Study Guide

A Birthday Religion

By Christina Rossetti

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My heart is like a rainbow shell
  That paddles in a halcyon sea; (5-6)

This is an obscure reference, but its one that would have jumped off the page to any religious readers of ancient Greece. Why do you think it's included in this poem, when every other allusion comes from Christianity?

  Raise me a dais of silk and down;
Hang it with vair and purple dyes; (10-11)

A dais is a platform for an altar or a throne. It's clear that the speaker is making preparations to welcome a V.I.P. of biblical proportions (psst…we mean God).

  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; (12-15)

Doves, pomegranates, peacocks, grapes, fleurs-de-lys—all of these are symbols of Christian significance. You may be wondering why Christianity has so many symbols to begin with. Well, in the early days of the religion, it was not so safe to go around proclaiming your faith. Folks like the Romans tended to frown on that sort of behavior—right before they fed you to the lions. Symbolism, then, became a way of invoking the Christian faith as a kind of unspoken code. Why do you think the speaker adopts in here, though, long after Christianity is well-established?

Because the birthday of my life
Is come, my love is come to me. (15-16)

The "birthday of my life" might seem like a redundant phrase (what else would your birthday signify?), but it's a telling one. The speaker's not just celebrating her literal birthday here. She's celebrating the person (or deity) who gave her life meaning—hence the saying of being a "born again" Christian.

The butterfly and I had lit upon,
  Nevertheless, a message from the dawn, (31-32)

Hey, look—the speaker's made a buddy. Actually, he's made two. Here he sees himself paired up with the butterfly. The message that he mentions, though, is one that shows him his connection to the mower—and other human beings—as well.

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