'The Convent Threshold' - Language, tone and structure

Language and tone

Silence like thunder

The speaker tells her lover that as, in her passion, she prayed for him to repent, her ‘silence spoke / Like thunder' (line 132-3). This oxymoron conveys to the incredible power that she suggests silent prayer has, as well as to the effect that silence can create. In ‘speaking like thunder', she alludes to the idea that the importance of a message does not correlate to the volume at which it is spoken. By turning away from her lover and entering the convent where nuns are required to remain in complete silence for certain lengths of time, the speaker suggests that she is giving him a more significant message than any words could possibly convey. The silence could also allude to the cessation of her voice with that of her life (her blood now ‘frozen').


The speaker encourages her lover to ‘Flee for your life' (line 39). Within only four lines, she uses the word ‘flee' three times to emphasise the urgency of this action. Accusing him of ‘linger[ing]' (line 38), she highlights her concern for his salvation. Not knowing when he will die or when the Day of Judgement will come, she reasons with him to ‘Kneel, wrestle, knock, do violence, pray' (line 48) and to put the eternal kingdom of heaven before any earthly pleasures he may enjoy.

More on intertextuality:

John Donne - ‘violent submission': Rossetti's language here echoes that of the Holy Sonnet XIV by the Metaphysical poet, John Donne, where he portrays the internal wrestling of a soul which seeks to serve God:

Batter my heart, three-personed God; for You
As yet but knock, breathe, shine and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand o'erthrow me and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn and make me new.


Participation with the songs and music that she hears forms an important part of the speaker's journey. She imagines entering paradise and hearing the ‘cadenced hymn' of the righteous who live there (line 23). The word cadenced indicates something rhythmical and measured. A hymn is a song of praise to God, here sung also by the angels (the cherubim and seraphim). The speaker suggests that the righteous live in unity and peace with one another and envisages joining them to praise God.

Anticipating her lover's repentance, the speaker declares that:

No gladder song the morning stars
Upon their birthday morning sang
Than Angels sing when one repents. (lines 82-4)

Here, she suggests that angels are so thrilled when an individual repents that they sing to express their joy (Luke 15:7, Luke 15:10. Their songs are no less happy than the songs that the stars sang to God to express their praise and wonder when they were created.

By contrast, the lover focuses on the earthly ‘Love-music' in the mouths of ‘young men and women' (lines 36-7). The imagery of wine, leaping and floating hair is drawn from a classical scene, perhaps a bacchanalian feast (as depicted on some Greek urns), where passion is inflamed between humans rather than for God.

Investigating language and tone

  • Re-read the poem and think about the voice of the speaker. How sympathetic does she make you feel about her plight?
  • Do you think that Rossetti invites the reader to perceive the speaker with irony, sympathy or compassion?
    • Think especially about the terms in which the speaker describes the relationship she has just renounced
  • What is the effect of the allusions to music in the poem?
    • How do these allusions contribute to the tone?

Structure and versification


There is a striking use of assonance throughout the poem. For example:

  • The initial lines dramatically link ‘love' (l.1) with ‘blood'(l.1-3) and ‘mud' (l.6-7), symbolising the theme of sinful passion which is ‘scarlet' and ‘soiled'
  • The long E sounds in l.22 suggest expansive relaxation
  • The heavy vowels of ‘heard', ‘turn', ‘yearn' and ‘earth[wards]' convey the leaden sorrow the speaker is describing (l.74-6)
  • The long, heavy A sounds which recur in the final stanza link words which summarise the story: ‘lay', ‘say', ‘face', ‘veil(ed)', ‘away', ‘safe'. This is contrasted with the short vowel sounds immediately following in l.145 which speak of the chance of renewed life.


Rossetti achieves dramatically different effects by way of alliteration within The Convent Threshold. For example:

  • The growling Rs of ‘Racked, roasted … wrenched' in l.26 add to the discomfort of the actions
  • The danger of the seductive temptation to ignore death is conveyed by the sibilance of l.43-5 (with its association with the hiss of the serpent, Satan)
  • The thoughtless ease involved in choosing the ‘broad path' of temptation and sin comes across via the effortless Ws in l.54-5
  • The speaker's urgency is emphasised by the plosive P sounds that are stressed through l.76-81 (including ‘repent')
  • The repeated gentle M (including ‘familiar') and liquid L sounds of the last two lines (l.147-8) suggests the sense of ease and comfort that the speaker hopes to attain when she is finally reunited with her lover in heaven.


Direct repetition and repetition with variation occur frequently in the poem, highlighting the passion with which the narrative unfolds. It is often allied with emphatic punctuation and other rhetorical devices:

  • There are repeated rhetorical questions – ‘Why will you die?', ‘How long … ?', ‘Should I not answer … Should I not turn'
  • Repeated exclamations – ‘Woe's me … !', ‘O weary …'
  • Triads (lists of three) – ‘Of hope / guilt / love that was / shall', ‘How long until / shall / must … ?', ‘O weary life / Lent / time'.


Although the rhyme scheme is irregular, it runs right through The Convent Threshold emphasising certain words, creating a song-like rhythm and increasing the pace at which the poem is read so as to draw attention to the urgent tone of the speaker.

  • By choosing to rhyme certain words together, Rossetti adds a new dimension of meaning to the narrative. For instance, by rhyming ‘spoke' with ‘broke' (132-3), she highlights the impact that the silence which ‘spoke' had in breaking up what had gone before and creating a new thing
  • The triplet that is created with the words ‘grand', ‘land' and ‘strand' (lines 18-20), emphasises the increasing excitement of the speaker as she looks up and sees the wonders that fill heaven
  • Eye rhymes are used to draw certain words together to create added meaning and emphasis for the discerning reader. The words ‘paradise' and ‘rise' (lines 140-1) are linked in this way, highlighting the notion that Paradise can only be glimpsed when an individual lifts his or eyes beyond their current circumstances
  • Internal rhyme is used throughout The Convent Threshold for increased emphasis. For instance, in the line, ‘Why will you die? why will you die?' (line 50), the words ‘why' and ‘die' are linked through rhyme to express the speaker's perplexity and heightened emotion. Later, Rossetti rhymes ‘prays' with ‘laves' but has the word ‘laves' in the middle, rather than at the end of the line. To ‘lave' means to wash or bathe. By associating it with the idea of prayer, the notion that communicating with God cleanses a person from their sin is emphasised.


Breaking out of the regular iambic tetrameters with which the poem begins, Rossetti uses opening trochees in the lines, ‘Stair after golden skyward stair' and ‘Mount with me, mount the kindled stair' (lines 5, 16). Through the shift in metre, she highlights the effort needed to break out of the expected patterns set by the world.

Throughout the poem, the speaker's struggle to break free of her past and prepare herself to enter heaven without feeling a ‘pitiful pang' (line 76) for her lover is reflected through the metre. Notice that when she speaks with a sense of urgency, the metre changes to mirror her tone. For instance, after a series of lines written in iambic tetrameter, she cries, ‘Flee for your life, gird up your strength' (line 39). By having a stress fall on the word ‘Flee', she creates a trochee which draws attention to her heightened emotion. The need for immediacy is further emphasised by the fact that the third stress falls on the instruction ‘gird'. Taken together, the combinations of feet that constitute the line reflect the passion of the speaker as she gives the command.

Investigating structure and versification

  • Note down some examples of caesurae that contribute to a change in the pace at which the poem is read.
    • What do you think the effect is of having a full stop after the word ‘thunder' (line 133)?
  • How do you think that the structure of the poem contributes to the narrative?
  • What do you think is the significance of presenting the narrative as a poem?
    • How would it differ if it was written as a piece of prose?
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