'To Lalla, reading my verses topsy-turvy' - Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery and symbolism

Hieroglyphs, photo by Ad Meskens, available through Creative CommonsEgyptian hieroglyphics - Rossetti suggests that, for Lalla, the printed word in English appears as confusing as Egyptian hieroglyphics are for most English people. Following the capture of Egypt from the French in the Napoleonic wars, there was increasing interest in all things Egyptian in England and much scholarly energy dedicated to understanding the ancient language – helped by a full translation of the Rosetta Stone being finally made in 1858.

The word hieroglyphs, from which the term hieroglyphics is derived, comes from two Greek words: ‘hieros' meaning holy and ‘glyphe' meaning writing.
The fact that Egyptian hieroglyphics consist of lots of pictorial representation means that they often convey their meaning visually. In the poem, Rossetti asks Lalla, who is busy trying to make sense of a book, what ‘those marks convey' (line 12). She wonders if Lalla can make sense of the appearance of the ‘English hieroglyphics' (line 5) on the page.

Books - In To Lalla, Rossetti suggests the different meanings and associations that the material object of the book can take on. She encourages Lalla to study the print on the page even though she may not be able to make sense of it. By doing this, she encourages her to develop a familiarity with the shape and feel of a book. At the end of the poem, she recognises that by taking possession of the book and by ‘reading' the printed words, Lalla has made it her own: instead of calling it ‘a printed book' she calls it ‘your book' (lines 4, 28). This draws attention to the process by which a reader engages with a book and thereby makes it his/her own property. It is the interaction of the reader with the words on the page that gives meaning to the printed words. In the case of Lalla, her interaction with the words may differ from an adult's, but Rossetti suggests that it is no less valid.

Investigating imagery and symbolism

  • Turn the poem upside down and note down the shapes and the forms that you notice
  • How encouraging do you think the narrator's voice is?
    • Why do you think that she encourages Lalla to ‘Read on' (line 29)?
  • In view of this poem, describe the act of reading.



The title, To Lalla, reading my verses topsy-turvy, suggests that it is Rossetti's poetry itself that Lalla is looking at in her attempt to read.

Saying that Lalla can find as much meaning upside down as the right way around, Rossetti highlights some of the visual elements that her poetry conveys. By speaking of the book as Lalla's own (line 28), she suggests that Lalla has taken possession of her own verses as she seeks to interpret them in Rossetti's way. It could be inferred from this that she is suggesting that once a reader engages with a poem, they are in possession of its meaning and the author's intention is no longer the most important matter.

Writing poetry for children

In her 1872 volume of poetry Sing Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book, Rossetti develops some of the ideas that she introduces in To Lalla. In this, she includes several poems meditating on the effects of death and the process of grief. Thus, she suggests that children are not immune to the intense emotions that adults experience and that they need to learn about the difficult aspects of life.

Rather than dismiss the questions that children ask as being immature and ridiculous, Rossetti takes them seriously and answers them as best she can. Her poem What do the stars do can be taken as an example of the question and answer format that many of her poems take.

What do the stars do
     Up in the sky,
Higher than the wind can blow,
     Or the clouds can fly?

Each star within its own glory
     Circles, circles still;
As it was lit to shine and set,
     And do its Maker's will.


Investigating themes

  • When you are reading a poem or novel, how important do you consider the author's initial intention to be?
  • What does Rossetti suggest that the adult reader can learn from Lalla's engagement with her book?
  • What similarities can you find between To Lalla and What do the stars do?
  • What differences can you identify between To Lalla and What do the stars do?
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.