with the divine. As such, we would expect it to make happy sounds—like birds chirping or kittens snoring—and we're not disappointed.

    The first sonic clue to the speaker's buoyant mood comes in the form of alliteration: "Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit" (4). Those B words ("boughs" and "bent") add a kind of rolling energy to the line and send us bouncing and bounding merrily along as we get more details about the speaker's celebratory mood.

    More than alliteration, though, Rossetti relies on consonance to deliver the bulk of the poem's sound effects. Specifically, the S sound is super-special to the speaker's scintillating story. We hear S's in lines 6 ("That paddles in a halcyon sea"), 10 ("Raise me a dais of silk and down;") and 14 ("In leaves and silver fleurs-de-lys"). The effect is a kind of peaceful whisper that runs in the background the poem like a kind of peaceful sound effect.

    As such, the summary of these several S's soothes our senses with some sweet sounds. For a speaker celebrating peace and connection in her life, we'd say that they're some super-sensible sounds to select.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    We won't lie to you, Shmoopers; we're a little disappointed. For a poem called "A Birthday," there's no party hats here, no presents to speak of, and—worst of all—no cake. Just what kind of birthday is this, anyway?

    Well, we can guess that it's probably not a literal birthday. Our speaker's not really turning another year older here. Instead, we're dealing with a much more metaphorical celebration.

    Make not mistake, though, a celebration is exactly what we get here. The speaker is loving life in this poem, calling for the construction of a tricked-out dais that would put most other religious furniture to shame. What's all the fuss about, then?

    Our biggest clue—aside from all the religious symbolism (check out "Symbols" for the scoop)—comes in the lines "Because the birthday of my life/ Is come, my love is come to me" (15-16). Now, you can take this one of two ways:

    Way #1: the speaker has found profound joy in a relationship with another person. She's so happy, in fact, it's as though she's being reborn in a figurative way.

    Way #2: the speaker has found profound joy in a relationship with another person, but that person happens to be God. She's so happy about her relationship with God that she feels reborn in it, or at least she is recognizing that God is the reason for her birth in the first place. Either way, this is her way of giving out major props to the man upstairs.

    Whether it's a divine or mortal relationship, one this is clear: this speaker's really happy to have this kind of love in her life. It's the gift that keeps on giving, which makes her feel like celebrating in the poem—good times.

  • Setting

    With a title like "A Birthday," you're probably expecting a setting like a pool party, or maybe a Chuck E. Cheese. Well, we hate to disappoint you, but there are no ball pits or video games in this poem. And a five-foot tall animatronic mouse is really out of the question.

    In fact, there's really no actual physical setting to this poem at all. It's entirely internal, taking place against the backdrop of the speaker's emotional reality. You could guess that much probably by the third time you read "My heart is like…" That anaphora in the first stanza is a constant reminder that we're dealing with the speaker's inner world.

    Of course, things start to take on a bit more physicality in stanza 2, when the speaker starts drafting the blueprint for the best dais ever. Is she really asking for a literal platform to be built, though? It's doubtful, particularly given all the Christian symbolism going on in stanza 2.

    Nope, the dais is better understood as a figurative setting, upon which the speaker's "love" (a.k.a. God) might find a place worth taking a load off. That's got to be one fancy piece of furniture, which is why the speaker is so demanding in her decorating instructions.

  • Speaker

    The speaker of "A Birthday" is having a good day. Sure, most folks enjoy their birthdays, but we get the feeling that turning another year older is not literally what she's celebrating here. She's got something a bit more metaphorical in mind.

    Now, we say "she," but there's really no clue to whether or not the speaker is a man or a woman in this poem. We're not really diving into someone's background. Instead, what we do hear about is the speaker's relationship with a certain special…someone.

    This relationship has the speaker happier than kid in a candy store and more satisfied than a Tasmanian devil at an all-you-can-eat buffet. (Okay, so maybe we made that last one up.) The point here is that her life is peaceful and full: "My heart is like an apple-tree/ Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit" (4-5). So, what's the cause of all these good feels?

    Well, we learn through the poem's refrain—"my love is come to me" (8, 16)—that the speaker's experiencing a sense of closeness to a particular person. Given all the religious symbolism and imagery going on here (check out "Symbols" for the details), we'd say that it's a safe bet to assume that she's talking about her relationship with God. After all, in a religious sense, God is responsible for everyone's birthdays (see "What's Up With the Title?").

    At the same, the speaker never actually mentions God in this poem. That's caused some critics to speculate that Rossetti was actually talking about a mortal man, some love interest or another that she had in her own personal life. That's definitely possible, and we're open to listening if you want to make that argument (we like to think we keep an open mind).

    Still, the Christian symbolism seems pretty convincing if you ask us. That, coupled with Rossetti's well-documented Christian faith, which she practiced in her own lifetime, tell us that our speaker has found God—as is darn happy to have done so.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (4) Tree Line

    "A Birthday" looks like a pretty straightforward party on its surface, but it helps to be familiar with a slew of Christian symbolism if you really want to get in the swing of things. Don't worry, though, we've got you covered over in "Shout Outs." And if the vocab is making you uncomfortable, we translate all of that in the "Detailed Summary." You'll be saying that this poem is cake in no time.

  • Calling Card

    Symbolically Devout

    Although she's perhaps best know for a fantastic, odd, and sexualized poem called "The Goblin Market," the bulk of Christina Rossetti's work reflected her life of Christian devotion. Much like in "A Birthday," she wasn't just putting her faith nakedly out there. Instead, she relied heavily on Christian symbols to communicate her faith. You can check out examples of this approach in poems like "A Better Resurrection" or "Up-Hill".

  • Form and Meter

    Harmonious Iambs and Rhymes

    The speaker of "A Birthday" is feeling good—really good. It's no surprise, then, that her inner harmony is reflected in the way this poem is put together. It's got both a regular meter and a rhyme scheme that you can set your watch to. But don't just take our word for it. Let us explain:

    We'll start with the poem's rhythm: iambic tetrameter. Now, don't let the fancy-shmancy term fool you. It's actually pretty simple. Basically, every line in the poem has four iambs (tetra- meaning four). And an iamb is just a two-syllable pair in which the first syllable is unstressed, but the second one is stressed. It makes a beat like "daDUM." Take a listen:

    My heart is like a singing bird
    Whose nest is in a water'd shoot;
    (1-2)

    If you heard those lines out loud, you'd hear four iambs in each line: daDUM, daDUM, daDUM, daDUM. It's a pattern that holds up—more or less—throughout the poem. There may be a line that's off by an extra syllable (we're looking at you, line 11), but part of that comes down to how you want to pronounce a word like "pomegranates" (pom-uh-gran-its or pom-uh-grants?). The overall meter here, though, is one of uniform regularity, emphasizing the orderly peace that the speaker's experiencing on the inside.

    The poem's rhyme scheme is no different. Every other line contains an end rhyme, which makes for a rhyme scheme of ABCBDEFE (with each letter representing an end rhyme) in each stanza:

    Raise me a dais of silk and down; A
    Hang it with vair and purple dyes; B
    Carve it in doves and pomegranates, C
    And peacocks with a hundred eyes; B
    Work it in gold and silver grapes, D
    In leaves and silver fleurs-de-lys;
    E
    Because the birthday of my life F
    Is come, my love is come to me.
    (9-16) E

    Does this sound peaceful and harmonious to you? It should, because that's the just the kind of vibe that the speaker's experiencing her when discussing her beloved. It's a good time all around, and the form and meter totally reflect that.

  • Christian Imagery

    Christina Rossetti is known for her religious convictions. In fact, when she wasn't writing poetry, she was putting together non-fiction books with titles like Called to Be Saints. It should come as no great shock, then, to learn that there are a ton, a slew, a plethora of Christian symbols and imagery going on in this poem—particularly in stanza 2. Rather than talk about them each one at a time, we thought we'd just put them all right here for your convenience. No need to thank us—we know you're busy people.

    • Lines 3-4: The apple is a biblically significant fruit. It's typically associated with the forbidden fruit that hung from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and which Eve was tempted by Satan into trying. In these lines, though, the tree in question is heavy with ripe, "thickset" apples. The image here is one of plentitude and satisfaction.
    • Lines 9-10: A "dais" is a special platform, something you'd rest a throne or an altar on. This one seems to be super-special, since the speaker calls for it to be decorated with fur, silk, down (comfy bird feathers), and purple (a color that symbolizes royalty). This is a place for a Very Important Person, and God naturally fits that bill.
    • Lines 11-12: We get more religiously resonant decorations in these lines. Doves symbolize both peace and God's mercy (in ending the great flood). Pomegranates were decorations that King Solomon had carved into the pillars of his temple, and they are often associated with Jesus's suffering and rebirth. Even peacocks have religious significance here. They were thought to have immortal flesh, so they came to symbolize the everlasting life promised by God, as well as His all-seeing presence in our lives (as shown by many "eyes" that decorate a peacock's tail).
    • Lines 13-14: In these lines, grapes (and wine) symbolize the blood of Christ and commemorate His sacrifice for humanity. The fleur-de-lys is also a symbol, representing the lily flower— which, in turn, stands for purity and the Virgin Mary.
  • Steaminess Rating

    G

    The speaker may have beloved, but it's more than likely the religious kind—not the earthly kind. It's a G-rating all around.