'Jessie Cameron' - Language, tone and structure

Language and tone


The dialogue between Jessie and her lover is argumentative. He cannot accept that she wants to be free of him. Their conversation is portrayed like the sea, with words being ‘flung to and fro' (line 102). As the tide becomes more and more aggressive, so the speech of the lover becomes louder and louder and more and more urgent (line 39).


Jessie is described as a ‘careless, fearless girl' who ‘makes her answer plain'. Her ‘mirthful', or joyful nature prompts her to take chances and sometimes become ‘heedless' or unthinking about what she says (lines 13-19). Her outgoing personality and her readiness to speak stand in direct contrast to traditional expectations of a Victorian maiden who is demure, timid and slow to speak. Her language to the boy who loves her is plain and firm. She reminds him of her desire to be free and recommends that he fixes his attention on some other girl instead.

The lover

The lover's language also challenges expectations of Victorian masculinity, which is often perceived as proud, self-serving and lacking in emotion. Much to Jessie's distaste, he begs for ‘one kind word' from her (line 41). Contrasted to her plain speech, his is said to be loaded with the ‘guile' or deceitfulness that he inherited from his grandmother (line 50). Although his ‘guile' does not convince Jessie to accept him, it does have disastrous consequences for both of them. The allusion to Jessie's ‘foot, which might have fled, but would not fly' (lines 47-8) can be seen as suggestive of her indecision but it can also be interpreted as the effect of a kind of spell the speech of her lover holds over her.


As the situation becomes increasingly desperate for the lovers, the speaker claims:

Neighbours here and neighbours there
     Heard one scream, as if a bird
Shrilly screaming cleft the air:-
     That was all they heard. (lines 81-84)

The implicit suggestion that the scream that was heard came from Jessie or from her lover as they were being washed away to sea increases the drama of these lines. The repeated S sound mimics the uncomfortable sound of a scream. The pause after the word ‘air', created by the punctuation, adds to the suspense of the narrative and imitates the intense awareness of quietness that often follows a period of screaming or loud noises.

The sibilance of the S sound is repeated throughout the rest of the following verse. Following the lament that no ‘lover's step sounds' anymore and that, although boats may ‘search upon the sea', the bodies will not be found (lines 87, 89), the speaker reflects that: 

  Sea-winds that shiver;
Sea-birds that breast the blast,
  Sea-waves swelling,
Keep the secret first and last
  Of their dwelling. (lines 93-96)

The continuing alliteration:

  • Replicates the monotony of the sound of the sea as its waves roll in and out without pause
  • Creates a hushed ‘shh' sound that reflects the silencing that Jessie experiences in death
  • Highlights the mystery of the story as the sea ‘for all its stir / Finds no voice' with which to tell it (lines 107-8).

Investigating language and tone

  • Find some other examples of sibilance and alliteration in the poem. What effect is created?
    • Consider how the words that are alliterated are linked
  • Compare the words of Jessie to the words of her lover. Do you notice anything unusual?
    • Do you empathise with either character?

Structure and versification


The regular abab rhyme scheme that continues throughout the poem reflects the regular sweeping tides of the sea which comes back upon itself before it moves forward.

Resembling the rhyme scheme of the traditional ballad, the rhyme in Jessie Cameron works to carry the story forward at a fast pace and emphasises the drama of the situation.


The rhythm of Jessie Cameron varies slightly from that of the traditional ballad which consistently uses alternate lines of tetrameter and trimeter. Throughout, lines in tetrameter are mixed with those in trimeter and occasionally a dimeter line is introduced, e.g., ‘They two alone' (line 38). In sections of the poem where the story-telling element predominates, the traditional metre of a ballad is used. For instance,

She was a careless, fearless girl,
And made her answer plain,
Outspoken she to earl or churl,
Kindhearted in the main (lines 13-16)

Using a mixture of iambic and anapaest feet, the poem rhythmically reflects the rising of the sea it describes. The iamb and the anapaest are both rising feet since the stress falls on the last syllable of the foot. The more urgent trochaic metre is used at points in the lover's address as well as in l.81-86 when the scream pierces the silence.


Throughout the poem, dashes are inserted at the end of lines to indicate pauses. They appear in the first few verses following the lover's questioning of Jessie and suggest a pause in the conversation where he is left in suspense before receiving her rejection. Later, dashes are inserted to indicate the uncertain movements of the sea. For instance, the sixth verse begins,

Alas for Jessie Cameron!—
     The sea crept moaning, moaning nigher:
She should have hastened to begone,— (lines 61-3)

Here, the pauses created by the dashes are suggestive of the suspense that is part of Jessie's encounter with death.

Investigating structure and versification

  • Re-read the fourth verse aloud and mark all the stresses
    • What do you notice about where the stresses fall?
  • How does the metre contribute to the delivery of the verse?
    • How does the metre correspond to the sweeping of the sea?
    • How does the metre correspond to the conversation between Jessie and her lover?
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