In 8th grade, I was skeptical about all the stuff my English teachers the last few years had been saying about things like meaning and symbolism and all the rest of it. I would read a work, be it a poem or a story or whatever, and I’d just…mentally file it away as something I read. Then the teacher would do a lesson on what the piece meant, or what this thing signified–“On page 4 the hero plucks a chrysanthemum flower. What do you think this means?” Oh, I dunno, he likes flowers?–and this always bored me and made me wonder if the teachers were making all of this up.
Then, along came a poem called “Up Hill” by Christina Rossetti. She lived during the Victorian era, roughly contemporary with Tennyson (he was 20 years her senior, but he died in 1890 and she in 1894). I don’t recall the exact scenario, but I remember very clearly reading “Up Hill” in class and suddenly realizing that it’s about death: its inevitability, the fact that it cannot be avoided forever, and that it awaits us all. But Rossetti’s portrayal of death: an inn to which all come for rest “when the slow dark hours begin” is an encouraging one. The final mystery may not be such a terrifying one.
Of course, it’s too simplistic to boil this poem down to just “it’s about death”, but for a wet-behind-the-ears reader in 8th grade, it was a start. If nothing else, I started thinking that maybe, just maybe, my teachers were on to something with all this “symbolism” stuff.
“Up Hill” by Christina Rossetti
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 labour you shall find the sum.Will there be beds for me and all who seek?Yea, beds for all who come.