'Up-hill' - Synopsis and commentary


The speaker is a traveller who questions a guide about the journey that s/he is on. S/he asks and receives answers, about whether:

  • The journey will ‘wind up-hill all the way' (line 1) and take all day (yes)
  • S/he will recognise the place to rest (it is impossible to miss it)
  • There will be others on the journey (yes)
  • A kind reception awaits (a ready welcome, with comfortable beds for everyone).

Investigating Up-hill

  • Up-hill was immensely popular with early readers. Why do you think that so many people enjoyed this particular poem?
  • What do you think that the poem is about?



Rossetti composed Up-hill in 1858 and first published it in Macmillan's Magazine in 1861. The following year, she used it to conclude the section of non-devotional poetry that forms the first half of Goblin Market and Other Poems.

Up-hill was the first poem that Rossetti contributed to the magazine but, after its publication, she contributed several more. By having samples of her work printed in periodicals such as Macmillan's Magazine, Rossetti widened her readership significantly.

More on periodicals: Macmillan's Magazine was founded in 1859 and was one of the most significant literary and intellectual periodicals of the Victorian era. A periodical is a magazine which is issued at regular intervals throughout the year. The Victorian period saw a rise in the publication and readership of periodicals as literacy widened and the growing middle classes had more leisure time.

Periodicals often contained serialised fiction, poetry, articles and reviews. Rossetti wrote poetry for several literary and intellectual periodicals during her career.


Up-hill's ambiguity has meant that it has been widely discussed and analysed. The insistent questioning of the speaker coupled with an uncertainty about how readers are to interpret the answers that are given means bringing to the poem one's own experiences and beliefs. For instance, the ‘inn' and the ‘beds' (lines 8, 16) can be understood in various ways.


The speaker's journey can be interpreted in several ways:

  • It can be seen as the journey from life to death. Throughout her poetry, Rossetti uses the image of day to symbolise life and night to symbolise death. Considering that the traveller is contemplating a journey from ‘morn to night' (line 6), this reading can be understood in the context of Rossetti's devotional poems
  • It can be seen as the journey of life. It is possible that the speaker is asking whether life will get any easier once more experience has been gained
  • It could be understood to indicate the journey that some believe everyone faces after death. This reading corresponds with the doctrine of purgatory.
More on purgatory: For centuries, Catholics have believed that there are three realms that souls can go to after death: heaven, hell and purgatory. They taught that purgatory is a place that souls go in order to prepare for heaven and receive cleansing for their sins. The fact that Up-hill speaks of ‘beds for all who come' (line 16) suggests that the destination of the journey of the speaker is not simply heaven but is instead a place of waiting. However, the notion of rest does not fit smoothly into the idea of receiving punishment.


The traveller asks whether she shall meet ‘other wayfarers at night' as she travels. The word ‘wayfarer' means traveller and is used to describe those who travel on road by foot.

The sum of labour

The traveller is told that, when she reaches the inn, she will ‘find the sum' of her ‘labour' (line 14). The idea that rest from the difficult labours of life can be found beyond the grave is one that the New Testament writer John considers in Revelation, the last book of the Bible.

Then I heard a voice from heaven say, ‘Write: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on'.
 'Yes', says the Spirit, ‘they will rest from their labour, for their deeds will follow them'. Revelation 14:13 TNIV

Investigating Up-hill

  • What are the difficulties and dangers of travelling long distances on foot?
    • In these circumstances, how comforting is it to meet other people who are in the same situation?
  • With which of the speaker's questions do you most sympathise?
  • How comforting are the answers she receives, do you think?
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