'Cousin Kate' - Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery and symbolism

Transience - The speaker claims that the lord considered her as a ‘plaything' (line 12) whom he could treat how he liked without any regard for her feelings. Much like the ‘silken knot' (line 12) he wore around his neck (a cravat or tie), he treated her as a fashion accessory he could use and then cast away, rather than as an individual with her own needs.

Glove - The speaker recognises that the lord ‘changed me like a glove' (line 13). He used her and moulded her into a shape that suited him and then, like a glove that no longer pleases, dispensed with her completely. A glove is an intimate and personal object that fits itself around its user. By describing herself as a glove, the speaker acknowledges that she lost sight of her own needs and desires in an attempt to please and suit the lord.

More on gloves: Gloves often appears as a symbol of lost innocence in 19th century literature and art, eg. in Holman Hunt's The Awakening Conscience.

Dove - The speaker laments that, because of the lord's treatment of her, all she can now do is ‘moan'. She recognises that instead of existing in this mournful state, she ‘might have been a dove' (lines 15, 16)

In Cousin Kate, the dove image draws on these ideas of hope and fulfilment and is a symbol of purity that stands in direct contrast to the contaminated state the speaker finds herself as she describes herself as ‘an unclean thing' (line 15). However, she acknowledges that the tenderness associated with the dove is no match for Kate's ‘stronger wing'.

Entrapment – Like a hunter, the lord ‘f[ound]' the speaker ‘out', ‘lured' her, then ‘chose' his next victim in Kate, whom he ‘watched', then picked up (‘lifted') and ‘bound'. Both women are referred to as birds, with Kate seeming to be trussed and bound by her fine clothes and wedding ring.

Coronet - In the last verse, the speaker demonstrates her pride in her son when she tells him, ‘Your father Coronetwould give lands for one / To wear his coronet'. A coronet is a small crown worn by members of the nobility and varying in form according to rank, so it represents his title. The fact that it is passed from father to son reflects the values of a society in which men were more highly valued and praised than women. By suggesting that the lord would ‘give lands' for a legitimate son to whom he could pass on his wealth, his titles and his standing in society demonstrates the importance of inheritance and ongoing power for the nobility.

Investigating imagery and symbolism

  • What do you associate with the idea of doves?
    • Why do you think that the speaker tells her cousin, ‘You had the stronger wing'?
    • Do you think that she is right?
  • How does the imagery contribute towards your feelings for the speaker?
    • Does her description of herself as a ‘plaything' increase your sense of sympathy for her plight?

Themes

Marriage

Many Victorians considered marriage to be at the centre of a stable society. It was widely believed that a happy family contributed to the well-being of the country. In Cousin Kate, the foundations of marriage are shown to be less based on love than on the greed of the male. It seems that he only marries Kate because she refuses to have an affair with him as the speaker had done. The speaker resents this and feels angry that she had been used and then cast aside.

In the last stanza, the speaker claims that, despite all her clothes and her ‘wedding-ring', Kate remains unhappy since she has no children. Rather than accepting the romantic idea that marriage led to happiness and contentment, the speaker recognises that the cares of a married life are still difficult to deal with.

A wedding-ring

The speaker suggests that, because Kate was ‘so good and pure' and did not allow the lord to seduce her away, he ‘bound' her ‘with his ring' (lines 25-6). The word ‘bound' indicates being confined within certain boundaries or limitations. By describing a wedding ring as something that ‘bound' Kate, the speaker depicts marriage as a trap or a prison. Certainly, she suggests that being married to the lord would be like being imprisoned in a lifestyle in which any individual choice was taken away.

Investigating themes

  • Think about the poem's presentation of marriage in relation to Victorian ideology
    • Do you find anything surprising about this presentation?
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