'A Royal Princess' - Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery and symbolism

Cattle - The king regards the men he rules over as being no better than the beasts and crops farmed in his kingdom:

  • His daughter describes him ‘setting down with equal pen / So many head of cattle, head of horses, head of men' (lines 28-9)
  • He is happy to see the men and women of the country ‘trodden down like mud' (line 36)
  • When they rebel, the king considers them a ‘rank crop' that ‘must be mown' (line 72).

The princess' awareness of the famine comes when she overhears that ‘There are families out grazing like cattle in the park'. Given no more respect than animals, they have to resort to grazing whilst the royal family live in luxury and enjoy flowers that are ‘costly' because they are imported from other climates. During the Irish Famine of 1847-8, there were reports that those who were starving actually resorted to eating grass.

Dove - The speaker describes herself as a ‘poor dove that must not coo' (l.6). Doves are used in the Bible to represent:

By describing herself as a silenced dove, the princess acknowledges her potential to be an agent of reconciliation and peace and a person who is open to the leadings of the Holy Spirit. However, as long as she remains confined in her father's palace, she suggests that her potential cannot be realised.

Eagle in flight, photo by Mehmet Karatay, available through Creative CommonsEagle - The speaker describes herself as an ‘eagle that must not soar' (l.6). Eagles are massive birds of prey, which they need to soar and glide on air currents. By describing herself as an ‘eagle that must not soar', the princess suggests that her nature is being quashed and diminished. Just an eagle who is forbidden to soar cannot properly survive, by being kept in the palace the Princess cannot lead a life she would consider worth living.

Vulture - The princess describes the counts and the princes who serve her father as ‘valiant lords whom the vulture knows' and on whom he swoops down to destroy. Vultures are birds who feed mostly on the carcasses of dead animals. By linking them to the rich, the princess associates the dead animals which vultures feed on to those people that the wealthy persecute. She hints that her father can be compared to the vulture which destroys when she recognises how he is destroying the livelihood of the starving people who clamour for his attention beyond the palace.

Mirrors - The princess declares that because all her walls are ‘lost in mirrors', she sees herself ‘in every place' (lines 10-11). She later looks in a mirror only to find herself looking ‘old and haggard in the face' (line 43). Mirrors feature frequently in Victorian poetry. For example, in Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem, The Lady of Shllott, when the lady turns away from her mirror to see the knight she glimpses in the mirror whilst she is weaving, she is doomed. One of Rossetti's later poems is called Mirrors of life and Death.

Flood imagery and the symbolism of Noah's ark – In stanza 12, the princess speaks of pity for the population overwhelming her ‘like a flood'. Later, she overhears some people inside the palace discussing Noah's arkin whispers the situation outside. They are becoming worried about the severity of the famine that is occurring and declare ‘A pair of peasants must be saved, even if we build an ark' (line 63). In the Old Testament Book of Genesis, Noah builds an ark as a place of shelter from the floods which God tells him will cover the entire earth. See Aspects of literature > Big ideas from the Bible > Noah and the flood. By suggesting the need for an ark, the people in the poem hint at the desperate nature of the situation many find themselves in. When the famine is later described as a ‘deluge', the associations between the universal flood as described in Genesis 6-9 and the situation of the poor who are starving outside the palace walls becomes more apparent.

Investigating imagery and symbolism

  • How effective do you find the bird imagery in the poem?
    • What further allusions can you find to birds throughout the poem? Think especially of the notion of ‘cooping' (line 60) or of being contained.
  • What do you think that the princess means when she claims that all her walls are ‘lost in mirrors'?
    • What effect does this have on her understanding of her own identity?
    • What does it prevent her from seeing?



Throughout the first part of the poem, the princess laments her isolation and loneliness. She has no-one which is how she can share her plight and is so secluded. All she can do is look upon her own ‘self-same seeking face' (line 12). As a member of the royal family, she suggests that it is impossible to make friends with anyone not of an equal position. She claims that those that work for the King are her ‘courteous servant[s]' and none of them, her ‘mate' (lines 24-25).


The poem raises the question as to where loyalties lie: with parents or with serving God and seeking justice? Ultimately, Rossetti suggests that, if one's parents do not conform to a pattern of justice that is fair and non-oppressive, one should rebel:

  • The only things we hear about the speaker's mother is that she is ‘sad' (line 81) and that she ‘tarrieth' (line 97). She is not shown to be a good example to the princess as she encourages her to sit and sew useless objects whilst people starve outside the palace
  • The King is presented as a tyrant. Although he is shown to be kind to his daughter and wife, he has no care for those over whom he rules.

Although the princess overhears the threat against her father:

‘Sit and roast there with your meat …
Sit on your throne and roast with your crown'.

It is not to his aid that she comes, but to that of the people.

Investigating themes

  • How do you interpret the penultimate line?
  • What comments about society do you think that the poem is making?
  • What comments do you think that the poem is making about the value and significance of human life?
  • In what way are these comments relevant for the twenty-first century citizen?
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