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Poems for study » Cousin Kate » 'Cousin Kate' - Language, tone and structure

Language and tone

An implied audience

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).

Anger and anxiety

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,
And praise my flaxen hair?
Why did a great lord find me out
And fill my heart with care? (lines 5-8)

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).

The speaker later expresses her anger when she declares that, if she had been in her cousin's place as the marriage choice of the lord, she would ‘have spit into his face / And not have taken his hand' (lines 39-40). Her emotions are incredibly strong and the violence of her anger is expressed through her imagination.

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:

These are harsh actions, which become more ominous with regard to Kate. Like a stalker, the lord:

The women are even confined by the labels they are given by society (called ‘good and pure' or ‘outcast').

By contrast, until stanza 5 the women are the passive recipients of these actions and are associated with verbs of being or response, rather than of action:

Investigating language and tone

  • Where do you think that the speaker's anger really lies?
    • Do you think the accusations she throws at her cousin are justified?
    • Do they create a sense of sympathy for the speaker?
    • Why do you think that the poem is not addressed to the lord himself?

Structure and versification


Alliteration is used throughout the poem:

Repetition and contrast

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 entire poem is written within an unrelenting rhyme scheme. Within each verse, the final word of even lines all rhyme with one another. Around this rhyme scheme, other rhymes are introduced.

In the final verse, the rhyme scheme runs abcbdbeb. Whereas most stanzas have some odd lines rhyming, none of them do in here, making the individualised words stand out more. ‘Ring' and ‘one' (lines 43, 47) are both words which usually signify unity, but the situation the speaker describes does not have a unified happy ending and the wedding-ring she speaks of does not symbolise the union it traditionally stands for.


Cousin Kate is written in the form of 3 and 4 foot iambic trimeters and tetrameters. This allows the poem to be read at speed and enables a more pronounced rhythm to develop that would be impossible in a poem consisting of longer lines.

The ballad-like qualities of the rhythm reflect the morals or ideas that her speaker wishes her tale to convey.

Investigating structure and versification

  • Note down the rhyme scheme for the entire poem. Do you notice anything interesting about it?
    • How, if at all, does it change as the poem develops?
  • Look more closely at the rhyme scheme in the second verse. What is the effect of rhyming the words ‘love', ‘glove' and ‘dove?'
    • How does linking these words together contribute to the message the speaker is giving?
  • Read the fourth verse aloud and look closely at the rhythm it creates. Which words are more pronounced than others?
    • Do you notice anything unusual?
  • Read the fourth line again. How, if at all, does the rhythm of this line reflect the mood of the speaker?
The technical name for a verse, or a regular repeating unit of so many lines in a poem. Poetry can be stanzaic or non-stanzaic.
Alliteration is a device frequently used in poetry or rhetoric (speech-making) whereby words starting with the same consonant are used in close proximity- e.g. 'fast in fires', 'stars, start'.
term used to describe lines of verse in which 's' or 'z' sounds are enhanced
A Figure of speech in which two apparently opposite words or ideas are put together as if they were in agreement.
A group of syllables which constitute a metrical unit within a line of poetry. In English poetry this includes stressed and unstressed syllables.
A term used of speech rhythms in blank verse; an iambic rhythm is an unstressed, or weak, beat followed by a stressed, or strong, beat. It is a rising metre.
A line of verse of three feet or stresses.
A line of verse consisting of four metrical feet (in modern verse) or eight feet (in classical verse).
Traditional poem or song, usually consisting of quatrains with abcb rhyme and iambic tetrameters.

I was a cottage maiden
Hardened by sun and air
Contented with my cottage mates,
Not mindful I was fair.
Why did a great lord find me out,
And praise my flaxen hair?
Why did a great lord find me out,
To fill my heart with care?

He lured me to his palace home -
Woe's me for joy thereof-
To lead a shameless shameful life,
His plaything and his love.
He wore me like a silken knot,
He changed me like a glove;
So now I moan, an unclean thing,
Who might have been a dove.

O Lady Kate, my cousin Kate,
You grew more fair than I:
He saw you at your father's gate,
Chose you, and cast me by.
He watched your steps along the lane,
Your work among the rye;
He lifted you from mean estate
To sit with him on high.

Because you were so good and pure
He bound you with his ring:
The neighbors call you good and pure,
Call me an outcast thing.
Even so I sit and howl in dust,
You sit in gold and sing:
Now which of us has tenderer heart?
You had the stronger wing.

O cousin Kate, my love was true,
Your love was writ in sand:
If he had fooled not me but you,
If you stood where I stand,
He'd not have won me with his love
Nor bought me with his land;
I would have spit into his face
And not have taken his hand.

Yet I've a gift you have not got,
And seem not like to get:
For all your clothes and wedding-ring
I've little doubt you fret.
My fair-haired son, my shame, my pride,
Cling closer, closer yet:
Your father would give lands for one
To wear his coronet.