'L.E.L ' - Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery and symbolism

Hiding behind a mask - Throughout the poem, Rossetti uses images of concealment to highlight the differences between the face L.E.L. presents to the world and her true self.

  • Declaring, ‘I deck myself with silks and jewellery' (line 22), L.E.L. is shown to use her dresses and her jewels to mask her loneliness
  • Her disguise appears to be effective: ‘They praise my rustling show and never see / My heart is breaking for a little love' (lines 24-5).

The natural world

  • The poem is set at the beginning of spring, when ‘winter frosts are done' and ‘leaves peep out' (lines 5-6). However, the speaker feels no connection with the outside world of nature. Instead, she presents herself as a captive, trapped inside a suffocating and loveless prison
  • She envies the ‘nests in the grove' (line 9) which, to her, represent a home she does not have
  • In addition to evoking the start of spring, the image of the lilies budding can be seen to represent the blossoming of pure love, something for which the speaker longs
  • As the poem develops, the effects of spring become more pronounced. Yet, whilst the bees and rabbits naturally adapt to their changing surroundings, the speaker emphasises the artificiality of her disguise.

Growth - Images of natural growth are used throughout the poem to depict the arrival of spring and highlight the stagnant position in which L.E.L. finds herself. The words ‘rise', ‘bud', ‘sprouts', ‘spring' and ‘sap' (lines 13, 14, 26, 28) depict the growth of plants and thus highlight the unnatural condition of confinement that L.E.L. faces (for an explanation of the term ‘sap' see A Better Resurrection > Imagery and symbolism > Sap).

Lilies, lavender, rosemary and myrrh (lines 14, 26, 27) are all visual signs that spring has come.

Biblical influences - The words, ‘I turn my face in silence to the wall' (line 3) are taken from the Old Testament 2 Kings 20:2. Here, Hezekiah cries out to God in anguish because he thinks he is dying.

In the last two verses, Rossetti uses Biblical imagery and symbolism to introduce a dialogue between believers already in heaven (the saints), angels and L.E.L. This serves to bring a sense of hope to the despair depicted and establish a Christian vision:

  • After being starved of love, Rossetti uses images of satisfied appetite – ‘fill', ‘girth', ‘fat' which echo the image of God's generous provision in Luke 6:38:
Give and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. TNIV
  • The last line looks forward to a time ‘When new spring builds new heaven and clean new earth'. This alludes to the vision of the last chapter of the Bible where the writer sees:
… a new heaven and a new earth … the new Jerusalem … prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men and he will live with them. They will be his people and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away'. Revelation 21:1-4

The imagery employed here, of a joyous ‘marriage' between God and the new Jerusalem (interpreted by Christians as meaning the Church), offers a welcome contrast to L.E.L'.s present loveless existence

Investigating imagery and symbolism

  • The poem begins by contrasting the society ‘Downstairs' with the loneliness of the ‘solitary room above' (lines 1-2). How important is place in this poem and why?
  • Why do you think that L.E.L. had to disguise the reality of her life?
    • What enables Rossetti to identify L.E.L.'s ‘show' as a disguise?
  • L.E.L. declares that she ‘feel[s] no spring' (line 8). What is the difference between feeling spring and witnessing it visually?
    • What do you think prevents her from feeling the effects of spring?


The female poet

L.E.L. reflects the complicated situation of the female poet in Victorian times. She does not belong fully to either the public or the domestic realm but exists in a difficult space between the two. The poem emphasises the complications of the situation in which the female literary celebrity finds herself.

Secrecy and reticence

Although Rossetti's lyrical L.E.L. appears to be expressing her emotions freely, she withholds the details of her unhappiness, revealing only what is necessary to convey her present circumstances. In addition to drawing the reader's attention to the blankness and silence of her ‘wall' (line 3), her own silence regarding her situation and the ‘truth' which she suggests only some ‘saints in glory' may be able to ‘guess' (line 29) points to her deliberate withdrawal from the world. The ‘rustling show' (line 24) that she puts on to please her admirers is also apparent in linguistic play and verbal interaction. She uses metaphors and similes that hide deeper and darker secrets beneath the playful and attractive surface. Such secrecy is also in Rossetti's poem Winter: my Secret.

Suffering, endurance and hope

Rossetti ends the poem on a note of conventional Christian piety – that human suffering in this life is apprehended by God and will be redressed in the believer's life after death (in heaven). This vision is used by the New Testament writer Peter to encourage Christian believers to hold onto the hope that they have for the future. Peter declares that in keeping with the promises that Christ has given:

‘we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells'. 2 Peter 3:13 TNIV

Meanwhile, believers were called to persevere, as Paul wrote in his letter to the early church which was facing persecution in Rome:

… we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. TNIV Romans 5:3-5

Rossetti uses the archaic term ‘scathe' meaning wound / disfigurement. This links the suffering of L.E.L. with that of Jesus, who was ‘wounded' by being hammered to a cross. However, according to the Bible, the wounds of Christ had the effect of healing and restoring humanity:

He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him and by his wounds, we are healed. Isaiah 53:4-5

In the same way, the poet should actively see her present burden as a route to future joy. See Joy in spite of hardship.

Investigating themes

  • Why do you think that Rossetti's L.E.L. chooses to conceal a particular ‘truth' (line 29)?
  • What does Rossetti suggest the difficulties are of existing happily both in the public and the private realms?
  • What indications can you find that Rossetti is sympathetic to L.E.L.'s plight?
  • Why do you think that Rossetti choose to associate herself with L.E.L.?
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