A Birthday - Imagery and Symbolism

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Imagery and symbolism

The imagery used in the first stanza draws on familiar natural objects but can also be read at another level in the light of Rossetti’s knowledge of the Bible. In the second verse, the focus is on artificial objects hung, carved and worked by human hands. Various images in this verse demonstrate an awareness of traditional Christian art, as well as reflecting and celebrating human creativity.

A singing bird - To a ‘singing bird’ (line 1), vocal expression is as natural as breathing. By speaking of her ‘heart’ in these terms, the speaker indicates that her song forms a natural part of herself and is an overflow of her identity. The image of the singing bird is one which is often used in Romantic poetry. William Wordsworth emphasised the importance of expressing natural feelings when he argued that it was his intention to create a poetry which was a ‘spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’. (See Literary context > Romantic poetry).

A watered shoot - By having a ‘nest’ in a ‘watered shoot’ (line 2), the speaker suggests that the sustenance upon which she can live and rest has been provided: •The word shoot alludes to the first stages of growth of a plant as it emerges from the ground. By describing a shoot as ‘well watered’, the poem conveys ideas of lushness and fertility. However, rather than making a nest in a full grown tree, by making it in a shoot, the singing bird remains in a place of fragility, since it is easy to uproot or destroy a shoot •The idea of being watered has biblical connotations. In the Old Testament book of Isaiah, the believers in Jerusalem are encouraged by God’s promise that he will guide them and provide for their needs:

The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs … You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Isaiah 58:11 TNIV
An apple tree - The image of the ‘apple tree / Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit’ (lines 3-4) would be a familiar sight in an age more in touch with its agricultural roots than today •It recalls the imagery in Keats’ Ode to Autumn. This begins by describing fruit ripe and ready on apple trees:

Season of mist and mellow fruitfulness
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round he thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
•Mention of apples might also lead Rossetti’s readers to think of the accounts of the first humans in the Garden of Eden before the Fall where they lived in perfect peace with nature and one another. It is also likely that Rossetti is alluding to the biblical concept of the Tree of Life. The writer of the Old Testament book Proverbs, declares that those who ‘lay hold’ of this tree ‘will be blessed’ (Proverbs 3:18).

Rainbow … halcyon - By speaking of her heart as a ‘rainbow shell / That paddles in a halcyon sea’ (lines 5-6), the speaker provides an image of exuberant colour drifting at ease in tranquil waters. •According to the Bible, the image of the rainbow refers to the fulfilment of God’s promises, when God helped Noah to escape the flood which wiped out the known world. He then set a rainbow in the sky as a promise that never again would such an event occur (Genesis 19:3) ◦It is possible that the speaker perceives that God’s promises are being fulfilled in her life and wants to celebrate this

•The term ‘halcyon’ comes from the Greek myth of a bird (possibly a kingfisher) which was said to breed about the time of the winter solstice in a nest floating on the sea. According to ancient writers, it charmed the wind and waves so that the sea was especially calm during the period. ◦For English readers, the phrase ‘halcyon days’ was associated with ideas of joy, prosperity and tranquillity ◦The poem’s speaker uses the image of the halcyon sea to indicate the deep comfort and rest she has found.

By ending...
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