'Up-hill' - Language, tone and structure

Language and tone


Up-hill has a conversational tone as it recounts the dialogue between the traveller and the guide. By not including speech marks, Rossetti incorporates the conversation into the poem itself and structures the poem around it.

‘My friend'

The one who answers the traveller's questions refers to speaker as ‘my friend'. This gives rise to the interpretation that it is Jesus who speaks and comforts. Rossetti's original readership would be familiar with a conversation recorded by the gospel of John. Here, Jesus tells his followers,

You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because servants do not know their master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. John 15:14-15 TNIV


Catechisms are often in the form of questions followed by answers to be memorized, in order to teach religious doctrines. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer, with which Rossetti would have been familiar (see Religious / philosophical context > The Bible), contains several brief catechisms for the services of baptism and confirmation (see Catechism Catechism).

By basing Up-hill on a question and answer format,  Rossetti not only creates a conversational tone but also offers an imitation of the style contained in The Book of Common Prayer. By adopting an informal and intimate style, she appropriates the formal aspect of the catechism and makes it relevant for the contemporary Christian. By having the traveller ask the questions and a Christ-like voice answer them, she turns the structure of the catechism around and reinforces the notion that reassurance can be found when it is sought.

Investigating language and tone

  • How comfortable do you think the speaker is in asking difficult questions?
  • What indications can you find to suggest that the tone of the conversation is informal?
  • Can you identify any signs that the speaker asks the questions in a state of panic?
  • Compare the tone of the questioner to the tone of the respondent.

Structure and versification


The entire poem is structured around a series of questions. In each verse, the first and the third lines are given as questions and the second and fourth as answers. This conversational format is a feature of several poems included in Goblin Market and Other Poems including The Hour and the Ghost, The Three Enemies and Christian and Jew: A Dialogue. However, whereas those poems contain lines of dialogue, in Up-hill, by incorporating the conversation into such a tight structure, Rossetti leaves its meaning more open to the interpretation of the reader.


Each verse has an abab rhyme scheme. Using very simple words to conclude each line, the strong masculine rhymes are emphasised. The simplicity of the rhyming words conceals the difficult subjects of life, death and eternity which are alluded to.

The abab scheme suggests a movement that is ongoing but not straight-forward. The patterned repetition can be seen to reflect the winding or spiralling upward of the hill that the speaker describes. It is also reminiscent of the scheme used in a traditional ballad.


After the trochaic opening line, the metre of Up-hill is largely iambic. As in the line, ‘From morn to night, my friend' (line 4), the words which convey the most meaning are stressed. Alternating between pentameter and trimeter lines, meaning that each line has either five or three stresses, the rhythm that the poem creates is regular, replicating the ongoing pace with which the speaker climbs the hill she describes.

By breaking out of the regular iambic rhythm with which she loosely structures the poem, Rossetti emphasises certain phrases and draws attention to the sections of the speech which are uttered more passionately than others. For instance, by beginning the line, ‘Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?' (line 9) with a trochee, the doubt contained in the word ‘shall' is emphasised (similarly in l. 3, 13 and 15). In addition, by using the word ‘wayfarers' on the same line, a dactyl is created which slows down the rising and quick iambic rhythm of the rest of the poem.

Repetition and reinforcement

The uncertainty of all the questions culminates in the final stanza when the guide actually replays the speaker's words as reassurance:

  • ‘Shall I find..?' / ‘you shall find'.
  • ‘Will there be beds for me and all..?' / ‘Yea, beds for all'
    This is a technique often used by parents to comfort young children.

Investigating structure and versification

  • Look at the appearance of the poem on the page. What does the regular and formal looking structure suggest?
  • Re-read the poem aloud and identity places in which the iambic metre is broken
    • How does this affect the way the poem is read or understood?
    • What does it reveal about the questioner or the respondent?
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