Shut Out

Shut Out
Overview
Although the poem at first seems an obvious Biblical allegory relating to Eve being kicked out of the Garden of Eden and thus instructing us to avoid temptation and live devout lives, I prefer to interpret it in the complete opposite way. I see this poem as an analogy for Rossetti’s self imposed denial from experiencing earthly pleasure and fulfillment. Her garden is seen as bright, beautiful and fertile and yet it is her decision to embrace a life of devotion that she’s her barred from entry and builds a wall to cut off any dream or image of this forfeited life.

Click the tabs on the left to view each stanza.

Stanzas 1-4Stanzas 5-7

The door was shut. I looked between
Its iron bars; and saw it lie,
My garden, mine, beneath the sky,
Pied with all flowers bedewed and green:

From bough to bough the song-birds crossed,
From flower to flower the moths and bees;
With all its nests and stately trees
It had been mine, and it was lost.

A shadowless spirit kept the gate,
Blank and unchanging like the grave.
I peering through said: ‘Let me have
Some buds to cheer my outcast state.’

He answered not. ‘Or give me, then,
But one small twig from shrub or tree;
And bid my home remember me
Until I come to it again.’

 

The spirit was silent; but he took
Mortar and stone to build a wall;
He left no loophole great or small
Through which my straining eyes might look:

So now I sit here quite alone
Blinded with tears; nor grieve for that,
For nought is left worth looking at
Since my delightful land is gone.

A violet bed is budding near,
Wherein a lark has made her nest:
And good they are, but not the best;
And dear they are, but not so dear. 

Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.

ContextThemesContentLanguage and techniquesStructureTone

Context

Composed in 1856 and published in 1862, included as a non-devotional poem in Goblin Market and Other Poems. The year of composition places this poem around some serious struggles in her life: 6 years earlier she’d broken her engagement with James Collinson; two years earlier her father had passed away after struggling with illness for years; and around this time she refused a second proposal from John Brett (read ‘No Thank You, John’ on my timeline in 1856 for a cruel giggle). If you want to view the poem as being at all biographical, it would be possible to argue that already at this stage in her life she is contemplating a life of religious devotion.

I certainly think there is something in this, but it is achieved through a Biblical allegory as this poem clearly mirrors the Garden of Eden and Eve being kicked out. The obvious message relating to the Garden of Eden and the state of human innocence is that we should have strength to resist temptation, but there is too much in the poem that suggests Eden is also the home of fertility and earthly beauty for me to dismiss this possibly really meaning that religion has shut Rossetti out from earthly pleasure and opportunity.

 Themes

It depends on how you interpret the poem, but I would think the two major themes you could associate it with would be religious devotion and conversely with the struggle between devotion and earthly temptations.

Content

We open with our poetic voice starring through a barred gate at a beautiful garden. It is filled with flowers, singing birds and grand old trees and sounds like a pretty damn lovely place to be.

In the third stanza we are introduced to the shadowless spirit who seems to be a pretty nasty chap (notice my casual sexism there, it could easily be a female shadow). Our protagonist pleads for a small part of the garden to keep her happy until she gets to visit it again, but shadow-dude is one of those strong silent types and lets her plead without being moved to help her.

With either interpretation of the poem we can presume that the time she will ‘come to it again’ will be through death and entry to heaven. Either Eve has forsaken her earthly paradise by giving into temptation and eating that god damned snake apple, but will see it again when she pops her clogs and heads to heaven; or Rossetti has deliberately forsaken the garden with her decision to devote her life to faith in the hope she will see the garden again as this devotion should qualify her for a place in heaven.

Anyway, the spirit/shadow eventually responds to her moaning by building a wall and shutting her out entirely from the garden. He does a thorough job and she can see no trace of the garden when he’s finished, meaning that she is totally deprived of the beauty and innocence of the Garden of Eden; or alternatively she has blocked off any thoughts of earthly pleasure to help herself focus.

The second to last stanza is a bit miserable and has our protagonist wailing away in something of an overreaction to no longer being able to see her garden (think of all those poor souls who lives in urban high rises and never see a bloody garden!). She says ‘nought is left worth looking at’ which could show Eve’s devastation about the land she has given up or Rossetti’s attitude of bugger the earth, I want to die now so I can go to heaven and enjoy the good stuff (this idea of frustration with life is present in poems like At Home, Cobwebs and The Convent Threshold).

However, in the final stanza there seems to be some hope. She finds in her new home a lark building a nest. This represents some joy, happiness or opportunity in her situation, but she makes sure we know that it is neither as ‘good’ or as ‘dear’ as the garden she is giving up.

Language and techniques

While I write this I am the subject of a kitten’s whims (having helped rescue him this morning as he was being pursued by a monkey), which currently include scratching my arm whenever I type vigorously. Please bear that in mind if my analysis loses track.

I will leave the overall interpretation to you, I feel I have explained them both well above and it is up to you to put the pieces together.

We open with a definitive statement about the ‘door [being] shut]’, which I will discuss a little further in the structure section. However, the imagery is clear and doors are often used to symbolise opportunity, but this one shows that our protagonist is being cut off from opportunity. Not only this, but let’s explore the imagery a bit further; it is described as having ‘iron bars’ and thus immediately should be associated with a prison and tell us that our poetic voice feels trapped and deprived of whatever is on the other side.

This feeling is intensified by Rossetti’s repetitive use of personal pronouns in the opening two stanzas. She describes the garden not in terms of general ownership, but rather it is ‘My garden, mine’ and ‘it had been mine’. This repetition and use of personal pronouns demonstrate how severe the sense of loss is, she is desperately trying to fight to retain the garden as she thinks she has a right to it. This sense of desperation can also be witness in the fact Rossetti describes her ‘straining eyes’ hopelessly seeking a gap in the wall built by the spirit. To strain is to stretch yourself to the limit and thus she is trying everything she can to retain her connection with the garden.

What about the imagery of the garden itself? If you follow the simple Garden of Eden interpretation then all the birds, bees and pretty flowers should be taken pretty literally. However, if you prefer my alternative interpretation you have more to say! The flowers are described as ‘bedewed and green’, ‘song-birds crossed’ and the bees have their ‘nests in stately trees’. These descriptive details should set off alarm bells in your head as they all relate to fertility – fresh and growing plant, birds going through mating rituals and ‘nests’ are associated with the upbringing of young, even if for bees they also serve as a permanent castle of stinginess. The role of a mother and a lover is what she is giving up when Rossetti chooses to devote her life solely to her faith.

Now this spirit is rather unexplained in the Garden of Eden interpretation. Presumably it would have to be God who kicks Adam and Eve out and prevents them ever returning to this earthly paradise. However, why is it a ‘shadowless spirit’? I see this as representing herself, she is the one imposing this imprisonment from earthly paradise by her choice and thus it is her own spirit and cast no additional shadow on the earth. Doesn’t that sound like an amazing piece of analysis? I’m impressed with myself! The fact it is ‘silent’ and ‘answered not’ also fits into my interpretation as she is having an internal battle, but refusing to give into her desires once she has made her choice.

The second last stanza is probably the one packed with the most meaning or significance. She is sat ‘quite alone’ (‘quite’ acts as an intensifier here) and ‘blinded with tears’. Where is Adam? I don’t know, but in my favoured interpretation this sees Rossetti feeling isolated on earth and feeling like there is no purpose for her now she has made this choice. The choice of the word ‘blinded’ demonstrates just how intense her pain at making this choice was and indicates the battle that has taken place internally has left her feeling like it has left a physical scar. It seems as if once she has made this decision she wants to be done with earth as there is ‘nought… left worth looking at’  and therefore she feels like there is nothing left for her to appreciate in this life.

I’ll quickly point out we also have a personal pronoun and an adjective in this stanza to reemphasise how important this garden had been to her life.

In the final stanza, we see some solace being taken in the world left to Eve/Rossetti. A ‘lark’ is often used to represent daybreak or a new start and thus represents Rossetti’s/Eve’s new life as a born again Christian (devotion dominating her life)/in the wilderness. However, this new life is tinged with sadness as it is ‘not the best’ and ‘not so dear’, which indicates the poetic voice still regrets the lost garden, but is beginning to make do and look forward.

Structure

Comment on the opening line and how definitive it is. Rossetti uses caesura to stop us in our tracks and make this statement definitive, ‘The door was shut’ – thus there is no arguing against it or way to budge it.

I’d also comment on the regularity of the rhyme and structure of each stanza reflecting the sense of acceptance at this fate as it is self inflicted and something she knows she can’t challenge.

Tone

Although this may be interpreted as an allegory, I don’t think there is anyway you cannot feel sympathy towards the melancholy of the poetic voice – whether it is Eve or Rossetti. However, there is a slight lift at the end with a bit more positivity.

Author: Mr Sir

Although I've only been teaching Literature since 2011 and did my degree in History, I think that makes me better placed than many Lit teachers to provide notes that make sense and aren't garbled and wrapped up with inaccessible terminology and effluent nonsense. After adventures in Uganda and Uzbekistan, I am now settling down in the Netherlands. However, currently I am just about as unsettled as I have ever been, with a new job, a new baby, a new country and a hundred other things going on! Ask me a question, collaborate or abuse me.

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