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Analysis of Susanna Roxman’s poem
An Example of Roman Virtues
Cornelia was a highly educated Roman woman who lived in the second century B.C. She
was the daughter of a Roman hero, Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus Major, who defeated
Hannibal in the second Punic War. She married a young, most honourable plebeian, Tiberius
Sempronius Gracchus and together they had twelve children but only three of them lived up
to adulthood: two sons, Tiberius and Gaius, and a daughter, Sempronia. Tiberius Gracchus
died when their children were still young and from that time on Cornelia devoted her life to
the education of her sons. Cornelia was well known as an ideal wife and mother and even
foreign princes wanted to marry her. But in loyalty to her dead husband Cornelia decided
not to be remarried and to live modestly as a widow.
She educated her sons to the highest patrician traditions of service and love of their country
but in contrast to the traditional education of the ancient heroes she taught them to care
for the poor and oppressed, too. Thus she prepared for the later political career of Tiberius
and Gaius who became famous land reformers in the Republican Rome. But her elder son
was assassinated and her younger son driven into suicide and Cornelia bore the sorrow with
stoic courage. After her death a statue was raised in honour to her, the ideal matron,
bearing the simple inscription: “Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi”.
One episode of her life is frequently told, very often referred to in literature and can be
found as a theme of many paintings: One day Cornelia had a guest, a very rich lady who was
very proud of her jewels and who loved to talk about her wealth. When she asked Cornelia
to show her jewels, Cornelia pointed at her children and said that they were her jewels and
that they were everything she was proud of. The author
Susanna Roxman was born in Stockholm to a Swedish mother and a Scottish father. Swedish
is her native tongue but English is the language she has always preferred from her childhood
on. She writes criticism and arts journalism in English and Swedish and – different to her
early works – as a poet and as a scholar she uses English only.
In 1984 Susanna Roxman got a PhD in Comparative Literature at the University of
Gothenburg; from 1995 to 2005 she was the Head of the Interdisciplinary Centre of
Classical Mythology at Lund where she still lives. Her poetry collection Broken Angels
(Dionysia Press) received an Arts Award in Lund and reviews in Britain, the United States
and Canada. Her second poetry collection published by Dionysia Press, Imagining Seals
In “Cornelia” Susanna Roxman picks up the theme of the legendary Roman woman.
1 I’m a Roman rose
2 that unfolds, well nourished,
3 an ancestral spirit
4 inhabiting my body, this house.
5 I move tall and tender
6 against the winterset,
7 feel always a slight pressure
8 of some silk girdle tied below my breasts.
9 Living at the crossroads
10 where two clans met,
11 I have cherished
12 children I’d barely recognize now.
13 I know duty and merit,
14 hearth stained with daily wine,
15 forget grief in the oak groves
16 where sunlight slopes like green rain.
17 Glancing across my shoulder,
18 I find my father straight-backed on his horse,
19 softly blow away the dust
20 from Libertas, tiny terracotta goddess.
21 A woman, serious
22 about future and past,
23 I peruse Greek scrolls,
24 weave Latin wool and toughness.
25 But I never asked for heroes.
26 Some jewels would have been enough.
27 In my salon I thought and spoke
28 poetry only till politics took over. Situation of the Persona
In an interior monologue the persona of this poem looks back at her life. The title of the
poem and the usage of the personal deixis I
as the first word of the poem clearly indicate
who is speaking: Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi, whose story has already been told in the
At the beginning Cornelia describes her situation as a young woman who has been brought
up and educated in a traditional way and who is well aware of the history of her family and
the heroic deeds of her father and her forefathers. Using the expression “Roman rose” (line 1) she refers to dignity and beauty. She continues her monologue with a description of herself by the way she moves “tall and tender” (line 5) and the way she is dressed in the second stanza. The word “winterset” is a very unusual expression designing the very end of autumn and gives a notion of things ending or passing by. The expression “.slight pressure / of some silk girdle tied below my breasts” (lines 7 - 8) evokes connotations of the ancient Roman dresses but the word “pressure” brings along connotations of uncomfortableness. In stanza 3 she refers to her marriage and to the education of her children. She calls her life “living at the crossroads / where two clans met,” (lines 9 and 10) because she married a young plebeian while Cornelia herself was of patrician descent; and speaking more generally a marriage always is the union of two clans or families. In line 12 she says “children I’d barely recognize now” which does not seem to fit the reader’s opinion on Cornelia because although it is known that her sons died young, there is no apparent reason why she should not recognize them now. Maybe Cornelia is not fully serious when she says it. This line marks the first climax in the poem and is in close connection to the last stanza of the poem. Responsibility and appreciation, daily tasks of a woman and sorrow and consolation are the prevalent themes in stanza 4 while in stanza 5 Cornelia speaks about the values of her life which she owes to her father: discipline and freedom. In stanza 6 Cornelia again describes herself as a very serious person and as a highly educated woman who was able to combine a classical education and Roman toughness with practical knowledge and motherly love which is expressed in “I peruse Greek scrolls, / weave Latin wool and toughness” (lines 23 - 24). Finally the last stanza brings a turn which is sharply introduced by the word “But” and the mood of the poem significantly changes because in contradiction to the legends about her and to her own description in this poem as a “Roman rose”, Cornelia here says, “But I never asked for heroes” (line 25) and “Some jewels would have been enough.” (line 26). These two sentences put everything into question: her life, her attitudes and especially the education of her sons. She feels responsible for them and their political careers and has always been well aware of the dangers surrounding them. When her elder son, Tiberus, was assassinated she even tried to prevent her younger son, Gaius, from the same fate by asking him to stop his political activities, as a preserved letter documents. Losing her sons was worst for her. In this situation she would have preferred even jewels which she had rejected once in despise to being a mother of – dead - heroes. She continues that she “thought and spoke / poetry only till politics took over.” (lines 27 and 28) and thus seems to regret how her life and the life of her sons has developed. She feels that she has lost control over her life and the lives of her sons and that the public life had won over the personal life.
Structure and Metre
The poem “Cornelia” is written in semi-free verse. It has seven stanzas of four lines. The
length of the lines has a partly regular pattern. Most lines contain three or four stresses but
there are lines with two (lines 3, 11 and 21) or five (line 18) stresses. Stanzas 1 and 3 have
the same stress-pattern of 3-3-2-3 stresses in their respective lines. Stanzas 2 and 4 6 have
the same stress-pattern of three stresses in the first three lines and four stresses in the third
line. Stanzas 5, 6 and 7 differ in their first two lines but all have four stresses in the last line.
The metre of the poem is basically trochaic and iambic but as there are many irregularities
and frequent changes from one metre to the other throughout the whole poem, a
continuous metre is very difficult to trace. But there is one pattern that all stanzas have in
common: each stanza has two stressed and two unstressed endings. The unstressed endings
in this poem give the reader a sense of uncertainness which mirrors the feelings of Cornelia
Lines 1 and 2 are regular trochaic tetrametre lines while line 3 starts with anapaest and
iamb and continues with two trochees. Line 4 begins iambic, continues with three
unstressed syllables, then there is a short pause and then again one iambic foot:
1 Ì’m a Róman róse
2 thát unfólds, well nóurished,
3 an ancéstral spírit
4 inhábiting my bódy, this hóuse.
Line five starts with an iambic foot and continues with two trochees. This change of metre
emphasises the adjectives “tall” and “tender”:
5 I móve táll and ténder
Line 10 has one iamb and one spondee:
10 where twó cláns mét,
Line 12 has three major stresses although it could be argued that there is a fourth stress on
12 chíldren I’d b(á)rely récognize nów.
Line 15 shows a completely irregular pattern where “oak groves” is to be seen as one word
in favour of the unstressed ending of the line:
15 forgét gríef in the óak groves
Line 20 has four stresses and a caesura in the middle of the line:
20 from Líbertas, tíny térracotta góddess.
The fifth stanza contains several irregularities in its metric pattern while the first two lines
of the seventh stanza have a regular metre: line 25 is trochaic and line 26 iambic. Here the
regularity of the metre underlines the importance of these lines.
25 Bút I néver ásked for héroes.
26 Some jéwels wóuld have béen enóugh.
27 In my sálon I thóught and spóke
28 póetry ónly till pólitics took óver.
There is no rhyme except for slant rhymes like in “nourished” and “cherished” (lines 2 and
11) or in “wine” and “rain” (lines 14 and 16) or in “goddess” and “toughness” (lines 20 and
The cohesion of the poem is enforced by many run-on-lines: stanzas 1, 2 and 3 have
enjambments in their first lines and in their third lines. The second line is – throughout the
poem – always end-stopped and causes a short pause in the middle of each stanza. Stanza 1
has caesurae in lines 2 and 4 which emphasise the words following the caesurae: “.well
nourished,” (line 2) and “. this house.” (line 4).
In stanzas 4, 5 and 7 the first two lines are end-stopped and the third lines have
enjambments. In stanza 5 there is a caesura after “from Libertas.” (line 20).
Stanza 6 has a run-on-line in its first line while all the other lines of this stanza are end-
stopped. But as line 21 has a caesura after “A woman, .” the effect is that all lines of this
stanza appear to be end-stopped.
The end-stopped lines and the caesurae before insertions like “well nourished” in line 2
cause shorter units and strongly structure the rhythm of the poem and at the same time the
contents of shorter units is given greater importance too. So in stanza 6 Cornelia is not only
talking about being a serious woman – the rhythmical structure of this stanza underlines
that. Internal Sound Pattern
Analysing the assonantal patterns of the poem we find three prevalent sounds: the
diphthong [ a ] like in “I”, “my”, “slight”, “tied”, “recognize”, “wine”, “sunlight”, “like” and
“tiny” is used at least twice in every stanza except in stanza 6 where it is only used once. The
words “I” and/or “my” are frequently used and can be found at least once in every stanza.
The second prevalent sound is the diphthong [ u ] like in “roman rose”, “unfolds”, “below”,
“crossroads”, “know”, “oak groves”, “slopes”, “shoulder”, “blow”, “scrolls”, “heroes”,
“spoke”, “poetry only”, “over”. This sound can be traced throughout the poem and is most
important in the first two lines “.Roman rose that unfolds.” and in the last two lines
“.spoke poetry only .over.”.
The third and most frequently used sound is [ ] and its long form [ : ] which can be found in
several words in each stanza. It is applied most frequently in the last line of the poem and
together with the [ u ] – sound it forms the assonantal pattern of the first stanza where it
can be found from the end of line 2 on in “nourished”, “spirit”, “inhabiting”, “body” and
“this” and together with alliteration contributes to the acceleration and the assonantal
cohesion of the last line “poetry only till politics.”.
Further sound concepts are the diphthong [ e ] in stanzas 4 and 5 used in “stained”, “daily”,
“rain”, “straight” and “away”; the vowel sound [ ^ ] in the last three stanzas used in “dust”,
“Libertas”, “toughness” and “enough”; the vowel sound [ u ] used in the last two stanzas in
“woman”, “wool” and “took” ; the sound [ e ] especially in stanza 2 in “tender”, “winterset”,
“pressure” and “breast” which are the last words of each line and together perform a
rhyme-like scheme and the long vowel sound [ ] in “Glancing” and “father” in lines 17 and
18. The function of all these sound concepts is to strengthen the cohesion within the entire
poem, within one or more stanzas or between two or more words.
The use of frequent alliteration contributes to the cohesion of the poem, too. We find
alliteration in all stanzas but in stanza 1 it can only be found in line 1 in “ Roman rose” and in
stanza 7, the last stanza only in the last line in “poetry. politics; only . over; till . took”.
Each word is part of the intense alliterative-pattern and thus this line is accelerated and
strongly emphasised as the final climax of the poem.
Further examples of alliteration are found in line 5 “tall . tender”, lines 7 and 8 “slight .
some . silk” and line 8 “below . breasts”, in lines 9 and 10 “crossroads . clans” and lines
11 and 12 “cherished . children”, in line 14 “with . wine” and lines 15 and 16 “grieve .
groves . green” and line 16 “sunlight slopes”, in line 18 “find . father” and “his horse” and
in line 20 “tiny terracotta”, in lines 22 and 23 “past . peruse” and line 24 “weave . wool”.
But in every case the significance of the used alliteration goes beyond that of a mere
structural device: only words with a connection in its contents and meaning constitute
alliterative units. Syntactic Structure
Taking a look at the syntactic structure of the poem it can be stated that there are 9
sentences. Stanzas 1 to 6 consist of one sentence each. Stanza 7 comprises three sentences:
two short sentences of one line and one longer sentence expanding over two lines.
Concerning the structure of the individual sentences in stanzas 1 to 6 there can be observed
that the main clauses in all sentences are declarative clauses. Sometimes there is an ellipsis
when two main clauses are connected leaving out the conjunction “and” and the repetition
of the subject “I”. Declarative main clauses are “I’m a Roman rose” (line 1), “I move tall and
tender.” (line 5), “(and I) feel always .” (line 7), “I have cherished children” (lines 11 and
12), “I know.” (line 13) and “(and I) forget.” (line 15), “I find.” (line 18) and “(and I) softly
blow.” (line 19), “I peruse.” (line 23) and “(and I) weave.” (line 24). These clauses are
used to give clear and direct information.
In the last stanza there are two short declarative clauses where the first one “But I never
asked for heroes.” is in the negative and the second clause “Some jewels would have been
enough.” is passive and hypothetical. Especially the structure of this second sentence is
most striking as it differs very much from all other sentences and by this means its
contradictory meaning is emphasised. The third sentence repeats the elliptical structure of
two main clauses “. I thought and (I) spoke.”.
The subordinate clauses of the poem specify the short main clauses and can be divided into
two types: relative clauses introduced by “that” (line 2) or “where” (lines 10 and 16) giving
more information about characterization and place and participle clauses introduced by
“inhabiting” (line 4), “Living” (line 9) and “Glancing” (line 17) giving more information about
the circumstances. In stanza 6 both types of subordinate clauses are strongly abbreviated in
“(Being) A woman, (who is) serious about.” (lines 21 and 22).
The several syntactic levels mirror the different levels of thought or even the different levels
of life and as short units they enhance the rhythmic pattern of the poem.
The analysis of the lexical level of the poem shows that there is one major lexical field:
family-life. Lexemes from this field can be found in all the stanzas of the poem and comprise
the various aspects of a family concentrating on a woman’s perspective: nourish – inhabit –
house – live – clans – cherish – children – duty – hearth - stained – daily – wine – father –
dust – woman – weave – wool – salon.
Further big lexical fields are those of the human body and human characteristics: body –
breasts – shoulder - straight-backed – tall – tender – serious – toughness and of nature:
rose – unfold – oak groves – sunlight – green – rain – horse.
And there are some lexical fields comprising only a few words: culture: Roman – Greek –
Latin; education: peruse - scrolls – poetry – politics; superhuman (tradition and ideals):
ancestral spirit – Libertas – goddess – heroes; time: ancestral – daily – future – past;
feelings: slight pressure – feel – grief and maybe reward: merit – jewels.
All lexical fields are in close relation to the persona and demonstrate the multitude of her
tasks and responsibilities and the different levels of her life and of life in general like
education, religion, tradition, nature.
The verbs in this poem very often have contradictory or al least very different meanings
although they are used together: unfold – inhabit; know – forget; find – blow away; peruse –
weave and they too enforce the demonstration of diversity. Deictic Features
As already mentioned at the beginning the interpersonal deictis I
frequently used in this poem. The title of the poem tells the reader who the I
is. The text of
the poem too offers hints towards the identification . So from the first line on it is obvious
that a woman is speaking. In “I’m a Roman rose” and later on, in line 21 “A woman.” that
thesis is proved to be true. The description of the persona gives much information about her
and her life but the text only allows the reader to know approximately who is meant.
The word “now” in line 12 and the use of the present tense and the present perfect tense in
stanzas 1 to 6 indicate temporal deixis, i.e. that the persona is talking from a present
perspective which is not anchored at a specified point in time. The words Roman, Greek and
Latin and the phrase “Roman rose” offer clues for a temporal assignment of the story time
to ancient Roman culture. In the last stanza the past tense and the past conditional are
used. This indicates that the persona is talking about something that happened before the
moment of speaking and that is definitely over.
Taking a look at social deixis it can be observed that the persona is a highly educated woman
as indicated by “I peruse Greek scrolls” (line 23), that she is from a noble family because she
is well aware of her family tradition as indicated by “that unfolds, well nourished, / an
ancestral spirit” (lines 2 and 3), that she is a wealthy woman as shows “ silk girdle” (line 8)
and “In my salon.” (line 27) and that she has children (line 12).
Figures of Speech
As already mentioned before frequent alliteration enforces the coherence and influences
the sound and the rhythm of this poem.
And the analysis of the syntax of the poem has shown that the structure of the individual
sentences is similar. Parallelism is used in the main clauses “I’m a Roman rose” (line 1), “I
move tall and tender” (line 5), “I know duty and merit” (line 13) and “I peruse Greek scrolls”
(line 23) and in the participle clauses “inhabiting my.” (line 4), “Living at.” (line 9) and
“Glancing across.” (line 17).
The syntactic analysis has also shown that ellipsis is applied especially when two main
clauses are connected like in “(and I) feel always.” (line 7), “(and I) forget grief.” (line15)
and “(and I) softly blow.” (line 19).
There is one simile in line 16 “.like green rain” describing how the sunlight is shining
through the probably high and dense oak trees. Within this simile the symbolic use of
“green” as the colour of hope adds another aspect.
In line 1 there is a metaphor “Roman rose” used in the self-description of Cornelia. Being a
young Roman woman from a patrician family with a high education and the best prospects
for her life Cornelia calls herself a rose and thus implies the symbolic meaning of a rose:
beauty and dignity. And in Roman mythology the rose is also used as a symbol of the
goddess Venus, the goddess of love.
A metaphor is used in “Libertas, tiny terracotta goddess” (line20), too. Libertas is the Roman
goddess of freedom, daughter of Jupiter and Juno. Cornelia blows away the dust from the
tiny statue of Libertas which evokes ambiguous connotations of freedom being a precious
thing that she takes great care of and of freedom being a common or useless thing that gets
dusty because she does not take care of.
The “Greek scrolls” (line 23) stand for Cornelia’s high education and “Latin wool and
toughness” (line 24) may be used to express motherly love and the virtue of Roman
toughness united in one person, Cornelia. Different Approaches
The poem “Cornelia” offers many different aspects and topics for discussion. Depending on
the reader’s starting point he will reflect on the development of the role of a woman in a
family or on a comparision of Roman virtues with virtues of today. Or he may rather think
about culture, or the influence of public life on the personal life of the individual. Or he may
take up the word “poetry” and go for poetry in Cornelia’s life or he may concentrate on
poetry being an anachronism. Freedom is another important theme and could be traced in
its meaning and importance from ancient Rome until today. Feminists will find their
approach in Cornelia’s independence and toughness and in her enormous influence on her
son’s political career.
From whatever point of view the reader may like to see this poem, it always tells the story
of a great woman, of the values in everybody’s life and of the various troubles of the mind in
the struggle to do the right thing.
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