'A Birthday'- Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery and symbolism

The imagery used in the first stanza draws on familiar natural objects but can also be read at another level in the light of Rossetti's knowledge of the Bible. In the second verse, the focus is on artificial objects hung, carved and worked by human hands. Various images in this verse demonstrate an awareness of traditional Christian art, as well as reflecting and celebrating human creativity.

Singing bird, photo by Steve Garvie, available through Creative CommonsA singing bird - To a ‘singing bird' (line 1), vocal expression is as natural as breathing. By speaking of her ‘heart' in these terms, the speaker indicates that her song forms a natural part of herself and is an overflow of her identity. The image of the singing bird is one which is often used in Romantic poetry. William Wordsworth emphasised the importance of expressing natural feelings when he argued that it was his intention to create a poetry which was a ‘spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings'. (See Literary context > Romantic poetry).

A watered shoot - By having a ‘nest' in a ‘watered shoot' (line 2), the speaker suggests that the sustenance upon which she can live and rest has been provided:

  • The word shoot alludes to the first stages of growth of a plant as it emerges from the ground. By describing a shoot as ‘well watered', the poem conveys ideas of lushness and fertility. However, rather than making a nest in a full grown tree, by making it in a shoot, the singing bird remains in a place of fragility, since it is easy to uproot or destroy a shoot
  • The idea of being watered has biblical connotations. In the Old Testament book of Isaiah, the believers in Jerusalem are encouraged by God's promise that he will guide them and provide for their needs:
The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs … You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Isaiah 58:11 TNIV

An apple tree - The image of the ‘apple tree / Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit' (lines 3-4) would be a familiar sight in an age more in touch with its agricultural roots than today

  • It recalls the imagery in Keats' Ode to Autumn. This begins by describing fruit ripe and ready on apple trees:
Season of mist and mellow fruitfulness
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round he thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
  • Mention of apples might also lead Rossetti's readers to think of the accounts of the first humans in the Garden of Eden before the Fall where they lived in perfect peace with nature and one another. It is also likely that Rossetti is alluding to the biblical concept of the Tree of Life. The writer of the Old Testament book Proverbs, declares that those who ‘lay hold' of this tree ‘will be blessed' (Proverbs 3:18).

Rainbow … halcyon - By speaking of her heart as a ‘rainbow shell / That paddles in a halcyon sea' (lines 5-6), the speaker provides an image of exuberant colour drifting at ease in tranquil waters.

  • According to the Bible, the image of the rainbow refers to the fulfilment of God's promises, when God helped Noah to escape the flood which wiped out the known world. He then set a rainbow in the sky as a promise that never again would such an event occur (Genesis 19:3)
    • It is possible that the speaker perceives that God's promises are being fulfilled in her life and wants to celebrate this
  • The term ‘halcyon' comes from the Greek myth of a bird (possibly a kingfisher) which was said to breed about the time of the winter solstice in a nest floating on the sea. According to ancient writers, it charmed the wind and waves so that the sea was especially calm during the period.
    • For English readers, the phrase ‘halcyon days' was associated with ideas of joy, prosperity and tranquillity
    • The poem's speaker uses the image of the halcyon sea to indicate the deep comfort and rest she has found.

By ending the first verse with the declaration that her ‘heart is gladder than all these' (line 7), the speaker indicates that descriptions of the natural world are incapable of fully expressing her exuberant emotional state.

Pathetic fallacy - The speaker of A Birthday uses the technique of pathetic fallacy when she gives emotions to the ‘apple tree' full of fruit and the ‘rainbow shell'. This is the treatment of inanimate objects, such as trees and houses, as if they had human feelings, thought or sensations. The term was invented by critic John Ruskin in 1856 when he wrote that the aim of the pathetic fallacy was ‘to signify any description of inanimate natural objects that ascribes to them human capabilities, sensations and emotions'.

The Temple - Rossetti draws on the imagery used in the Old Testament to discuss the Temple which symbolised God's presence with his people. For the Jews in the Old Testament, the Temple was the place where they met with God. A Birthday mentions purple hangings, carved fruit and statues of animals, which all figure in the descriptions of Solomon's Temple given in 1 Kings 6:14, 1 Kings 6:18, 1 Kings 6:29 and 2 Chronicles 3:14 and 2 Chronicles 3:16. See Temple, tabernacle.

More on the Temple: In the teachings of the early church, recounted in the New Testament, the idea of God's Temple shifts in meaning. Christians generally understand this Temple to be a model of an individual's heart, where God communicates with the human soul. This understanding comes from the New Testament teaching that every Christian believer is understood as a temple in which the Holy Spirit can dwell.

A Dais - The word ‘dais' (line 9) indicates a raised platform. The speaker seems to envisage a structure built in celebration of the return of her love. The ‘silk and down' from which it is made are materials of softness and luxury, as well as conveying lightness, which adds to the sense of uplifting that the poem conveys

  • ‘Dais' is also a word commonly associated with the raised part of a church upon which the altar and communion table are placed. Rossetti attended a high Anglican church (see Religious / philosophical context > Tractarianism) which emphasised the significance and symbolism of the structure of the church building and would have undoubtedly made use of a dais.

Royalty and nobility - The imagery of ‘vair', ‘purple', ‘gold', ‘silver' and ‘fleur-de-lys' (line 10) is imagery traditionally associated with royalty and nobility

  • ‘vair' is an expensive fur obtained from a variety of squirrel with a grey back and white belly. It was often used in the 13th and 14th centuries as a trimming or lining for garments and is associated with heraldry
  • The dye used to create purple tones was so expensive it was only available to the rich and therefore, became a colour associated with royalty
  • Precious metals are associated with crowns and other regalia
  • The fleur–de-lys is a heraldic symbol derived from the lily. It was often engraved on the armour of royalty.

Birds - Following the description of the singing bird in the first verse, the second alludes to representation of doves and peacocks on the dais.

  • Doves are used in the Bible to represent:
  • The description of ‘peacocks with a hundred eyes' (line 12) corresponds to a traditional and mythical understanding of the bird as a symbol of all-seeing God.

Investigating imagery and symbolism

  • List the imagery the speaker uses throughout the poem
    • Why do you think that she moves from describing the natural world to objects that have been man-made?
  • What ambiguous aspects are there in the imagery described?
  • Do you think that the symbolism that is drawn upon adequately reflects the speaker's joy?
    • What images would you use to reflect a state of joy you were feeling?
    • Do these images correspond to any in the poem?


Self-expression and the natural world

A Birthday is concerned with natural and spontaneous expression through song or poetry, beginning with the image of the ‘singing bird' (l.1). Poetry provides a natural outlet for the speaker's emotions.

Memory and forgetfulness

Memory is a sustaining force in this poem. In A Birthday, the speaker's joy in the arrival in her love is bound up in the memory of what he means or has meant to her. This hints at the notion that identity is founded upon memory and that self-awareness is constructed by the remembrance of a former self.

Earthly life and ‘life after life'

The images of new life in the natural world in A Birthday can be seen to allude to new life after death.

Investigating themes

  • List all the allusions to the natural world that the poem makes
    • How do these allusions correspond to the speaker's emotional state?
    • What do these allusions reveal about the purpose of the poem?
    • What do these allusions reveal about the identity of the speaker?
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