'Jessie Cameron' - Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery and symbolism

The sea

Breakers, photo by Paul Buckingham, available through Creative CommonsThe sea is the central image of the poem. As Jessie's lover bemoans her lack of interest in him, the sea is described as ‘moaning' (line 6). Later, as they continue to converse, the breakers of the sea begin to sweep in ‘with moan and foam' (line 25). After creeping around Jessie's feet (line 68), the waves begin to rise higher and higher and are unstoppable. The power of the sea is reflected by the description of it ‘swelling', ‘pitiless' and ‘troubled' (lines 94, 97, 107).


Houses and homes are described throughout the poem and are considered in juxtaposition to the landscape of the beach. We are told that although Jessie's ‘home' was close at hand the rising of the sea meant it was out of reach. Her mother, standing in the ‘chimney nook' (line 77) does not turn to look outside when she hears a screech since she is safely sheltered where she is. The safety of the home stands in opposition to the danger of the sea.

Investigating imagery and symbolism

  • Note down all the references to the sea and the beach that you can find
    • What sort of representation do these references give of the forces of the natural world?
    • How do they add to the tone of the poem?
  • Re-read the characterisation of Jessie in the second verse. How does this characterisation correspond to the landscape in which she is depicted?



Jessie Cameron's plea to go her ‘own free way' (line 24) would have surprised many Victorian readers who did not believe that women should be free to do as they pleased but should accept an offer of marriage when it was given, whether or not they loved the man.

More on Victorian attitudes to marriage: Throughout the Victorian era, most girls were brought up to believe that it was their duty, when they reached adulthood, to get married and have children. With little choice over their own education, they were often taught domestic skills and trained to care for husbands and children.

It was not until 1870 and the introduction of the Married Women's Property Act, that married women were actually allowed to keep their earnings and inherit property. Before that, they, along with their possessions, were seen as the rightful property of their husbands.

Perhaps this Victorian attitude towards marriage contributed to the confusion of Jessie's lover who finds her free-will hard to accept. She claims that she had already told him ‘long ago' (line 21) that she will not accept him, but he finds this difficult to understand. By telling him, ‘For me you're not the man of men' (line 31), she suggests that remaining single is not her plan. Rather, it is meeting a man she can love and who is, for her, above all other men.


In the fifth verse, a suggestion is made that Jessie's lover ‘had gypsy blood' and was the grandson of ‘a black witch from beyond the Nile' (lines 49, 54).

More on gypsies: In the nineteenth century, gypsies travelled around the country pitching tents wherever they stopped. Gypsy women often made money from the locals by fortune-telling. They were generally feared by the Victorian public and considered with superstition.

The Nile is a major river in Africa, the longest in the world. By suggesting that the grandmother came from ‘beyond' the Nile, she is associated with mystery as well as with the belief that gypsies originally came from Egypt.

The grandmother is said to have ‘kept an image in a niche' which to she talked. A niche is a hollow made in a wall, often used to hold ornamental or religious objects. It suggests here a partial hiding away or illicit worship. The image to which the grandmother talks is not specified but, considering that she is described as a ‘black witch', it can be assumed that the neighbours suspected her of using this image to perform magic and cast spells.

The poem reveals that some people were scared to pass the home of the grandmother at night:

Lest they should hear an unked strain
    Or see an unked sight. (lines 59-60)

The word ‘unked' is an archaic, rural term denoting something that is unknown, unfamiliar or strange. It is a word often associated with unpleasantness or eeriness. Rossetti learned it from her uncle.

Investigating themes

  • Can you identify any indications that the neighbours the poem described were fearful of the grandmother?
  • What effect does the grandmother's presumed witchcraft have on the narrative?
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