'Good Friday' - Language, tone and structure

Language and tone


To pray is to communicate, either aloud or in the heart, with God. Since, throughout the poem, the speaker addresses Christ, the poem itself can be read as an example of prayer.

The speaker begins with a plea. Addressing Christ, s/he asks how it is that s/he can stand beneath the cross and not weep. At the end of the poem, s/he presents a request that Christ would ‘smite a rock' (line 16). It can be inferred, from the earlier imagery of the stone, that this rock symbolises the speaker. However, by leaving it open to interpretation, Rossetti allows the reader to reflect on the biblical examples of God expressing his power and strength and to imagine the rock as something relevant to his or her own situation. In this, she enables Good Friday to take the form of a corporate prayer that, although uttered by many people simultaneously, is given a different personal relevance by each individual.

Investigating language and tone

  • The speaker addresses Christ in ‘O Christ' (line 2). What is the effect of the ‘O' on this line?
    • How does it contribute to the tone of the poem?

Structure and versification


Whilst the rhyme pattern of the first two stanzas runs abba, the pattern of the final two runs abab. This change in the pattern can be seen to reflect the change that the speaker undergoes as s/he engages with the account of the crucifixion and the speaker's reference to Christ being greater than Moses.

By enclosing rhyming couplets within the centre of the first two verses, Rossetti structurally expresses the entrapment that the speaker feels as s/he attempts to break out of his/her numb state and to become more like a sheep than a stone. As s/he comes closer to a realisation that God is powerful enough to ‘smite a rock' (line 16) and therefore, powerful enough to enable him/her to feel, the structure of the poem changes to reflect this. Whereas the scheme abba reflects a static position, the scheme abab suggests an onward movement and progression.


The predominant rhythm of the poem is iambic with the stresses falling on syllables that convey emotion or express uncertainty. For instance, in the first two lines, the pronoun ‘I' is stressed twice, along with the words ‘stone', ‘not', ‘sheep' and ‘stand'. The repeated spondees of ‘Not so' break the flowing rhythm, whilst those in l.11 (‘great dark(ness)' and ‘broad noon') add to the heaviness of the situation.

With the stress falling on the ‘s' sound of the words stone, sheep and stand Rossetti uses sibilance to create a repetitive and weary tone which appears to be voicing questions that have already been asked many times before. In the final verse, the sibilance is repeated but for a different effect. In the plea, ‘But seek Thy sheep, true Shepherd of the flock', the ‘s' sound is again stressed but, by culminating it in the word ‘flock', the speaker expresses an end to her monotonous questioning. The change from the stressed ‘s' to the ‘f' expresses the change that the speaker undergoes as s/he finds comfort in becoming a part of God's ‘flock' rather than remaining a restless outsider.

In the third verse, the line, ‘I, only I' uses the form of the dimeter foot. The two stressed I's at each end imitate the sense of entrapment the speaker feels as s/he is confined by the inability of feeling and experiencing the emotions described in the biblical narrative.


Commas are used within lines to make the reader pause. They often create a break between one statement of feeling or expression and another. In the line, ‘That I can stand O Christ, beneath Thy Cross' (line 2), the commas act as caesurae which reinforce the halting and uncertain voice of the speaker as s/he expresses complex emotions. In the final verse, commas are again used but here they express certain changes in emphasis:

But seek Thy sheep, true Shepherd of the flock;
Greater than Moses, turn and look once more (lines 14-5)

Both these lines express the movement the speaker makes towards Christ. Following the commas, both lines articulate the ‘turn' that enables the speaker to experience the love, grief and bitterness felt by those described in the biblical narrative.

Investigating structure and versification

  • Read through the poem aloud. Identify any links between the words that are stressed and the emotion they express
  • Look at the shape of the poem on the page. What do you notice?
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