Uphill, Christina Rossetti
A few people have come to this site looking for an analysis of Christina Rossetti’s “Uphill”, so I thought I’d better provide one.
Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
Yes, to the very end.
Will the day’s journey take the whole long day?
From morn to night, my friend.
But is there for the night a resting-place?
A roof for when the slow dark hours begin.
May not the darkness hide it from my face?
You cannot miss that inn.
Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?
Those who have gone before.
Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?
They will not keep you standing at that door.
Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
Of labor you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me and all who seek?
Yea, beds for all who come.
“Uphill” is about death, heaven, doubt, and uses a question and answer structure. The structure and sense of being unworthy reminds me of George Herbert’s Love (III).
Line by line:
“Does the road wind up-hill all the way?”
Here are four ways of seeing this line. 1. Is this spoken after death? The soul is facing a mountain, and cannot believe the struggle in front of them, a kind of pugatory testing process? 2. Or is it spoken during life? That life is so exhausting, such a struggle, and we long for rest that will never come until death. 3. Is this the voice, instead, of the believer, the person who is happy to marching onwards, as long as she has hope there is something at the end, that the road keeps going up – the worst possible answer is that the road does not go uphill. Or, 4, could this be the voice of the poet, the artist, doubting her own potential?
The answer stands for all of them.
“Will the day’s journey take the whole long day?”
I find this hard to explain, beyond saying that it begins the theme of day and night in the poem. Day is our life, our struggle, our journey, and at the end, our strength gives out. The first speaker seems afraid of the challenge, but the second speaker softly affirms her worst hope – yes, it will take the whole long day.
How to keep going? Will there be somewhere I can finally rest? Yes, there will be somewhere to protect you when the night, whendeath begin. Does “slow, dark hours” remind anyone else of Emily Dickinson’s “Feels shorter than the Day“?
“You cannot miss that inn”. Here the reader from a Christian culture realises what the poem is talking about: I visualised an inn on a dusty mountain road glowing in the night. This is Heaven. The comfort is that the right way and the right resting place are both clear. When you get there you’ll know it.
The funny thing is that if these are two speakers, they keep misunderstanding each other. The first never seems to get that this is heaven being discussed, and the second seems playful, amused, dropping double meanings, keeping the first speaker guessing.
Wayfarers means travellers. All the first speaker’s questions are doubting, nervous; the second speaker’s answers are perfectly calm. When I read this aloud, I find myself stressing “that” from “standing at that door”, as if the second speaker is gently chiding the traveller’s worries (otherwise it feels strange to be repeating “that inn”, “that door” without a change in emphasis).
“Of labor you shall find the sum”.
I find this line the hardest of the poem. Is it suggesting that many hands have been at work in building Heaven – that all of human work has headed here – or that countless hands will be ready to comfort the weary new arrival?
“Yea, beds for all who come”.
This is powerful – everyone who seeks peace shall find it. It silences the first speaker – she has no more doubts. She must simply keep struggling, and the resting place awaits. The line is particularly powerful for the Protestant reader, who has been told of an exclusive heaven that only admits the elect few. You could see this as a refutation of Protestant doctrine – no, not just a few pre-ordained souls will rise to heaven, but everyone who wants it. Or you could see it as a very clear statement of the doctrine: the just shall live by faith, and to have faith is to seek heaven. You may not be personally worthy of heaven, but no one is, so you must only wish ardently for it, and live as best you can.
We could alternatively see this poem as an artist struggling to develop her craft, and a doubting self questioning when she will ever be able to rest, and a sure, deeper self knowing that everything will be fine.
On the rhythm and prosody of the poem. English is a language that relies on stressed and unstressed syllables for rhythm. A line like
From morn to night, my friend
has six syllables, but three sound stronger than others — heavier:
From MORN to NIGHT, my FRIEND
This is different to ancient Greek poetry, where the length of the vowels determine rhythm (dip versus deep), and different to say Japanese or Spanish where syllable stress is, I’m told, not so crucial. If you organise stressed syllables in lines in recurring ways, readers will quickly hear it. Many of the classics of English poetry are written in iambic pentameter: five stresses per line. This is TS Eliot, writing iambic pentameter in the Waste Land:
|‘My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me.|
|‘Speak to me. Why do you never speak? Speak.|
|‘What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?|
|‘I never know what you are thinking. Think.’|
I NEVer KNOW what YOU are THINKing. THINK.
So, what meter is Christina Rossetti using? Underneath “Uphill” runs an adapted ballad rhythm, which traditionally goes four stress three stress four stress three stress, but which Rossetti seems to have changed to five three five three, and of course she is mixing things up, bringing back the standard rhythm just frequently enough to keep it in our ears, but always then moving away from it.
How might this sound? To make the meter more distinct, I’ve recorded myself reading this poem (on slightly dodgy equipment) two different times. The first reading treats the poem as a dialogue between two speakers who happen to be using iambs / poetic rhythm. The second tries to really stress the meter, treating the poem as a block of rhythmic speech. Let me know if you can actually hear the difference.
Number one (here, there are two speakers, and they are talking to each other):
Uphill, read outloud, by me.
Number two (here, there is really one speaker, trying to stress the meter underlying the words, and thus sounding much more artificial):
Uphill, read outloud a second time, by me.
Information on the poet herself is on wikipedia, of course. If you liked this, try her harder poem: “Passing Away”.