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.

Uphill

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.

Christina Rossetti

“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”.

Daniel

67 thoughts on “Uphill, Christina Rossetti”

    1. “Of Labour you shall find the sum”

      I think this to a an equation of ‘life’ I.e you get from life what you put into it. A ‘good life’ lived well and for others will result in a equal amount of spiritual bliss. (My phrasing may be a bit blunt). Basically it hints that you must earn rest and heaven…

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  1. I love the way you broke down this poem line by line, but I have asuggestion regarding the line “Of labor you shall find the sum”…. I believe that taken literally, it is confusing, but I believe that Rossetti is actually stating that one will find the sum their own labors – or that the “traveler” or seeker in this case will find their just rewards… What you do you think of this interperetation ? I’d love to hear your thoughts…

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  2. Thom:

    I like it.

    So , in that interpretation, the line is effectively saying,

    “Of [your] labour, you shall find the sum.”

    The question then is how it interacts with the previous line – the question, “Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?”

    Perhaps it is saying that the more you have worked, the more comfort you will find.

    PS I don’t believe in phrasing interpretations in terms of “what the poet actually meant”. I think that a piece of literature like this can be seen as a “meaning-rich thing”, and its power comes from its ambiguity. Sometimes, however, the difficulty of a poem’s language or ideas can prevent a reader from entering its palace of possible meanings, and so analysis becomes useful.

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  3. Kristy, sorry for the slow reply.

    I don’t have a definitive answer: there are two roles in the poem, the doubting voice and the certain voice. If you imagine an actual road, an actual hill, then the second voice becomes some resident of heaven. It seems more interesting to imagine the two voices are two sides of a believing person’s mind, and that faith is a journey through doubt. Something inside us is constantly afraid, something inside is always quietly sure of what is ahead.

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  4. WOW this is gonna help me so much on my homework assignment
    like the poems not that hard to understand, just hard to explain… so THANKS!

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  5. Wow! your really smart! I’m doing a research paper over Christina Rossetti and i found this really helpful! Thanks. :)

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  6. oh my, thank you soo much for writing this! it helped me out a lot…and quickly!! considering i have to have this done for tomorrows english test! so thanks a bunch. : )

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  7. Thanks! This helps me a lot!! But i would like to know what is the main issue that the poet is trying to convey to reader?
    Is it about the challeges that a person faces throught his/her life??
    and what does this phrase means “Those who have gone before.”???

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  8. Hi!
    I’m Italian and I don’t know anything about English prosody.
    So, could you help me about rhymes, iambic pentameter, stressed and non stressed syllables of this poem?
    Thank you so much!
    Ilaria

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  9. THANK YOU SO MUCH!
    With your help I passed an exam at University!
    my teacher was so happy about ideas that emerged from my essay!
    THANK YOU! :D
    Ilaria

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  10. How about the stylistic devices used please?
    could you tell us more about that?
    i think you are doing a great job!Keep it up
    thank you

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  11. Hi There,

    I thoroughly enjoyed this entry. I see you are living in Philadelphia. I moved from Philadelphia ( I am a a native) to Northern California last year. Not sure if you’ve been in Philly long but I hope you are enjoying!

    Peace

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  12. I don’t ever remember why i ‘google’d this poem……and it is just as well. After reading this post, i’m actually speechless. Beautiful work Daniel…..and with one of my favourite poems.
    p.s. Have you checked out the site poetry-chaikhana.com?? It’s all about spiritual poetry from round the world (mainly the ‘silk route’)
    You might like it…… (you might love Ivan too, the way i do!! :p)

    http://www.poetry-chaikhana.com/index.html

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  13. Thanks so much for your help I am writing a 1500 word analytical essay on this poem as well as Roberts Frosts poem The road not taken. I am to analyize both and write the essay accordingly. Any suggestions you have would be great. Thaks again.
    Shawna Reynolds.
    Heald College
    stockton ca

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  14. In about 200 words, identify the feeling described in “Up-Hill”, and describe the last time you felt like the person in the poem. Write one paragraph for each of your main points. Try to use connecting words at the end or beginning of each paragraph. Summarize and conclude in a conclusion paragraph.

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  15. I knew it was for a reason I ended up in your class! So, this time let me be a bit more polite and say: “I am very honored to meet you and to be a pupil of your craft!”
    I am looking forward to every discussion, because you make me leave always with more room for thought.

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  16. Thanks a lot for your explanation.But i would like to ask u what is the significance of the line-”you cannot miss that inn.” I mean why the person will not miss that inn?

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  17. Rimi: I take the “inn” to represent heaven. The first speaker asks whether darkness will hide the resting place–what if she walks all that way and doesn’t find it? The word “cannot” suggests that this is a place so bright and glowing it can’t be hidden. “That” suggests this is a singular place, the only one that the traveller will find.

    Also–to me, the second speaker seems wry, ironic, amused at the question, and the questioner’s anxieties. Therefore “inn” is an ironic term for heaven, as if the second speaker is just playing along with the road metaphors the first speaker has initiated. The second speaker has knowledge that transcends the first speaker’s nervous, practical view of things, who never figures out (until perhaps the last line) the second speaker’s calm ironies.

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  18. glad to have ur expanation.will u please review the following poems——- 1.The owl by Edward Thomas and 2.The Hero by Siegfried sasson

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  19. I think it is about a dying person who is questioning his/her pending death. The person wants reassurance about what awaits at the end of the journey/life.

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  20. I noticed that someone asked about the meaning of the inn at the end of the uphill journey. Walking uphill is more tiring and difficult than walking on an even path or down hill. The one who responds in the poem says it will be uphill all the way. I think the inn seems friendlier than a hotel or motel. An inn would have a fire in a fireplace to warm a weary traveler, food to nurture him/her, a welcoming bed for the exhausted, compassionate people to welcome the newcomer. Old friends to greet him/her.

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  21. I think that “of labor you will find the sum” means that we will reap what we sow. And, the beds for all will be graves. We all have one waiting for us somewhere. It may be in the ocean, desert, churchyard or cemetery, but there is one for us.

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  22. PLEASE ,m confusd with the line ‘they will not keep you standing at that door’…i’d be rely thankful if the line be explaind in a simple manner

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  23. The door is the gate to paradise. When it is time for you to die the door/gate will swing open and Saint Peter will greet you. If you are non Christian then someone else will welcome you.

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  24. I would like to amend my version. The door is the door to Eternity and it will swing open at the appropriate time. There will be two paths after the door is opened. If you have been a good and decent person, doing the best you could with the hand dealt you, then you take the path to Paradise. If you have been a despicable person, your path will be to Hades.

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