The Convent Threshold

Covent Threshold
Overview
Rossetti is again tormented by her earthly desires and her resolute faith, the poem represents her final step to committing her life to God and renounce her role as a woman. In this dramatic monologue she attempts to convince her love to repent and join her in devoting his life to God using every trick in the book (scaring him, tempting him, crying at him). In addition, she tries to come to terms with her decision to give up her love in favour of her faith. Finally she crosses the threshold to a life of devotion, but tells her lover that they can recapture their love once they both ascend to heaven… obviously this depends on whether he actually repents or not and she doesn’t seem particularly hopeful of this during the rest of the poem!

Click the tabs on the left to view each stanza.

Stanza 1Stanza 2Stanzas 3-4Stanzas 5-6Stanza 7Stanza 8Stanza 9Stanzas 10-11

There’s blood between us, love, my love,
There’s father’s blood, there’s brother’s blood;
And blood’s a bar I cannot pass:
I choose the stairs that mount above,
Stair after golden skyward stair,
To city and to sea of glass.
My lily feet are soiled with mud,
With scarlet mud which tells a tale
Of hope that was, of guilt that was,
Of love that shall not yet avail;
Alas, my heart, if I could bare
My heart, this selfsame stain is there:
I seek the sea of glass and fire
To wash the spot, to burn the snare;
Lo, stairs are meant to lift us higher:
Mount with me, mount the kindled stair.

Your eyes look earthward, mine look up.
I see the far-off city grand,
Beyond the hills a watered land,
Beyond the gulf a gleaming strand
Of mansions where the righteous sup;
Who sleep at ease among their trees,
Or wake to sing a cadenced hymn
With Cherubim and Seraphim;
They bore the Cross, they drained the cup,
Racked, roasted, crushed, wrenched limb from limb,
They the offscouring of the world:
The heaven of starry heavens unfurled,
The sun before their face is dim.

You looking earthward what see you?
Milk-white wine-flushed among the vines,
Up and down leaping, to and fro,
Most glad, most full, made strong with wines,
Blooming as peaches pearled with dew,
Their golden windy hair afloat,
Love-music warbling in their throat,
Young men and women come and go.

You linger, yet the time is short:
Flee for your life, gird up your strength
To flee; the shadows stretched at length
Show that day wanes, that night draws nigh;
Flee to the mountain, tarry not.
Is this a time for smile and sigh,
For songs among the secret trees
Where sudden blue birds nest and sport?
The time is short and yet you stay:
To-day while it is called to-day
Kneel, wrestle, knock, do violence, pray;
To-day is short, to-morrow nigh:
Why will you die? why will you die?

You sinned with me a pleasant sin:
Repent with me, for I repent.
Woe’s me the lore I must unlearn!
Woe’s me that easy way we went,
So rugged when I would return!
How long until my sleep begin,
How long shall stretch these nights and days?
Surely, clean Angels cry, she prays;
She laves her soul with tedious tears:
How long must stretch these years and years?

I turn from you my cheeks and eyes,
My hair which you shall see no more–
Alas for joy that went before,
For joy that dies, for love that dies.
Only my lips still turn to you,
My livid lips that cry, Repent.
Oh weary life, oh weary Lent,
Oh weary time whose stars are few.
 

How should I rest in Paradise,
Or sit on steps of heaven alone?
If Saints and Angels spoke of love
Should I not answer from my throne:
Have pity upon me, ye my friends,
For I have heard the sound thereof:
Should I not turn with yearning eyes,
Turn earthwards with a pitiful pang?
Oh save me from a pang in heaven.
By all the gifts we took and gave,
Repent, repent, and be forgiven:
This life is long, but yet it ends;
Repent and purge your soul and save:
No gladder song the morning stars
Upon their birthday morning sang
Than Angels sing when one repents.

I tell you what I dreamed last night:
A spirit with transfigured face
Fire-footed clomb an infinite space.
I heard his hundred pinions clang,
Heaven-bells rejoicing rang and rang,
Heaven-air was thrilled with subtle scents,
Worlds spun upon their rushing ears:
He mounted shrieking: ‘Give me light.’
Still light was poured on him, more light;
Angels, Archangels he outstripped
Exultant in exceeding might,
And trod the skirts of Cherubim.
Still ‘Give me light,’ he shrieked; and dipped
His thirsty face, and drank a sea,
Athirst with thirst it could not slake.
I saw him, drunk with knowledge, take
From aching brows the aureole crown–
His locks writhed like a cloven snake–
He left his throne to grovel down
And lick the dust of Seraph’s feet:
For what is knowledge duly weighed?
Knowledge is strong, but love is sweet;
Yea all the progress he had made
Was but to learn that all is small
Save love, for love is all in all.

I tell you what I dreamed last night:
It was not dark, it was not light,
Cold dews had drenched my plenteous hair
Through clay; you came to seek me there.
And ‘Do you dream of me?’ you said.
My heart was dust that used to leap
To you; I answered half asleep:
‘My pillow is damp, my sheets are red,
There’s a leaden tester to my bed:
Find you a warmer playfellow,
A warmer pillow for your head,
A kinder love to love than mine.’
You wrung your hands; while I like lead
Crushed downwards through the sodden earth:
You smote your hands but not in mirth,
And reeled but were not drunk with wine.

For all night long I dreamed of you:
I woke and prayed against my will,
Then slept to dream of you again.
At length I rose and knelt and prayed:
I cannot write the words I said,
My words were slow, my tears were few;
But through the dark my silence spoke
Like thunder. When this morning broke,
My face was pinched, my hair was grey,
And frozen blood was on the sill
Where stifling in my struggle I lay.

If now you saw me you would say:
Where is the face I used to love?
And I would answer: Gone before;
It tarries veiled in paradise.
When once the morning star shall rise,
When earth with shadow flees away
And we stand safe within the door,
Then you shall lift the veil thereof.
Look up, rise up: for far above
Our palms are grown, our place is set;
There we shall meet as once we met
And love with old familiar love.

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

ContextThemesContentLanguage and techniquesStructureTone

Context

Written in 1858 and published in 1862 in Goblin Market and Other Poems. The dates mean it is was written after she turned down the second proposal of her life in 1856, but I think the message of the poem seems designed for the first suitor in her life: James Collinson.

She was evidently pretty taken by Collinson, as little sisters often are with their older brother’s friends, but in the end called off their engagement over religious differences. This poem begs for a loved one to convert and join the poetic voice’s faith in order that they can spend eternity together. Collinson flitted between Anglicanism and Catholicism, eventually reconverting to Catholicism, something that Rossetti couldn’t live with. It certainly sounds like it could have a hint of biographical truth.

Interestingly, her sister, Margaret, stepped over the threshold in 1873 and Rossetti was closely linked with the same order of nuns from this point on. However, the poem pre-dates this, bear that in mind.

 

 Themes

This links to Rossetti’s torturous struggle between faith and her heart. She desperately wants to be her lover, but cannot prioritise him over her faith and desire to reach heaven.

 

Content

The title of the poem should tell us that the protagonist a) is a woman (men cannot be nuns unfortunately! Sexism alive and well in the Church); b) she is on the verge of making a decision (stepping over the threshold means that you are entering a new phase of your life – think getting married and carrying your other half over the threshold of your new home); and c) that decision is to dedicate herself to faith as nuns don’t do anything that isn’t more or less about God.

However, when we enter the poem we see that she is very much focused on looking back. She explains that she cannot be with her love, that her desire to reach heaven prevents her from being with him. Notice the pain it causes her to say this, the repetition of ‘love, my love’ emphasises how hard she is finding it to let him go.

Stanza 1

In the opening stanza we have this beautiful and presents an image of feet that have been dirtied with the sin of love and the hope of being fulfilled with this love, her heart is also a bit mucky. Despite being in love and desperate to be with this guy, she denies herself and at the end of the first stanza she tells him that she wants to get cleaned up by dedicating herself to God – putting him first and dropping Mr Lover Lover.

Stanzas 2-3

Rossetti goes on to explain her reasoning in the second and third stanzas. She describes her lover as being earth centric, while she is a bit of a dreamer and is imagining a life of paradise in heaven. Then she compares what she sees as she imagines the wonder of heaven with his focus on earth. However, the image of earth, which is meant to pale into insignificance next to the depiction of heaven, is basically a scene of young love, which all sounds quite positive to me, but there is a hint of Rossetti’s objection to this kind of earthly life in the ‘up and down’ of this life. This is an idea we’ve seen before in Cobwebs and A Better Resurrection with Rossetti scared of the downs and of what happens when one’s heart is broken and thus avoiding it and putting her faith in the eternity of heavenly bliss by leading a pretty boring earthly existence.

Stanza 4
She continues to rebuke him for his earthly focus. She suggests he is idling his limited time on earth away and should instead be thinking about the next life and the worth of his soul. Emphasis is placed on mortality and how short, in comparison to eternity, our lives are. Rossetti uses a continuing natural image of the sun beginning to set with shadows beginning to grow and then disappearing completely to show the transience of life through comparison with a day. Yet her next piece of imagery about him listening to the songs of blue birds suggests that he is taking his time in preparing to meet his maker by actually enjoying the finest things the earth has to offer.
She ends the fourth stanza with a series of imperatives instructing him to show God his worth and worshiping him some – ‘Kneel, wrestle, knock, do violence, pray’. Finally the rhetorical question repeated twice in the last line of the stanza is a way of saying to the chap that currently he is not in line to go to heaven when he pops his clogs (sorry, I’ve been told off for using confusing idioms and colloquialisms before – this means: bites the dust/goes quietly into the night/dies :p).
Stanza 5-6
In stanza five we another orders. It has amazed me throughout life how girls decide that as soon as you love them, they can boss you around and try to change you. Well, this is exactly what Rossetti/the poetic voice does. Here she tells him to ‘repent’ for the sin they enjoyed together. However, she immediately refocuses on herself -that’s another thing all my girlfriends and wife/wives  (currently just the one, but you never know and I don’t want to have to edit this in a couple of years) have consistently done!). Pretty sad would be a fair way to sum up her self-reflection, as she explains how difficult it has been for her to ‘unlearn’ love and shake the strength of human desires from her breast. Love is described as if it is the easy way, but this just means that she was able to relax with her feelings, what is difficult is taking the road back and denouncing ever feeling the way she did again – don’t point out to her that it is her choice as I’m sure she’d scratch your eyes out.
At the end of the fifth stanza she begins moaning about how long her life is taking to get to the end as she has to live with this struggle and heartache. Wasn’t she just preaching to her chap about how short life is and now she’s moaning about it dragging on!?
However, despite her struggle and conflict between her emotions and her devotion, she does repent and distance herself from the earth in the sixth stanza. She gives herself up to God, apart from her lips which continue to desperately plead for her lover to sort his life out and repent NOW!
Stanza 7-8
In stanza seven, her argument is presented in a very selfish manner – all about her! No, really it’s quite sweet, she talks about how if she was in heaven without her lover then she’d be looking down and feeling miserable. However, in the following stanza she reasserts God’s magnificence, power and humility through her ‘dream’, as if she is trying to re-convince herself of her decision to be all Godly. Interestingly she seems to get lost with her emotions again in the last four lines of this mega long eighth stanza  – she claims God recognised that love was the most important thing, but that’s what she’s giving up: oh isn’t life full of difficult choices?
Stanza 9-10
However, she has another dream immediately after. This time she pushes her lover away again. Her heart is presented as if it is now gone along with her emotions, there is also some pretty disturbing imagery that I think is about her renouncing herself as a woman. Her ‘heart was dust’ has a fairly obvious association with an ending of romantic interest, but I take the line ‘my pillow is damp, my sheets are red’ to be a graphic representation of her fertility being no more. This could represent her period, the end of the egg, or a miscarriage again representing the same thing. I told you it was disturbing and I can’t be completely sure I am right, but I think she is trying to be graphic to shock her lover into action, or alternatively to be definitive with herself.
She continues by ordering her lover to find someone else. This all sounds a bit mean now, but I think she is gritting her teeth through this; immediately after, in the tenth, she collapses again into dreams about her lover and has to armour herself against these emotions all over again.
Stanza 11
Finally she describes herself as being unrecognisable from her former self, now she has fully given herself over to God. Her former beauty is now ‘veiled in paradise’ as if she is waiting for death until she can realise her worth. The only chance he is going to get to lift the veil will come when they ascend to heaven together. This should all sound a bit like a traditional Christian wedding, with the chap lifting the veil and then finally being allowed to enjoy (ha!) his wife for the first time, but here they can only realise this if he repents and joins her in heaven.

Language and techniques

I’ve left this post half complete for two months, which means I am probably going to repeat myself. Sorry about that, bloody life getting in the way of things!

Stanza 1

Okay, what would I comment on? Let’s start with the repetition in the opening stanza of ‘blood’ that is ‘between us [/them]’; Rossetti’s repetition (4 ‘blood’s) serves to both emphasise the impossibility of their love affair, but at the same time to reveal her hope/struggle/anguish.

Think of the idiom ‘blood’s thicker than water’, which is usually used to mean that we are bound to our family above all else and need to put them first. Well, in this case Rossetti’s ‘family’ is her faith and I’d take the ‘father’ and ‘brother’ to represent God and Jesus. The rest of the poem bears this out as it is her fear of missing out on eternal bliss that makes her forego her earthly love. However, the fact she dwells on this idea suggests to me that she is battling to convince herself that she really has to make this personal sacrifice.

The first stanza is also full of really vivid and interesting imagery. Heaven is linked with purity, gold and magnificence, while Rossetti/the poetic voice is presented as being sullied – ‘soiled with mud’, ‘scarlet mud… of hope that was’. Clearly she thinks she has sinned by considering a love affair, but the fact she remains a ‘lily’ (connotations of purity/virginity, but also death) may indicate she’d not completely given into her carnal desires; however, the ‘scarlet’ is a rather too vivid indication of her womanliness and fertility being something she was conscious of. It’s okay though as heaven will help her ‘wash the spot’ and ‘burn the snare’, ridding her of these dirty thoughts and the trap she feels she has stumbled into – namely womanly feelings and desires.

I’d also comment on the lines featuring ‘Of hope… of guilt… of love’. In these three phrases we have Rossetti perfectly summed up: what she dreams of being with this man and realising her role as a woman, but at the same time her faith makes her ashamed to have these thoughts and to value anything other than big JC.

Oh, we should also mention the title quickly. Nowadays the only time anyone talks about thresholds, in the sense it is meant in the poem, is when a man is cruelly expected to carry his wife across one into their home (spare a thought for those with rather rotund ladies!). A threshold is simple the entrance way to a building, so the doorway, but Rossetti isn’t really hovering in front of a nunnery, she is instead on the threshold in terms of deciding whether to give herself once and for all to God (effectively becoming a nun as she would be renouncing earthly pleasure in favour of worshipping 24/7) or to not do this. The poem serves as her trying to make up her mind whether to go through with it.

Stanza 2

Back on track. There is loads of stuff in the fourth stanza presented to glorify heaven and make her decision seem justified, but I will leave you to go through in detail. However, I will mention an intriguing line about heavens angels (Cherubim and Seraphim are different orders of angels) being ‘racked, roasted, crushed, wrenched limb from limb’. This immediately follows the descriptions of heaven’s wonders, but is entirely at odds with the lovely life described; however, this refers to their suffering for Christ, I would assume this links more neatly to earthly saints than angels, enduring torture or persecution in God’s name. She mentions this because this is exactly what she is going through; having to give up her love and desire is an equivalent for Rossetti. The fact she lingers on the particular idea (i.e. torture) serves to emphasise her suffering.

Stanza 3

We also have some imagery associated with her lover’s earthly focus. You’ll probably be scratching your head and asking why Rossetti make this seem so pleasant as well. I take this to be representative of her struggle as she sees the glory and beauty of both paths, which makes it impossibly difficult for her to turn her back on this life. Links to wine and fresh fruits connect earthly life with fertility.

Stanza 4

In the fourth stanza, Rossetti injects some dramatic tension as she presents their situation as life and death. She repeats ‘flee’ as if her lover is in danger, and indeed she believes he is (of not attaining redemption). However, her descriptions of the day he would be fleeing from suggest why one would be tempted to ‘linger’. She wishes for him to ‘flee to the mountain’, which one would associate with being cold, barren and uninhabitable, from his current home amongst the bird song and nests. Again this contrast serves to show Rossetti’s feelings about her sacrifice as her earthly existence on her mountain must be pretty bleak, while the world below is beautiful and tempting.

You could also mention the rhetorical questions at the end of the stanza that serve to illustrate her desperation and almost frustration that he will not see the light.

Stanza 5

On to the fifth stanza and we see more examples of this desperation in her repetition of ‘repent’, initially this is an order. Her orders give way to depression as she finds it impossibly difficult to give up the feelings she has developed or the ‘lore [she] must unlearn’. Additionally, there are a couple of exclamation marks here that give tell to her distress and then a return of the rhetorical questions, this time to beg for an end to her earthly struggle between faith and ask God to hurry up her earthly death so she can get over her heartache in eternal paradise.

Stanzas 6-7

In the next stanza, Rossetti shows some balls again. She pushes further over the threshold as most of her features are hidden from her lover, with ‘only [her] lips’ remaining to continue begging him to sort his life out and another imperative ‘Repent’. Her lips are described as ‘livid’, which is incredible emotive and suggest her state of panic is akin to fury or rage. Earlier in the stanza she mentions that ‘joy’ and ‘love’ have died for her, again suggesting that she finds earthly life without being fulfilled as a woman to be bereft of joy or happiness. This is further indicated by the sounds in the stanzas: the repetitive moaning ‘O weary’ sound cursing her fortune at being in such emotional anguish.

However, the second half of this stanza marks a breaking of her resilience again as she openly acknowledges her misery through her repetition of how ‘weary’ she is of her struggle. This continues in the following stanza to a greater degree as she ponders whether she would be able to find happiness in heaven without her love, wondering whether she will ‘turn earthwards with a pitying pang’ dreaming of being fulfilled on earth. She tries to silence her own doubts by again trying to change him and getting him to ‘repent’ and speaking of the greatness of heaven to coax him, despite her initial doubts about how great it would be for her without him.

Stanza 8

Next Rossetti turns back to scaremongering to convince her chap. Her dream of God seems more like a monster movie initially than an image of someone you want to hang out with for eternity. Her vision of God is presented in a multi-sensory way in order that His being dominate every aspects of her picture: 1) we have the sounds of the bells that ‘rang and rang’ alongside some angels ‘clang[ing]’ gongs and the big man ‘shrieking’; 2) we are ‘thrilled with subtle scents’ as if His perfume is somehow not overpowering, but still can be smelt miles away; and our eyes are filled with ‘light’ and ‘more light’ as well as his body that ‘outstripped’ all the angels and made them seem pretty puny. This imagery is meant to serve as a threat to those who have not yet repented as it suggests unlimited power and presence. However, just in case this put her lover off, the stanza ends with an affirmation that he is someone you’d want to live with as she shows his humility at his ‘Seraphs’ feet’ and acknowledging ‘love is all in all’.

Stanza 9

Her next dream relates directly to her lover. Rossetti presents him as appealing to her for her affection, but being greeted with a cold-hearted shadow of his former love. Her ‘heart was dust that used to leap’ implies not just that she has made her decision, but that she has completely eradicated any feelings she ever had. I mentioned above the definitive imagery here, associated with the end of her fertility and ability to feel romantic affection. However, this is another dream. As much as she wishes she could switch her feelings off and become the ‘leaden tester’ (cold, unmoving, non-responsive as opposed to a hot and bothered lover) she envisages in this dream we’ve seen throughout the poem that she is not able to do this.

Stanzas 10-11

In the final two stanzas we see that her dreams take her back to her feelings for the subject of the poem. She says she dreamed of him ‘all night long’ implying the strength of her feelings and an almost obsessive romantic desire towards him. However, in typical Rossetti style she squashes her desires and dreams emphatically for the sake of her faith. After waking she ‘prayed against [her] will’. This is a lovely depiction of her struggle: her heart is desperately telling her to be with her love and yet some part of her mind forces her to ruthlessly suppress her desire and sacrifice her happiness. If she is doing this against her will who/what is she doing it for? Fear?

Even in doing this she is unsuccessful initially and finds her dreams bringing her emotions back. Again she prays against her will and in the ‘silence’ her feelings were as ‘thunder’ pummeling her to submit to them and her desires. I find this oxymoronic imagery of silence in a storm also incredibly moving as she presents her prayers as weathering a beating from her feelings, but her faith remaining resolute and unmoved in the face of a great tempest of emotion. This time she is successful and Rossetti describes her physical appearance as abandoning any hint of femininity and fertility as she takes on the grey hair, pale skin – ‘frozen blood’ – and ‘pinched’ features you’d typically associate with your granny or non-Sound of Music nuns (‘pinched’ contrasts with the idea of rosy, plumpness associated with fertile young wenches).

Rossetti ends with the idea that her appearance is not permanently faded, but instead ‘tarries veiled in paradise’. This means that her beauty is hidden from earthly and like a veiled bride it will be revealed again only once she reaches paradise. This is her final piece of coercion to get her lover to repent because she presents their love as being attainable once they are in heaven together. For all the threats and moaning, she ends the poem providing a lure for her lover that they can be together and enjoy their ‘old familiar love’ as they both desire, but only once in heaven.

Structure

There is a loads going on here, some aspects I’ve touched upon above and others you can read about here.

The one thing I will mention is the irregularity of the stanza in terms of length, rhyme scheme and syllable count. As this poem is a battle between faith and Rossetti’s desires we can see her being pulled this way and that: at one moment strong and resolute and in the next second she is a blubbering mess. The irregularity reflects this confusion and her brief moments of certainty are met with moments of rhyme and regularity.

 

Tone

This poem reminds me a bit of Lady Mary Wroth in that Rossetti goes through the different stages of depression/anguish. At times she is plain miserable, at others she presents false hope, at others she is furious.

 

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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