Synopsis and commentary

Synopsis

The female speaker (who may now be a voice beyond the grave) tells her lover that their (illicit?) relationship cannot continue and that she wishes to enter a purer life in a convent, as a precursor for entry to heaven. Meanwhile, her lover remains focussed on the physical joys of love. Mindful of the death and judgement which may be imminent for them both, the speaker urges her lover to repent as sincerely as she does – even the angels are aware of the extent of her grief.

The speaker tries to withdraw physically from her lover but still offers her lips, now forming them into pleas for repentance rather than kisses. She wonders how she would survive without him in heaven, again urging her lover to repent and so be forgiven (and thus able to enter heaven).

The speaker then recalls two dreams she had the previous night. In the first, ‘A spirit with transfigured face' demonstrated to her the power of love over the desire for knowledge (lines 86, 105). In the second, her lover returned to her and found her (dying?) drenched in blood and ready to be ‘Crushed downwards thro' the sodden earth' (line 123). In the morning, she claims that she woke to find,

My face was pinched, my hair was grey,
And frozen blood was on the sill
Where stifling in my struggle I lay (lines 134-6).

This may be a metaphor for the denial of self involved in entering a religious order, or an actual depiction of the speaker's death. The speaker has now ‘Gone before' her lover, either into the convent (as a first step) or by being already in paradise where she looks forward to meeting her lover again and loving ‘with old familiar love' (line 148).

Commentary

Rossetti composed The Convent Threshold in 1858 and published it in her first volume of poetry, Goblin Market and Other Poems, in 1862. In this volume, it is the penultimate poem of the section of non-devotional poetry.

A dramatic monologue

Written in the form of a dramatic monologue, The Convent Threshold employs several Gothic motifs such as depictions of bloodshed, dreams, visions and the struggle of a woman on the verge of entering a convent or of dying as she renounces physical love (for more information on Gothic motifs, see Literary context > Gothic literature). Calling her lover to ‘Repent, repentant be forgiven!' (line 79), the speaker emphases the urgency of responding to the message of Christ before it is too late, so as to ensure a place in heaven.

More on the dramatic monologue: Whilst the term ‘dramatic' indicates notions of performance, the term ‘monologue' denotes an uninterrupted speech. The dramatic monologue is a poem written as a direct speech and given by a speaker who is distinguished from the poet herself. It was developed in the Victorian period by Robert Browning in poems such as My Last Duchess (1842) and Porphyria's Lover (1836) and Alfred Lord Tennyson in poems such as Ulysses (1842). See Aspects of literature > Recognising poetic form > Dramatic monologues.

         

Investigating The Convent Threshold

  • What are the advantages to presenting the narrative in the form of a dramatic monologue?
  • How is the speaker of the poem represented?
  • What are your associations with the idea of a convent?
    • Are these associations met in the poem?

New Anglican convents in Victorian England

In 1845, in the parish of Christ Church where Rossetti worshipped each week, the first Anglican convent since the Reformation was established. This convent was called the Park Village Sisterhood. Although it began with only a few women dedicated to living as nuns, it quickly grew and more convents were established. In 1873, Rossetti's sister Maria joined the nearby convent of All Saints and Rossetti herself became closely involved with this order. It was an active order which emphasised the importance of education and of helping the downtrodden.

Women chose to become nuns because they wished to dedicate their lives to God. Since many roles in the Church were denied to them because of their gender, becoming a nun was one way in which a woman could remain single, serve the community and belong to a larger, affirming and positive female network.

Since they adopted Roman Catholic customs and practices, early Anglican convents received a lot of ridicule from the Victorian public. It was believed by many that the convents were a threat to a patriarchal (male-run) society, whilst suspicion of Roman Catholicism was widespread.

The threshold

The word ‘threshold' was originally used to describe the piece of timber or stone which lies below the bottom of a door and has to be crossed in entering a house. From its original use, the word has come to indicate a border or entrance that must be crossed in the entering of a new space. In the context of The Convent Threshold, the threshold serves to divide of the convent from the rest of the world. The speaker remains on this threshold because she struggles to leave her past behind and fully immerse herself in current or future circumstances.

In the context of the poem, a threshold is also created between the natural and the supernatural realms. This threshold is crossed in dreams and in prayer. The speaker claims to look forward to standing, with her lover, safe ‘within the door' of heaven (line 143). Thus, she imagines having finally crossed the threshold that separates heaven from earth and looks forward to remaining secure.

Repentance

Throughout the poem, the speaker calls on her lover to ‘Repent', be forgiven and to receive eternal life. It is only through repentance that, she suggests, he will be able to ‘purge' or rid his soul of sin (line 81).

In the context of the Bible, repentance can be defined as the act of turning away, or turning around from, one's sins. This includes feeling genuinely sorry for them, asking for the forgiveness of God and being willing to live in a different way in the future. The speaker emphasises the importance of not leaving the act of repentance too long.

The dangers of delay

Aware that the Day of Judgement is approaching upon which, the Bible states, God will judge men and women according to the way they have lived, the speaker stresses the need to accept Christ and to turn away from wrongdoing. She warns her lover:

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. (lines 38-42)

Throughout her poetry, Rossetti emphasises the problems that come to those who ‘linger' and ‘tarry' (see Poems for study > Jessie Cameron).

The need to turn aside

In Rossetti's warnings, she alludes to various passages in the Bible which encourage the believer to ‘flee' from their sins. For instance, the apostle Paul instructs the early Christians to:

Flee the evil desires of youth and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart. 2 Timothy 2:22 TNIV

Whilst the speaker urges her lover to turn away from ‘looking earthward', watching ‘Young men and women come and go' (lines 30, 37) and to renounce the unspecified ‘pleasant sin' he committed (line 51), she acknowledges that she has already repented.

Despite that, the speaker claims that she is still in the process of ‘unlearn[ing]' her mistakes (line 53):

  • Although being on the ‘Convent Threshold', she is unable to imagine resting in paradise without wanting to ‘Turn earthwards with a pitiful pang' (line 76)
  • While she has already voiced her determination to ‘turn from' her lover entirely (lines 61-2), she acknowledges that her ‘lips still turn' to him with the call to ‘Repent' (lines 65-6).
    In this way, the poem highlights the difficulty of fleeing the pleasures of earth completely and letting go of the past in order to look forward to future blessings in paradise.

The righteous

The speaker repeatedly declares her intention to follow the example of ‘the righteous' (line 21) who have overcome the difficulties of earth and persevered in following Christ. She imagines the ‘mansions' where they eat and the ‘trees' among which they now sleep in Paradise (lines 21-2). Before they could reach this place of tranquillity, however, she acknowledges that:

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 (lines 25-9)
  • By claiming that ‘They bore the Cross', the speaker suggests that the righteous are those who obeyed the command that Jesus gave to his disciples when he said:
‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it'. Matthew 16:24-5 TNIV
  • By ‘draining the cup', she suggests that the righteous were willing to undergo the sufferings that Christ endured. These sufferings are described as the contents of a ‘cup' from which he chose to drink in order to bear the punishment due to humanity (Matthew 20:22, Matthew 26:42)
  • The description of the torture the righteous suffered as they were ‘racked, roasted, crushed' alludes to their martyrdom. An ‘offscouring' means a person who has fallen from society. By willingly doing this, Rossetti suggests that the righteous are able to enter heaven (Lamentations 3:45, 1 Corinthians 4:13)
  • Alluding to Jesus' promise that the ‘righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father' (Matthew 13:43 TNIV), she hints at the brightness and light believers can look forward to, in the light of which earthly sunshine is ‘dim'.

Investigating The Convent Threshold

  • Compare the attitude of the speaker to the attitude of her lover
    • Why do you think that he is unwilling to ‘repent'?
    • Why do you think that she is so urgent in her requests for him to turn away from the past?
  • List all the references to ‘turning' in the poem
    • What effect do these references have?
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