'Cousin Kate' - Synopsis and commentary


The poem's female speaker recalls her contentment in her humble surroundings until the local ‘Lord of the Manor' took her to be his lover. He discarded her when she became pregnant and his affections turned to another village girl, Kate, whom he then married. Although the speaker's community condemned the speaker as a ‘fallen' woman, she reflects that her love for the lord was more faithful than Kate's. She is proud of the son she bore him and is sure that the man is unhappy that he and Kate remain childless.


  • Rossetti composed Cousin Kate in 1859 and first published it in Goblin Market and Other Poems in 1862
  • Rossetti's initial title for the poem was Up and Down. This title reflects the ideas of social and class change that the poem explores.

Social position

Throughout Cousin Kate, the cottage of the speaker is contrasted with the ‘palace home' (line 9) of the lord of the manor. Social and class differences are highlighted by their living conditions. The speaker recognises that, before she was spotted by the lord, she was ‘contented' with her fellow ‘cottage mates' (line 3). After her position changes and she becomes his lover, she speaks of her former dwelling place as a ‘mean estate' (line 23).

Moral position

Since she was an unmarried mother, she would have been categorised by many in Victorian Britain as ‘fallen' and as an outcast. Yet because of the sexual double standards that operated in the nineteenth century, the lord of the manor would not have been outcast, despite fathering a son outside of marriage. For more information on the sexual double standards see Social / political context > The status of women > Sexual double standards. It was the women who received all the blame for falling short of the moral standards of the time; men were generally excused.

Investigating Cousin Kate

  • Think about the significance of the title
    • What does it lead you to believe the poem is about?
  • Do you think that the poem is more about the speaker than about Cousin Kate?
  • Why do you think that the speaker does not name herself?
    • Count how many times she names Kate
    • How significant do you think that this naming of Kate is?
  • Which title do you think is the most appropriate-Cousin Kate or Up and Down?
    • Why?
  • What associations do you have with the word ‘contented'?
    • In what ways do you think that the speaker's early life corresponded to these ideas of contentment?
  • What comments do you think the speaker is making about the society in which she lives?
    • Whom do you think she blames?
Related material
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.