A Birthday by Christina Rossetti

My heart is like a singing bird

                  Whose nest is in a water’d shoot;

My heart is like an apple-tree

                  Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit;

My heart is like a rainbow shell

                  That paddles in a halcyon sea;

My heart is gladder than all these

                  Because my love is come to me.

‘A Birthday’, is not a birthday greeting, as might first appear. The poet is using the emotions of a birthday so the reader can understand the joy the speaker feels. The poem is on your handout and you may wish to annotate it during my analysis.

At first glance, this poem is an overflow of emotion, but that impression has been carefully crafted. Each stanza is a different list. The first contains a series of joyful images and the second gives instructions for how the lover is to be welcomed. There are two stanzas each with eight lines, which offers balance. The metre is iambic tetrameters – put simply this means that there are four iambic feet in each line. An iamb is one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one, like your heartbeat. Iambic metre is natural to English speakers; Shakespeare uses it in his plays; ballads and sonnets are usually iambic too.

Over six lines there are three similes, all natural and somewhat unusual. Each occupies the same amount of space, so the pattern is pleasing to the reader, and each even numbered line is indented to carry the reader’s eye to the completion of the image. The even-numbered lines rhyme in full masculine rhymes: shoot/fruit/sea/me, but there is also a lot of assonance and consonance employed to create a pleasing music to each line. For example t and s sounds proliferate throughout, and echo the sounds of the repeated phrase ‘my heart is like’. Assonance, vowel rhyme, such as ‘paddles’ and ‘halcyon’, adds to the music.  Each simile represents something lucky and blest. The singing bird is happy because their nest is in a place where food is plentiful, the tree has plenty of apples to spread its seed, and the rainbow shell is in a peaceful sea where it can flourish. When we look closely at the imagery, we see it is about enjoying an easy life and a good chance of survival. ‘Paddles about’ tells the reader that the sea creature is alive, not an empty shell on a beach. The bird, the tree and the sea creature are all happy, but not as happy as the speaker in the poem. They offer a comparative to help the reader imagine how happy the speaker’s heart is. The bird, the tree and the sea creature are given emotions here, which is an example of pathetic fallacy. This term was coined by John Ruskin. It is a type of personification in which natural objects are given emotions. The repeated phrase ‘my heart is like’ is an anaphora, which holds the structure of the first stanza together, with a variation on the fourth repetition to ‘my heart is’. This  clinches the argument and pulls the three separate images together, because metaphors are stronger than similes.

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;

Because the birthday of my life

                  Is come, my love is come to me.

The anaphora disappears, and instead imperative verbs issue the design blueprint for a marvellous tented raised platform to receive the special guest, her ‘love’. In place of imagery, Rossetti offers a gorgeous description of how she would like this dais to be decorated. Only the most luxurious fabrics are to be used: silk, padded with down.  She chooses rich patterns from heraldry, such as ‘vair’, derived from a mediaeval design made from different colours of fur, and royal fleur-de-lys. Purple is the most expensive dye and therefore royal too. The design of gold and silver grapes and leaves represents a vine, for communion wine, or celebratory wine. Doves represent peace. Pomegranates and peacocks are often associated with everlasting life. The tail feathers of male peacocks look like lots of eyes.  This stanza, like the first, is pulled together in the concluding two lines which reveal why this fine dais is required. The subtle symbolism implies her mystery guest is God. The reader can enjoy the lush description, which is a feast for the senses, no matter where they stand in terms of religion. The whole poem is an extended metaphor about finding God.

These symbols would have been readily to hand for Rossetti, surrounded as she was by art and culture. Her brother Dante Gabriel painted this picture of Proserpine, daughter of Ceres, holding a pomegranate. The fruit has many seeds so often represents abundance, but it is also used widely as a religious motif. There are many references to it in the Bible. In this panel design, we can see the peacock was a much-loved motif used by the Pre-Raphaelites, and the leaf and grape design on the right is by William Morris, a friend of the Rossettis.

I have lived with this poem for a very long time, and perhaps didn’t appreciate its skill in the way it expresses its message, until I had to lecture on it.

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Snow in the Suburbs

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Every branch big with it,
Bent every twig with it;
Every fork like a white web-foot;
Every street and pavement mute:
Some flakes have lost their way, and grope back upward when
Meeting those meandering down they turn and descend again.
The palings are glued together like a wall,
And there is no waft of wind with the fleecy fall.
A sparrow enters the tree,
Whereon immediately
A snow-lump thrice his own slight size
Descends on him and showers his head and eye
And overturns him,
And near inurns him,
And lights on a nether twig, when its brush
Starts off a volley of other lodging lumps with a rush.
The steps are a blanched slope,
Up which, with feeble hope,
A black cat comes, wide-eyed and thin;
And we take him in.

Thomas Hardy, 1840-1928


mute- silent

meandering – wandering

palings – fences

inurns – buries

nether – underneath

blanched – white

Why I love this poem
Following on from the autumn poem, here is another Hardy one, in a different form. It feels very modern and may surprise some readers. Its only real giveaway is the inclusion of words which have become archaic, so I have provided a glossary.
The perspective in the poem is someone looking out of their window, in the outskirts of a city. The observations are precise and delightful. The repetition of ‘with it’ chime on the ear, and the consonance on the W sound is very pleasing and gentle. Hardy captures the weight of the snow and the way it can bend branches, as well as the silence it brings, because snow muffles sound. The anaphora of ‘Every’ at the start of the opening lines, is broken by a longer sentence broken across two lines, to soften it and create an element of surprise.
It is actually snowing now, and Hardy observes the way the snow falls, and personifies it with the verb ‘grope’. There is also alliteration of the M, another consonant as soft as W. ‘Meeting those meandering’ is a gentle phrase which helps to illustrate how snow falls softly when left to its own devices, without any wind.
Into this still scene, Hardy then brings in some movement, as the watcher sees a robin struggling with the snow as it dislodges lumps when it flies on to the tree to settle.
The bird has attracted a thin black cat, whose colour contrasts with the snow. The steps of the house are white with snow and their definition is lost in the drift, but despite this, the humans take the cat in. Hardy leaves it to the reader to imagine what then happens inside to warm and feed the cat. The viewer has left the window. The poem comes to a comforting conclusion. What might not have been noticed, because of the shifting line lengths, is there is a pattern there. Two lines of two feet yield to two lines of four feet, then those yield to even longer lines of at least 6 feet, then return to medium line lengths. The pattern is subverted later in the poem, with further sets of two feet lines (dimeters) occurring more than once. The rhyme scheme throughout is in couplets, though sometimes these are half rhymes, again giving the element of surprise, for example ‘size’ and ‘eye’ are rhymed Hardy makes sure to start and end the poem with full rhymes, and the pararhymes occupy only the middle. Hardy’s flexibility with form allows the reader to experience the different moods of the snow outside the window, and create a sense of lots to see even though the scene is all but static.
I find this poem spellbinding, yet it is apparently simple and should prove enjoyable and accessible even for readers who fear poetry or think it is too hard for them to understand.

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Shortening Days at the Homestead

By Thomas Hardy

         The first fire since the summer is lit, and is smoking into the room:

            The sun rays thread it through, like woof-lines in a loom.

            Sparrows spurt from the hedge, whom misgivings appal

            That winter did not leave last year for ever, after all.

            Like shock-headed urchins, spiny-haired,

            Stand pollard willows, their twigs just bared.

            Who is this coming with pondering pace,

            Black and ruddy, with white embossed,

            His eyes being black, and ruddy his face

            And the marge of his hair like morning frost?

                        It’s the cider-maker,

                        And appletree-shaker,

            And behind him, in readiness,

            His mill, his tubs, his vat, and press.

                                                Thomas Hardy

Why I love this poem
This apparently simple lyric by Thomas Hardy is one of his lesser known poems. Hardy for me is a master of form, and I learned a lot from him about form. He is not afraid to manipulate form to match his content. The first stanza of this poem has four opening lines each with seven iambic feet, which rhyme in couplets, followed by two of four feet which also rhyme as a couplet. Stanza two starts with four lines of four iambic feet which display alternate rhyme, asking a question, and the answer is two couplets in rhyming couplets, the first set have only two feet, and the second pair have four. He has good reason for doing this. The first stanza is a fairly conventional, though highly observant, description of the start of autumn, the first signs of it. It’s beautiful, but what he does next is surprising. Into this scene, he introduces a character, a white haired man with a rosy face and dark eyes, immediately giving a colour contrast from the first stanza, though ‘ruddy’ links to the fire, the other implied colours were austere. He arouses interest in the character by the slow pace, building tension, then reveals his job through two kennings, and then the equipment to make cider that he pulls behind him on a cart. The surprise shift of form supports the surprise introduction of this character, into the autumnal bare landscape. He brings compensation of the possibility of cider to offset the oncoming misery of winter.
Watching birds ‘spurt’ out of the hedge in my own garden makes me love the verb ‘spurt’ which offers so much energy, and the implication that the birds were not expecting autumn just yet indicates the days are still warm, but just starting to become cold. ‘Appal’ personifies the birds, and one may gather that people too could be appalled the winter is so close. The lighting of the first fire is always important to me, as I have a coal fire in my study, but in times before central heating, this event would have been much bigger. The ‘woof-lines in a loom’ is a stunning image for the rays of the sun weaving through the smoke from the new fire, and is suggestive of cottage industry (the original working from home). In the second stanza, ‘the marge (margin) of his hair like morning frost’ vividly links to frosty mornings, and the frost lingering on the edges of the side of roads where it is less trodden, so the cider-maker both brings winter and offers a way to make the best of it. The poem walks on the edge between misery and joy.
Other autumn poems to look at for comparison would be John Clare’s ‘Autumn’, that features an anaphora of ‘I love’, and Keats’ To Autumn, which I always read as the city boy’s view of a romantic autumn picture in the country, until we reach the dark ending: Keats like the birds is going South, and this is the last autumn he will see in his beloved England.

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John Clare ‘Where is the Heart’



John Clare


Song: Where is the Heart
Where is the heart thou once hast won
Can cease to care about thee
Where is the eye thou’st smiled upon
Can look for joy without thee
Lorn is the lot one heart hath met
That’s lost to thy caressing
Cold is the hope that loves thee yet
Now thou art past possessing
Fare thee well
We met we loved we’ve met the last
The farewell word is spoken
O Mary canst thou feel the past
& keep thy heart unbroken
To think how warm we loved & how
Those hopes should blossom never
To think how we are parted now
& parted, oh! for ever
Fare thee well
Thou wert the first my heart to win
Thou art the last to wear it
& though another claims akin
Thou must be one to share it
Oh, had we known when hopes were sweet
That hopes would once be thwarted
That we should part no more to meet
How sadly we had parted
Fare thee well
The song is imbued with sense of what might have been. Its tender and
accepting tone is full of regret. Never again can such love be hoped for,
his heart is permanently damaged by their parting. Words like ‘lorn’ and
‘cold’ contrasts with the warmth of their love and the sense of promise
he felt, suggested in the line ‘those hopes should blossom never’, where
the stress falls on the last word, partly through its placing and partly
through the opposite rhyme work ‘ever. The gentle rhyme scheme with
the dying fall created by the polysyllabic rhymes ‘caressing/ possessing’,
‘spoken/ broken and ‘wear it/share it’ contributes towards the sorrowful
tone. The dominance of open vowel sounds makes this song perfectly
suited to being sung.

Angela Topping (from Focus on the Poetry of John Clare, Greenwich Exchange 2015)

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How to Closely Analyse a Poem (and keep exam boards happy) #2 Edward Thomas’ ‘The Sun Used to Shine’

Excellent post from a fine poet

Martyn Crucefix

Having declared in my review of one year of blogging that I wanted to include more about teaching literature, I am posting some examples of the type of essay required by OCR exam board in module F661 (see also Essay 1). The essay following focuses on Edward Thomas’ poem ‘The Sun Used to Shine’ which can be read in full here. The poem has Thomas recalling happy days, walking with Robert Frost in the Gloucestershire countryside. Though the Great War  had begun, neither of them had yet become entangled with it. Students are supposed to present a close analysis of one selected poem (AO2) while also putting that poem into relation with some others by Thomas (AO4).

FDPhist Little Iddens – where Robert Frost lived in 1914

Explore Thomas’ response to the English countryside of 1914 in the poem ‘The sun used to shine’. Your focus should be on close analysis…

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Milton’s On His Blindness

On His Blindness

When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts: who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”

John Milton

I first read this poem in an anthology we were given to read at primary school (St. Marie’s, Widnes) when I was in second year juniors (now year 4).  We were allowed to choose poems to learn. This was one I chose and I still love it and know it by heart today. There was no one to tell me that Milton was too hard for an eight year old. This Petrachan sonnet has a strong narrative line, and a subtle rhyme scheme, which made it easy to learn and easy to feel. Patience seemed to be some sort of archangel, who had God’s wisdom at his fingertips. The volte, which I knew nothing about technically, is powerfully present as the blind poet learns to understand that God’s purpose in taking his sight is unknown but he can still fulfil his role. I wasn’t a patient child and this sonnet spoke of patience and learning to see a bigger picture. The dialogue helps to tell the story and it’s a great piece to perform because of the different voices and tonal shifts within it. I love the now archaic lexis: ‘chide’, ‘post’, ‘yoke’ and yet the language is clear and easy to understand. Being a small Catholic child, I had no problems understanding the religious aspect of it, and now I am lapsed and tending towards agnosticism, I think the message still holds good. I love sonnets, the way so much can be packed in to this tight muscular square form which within has such flexibility.

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The Red Wheelbarrow by William Carlos Williams – technical brilliance


The Red Wheelbarrow by William Carlos Williams

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white


Free verse poem, right? Apparently simple in meaning? Read it a second time to observe the poet’s rhyme sounds: ‘depends/upon’ with its repetition of p links the words through consonance. They are both iambic two-syllable words, so the rhythm supports the rhyme sounds. Then note the consonance between ‘wheel’ and ‘barrow’ again iambic two-syllable words. A pattern is emerging which helps the reader trust the poet’s meaning. The third stanza creates a similar effect, this time using assonance: both ‘glazed’ and rain’ have a long a sound. And in the final stanza, all three nouns are linked by assonance in the short i sound. Because of the sounds in the poem, and the deliberate placing of line breaks and stanza breaks, and the stanza design of a line of three syllables followed by a line of only one syllable, the reader slows down and takes in each word. The poet is clearly saying something important; beyond the surface there are questions to be asked. What ‘depends’? The rhyme sounds make the poem memorable, so it haunts the reader and makes she/he want to interrogate it, reflect on it, meet it eye to eye.  

copyright Angela Topping


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Carol Ann Duffy: ‘Never Go Back’ from Meantime

‘Never go Back’ by Carol Ann Duffy (from her collection Mean Time Anvil 1993)


One of the main ideas in the poem is that you cannot return to the past as people and places change. It evokes images of death, disease and decay, as this is what happens over time to people and places. Duffy uses darkness and drinking in bars to represent her feelings about time. The poem’s title offers a solution – that it is better not to return to past times and places either literally or to hark back nostalgically.


She uses the second person throughout the poem. She could be talking to herself, which gives a detached feeling; she could be talking to the people she knew in the past, addressing the ghosts of her memories. It has the effect of making the reader seem included and because we all have a past, the images can be personalised. She avoids making it too particular so that the reader can imagine their own past.


                                                            Never return

to the space where you left time pining…


The poem is divided into three sections which represent different places in the past. She could be visiting them literally or just in her memory. Each place gives her a sense of despair and includes images of death, disease and decay.


In the first stanza she describes a seedy bar in which images of death and decay feature strongly. The oxymoron ‘living dead’ suggests that the drinkers here have given up hope. The personification of  the juke box as someone who is reminiscing ‘in a cracked voice’ suggests that the machine itself is speaking to her, perhaps playing the songs of her youth, but in a broken voice, as though it is diseased. Perhaps hearing the music is a stimulus to the memories she goes on to explore. The ‘well-thumbed pack’ suggests repulsive old men gambling in the bar. Duffy uses it as a metaphor for photographs which stimulate the ‘anecdotes’ which have been heard many times before. The tensions in the section come from the contrasts such as


                                    there is nothing to say. You talk for hours


The conversations themselves are stale and pointless because you cannot talk meaningfully as your life has moved on. The alliteration in ‘parched old faces of the past’ emphasises the deadness, the pointlessness of going back. ‘Smoky mirrors’ suggests that people are smoking in the bar, but also that time is misty and clouded and you can only remember certain things. This is added to by the verb ‘flatter’. She makes us question whether the mirror flatters because we only remember the good things or because we cannot see properly because of the lapse in time.


The developed use of personification in the poem, such as the ‘streets tear litter’, ‘the wind whistles’, the house…has cancer’, the train sighs’ suggest that she is surrounded by faces, the places claim her and seem to have lives of their own. The images are unpleasant as they draw on disease and mess as well as echoing her own emotions. It implies that the times and places haunt her as much as the people she once knew, the ones her ‘ghost buys a round’ for.


Many of her images have layers of meaning. For example, the alcoholic friend, who she has perhaps met up with on returning to her old home, is described as having  a head which is ‘a negative of itself’. This implies things have gone badly wrong in the friend’s life and dreams they once had have not come to fruition. But it also suggests a visual image as in negatives the colours are reversed and the friend’s hair may have turned white with age, as it would show in a negative.


The speaker in the poem seems detached and the places visited are like ghost towns, inhabited by ‘the living dead’. The personification of the house makes it seem haunted and once again the contrasts between the past and present cause tension in the reader’s imagination and make it seem even sadder that the hopes of the past have been destroyed. The word ‘brides’ evokes hope and innocence and the colour white, whereas the house now is decaying and the only white is the falling plaster. She ironically compares this to confetti, linking back to the bridal image but in an unpleasant way as she shakes it from her hair. The house itself is dreary now.


The final section is focused on her journey from the places of the past, to which she will never return again. The contrasts in this section show that the place is dead for her now and the hopeful images represent where she now lives, which could be both a literal place and a time of her life where she is now happy without any ghosts from the past, ‘nowhere, nowhen’. It is as though going back has brought some release and she is no longer limited by where she comes from or where she is going. The image of drinking recurs, but more hopefully. The idea of home being where you are in the present is communicated by the image of ‘fires and lights’ which the reader associates with home and safety.


‘Never go Back’ is a very complex poem with many layers of ideas. Carol Ann Duffy explores her feelings about the past and present in an effective and moving way and draws the reader in by her use of second person and her startling imagery.

copyright: Angela Topping

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Poems under the Microscope

This website exists to celebrate single poems. As Matt Simpson used to say about criticism: to express the WOW. My intention is that this site wiill be a useful resource for teachers, students and anyone who loves reading or writing poetry.

I will be posting a close up reading of an individual poem which I personally love. Where poems are out of copyright, I will include them. If they are still within copyright, I will indicate where they can be read.

I am happy to receive submissions from readers, via anji.topping@gmail.com. Anyone may submit at any time, but there will be no fees paid. Copyright of the essay remains with the contributor. I welcome poems not originally written in English, though a translation should be included. 

A note to students using this website: please remember to reference the author and the site. Plagiarism has very serious consequences. Whatever teachers may tell you, examiners want to read your own views, not those handed down by others. The views expressed on this website belong to individual contributors and are not definitive.

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