'A Better Resurrection' - Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery and symbolism

My heart within me like a stone (l.2) - The comparison of the heart with a stone reflects the numbness the speaker feels. After suffering betrayal or bereavement, she feels deadened and therefore, finds it difficult to respond to the beauty of the hills that surround her or to experience the hopes and the fears of which she used to be aware.

In describing a heart as a stone, Rossetti would also have had in mind two key ideas from the Bible:

  • In the book of Ezekiel in the Old Testament, God declares that he will bring his people out of exile and replace their hard-heartedness with receptiveness and obedience. He declares to the nation of Israel:
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. Ezekiel 36:26 TNIV
  • In the second letter to the Corinthians in the New Testament, Paul encourages the Corinthian believers to share their faith, by encouraging them with the knowledge that they themselves are being re-created by God:
You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. 2 Corinthians 3:3 TNIV

Against this context, the speaker's declaration, ‘My heart within me like a stone', can be understood to include a sense of hope for something that is yet to be fulfilled. It is implied that it is only God who is able to transform her hard-heartedness into a state of openness. For further association see Rock, stone.

No everlasting hills I see (l.6) - The speaker's inability to perceive the ‘everlasting hills' alludes to her blindness regarding the comforts of eternity. In the Old Testament, Psalm 121 speaks of the comfort that the sight of the hills brings. It begins with the declaration:

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. Psalms 121:1 AV

My life is like a faded leaf (l.9) - The image of the ‘faded leaf' is used by the prophet Isaiah when he contrasts the righteous acts of man to the glory of God:

… we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away. (Isaiah 64:6) AV

By comparing her life to a ‘faded leaf' and by declaring that her ‘life is in the falling leaf' (line 7), the speaker suggests up a number of possibilities:

  • Read in the context of Isaiah, it would seem that she is claiming that her sins have created a barrier between her and God and that now she is falling away from the Christian hope that the Bible offers
  • However, considering the refrain, ‘O Jesus, quicken me' (line 8), her reference to being in the falling leaf could indicate both her willingness to let go of her earthly body, which is affected by decay and the fading of time and her openness to accept the new life that Christ offers.

My life is like a frozen thing (l.13) The speaker compares her life to a ‘frozen thing' and laments the lack of greenness surrounding her. Following this, she likens the resurrection of Christ to the ‘sap of spring' (line 15) that brings new life. Just as she cannot glimpse the arrival of spring whilst she lives in the midst of winter, she suggests that she finds it difficult to glimpse Christ whilst caught up in a state of spiritual numbness.

Sap - Whilst the word ‘sap' is generally understood to mean the fluid which circulates in plants, it also signifies the natural dampness of a stone when in the quarry. This dampness needs to be dried out before the stone is used by stone-masons. Rossetti uses the word ‘sap' to speak of the new life that spring brings in many of her poems (see L.E.L. > Imagery and symbolism > The natural world). By choosing to use the word ‘sap' in A Better Resurrection, Rossetti combines its various meanings. As well as linking it to the rising of new life, she also speaks of ‘sap' in terms of the transformation of a stone. In this, she offers hope that the life of the speaker will not always remain the ‘frozen thing' that she perceives it to be.

My life is like a broken bowl (l.17) - By comparing her life to a ‘broken bowl', the speaker laments her uselessness. As a bowl that has been broken cannot hold any water, so, she suggests, her soul cannot hold anything of worth. A broken bowl is also used in the Bible as an image of death:

I am forgotten by them as though I were dead;
       I have become like broken pottery. Psalms 31:12

Remember [God]—before … the golden bowl is broken;
       before the pitcher is shattered at the spring, Ecclesiastes 12:6

Water - In a conversation that Jesus has with a Samaritan woman as she draws water from a well, he declares that he himself is the water of life. He tells her that, whereas everyone who drinks regular water will inevitably be thirsty again,

… those who drink the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life. John 4:14 TNIV

The speaker's lament that she cannot hold water for her soul suggests that the water she is speaking of is the water which, according to the Gospel of John, comes from Jesus himself.
See Aspects of literature > Big ideas from the Bible > Water.

Cordial - A cordial is a medicine, food or drink which helps with the pumping of blood around heart and stimulates the circulation. Feeling like ‘a frozen thing', the speaker recognises her need for something which will give her a renewed life. However, she also recognises that, in order for this to help, she needs to accept any goodness offered. By picturing her life as a ‘broken bowl', she highlights her current inability to do this and emphasises her need for change.

Fire - The speaker asks that Jesus would ‘cast in the fire' the ‘perished' bowl that she has become (line 21). Throughout Goblin Market and Other Poems, Rossetti uses the image of fire to indicate:

  • Destruction
  • Passion
  • Healing
  • Restoration.

(See Goblin Market > Imagery and symbolism > Fire). In A Better Resurrection, fire is used as a symbol of purification and cleansing. The speaker wishes her old life to be transformed into something positive. Once in the fire, she suggests that her life will be pliable like wax and that it will be transformable in to a more appropriate shape so it is ready to hold the life that she believes the Holy Spirit brings. For further associations, see Fire

A royal cup for Him my King (l.23) – The image of ‘royal cup' contrasts with the ‘broken bowl' of the speaker's life. Throughout the Bible, the term ‘royal' is associated with God, since he stands for the ultimate King and ruler. The speaker recognises that she wants to offer Jesus her soul as an offering from which he can ‘drink' (line 24) and therefore, must allow herself to be transformed.

The image of the ‘royal cup' can also be associated with ideas of the chalice. This is the term used for the (often decorated) goblet or cup from which those attending Holy Communion drink the wine (sometimes mixed with water) which symbolises Jesus' blood (1 Corinthians 11:25).

Investigating imagery and symbolism

  • List all the images and symbols used in the poem
    • Which symbols appear the most unusual and why?
    • Do you think that Rossetti wants to surprise the reader?
  • How important are symbols conveying ideas of sight to the poem?
    • What things does the speaker fail to see?
    • What effect does the speaker's failure have on her emotions?
    • What does the speaker suggest will restore her sight?



The speaker claims that because her eyes are ‘dimmed with grief', she is unable to see the ‘everlasting hills' that God has created (lines 5, 6). Grief is an emotional response to the pain of loss. Although the speaker does not identify exactly what her initial loss was, she claims that her negative emotions mean that she is frozen to the spot emotionally and spiritually. She is unable to see beyond her present, distressing circumstances. She suggests, in the refrain of each verse, that only Jesus can alter her vision and create in her the new (or resurrected) life she needs. The description of eyes which are ‘dimmed with grief' is also suggestive of tears. This contradicts the opening of the poem when the speaker claims that she has ‘no tears'.


The speaker's claim that she has ‘no wit, no words, no tears' (line 1) emphasises the weariness she feels with her life. The comparison of her life to a ‘faded leaf' and a ‘husk' (lines 9, 10) reinforces the idea that it is empty and ‘void' (line 11) of any purpose. However, in the final verse, after describing her life as a ‘broken bowl', a hope arises in the speaker that she could not previously grasp. She suddenly has a vision of what it will be like to be transformed by Christ and given a purpose. This purpose, she suggests, will come from offering herself to Christ and living for him, her ‘King' (line 23), rather than for herself.  There is also perhaps hope in that the articulation of the speaker's grief proves that she does have ‘words' to process it and the ‘wit' (ability to think) to consider her circumstances.

Investigating themes

  • What do you understand the speaker to mean when she claims that her eyes are ‘dimmed with grief'?
    • How effective do you find this image?
  • How hopeful do you find the conclusion to the poem?
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