'Twice' - Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery and symbolism

The heart - The speaker's heart is the central image of the poem. By declaring that she took it in her hand she voices her control over it and reinforces the idea that it is her own possession to lose, keep or give away as she likes.

By stating that her beloved ‘set' down her heart and with a ‘critical eye' declared it was still ‘unripe' (lines 9-13), she links her heart to a fruit that is not yet ready to be consumed. In alluding to this description that her beloved gives, she emphasises the attitude of the consumer that many Victorian males took towards the women with whom they had a relationship. Instead of being a relationship based on love, Rossetti highlights the problems in basing a relationship on worldly standards of economic commerce.

Refinement - The speaker asks that God would take her heart and ‘Refine with fire its gold' and ‘Purge Thou its dross away' (lines 37-8). See Fire. Throughout her devotional poetry, Rossetti uses the image of the fire to express ideas of the cleansing of a person from his or sins. For instance, the speaker of A Better Resurrection suggests that once it has been put through a kind of spiritual fire, her life will be pliable like wax and will be able to be transformed into a more appropriate shape so it is ready to hold the life that she believes the Holy Spirit brings.

As a Christian, Rossetti believed that Jesus was able to baptise believers ‘with the Holy Spirit and fire' (Matthew 3:11). Encouraging those members of the early church who were suffering persecution because of their faith, Peter offers the encouragement that difficult trials can be likened to a fire that refines the believers' attributes of faith and perseverance so that they may be proved genuine and true (1 Peter 1:6-8).

SkylarkSkylarks / corn-flowers - The speaker's beloved tells her that it would be better to ‘wait awhile' before they develop their relationship. He suggests waiting until the ‘skylarks pipe' and the ‘corn grows brown' (lines 14-16). The speaker declares that since his rejection, she has not appreciated the natural world: she has neither cared for corn-flowers nor ‘sung with the singing bird' (lines 19-20).

More on intertextuality - The skylark: In his 1820 poem, To a Skylark, Romantic poet Percy Byshe Shelley (Literary context > Romantic poetry) speaks of the skylark as a ‘blithe spirit' who ‘pourest thy full heart' (lines 1,4). Comparing the bird to a poet, he writes of it hidden:

       In the light of thought
Singing hymns unbidden,
       Till the world is wrought
To sympathy with hopes and fears it heeded not. (lines 37-40)

Suggesting that the skylark's song is a direct result of divine inspiration, he appreciates its beauty. Just watching the skylark gives the speaker a sense of joy and he ends the poem by voicing a wish that the bird would teach him ‘half the gladness' that it must know (line 101).

Skylarks sing during the daytime rather than the night. Reading Twice with this in mind conveys the idea that the beloved's requests to put the relationship on hold until the ‘skylarks pipe', indicates that he is currently living a life that can be correlated to the night in that it is dark and melancholy. In the circumstances that the beloved perceives, the joy that Shelley suggests the skylark naturally expresses is missing.

The corn and the corn-flowers - By declaring his intention to wait until the ‘corn grows brown' (line 16), the beloved looks forward to autumn. As Cornflowers, photo by David Wright, available through Creative Commonswell as being the time of year when the harvest is ready for collecting, it is also a time of death and decay. By suggesting waiting until this time for a deeper love to develop, the beloved conveys a sense of needless postponement. This postponement further delays an event which the speaker loses any hope of ever reaching.

More on cornflowers: Cornflowers are plants that are only in season once a year. In the past, cornflowers often grew as weeds in crop fields. Thus, when the speaker refers to ‘corn-flowers wild' (line 23), she looks to the beauty of the fields which will soon be cut down with the harvest.

In folklore, cornflowers were worn by young men in love, to show their celibacy; if the flower faded too quickly, it was taken as a sign that the man's love was not returned. The fact that, in Twice, the beloved declares that the flower has not even come into season suggests that his regard for the speaker has not even developed into any form of love.

Sand - The speaker suggests that her love for a man was based on a hope which was ‘written on sand' (line 29). Rossetti is alluding to two key Bible passages here which illuminate her meaning:

1. A relationship based on sand is unsubstantial and has no chance of lasting or being made permanent. The Gospel of Matthew records the parable that Jesus told of the wise and foolish builders:

Therefore, everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose and the winds blew and beat against that house and it fell with a great crash. Matthew 7:24-27 TNIV

Suggesting that the only secure basis upon which a person can build their lives can be found in God and in his teaching, the parable highlights the flimsy nature of man. By claiming that her love for a man was insubstantial compared to her love for God, the speaker of Twice indicates how this parable applies to the circumstances of her own life.

2. The accurate assessment of God. In John 8:3-11 Jewish teachers try to trap Jesus into condemning a woman caught in adultery. However, he confounds their expectations:

Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her'. 8 Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
 9 At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?'
 11 ‘No one, sir', she said.
  ‘Then neither do I condemn you', Jesus declared. ‘Go now and leave your life of sin'. vv.6-11 TNIV

Instead of the inaccurate, condemnatory ‘scanning' of the beloved, the speaker now relies on Jesus to see the true state of her heart, confident that she will be understood and that his ‘judgement in the sand' is just.

Thy hold - Once it has been refined and cleansed, the speaker asks God to ‘hold' her heart in ‘Thy hold' (line 39). As well as indicating the notion of grasping something or someone firmly, the term ‘hold' also suggests an enclosed space which offers protection, shelter and defence. By asking if she can find protection in God's ‘hold', the speaker indicates her need for protection and safety. She recognises that his hold is a place where no-one can ‘pluck' out her heart (line 40) and destroy it. Rossetti is echoing Jesus' words of assurance to his followers that: ‘they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand'. AV John 10:28

Investigating imagery and symbolism

  • Note down the various ways in which the speaker describes her heart
    • What surprises you about the way in which it is described?
    • Why do you think that she chooses to speak of her heart in this way?
  • What do you associate with the idea of scanning something?
    • How are these associations met in the description of the beloved?
    • How are these associations met in God ‘scanning' the speaker's heart? (lines 11, 35).
    • What differences does the speaker suggest exist between the way that the beloved scans the heart and the way that God scans it?

Themes

Judgement

Throughout the final few verses of Twice, the speaker anticipates the coming judgement of God. Wanting to prepare herself for this judgement, she suggests that God ‘scan' her heart (line 35) now and ‘purge' it from any ‘dross' or worthless matter (line 38).

Christians believe that after death / upon the return of Christ to the world, every human life will be brought to a final account by God (Matthew 12:36-37), with Jesus as the judge (Matthew 13:36-43). All lives will be exposed and those who have not responded to the revealed will of God will be shut out from his presence for good, whilst believers will be welcomed into his presence forever (Revelation 22:14-15).

By moving from a consideration of the ‘judgement' that her beloved declares over her (line 20) to the judgement that God will one day give, the speaker emphasises her realisation that it is God who she wants to please rather than a man. She suggests that, although being prepared for the Day of Judgement may be difficult and presents various trials, it will be ultimately worth it as it will mean that one day she will be able to ‘sing' (line 47) and regain a sense of joy. See Judgement.

Investigating themes

  • What associations do you have with the idea of judgement?
    • How are these associations met in the poem?
    • Are the associations with the idea of judgement more relevant to the beloved or to God?
  • What does the speaker suggest the differences are between man's judgement and God's judgement?
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