Scroll down for the Top Grade analysis of A Birthday,  by Christina Rosetti, 1809

My heart is like a singing bird
      Whose nest is in a water’d shoot;
My heart is like an apple-tree
       Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit;
My heart is like a rainbow shell
        That paddles in a halcyon sea;
My heart is gladder than all these
        Because my love is come to me.

Raise me a dais of silk and down;
        Hang it with vair and purple dyes;
Carve it in doves and pomegranates,
                  And peacocks with a hundred eyes;
Work it in gold and silver grapes,
                  In leaves and silver fleurs-de-lys;
Because the birthday of my life
                  Is come, my love is come to me.

This is a difficult poem to write about because it seems so simple and repetitive. The poem is about how happy she is and she lists a lot of happy things. Aaargh!

So here’s what I wrote to answer the question:
How does the poet convey intense feelings in this poem?

Don’t want to read the answer? Listen to it instead:

The poem is structured like a hymn about love. The regular, alternate rhyme scheme adds to this. The two stanzas are in perfect balance, using the chorus-like refrain ‘my heart is’ and ‘my love is come to me.’ The first stanza lists a series of similes where Rossetti compares her feelings – ‘my heart’ to a series of images of the beauty of the natural world, increasing in rarity and beauty as the first stanza progresses.

The poet describes the intense feelings she experiences ‘because my love is come to me’. The possessive pronoun ‘my’ appears frequently, as if love is a possession. As we see later, the poet shows it is richer than any of the most luxurious possessions in the world. The use of the pronoun ‘me’ shows that the poem is very self-focussed. This poem is all about feelings – there are no real objects, only the rich sensations that her love conjures up in her imagination.

First, Rossetti compares her heart to a ‘singing bird’. The verb ‘singing’ evokes joy as great as song, which she elaborates with imagery of the ‘nest’ – a place of safety and fertility, which links to the idea of the ‘watered shoot’ – something which will grow. However, a watered shoot is small, and young. The next image is older and more substantial. The lush, fertile imagery continues in the motif of the ‘apple tree’ so full its ‘boughs are bent with thickset fruit’. This extravagantly plush ripeness suggests that the love she feels is growing, ripe and perfectly natural, simple and pure. The imagery of nature suggests intensely innocent and artless feeling.

The image of a ‘rainbow shell’ becomes more mystical, linked to the idea of a ‘halycyon’ or idyllic sea: the rainbow is not tangible, it is symbolic of shimmering beauty and of God’s promise to protect mankind. As the images increase in intensity, so does her feeling. In the last couplet of the stanza, her feeling increases even beyond these: as the use of the comparative ‘my heart is gladder than all these’ shows. This is an ecstatic, almost measureless joy at love: as if to say, her pleasure in her love is greater than anything she can put into words.

The mood in the second stanza shifts into a series of imperatives – commands: ‘raise me’ ‘hang it’, ‘carve it’, ‘work it’ as if she were an emperor. She demands exotic riches. ‘purple’ , ‘gold’ and ‘silver’ are precious colours suggesting material wealth, and the ‘fleur de lys’ is a symbol of kings. The fruits she asks for are exotic, rare and expensive consumables: ‘pomegranetes’, ‘grapes’ and she asks for exotic birds ‘peacocks’ and ‘doves’ in contrast to the more homely images of the first stanza with birds, apples and rainbows. This continues the effect that her love is growing in intensity – shifting from the everyday to the exotic and rare. The images chosen look back to the Victorian ideal of the medieval period as a pure, romantic age. The opulent imagery suggests an intense, rich experience.

Rossetti’s choice of the definite article over the indefinite emphasises this is not just like a birthday, it is ‘the birthday of her life’. We don’t normally say ‘the birthday’ so it stands out as an unusual phrase. ‘a’ birthday is a special occasion that happens yearly, but is one of many. ‘The’ birthday of her life is something huge: it’s the most important, special occasion of her life, and in the final line she uses both ‘me’ and ‘my’ to draw the focus of the feelings back into herself.