‘Cousin Kate’ by Christina Rossetti
‘Cousin Kate’ by Christina Rossetti
This Victorian poem is about the narrator (a fallen woman), the Lord and Kate. It is a ballad which tells the story from the narrator’s perspective about being shunned by society after her ‘experiences’ with the lord. The poem’s female speaker recalls her contentment in her humble surroundings until the local ‘Lord of the Manor’ took her to be his lover. He discarded her when she became pregnant and his affections turned to another village girl, Kate, whom he then married. Although the speaker’s community condemned the speaker as a ‘fallen’ woman, she reflects that her love for the lord was more faithful than Kate’s.
She is proud of the son she bore him and is sure that the man is unhappy that he and Kate remain childless. Some readers think that she feels more betrayed by her cousin than the lord. This poem is a dramatic monologue written in the Victorian era. Structure The poem is written in first person narrative. It has 6 stanzas of 8 lines: One stanza each on the narrator, the Lord and Kate; stanza 4 contrasts the position of the narrator and Kate; stanza 5 criticises Kate and stanza 6 focuses on the narrator’s triumph at having a child.
Each stanza is the same length and each line has a similar rhythm, giving it a ballad-like feel. It could also be conveying the strength and perseverance of the narrator who has to face life in conflict with the expectations of Victorian society. Note that the tone changes as the poem progresses – regret, accusation, bitterness, triumph. The rhyme scheme always connects the B (2nd line) of each couplet. E. g Stanza one – AB/CB/DB/DB. Sometimes the first line of the couplet is rhymed. The rhyme emphasises the last world to aid meaning.
The regular rhyme could also suggest that narrator has not only been dominated by the Lord (because men and in particular men of a higher social standing) but is also trapped with Victorian social conventions (she is now a fallen woman in conflict with the values of her society). Sometimes the first line is rhymed as in Stanza 3 – AB/AB/CB/AB. In this case the words ‘Kate’, ‘gate’ and ‘estate’ are stressed in order to convey the way Kate has been elevated from her position in society.
However in stanza 5 this rhyme of ‘true’ and ‘you’ contrasts the narrator’s strength of feeling with Kate’s. ‘Cousin Kate’ is written with an iambic rhythm. Generally, one line of the poem has three feet, and the next has four. The poem, therefore, generally follows the following pattern: da dum da dum da dum da dum da dum da dum da dum Iambic rhythms often follow the natural rhythm of speech, a little like a heartbeat. If we apply this to one of Rossetti’s lines, it reads as follows: “Because you were so good and pure”.
Therefore the meaning of the words is captured in the line as specific words are stressed. The repetition of: ‘Why did a great lord find me out’, conveys the anger and bewilderment of the speaker at her change of circumstances, whilst the phrase: ‘good and pure’ has a hollow ring by its second occurrence. Thereafter, repeated phrases are altered to highlight the contrasting situations of Kate and the speaker: The community ‘call’ Kate ‘good and pure’, but ‘call’ the speaker ‘an outcast thing’.
Kate ‘sit[s] in gold’, the speaker ‘sit[s] … in dust’. The image of dust connects to a life of poverty and also suggests how she has been soiled by society. Whereas ‘gold’ suggests that her cousin has riches. Kate’s fate is to ‘sit … and sing’, the speaker’s to ‘sit and howl’. This suggests the mental anguish that the narrator is experiencing at being abandoned whereas to ‘sing’ indicates that Kate is content. However, the speaker believes her ‘love was true’, while Kate’s ‘love was writ in sand’ suggesting that her love is stronger than Kate’s.
The echoed structure in the final stanza – that Kate has ‘not got’ and is ‘not like to get’ the gift of a child – emphasises the speaker’s sense of triumph. Language The speaker’s questions in the first stanza express her anger and confusion at the experiences she has had to endure: ‘Why did a great lord find me out… Why did a great lord find me out? ’ She suggests that before the arrival of the ‘great lord’, she was happy and ‘contented’ (line 3). She was not looking for a new situation in life.
It came unexpectedly. The idea that the lord filled her heart with care suggests that she had less to worry about previously. She is angry that he made her anxious instead of happy and took her away from her friends, her ‘cottage mates’ (line 3). She questions her cousin Kate in stanza 4 suggesting that she loved the lord whereas her cousin did not marry for love. The speaker addresses her questions, laments and moans to Kate. She begins the third verse, ‘O Lady Kate, my cousin Kate’ and the fifth, ‘O cousin Kate’.
Throughout, she employs a tone of accusation, repeatedly using the word ‘you’ as she compares Kate to herself. In the last four lines, the speaker draws her attention away from her bitterness at Kate and addresses her son. She calls him ‘my shame, my pride’ (line 45). The oxymoron highlights the conflict that she experiences at loving the Lord and her son but also knowing that she has defied moral convention. Through active and passive verbs Rossetti emphasises the powerlessness of women in Victorian society by associating the lord with a series of actions which take the initiative.
He ‘f[ound]’ the speaker ‘out’ / ‘praise[d]’ her / ‘lured’ her / ‘wore’ her / ‘changed’ her / ‘cast’ her ‘by’ / ‘fooled’ her. These are harsh actions, which become more ominous with regard to Kate. Like a stalker, the lord: ‘saw’ her / ‘chose’ her’ / ‘watched’ her / ‘lifted’ her ‘To sit with him’ / ‘bound’ her/ ‘won’ her / ‘bought’ her. Like a hunter, the lord ‘f[ound]’ the speaker ‘out’, ‘lured’ her, then ‘chose’ his next victim in Kate, whom he ‘watched’, then picked up (‘lifted’) and ‘bound’.
Both women are referred to as birds, with Kate seeming to be trussed and bound by her fine clothes and wedding ring. In ‘Cousin Kate’, the dove image draws on these ideas of hope and fulfilment and is a symbol of purity that stands in direct contrast to the contaminated state the speaker finds herself as she describes herself as ‘an unclean thing’ (line 15). However, she acknowledges that the tenderness associated with the dove is no match for Kate’s ‘stronger wing’.
Even though the speaker claims that she ‘would have spit’ and ‘[would] not have taken’ the lord, the fact that this is in the future conditional tense indicates that the reality of the situation is in fact very different – she will always be powerless. Alliteration is used throughout the poem: The soft innocence of the speaker before her life changed is conveyed by the soft M of ‘maiden’, ‘mates’ and ‘mindful’ in stanza 1 When the speaker claims that she was led to the lord’s house to lead a ‘shameless shameful life’, the sibilance in this line reinforces the joining together of oxymorons that these words perform.
It also reflects the hushed manner in which the speaker was ensnared by the lord, taken in, then later cast aside The speaker’s anger shines through the harsh consonants of ‘Lady Kate, my cousin Kate’ In the final stanza, the speaker emphasises the close bond she shares with her son when she asks that he ‘Cling closer, closer yet’ (line 46). The emphasis here highlights her fear and together with the repetition of the word ‘closer’, suggests that it is for her own comfort, as well as her son’s, that they remain together.
Strong images are used to convey the predicament of the narrator. She claims that the lord considered her as a ‘plaything’ (line 12) whom he could treat how he liked without any regard for her feelings. Much like the ‘silken knot’ (line 12) he wore around his neck (a cravat or tie), he treated her as a fashion accessory he could use and then cast away, rather than as an individual with her own needs. The speaker recognises that the lord ‘changed me like a glove’ (line 13).
He used her and moulded her into a shape that suited him and then, like a glove that no longer pleases, dispensed with her completely. A glove is an intimate and personal object that fits itself around its user. By describing herself as a glove, the speaker acknowledges that she lost sight of her own needs and desires in an attempt to please and suit the lord. Essay title: Explain how Rossetti creates sympathy for the narrator in ‘Cousin Kate’. Use examples from the poem to support your answers.