'Despised and Rejected' - Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery and Symbolism

Night-time - The poem begins, ‘My sun has set'. It continues to use images of night-time to convey messages about eternal life, relationships and living as an individual

  • The action of the poem takes place during a night the speaker calls ‘bitter' (line 5). In addition to meaning very cold, the word bitter can also be seen to indicate the unfriendly attitude that ensures the speaker's own isolation
  • In the first few lines, death is spoken of in terms of the night. The speaker claims that, by dwelling in darkness, he can be described as a ‘dead man out of sight'. Just as death hides the dead from the sight of the living, the speaker hopes that the darkness of the night will hide him from his friends
  • The speaker can only see evidence of the stranger's blood after the day-break. The darkness of the night had meant having to trust the voice outside without any visual evidence.

Fpr further associations, see Darkness.

The Door - Rossetti can be understood to take the image of the door from the last book of the New Testament, Revelation. Here, Jesus is depicted as a friend and as a guide:

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 TNIV

Holman Hunt's The Light of the WorldPre-Raphaelite artist Holman Hunt (see Literary context > The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood) used this verse as the basis of his 1853 painting The Light of the World. For this painting, he used Christina Rossetti as one his models for the face of Jesus. His depiction of Christ standing at a door, holding a lantern and knocking was perhaps an influence for the presentation of the subject matter in Despised and Rejected. For further associations, see Gateway, door.

Blood: The crucifixion - The stranger tells the speaker of the poem,

‘My Feet bleed, see My Face,
See My Hands bleed that bring thee grace,
My Heart doth bleed for thee', (lines 45-7)

As indicated in Synopsis and commentary > Clues, 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 capitalised. With this in mind, the description of bleeding feet and hands can be understood to refer to Christ's crucifixion when nails were driven through his hands and feet to secure him to the cross.

A bleeding heart - Rossetti uses the image of the heart throughout her poetry. In thousands of poems through the centuries, the heart is spoken of as the basis for the emotion of love. In the nineteenth-century, the human heart served as a key symbol for the expression of passion, feeling and brokenness.

The idea that the heart can bleed suggests the deep pain an individual's feelings can experience. Taking the stranger as Jesus, by describing his heart as bleeding, Rossetti acknowledges the depth of his feeling for the speaker. As in many of her other devotional poems, the picture of Jesus she draws is an intimate one, expressing his longing to enter the life of an individual to transform them. Believing that it is entirely up to the individual as to whether or not they accept or acknowledge Jesus, Rossetti emphasises the passion and love that Jesus has for each person.

Blood on the door - The image of blood is again used at the very end of the poem when the speaker reflects that after the departure of the stranger:

I saw upon the grass
Each footprint marked in blood and on my door
The mark of blood for evermore. (lines 56-8)

1. The Old Testament context

In Exodus, in the Old Testament, God tells Moses and Aaron how he will come and judge the enemies of his people:

I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn of both people and animals and I will bring judgement on all the gods of Egypt. I am the LORD. Exodus 12:12 TNIV

However, God tells those who worship him to take sheep and goats that are ‘without defect' and slaughter them, using their blood to make a mark on the top of their doorframe (Exodus 12:1-10) on the night of the Passover feast:

The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt. Exodus 12:13 TNIV

In short, the mark of blood on their doorframes will keep them safe from any harm.

2. The New Testament context

Throughout the New Testament, Jesus is referred to as the Lamb of God. This was based on the words of John the Baptist:

'Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world'. John 1: 29 TNIV

This is a reference to Christ's death for the sins of others. In Revelation 5: 6 Jesus is represented as a lamb that has been slaughtered. Christians believe that he shed his blood on the cross to take away their sins so that they can be saved from the punishment they would otherwise deserve. Because he did this once, for all, animal sacrifices to God are now no longer necessary.

3. What does the blood signify?

Reading the final lines of Despised and Rejected in the context of Exodus 12 and the New Testament references to Jesus as the Lamb of God provides a possible way of interpreting the blood that the stranger leaves on the speaker's door:

  • The fact that the blood can be left there ‘for evermore' (line 58) suggests that the door is a metaphor for something more substantial and long-lasting than a house which, however it is built, cannot last forever
  • According to the Bible, Jesus' blood is a safeguard against damnation, so the mark on the speaker's door can be interpreted as the possibility that still remains for the speaker to call upon Jesus and be saved
  • Alternatively, given the warnings of the stranger in the poem, that one day the speaker will ‘entreat' his face and ‘howl for grace' (lines 26-7), as well as the context of Jesus' account of judgement in Matthew 25:34-42, the mark might act in reverse, indicating that the person within is not saved.

For further associations, see Blood.

Investigating imagery and symbolism

  • To what extent do you think the house can be understood as a symbol of an individual?
    • What are the difficulties with reading the image of the house in this way?
    • What are the advantages with reading the image of the house in this way?
  • What is the effect of the imagery and symbolism the speaker uses? (Think especially about the symbolism of blood.)
  • How powerful is the symbol of the footprints ‘marked in blood' (line 57) which the speaker notices on his grass the morning after the stranger's visit?
    • Do you think that seeing these footprints made him feel guilty, shocked or scared?



The stranger, who can be identified as Jesus, warns the speaker of the poem about a judgement that is to come. He pleads with him to open his door and see who he is. As he stands outside, he declares,

  Open, lest I should pass thee by and thou
  One day entreat My Face
And howl for grace,
And I be deaf as thou art now. (lines 23-28)

If the stranger is to be identified as Jesus and the poem understood in the devotional context within which it was written, the allusion to ‘One day' when the speaker will ‘entreat' the face of Christ can be interpreted as the Day of Judgement.

More on the Day of Judgement: Christians believe that after death / upon the return of Christ to the world, every human life will be brought to a final account by God (Matthew 12:36-37), with Jesus as the judge (Matthew 13:36-43). All lives will be exposed and those who have not responded to God will be shut out from his presence for good, whilst believers will be welcomed into his presence forever (Revelation 22:14-15).

Jesus taught that the acts of each person and the treatment that he or she gives to others, will be taken into account by God on the Day of Judgement. Matthew 25:34-42 recalls his teaching on those who will receive eternal life.

By ‘howl[ing] for grace', Jesus indicates that on the Day of Judgement, the speaker will be pleading desperately for God's forgiveness and undeserved favour. Grace is a term used throughout the New Testament to indicate the compassion of God which compelled him to send Jesus to die, paying the price for human sin. By suggesting that the speaker will ‘howl' for this grace, Jesus indicates its place in securing the promise of eternal life and overcoming the judgement that each individual will face on the final day. See Judgement.

Human selfishness

Throughout Despised and Rejected, Rossetti also uses the door as a symbol of the divide between the rich and the poor in society, which dramatically increased through the Victorian era. The poem suggests that, rather than nursing his/her own grievances, it was the speaker's duty to meet the needs of the stranger who needed help.

This is exactly what Rossetti believed Christ was talking about in Matthew 25:34-42. The theme of caring for the poor in society is repeatedly emphasised in the Bible and Rossetti felt that it was important to apply biblical principles in practice. As a member of a Tractarian Church (see Religious / philosophical context > Tractarianism), Rossetti herself was actively involved in helping women out of a life of prostitution, assisting the sick and alleviating poverty.

Investigating themes

  • What comments do you think Despised and Rejected makes about society or human selfishness?
    • Do you think that these comments are relevant to twenty-first century readers?
  • Why do you think that the speaker did not answer his door?
  • What attitude does he express towards the judgement that the stranger warns about?
    • Why do you think that this is?
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