'Shut Out' - Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery and symbolism

Door with iron bars, photo by Rh-67, available through Creative CommonsThe door - The poem begins, ‘The door was shut'. Instead of being trapped in, the door shuts the speaker out of a place of happiness. Doors usually suggest opening and closing rather than permanent closure. It also indicates a process of selection as to whom may enter. See Gateway, door.

The iron bars - The door is described as having iron bars through which the speaker can glimpse the garden from which s/he has been excluded. The description of ‘iron bars' is suggestive of confinement, hardness and permanence. Unlike wood, iron is difficult to break through. The allusion to peeping through the bars suggests that they are close together and make it hard to see clearly.

The garden - Throughout her devotional poetry and particularly in her final volume, Verses, Rossetti describes paradise in terms of a garden. In her poem, The Holy City, New Jerusalem (which she uses to open the seventh section of Verses, New Jerusalem and its Citizens) she depicts the garden of paradise where the righteous will rejoice after the process of being washed clean by Christ:

Jerusalem a garden is,
A garden of delight;
Leaf, flower and fruit make fair her trees,
Which see not day or night:
Beside her River clear and calm
The tree of Life grows with the Palm,
For triumph and for food and balm. (lines 15-21)

Gardens, greenery and pastures are a feature of many of the poems Rossetti includes in Goblin Market and Other Poems:

  • The speaker of her long narrative poem From House to Home recalls the abundance of life in his/her own ‘earthly paradise'
  • The speaker of Amen, the final poem of the volume, looks forward to spring, anticipating that the garden will ‘teem with spices'
  • However, like Shut Out, these poems reflect a sense of fragility and highlight the mortality or fragility of human existence.

Compared to this, Rossetti's descriptions of Paradise highlight its life, vitality and warmth. Unlike the greenery that exists on earth, she suggests that the trees and flowers that grow in Paradise are not subject to decay. In Shut Out, there is no hint of the foliage fading and the word ‘all' suggests that the flowers were not subject to seasonal change.

The wall - The speaker recounts how the spirit who kept the gate ‘took/ Mortar and stone to build a wall' (line 17-18). The reason for this is so that the garden may no longer be seen. The wall is presented as a threatening feature and represents a more permanent barrier than the door which still had the potential to be opened or looked through. It cuts the speaker off from his/her old home forever, forcing a confrontation with the speaker's current circumstances.

Violets, photo by John Poyser, available through Creative CommonsViolets - Many Victorians were aware of the ancient flower symbolism in which violets are emblems of faithfulness. However, Rossetti also associates violets with death in her poem, Roses blushing red and white, which she includes in Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book (see The poetry of Christina Rossetti: Context: Rossetti's Poetry: Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book, 1872). This association corresponds to the final verse of Shut Out where the speaker looks in a state of depression upon a violet bed. S/he sees that although the violets in bud are ‘good', they are ‘not the best' (line 27).

The lark - The speaker notices that close by where s/he sits in a state of depression, ‘a lark has made her nest' in the violet bed. A lark is a bird often associated with energy, hope and life. Its appearance to the speaker can therefore be seen to bring hope and comfort to his/her situation.

Investigating imagery and symbolism

  • What associations do you have with the idea of iron bars?
    • How are these associations met in the poem?
  • Why, do you think, does the spirit seal up the wall?
    • What is the effect of his act on the speaker?



The speaker claims that, once exiled from the garden, the only comfort comes from peering through the bars in the door. Once his/her ‘straining eyes' (line 20) can no longer see through the loopholes, s/he falls into a state of despair, ‘Blinded with tears' (line 22).

The Bible contains many references to blindness. These can mean literal physical lack of sight (Luke 14:13) or a spiritual inability to perceive either the truth or God (Matthew 23:16-26). Read within this framework and considering the narrative of the Garden of Eden, the speaker's blindness can be related to Adam and Eve's loss of relationship with God. Just as they lost the close physical intimacy with God that they had enjoyed when they were shut out from the Garden of Eden, so the speaker becomes acutely isolated on being shut out from his/her own garden.

However, the Bible also portrays Jesus as a ‘second Adam' who reinstates the possibility of reconciliation with God and thereby ‘opens the gate' to heaven / paradise. (See Aspects of literature > Big ideas from the Bible > Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, second Adam.) In the light of this, the speaker believes that, one day, there will be the chance of re-entering the poem's garden (l.16). This links the closed door in this poem to the one in Despised and Rejected.

Investigating themes

  • List all the references to sight, vision and blindness that you can find in the poem
    • What is the effect that these references create?
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