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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.
Up-Hill by Christina Rossetti is a sixteen line poem broken up into four stanzas with an ABAB rhyme scheme. Thematically, Up-Hill is a poem about the universally relatable concept of struggle. One of its unique qualities of this work is that she chose to write this from the perspective of two narrators. One narrator asks questions; the other narrator answers. The question line is followed by an answer line throughout so that the poem resembles a conversation between the two narrators.
The first line introduces us to the questioner narrator and the second line is the answer-giving narrator. You should notice that the lines from the questioner are longer and indicative of fatigue, whereas the answer lines are short and succinct. (As I read this, I imagined a loquacious child asking endless questions to his or her parent.)
In the first stanza, Rossetti appears to be drawing from the “uphill battle” idiom or the “walked to school and back uphill both ways” common parenting fable. It is clear immediately though that uphill represents struggle. In line three, Rossetti emphasizes the fatigue of the question-giver by adding an unnecessary syllable to the line. Had she left out either “whole” or “long” then line three would have matched line one with respect to syllables used. By inserting the extra syllable, she stretches the pacing of the line and gives us the narrator’s sense of fatigue.
In the second stanza, the conversation shifts to a focus on the journey’s end. The questioner worries about a place to rest and the answer-giver is not worried. Whereas the questioner wonders if it exists, or if they will see it, the answer-giver is certain of it and that they will not miss it.
In the third stanza, the questioner asks about the people who will be at the Inn and seems to wonder whether they will be welcome or allowed in. The answer-giver is again certain about the outcome. Line 12 gives us the longest reply from the answer-giving narrator, in the poem, saying, “They will not keep you standing at that door.”
The fourth stanza begins with an intriguing dialogue with the question-giver asking about finding comfort in the Inn and the answer-giver saying this: “Of labour you shall find the sum.” Comfort will equal the work? The Inn, then, is a place of restoration. The more restoration you need, the more will be provided. Then less needed, the less provided. And whoever heard of an Inn that did not have a capacity? Something more is going on here.
In my opinion, though she was being vague, Rossetti is describing the human life. The Inn at the top of the hill is death. The line where the answer-giver says “Of labour you shall find the sum” seems to imply, to me, that judgment awaits at the top. The answer-giver does not promise a reward; the answer-giver promises justice.