'Despised and Rejected' - Synopsis and commentary


The speaker of the poem has shut him/herself away after a betrayal of trust by ‘hollow friends'. When a stranger outside asks to gain access, the speaker rejects the repeated entreaty until finally the stranger departs. The stranger had alluded to the fact that his feet were bleeding and when, in the morning, the speaker goes outside, s/he discovers bloody footsteps on the grass and blood marking the door.

Christina Rossetti composed Despised and Rejected in 1864 and first published it two years later in her second book of poetry, The Prince's Progress and Other Poems. It is the first devotional poem in the volume.

Investigating Despised and Rejected

  • What do you think makes Despised and Rejected a devotional poem?
    • Why do you think Rossetti chose to use it as the first devotional poem of The Prince's Progress and Other Poems? Do you think it is a good choice?
  • What are your associations with the words ‘despised' and ‘rejected'?
  • Is there anything in the poem you find surprising?
    • How do these elements challenge your expectation?

Watch Despised and Rejected

Accompanying teaching resources


A fulfilment of a prophecy

The title, Despised and Rejected, is taken from the Old Testament book of Isaiah. Here, the prophet Isaiah looks forward to a time when the nation of Israel will be freed from the oppression of other nations. He predicts that a servant will be sent by God to take responsibility and suffer punishment for all the wrongdoings that have been committed by God's people. He will do this out of his love for them. Regarding this servant, Isaiah declares:

He was despised and rejected by others,
a man of suffering and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised and we held him in low esteem.
Isaiah 53:3 TNIV

This verse is also understood by Christians as a prophecy about Jesus.

More on the work of Jesus: The New Testament states that God in the person of Jesus Christ has, by suffering and dying on the cross, made the sacrifice necessary to wipe out, or ‘pay for', the sin of humanity. Because God himself bore the penalty for the wrongdoing of humankind, forgiveness and reconciliation with God become possible. Just as a slave could be freed if the price was paid, so humans, enslaved to sin, can be bought back and saved to eternal life (see Big ideas from the Bible > Redemption, salvation).

Devotional poetry

Rossetti wrote Despised and Rejected as a devotional poem. In literature, the term ‘devotional' indicates writing which may enhance a person's religious faith or life. Rossetti wrote hundreds of devotional poems in her lifetime, both as an act of prayer expressing her close relationship with God and as an encouragement for her readers to live a life of devotion or worship. All of her devotional poems are based upon the promises, warnings and prophecies of the Bible.

The opening of Despised and Rejected itself sounds like an echo of the Psalms, which often speak of isolation and despair. Psalm 143, for example, depicts how a beleaguered man has been ‘crushed' by an enemy who:

.. makes me dwell in darkness
Like those long dead
So my spirit grows faint within me;
My heart within me is dismayed.
Psalms 143:3-4 TNIV

The identity of the stranger

The man knocking at the speaker's door and asking for a place to lodge is identified as a ‘stranger'. In addition to suggesting that the identity of this man was not known to the speaker, the term stranger can also be seen to allude to the prophecy Jesus gives regarding himself and the promise of eternal life. In the New Testament Gospel of Matthew, Matthew records Jesus' words to his disciples:

'Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me'.

‘Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'

‘The King will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me'.

‘Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me'. Matthew 25:34-42 TNIV


In Despised and Rejected, Rossetti does not directly name Jesus as the stranger knocking at the door of the speaker. Instead, she gives the reader various hints that this is the case:

  • By capitalising personal pronouns (for instance, ‘Me', ‘My Feet', ‘My Hands'), Rossetti follows the pattern of the King James Version of the Bible with which she was familiar (see Religious / philosophical context > The Bible). Throughout this, references to Christ are similarly capitalised
  • The stranger distinguishes himself from the ‘hollow friends' (line 7) that have let down the speaker. He asks the speaker to open the door and ‘see / Who stands to plead with thee' (lines 23-4). He implies that he is different to all those people the speaker has encountered in the past
  • In the fourth stanza, the stranger warns the speaker that one day, when he will want to entreat his face and ‘howl for grace' (lines 26-7), he will himself be ‘deaf as thou art now' (line 28). This corresponds to the Christian belief that a person must acknowledge and welcome Jesus to enter Heaven (see Matthew 25:34-42, above)
  • The stranger uses the word ‘Rise' to call the speaker. This is a word frequently used by Jesus throughout the gospels when he calls the disciples to follow him, heals the sick and resurrects the dead
  • In the sixth verse, the crucifixion is alluded to as the stranger declares himself to be a bringer of grace. This word has a specific meaning which Rossetti's Christian audience would pick up. See Aspects of literature > Big ideas from the Bible > Forgiveness, mercy and grace
  • According to the gospel accounts, after a crown of thorns was set on his head, Jesus' hands and feet were nailed to a wooden cross and he was later stabbed in the side with a spear (John 19:2John 19:18John 19:34; John 20:25,27). In the poem the stranger cries:
‘My Feet bleed, see My Face,
See My Hands bleed that bring thee grace,
My Heart doth bleed for thee,
Open to Me'. (lines 45-8)
  • The identification of the stranger with Christ is given weight by its allusion to a Bible verse well known to Rossetti's readership, where Jesus uses metaphor to proclaim:
Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him and he with me. Revelation 3:20

Rossetti would have known a very famous painting representing this, The light of the World, by Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood painter Holman Hunt.

See Imagery and symbolism.

Investigating Despised and Rejected

  • Can you find any other clues pointing to the idea that the stranger knocking at the door is Jesus?
    • Why do you think that Rossetti does not name him directly?
    • If the stranger is not to be interpreted as Jesus, who do you think that he is?
  • Why do you think that the speaker calls his friends ‘hollow'?
    • What evidence is there for this?
    • What do you think they could have been troubling the speaker with?
  • Read Matthew 25:34-42. How relevant do you think understanding Jesus' words is to an understanding of the poem?
    • Are there any other echoes of this passage in the poem?
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