Christina Rossetti “A Birthday”

For the second day of National Poetry Month, I offer one of my all time favorite poems, “A Birthday” by English poet, Christina Rossetti.

A Birthday
By Christina Rossetti

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.

I often teach with this poem, because I know it by heart and love to look at the faces of young students when I’m reciting it for them. Nothing commands their attention better than a poem read from memory, a true performance. There are also so many visual images, and some strange and bizarre words that make us laugh (click through “vair” to see what I mean, poor Sciurus vulgaris).  The poem lends itself to fruitful discussions of simile and metaphor, and is a convenient opening for a lesson about how our bodies have feelings that our minds sometimes are afraid to articulate.

Drop me a comment about this poem, or share one of your own.

314px-Geoffrey_of_Anjou_Monument with vair lined mantle

Enamel effigy of Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou on his tomb at Le Mans Cathedral, wearing a vair-lined mantel.


Prompt #21 Your Heart

Now that February is over, we can discuss poetry about the heart without succumbing to Valentine’s Day. There is so much poetry about the heart – and it’s not all about love: romantic, unrequited, historic, young, fevered, or forgotten. I’m working on a lesson plan for a group of patients with cardiac disease, and this opportunity to think about the heart in its many guises is wonderful and intriguing. Just looking up “poetry + heart” on my favorite poetry websites has been an adventure. Here are a few things I found.

  • A Birthday” by Christina Rossetti (which might be one of my favorite poems of all time). Many of you have heard me recite at the drop of a hat, “My heart is like a singing bird.” Hear it sung here.
  • Finding the Space in the Heart” by Gary Snyder, which includes this breathtaking moment:
    O, ah!
    awareness of emptiness
    brings forth a heart of compassion!
  • For years my heart inquired of me,” by Hafez, translated and with notes.
  • Heart” by Catherine Bowman, which worries about the heart in modern language of anguish, comparing it to an asp.
  • Sacred Heart” by Lee Briccetti, and speaks both of the valentine and about the heart’s physicality:
    “it was wet, like a leopard frog on a lily pad, / had long tube roots /”
  • Pericardium” by Joanna Klink, perhaps my favorite new find, which closes in this extraordinary way:
    “the way the body has always been waiting for the heart to sense / It is housed, it is needed, it will not be harmed.”

You get the picture. Many ways the heart has captivated artists, scientists and lovers throughout history. Many poems.

I’d like to encourage you to write about the heart. Try not to think about “love” per se, but of course, if it sneaks into your poem, that’s okay. Think about the heart as an engine – the miraculous things it does for your body. Think about your heart as an instrument – beating out the rhythm of your life. Think about the heart of someone else – how knowable is it? What about illnesses of the heart?

I’ll close with a sweet song I learned as a child, written (or at least recorded) by Shakespeare for The Merchant of Venice.  The little song is titled “Love” in some books, and suggests the beginning of love is the eyes, not the heart at all. There are many recordings and videos on YouTube, but this is the version I learned to sing as a teenager, though not quite like this.

TELL me where is Fancy bred,
Or in the heart or in the head?
How begot, how nourishèd?
Reply, reply.
It is engender’d in the eyes,
With gazing fed; and Fancy dies
In the cradle where it lies.
Let us all ring Fancy’s knell:
I’ll begin it,—Ding, dong, bell.
Ding, dong, bell.

The beautiful image at the top of the post is from the Spring 2014 issue of Stanford Medicine, a beautiful magazine.

Finally, here is another illustration from that magazine. I encourage you to read about “The Mysteries of the Heart” and how this most sturdy and intricate organ is “yielding to research.”

heart birds