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.