Christina Rossetti, selected poems Contents
- A Better Resurrection
- A Birthday
- A Royal Princess
- At Home
- Cousin Kate
- Despised and Rejected
- Goblin Market
- Good Friday
- Jessie Cameron
- Maude Clare
- Shut Out
- Song (When I am dead, my dearest)
- Summer is Ended
- The Convent Threshold
- The Lowest Place
- To Lalla, reading my verses topsy-turvy
- Winter: My Secret
'L.E.L ' - Language, tone and structure
Language and tone
Rossetti adopts the voice of L.E.L. and uses it to evoke sympathy for the heartbroken poet. She also uses it to explore the difficulties L.E.L. faced and to offer her own Christian interpretation and solution to these difficulties.
The voice that Rossetti gives L.E.L. can be classified as lyrical in view of its immediacy and its primary focus on emotion. Speaking directly to the reader or listener, Rossetti's L.E.L. conveys the unhappiness of the poet's situation without describing the details that caused it.
Rossetti contrasts the freedom of the birds, bees and rabbits (lines 6, 19, 20) to the confinement suffered by L.E.L., who cannot live a life of natural simplicity. The poem recognises that spring is traditionally a time of hope and new life. A sense of irony is created in that, whereas spring ‘sets the world astir' (line 21), L.E.L.'s life remains the same, despite the disappearance of the ‘winter frosts' (line 5).
Investigating language and tone
- Why do you think that Rossetti later chooses to have L.E.L. as the speaker of the poem?
- Considering that the poem was composed over twenty years after L.E.L'.s death, what effect does this have?
- Write down the places in the poem where the voice changes.
- Why do you think that a change in voice is important at these points?
Structure and versification
‘My heart is breaking for a little love'
The phrase: ‘My heart is breaking for a little love' recurs with variation in the fourth line of each stanza and is highlighted by the poem's epigraph. This immediately characterises L.E.L. as a poet who is downtrodden and suffering, categorising her as a vulnerable and emotional woman. Discussed in the third person in stanza five, in the sixth stanza a sympathetic angel addresses the speaker directly: ‘O thou, heart-broken for a little love'.
This repetition offers a structure to the poem as a whole and demonstrates the movement from critical distance to consolation that the poem encourages the reader to make. It also demonstrates artistic control. By using repetition, the poem reflects the tight control that L.E.L. was required to keep over her own person. The slight changes to the line in the fifth and the sixth stanza can perhaps be seen to show the very minimal movements that L.E.L. could make regarding the expressing of her true emotions. Rather than demonstrating her as helpless and completely vulnerable, this precision in the repetition could be understood to indicate strength of character that kept overwhelming emotions contained.
Repetition within lines
Throughout the poem, Rossetti uses the same word twice on a line to emphasise certain feelings and to highlight the contrast between the natural world and the artificial world that L.E.L. inhabits. For instance, the second stanza begins:
I find no nest, while nests are in the grove (l.8-9)
The repetition in each of these lines can be seen to reflect the movement from negation to acceptance that the entire poem demonstrates. It also draws attention to the fact that the things the speaker lacks are accessible to the rest of the world. She recognises that although she feels no spring or finds no nest, these things can be easily grasped when a person is not shut within the artificial world in which she is confined.
Alliteration and assonance
L.E.L. is full of alliteration. This is especially apparent in the trimeter feet and reflects the movement that they are used to describe. For instance, the fluid descriptions, ‘Rivulets rise and run' (line 13) and ‘beehives wake and whirr' (line 18), reflect the energy and pace of the changing natural world. This is also conveyed by the frequency of light, short I sounds. By contrast, the long A assonance in the first two lines of the final stanza conveys the heavy sentence that patience imposes.
Whilst most of the poem is composed using lines of pentameter (five feet) and tetrameter (four feet), the fifth and sixth lines of each verse are written using a trimeter (three feet) pattern (see How poetry works > Metrical feet).
Since they are upbeat and rhymed, the trimeter feet work in each stanza to speed up the reading of the poem and offer a light contrast to the sadness and grief that is expressed. Their tripping beat can be linked to the phenomena of nature they describe such as the pairing of birds (line 6), the whirring of beehives (line 18) and the sprouting of green lavender (line 26).
The rhyme scheme is constant throughout the entire poem. With each verse beginning with an alternating scheme followed by a triplet (ababccc), the song-like aspects of the poem stand out. Many of the rhymes are picked up again in later stanzas, building the sense of how the interlinked creation is developing.
Love features at the end of the fourth line in each verse. It is combined with rhymes and half rhymes throughout to give it extra meanings and emphases.
Investigating structure and versification
- Find instances of repetition in the poem
- How do these instances affect your reading of L.E.L.?
- Look at the punctuation throughout the poem. Write down any points you find interesting.
- Note that many of the lines are divided by colons and commas. For instance, ‘All love, are loved, save only I; their hearts / Beat warm with love and joy' (lines 15-16). What is the effect of this punctuation?
- How does the punctuation emphasise meaning and highlight tensions?
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