"The Convent Threshold"
Place and Time Context
Web links for Rossetti
“I tell my secret? No indeed, not I:
Perhaps some day, who knows?
But not to-day; it froze, and blows, and snows,
And you're too curious: fie!
You want to hear it? well:
Only, my secret's mine, and I won't tell.”
Although her biographical retails are well documented and well known, Christina Rossetti’s poetry reveals little of her life. One of the most admired poets of the 19th century, a large part of the success of her poems is the way in which the presence of the author is concealed: perhaps one of the attributes of the greatest writers. Even in “Winter: My Secret”, when it seems the poet speaks directly to the reader, the “secret” is never revealed. Although several critics have attempted to psychoanalyse Rossetti through her poetry – Jan Marsh argues that “Goblin Market” suggests that Rossetti was sexually abused by her father (Marsh, J. (1994) Christina Rossetti: A Writer's Life. New York: Viking); Lona Mosk Packer finds through the “deeper internal undercurrents” of Rossetti’s love poetry that she was secretly in love with William Bell Scott (Packer, L. (1963) Christina Rossetti. Cambridge, CUP) – such approaches only serve to divorce us from our reading of the poems themselves.
Great poetry often is produced by tension: and that tension can be seen in Rossetti. Born into an intensely artistic family (her two brothers, William Michael and the more famous Dante Gabrielli were founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, an artistic movement that gloried in the sensuality of colour, romanticism and beauty) she was brought up a devout Anglo-Catholic, and indeed her sister Maria became a nun. Her brother, Dante Gabrielli Rossetti, was also inspired by religious themes: in the painting on the right, he uses his sister Christina as a model for the Virgin Mary in "The Annunciation". The twin influences of a love of beauty and religious devotion are arguably the wellsprings of the genius of her poetry.
This is perhaps best seen in her poem “The Convent Threshold”, where the narrator, as the title states, is both literally and metaphorically on the threshold of the convent: about to renounce the sensual pleasures of earthly love for a nunnery, a place which will provide a path to heaven, a “golden skyward stair,/To city and to sea of glass.”
Positioning her poem at that “threshold” moment, between leaving the pleasures of earth for the pleasures of heaven gives the poem real dramatic tension. This tension is emphasised by the antitheses in the poem. “My lily feet are soiled with mud”; “Your eyes look earthward, mine look up”; “But through the dark my silence spoke/Like thunder” – and, crucially, “You” and “I”: the narrator and her lover. Typical of Rossetti, the poem is full of sensual imagery – as seen in her description of the pleasures on Earth:
“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.”
And further antithesis is seen when contrasting this vision with her description of Heaven:
“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”.
The righteous in Heaven “sleep at ease”, whilst the “young men and women on Earth are “Up and down leaping, to and fro,/Most glad, most full”; in Heaven they sing a “cadenced hymn”, whilst on Earth the young have “Love-music warbling in their throat”: the tension between Earthly sensual and religious heavenly love is clear and affecting.
Antithesis also forms the starting point of Rossetti’s most famous poem, “Goblin Market”, where the “goblin men” form a contrast to the “modest maidens”, Laura and Lizzie: the goblins
“Leering at each other,
Brother with queer brother;
Signalling each other,
Brother with sly brother”, the maids
“Golden head by golden head,
Like two pigeons in one nest
Folded in each other's wings,
They lay down, in their curtained bed:
Like two blossoms on one stem,
Like two flakes of new-fallen snow,
Like two wands of ivory
Tipped with gold for awful kings.”
As seen above, one of the narrative techniques that typify Rossetti’s poetry is the use of simile: the golden hair and white skin of the sisters, but also their beauty, vulnerability and moral worth, is sensually heightened here.
“Goblin Market” is a good example of the complexity of Rossetti’s poetry. Her brother claimed that she herself called it a poem for children, and indeed it has been published in many children’s anthologies.
On the other hand, the poem is open to interpretation on many levels. Some critics have argued that the poem is a proto-feminist tract - the goblins throughout are referred to as “goblin men”, and are defeated by the female power of Lizzie, who resists their (male) violence:
“They trod and hustled her,
Elbowed and jostled her,
Clawed with their nails,
Barking, mewing, hissing, mocking”
“At last the evil people,
Worn out by her resistance,
Flung back her penny, kicked their fruit
Along whichever road they took”.
Others see the poem as ultimately redemptive: there are clear references to the story of Adam and Eve in the prelapsarian (before the Fall of Man) setting with the two girls living in harmony with the natural world, a harmony threatened by “goblin men” bearing “forbidden fruit”, coaxing the girls to eat as the serpent persuaded Eve in the Garden of Eden. The decline of Laura, who succumbs to temptation, is prevented by Lizzie, who sacrifices herself to the violence of the goblins but remains innocent:
“Though the goblins cuffed and caught her,
Coaxed and fought her,
Bullied and besought her,
Scratched her, pinched her black as ink,
Kicked and knocked her,
Mauled and mocked her,
Lizzie uttered not a word;
Would not open lip from lip
Lest they should cram a mouthful in”.
Another critical standpoint is that the poem is a glorification of female sexuality in a Victorian phallocentric society where the idea that females could enjoy a full sexual life was seen as a threat to male dominance. The goblins’ fruit is described in sensual language:
“Currants and gooseberries,
Figs to fill your mouth,
Citrons from the South,
Sweet to tongue and sound to eye,
Come buy, come buy”,
and despite Lizzie’s warnings that
“We must not look at goblin men,
We must not buy their fruits:
Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry thirsty roots?"
Rossetti describes Laura’s enjoyment of them in sexually-toned language:
“She never tasted such before,
How should it cloy with length of use?
She sucked and sucked and sucked the more
Fruits which that unknown orchard bore,
She sucked until her lips were sore”.
The goblin men’s assault on Lizzie is described in terms suggestive of attempted rape:
“Tore her gown and soiled her stocking,
Twitched her hair out by the roots,
Stamped upon her tender feet”
Whilst for the redemptive return of Lizzie to Laura and Lizzie’s offering of the juices to cure her sister, Rossetti again uses language that connotes sexuality:
“She cried ‘Laura,’ up the garden,
‘Did you miss me ?
Come and kiss me.
Never mind my bruises,
Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices
Squeezed from goblin fruits for you,
Goblin pulp and goblin dew.
Eat me, drink me, love me;
Laura, make much of me:
For your sake I have braved the glen
And had to do with goblin merchant men.’"
“Goblin Market” typifies the layerings of meaning present in Rossetti’s work. And, of course, one critical approach does not preclude another: it simply adds to the complexity of the poems and the achievement of the poet to understand that the poems can be appreciated on many levels. Is it simply a poem for children? A feminist text? A religious parable? A celebration of the power of female sexuality? Or simply a poem to teach the message “there is no friend like a sister / In calm or stormy weather”? The answer, I think, is all of these – and more.
Another interesting aspect of narrative technique in Rossetti’s poetry is her use of place and time context. The concept of a prelapsarian landscape (“Goblin Market”) has already been discussed: but many of her poems are similarly placed in a rural setting in an indeterminate time-period from the past. Rossetti was, of course, writing at the height of the industrial revolution, where the majority of people were living in towns and cities: she herself lived in London, at a time when John Ruskin wrote “that great foul city of London there, — rattling, growling, smoking, stinking, — a ghastly heap of fermenting brickwork, pouring out poison at every pore.” Her poems, however, hark back to an earlier time, often feudal (“Maude Clare”, “Cousin Kate”), rural and generally giving narrative voice to the peasant and the servant. Even “A Royal Princess” begins
“I, a princess, king-descended, decked with jewels, gilded, drest,
Would rather be a peasant with her baby at her breast,
For all I shine so like the sun, and am purple like the west.”
Her similes are also often taken from this natural world, suggestive of a pastoral, rural idyll:
“Laura stretched her gleaming neck
Like a rush-imbedded swan,
Like a lily from the beck,
Like a moonlit poplar branch” (“Goblin Market”).
Perhaps one of the reasons for this use of context is simplicity: the choice of a rural, archaic context untroubled (with the exception of “A Royal Princess”) by political and social upheaval means that she can highlight her themes and concerns more clearly: is she suggesting that the emotions of “ordinary people” are able to transcend time and place, which is why her poems are still read avidly today?
Possibly this is true. However, I began by suggesting that we can only approach Rossetti through her poems, and allow them to speak to us. Her “secret” is in her work.
“Perhaps some languid summer day,
When drowsy birds sing less and less,
And golden fruit is ripening to excess,
If there's not too much sun nor too much cloud,
And the warm wind is neither still nor loud,
Perhaps my secret I may say,
Or you may guess.”
The Victorian Web's biography of Rossetti - many other interesting pages too.
Literary History's list of critical resources for Rossetti.
Poem Hunter has all Rossetti's poems listed alphabetically.
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Chaucer: The Wife of Bath
Coleridge: Rime of the Ancient Mariner
John Donne: Selected Poems
Gerard Manley Hopkins: Selected Poems
Arthur Miller: The Death of a Salesman
Milton: Paradise Lost
Christina Rossetti Poems
Shakespeare: Measure for Measure
Shakespeare: Bradley and Leavis on Othello
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