'The Convent Threshold' - Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery and symbolism

Blood - By offering the lament, ‘Blood's a bar I cannot pass' (line 3), the speaker hints at a family rivalry that threatens to divide her from her lover. That the relationship is unsanctioned is conveyed by the continual depiction of the relationship as ‘sinful' (l.7-10, 51-53). Certainly the notion of the ‘bar' here indicates a barrier that can never be crossed. Blood is so powerful that it separates families from one another as well as joining them together.

More on intertextuality:

Wuthering Heights – blood on the sill: The depiction of blood on the windowsill recalls Emily Bronte's 1847 novel Wuthering Heights. In this, Lockwood, the narrator, has a nightmare in which he sees the ghost-child Catherine's wrist cut on the broken window pane of his room.

Romeo and Juliet - malicious bloodshed: Although Rossetti does not specify directly what the ‘blood' signifies, the idea of family bloodshed contains elements of Shakespeare's play Romeo and Juliet. Commenting on the poem, Rossetti's brother William Michael thereby highlights the aspects of family rivalry that The Convent Threshold implicitly suggests.

Macbeth - blood guilt: The reference to a ‘stain' and the desire to ‘wash the spot' echo the perception of guilt shared by Lord and Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare's tragedy, Macbeth, who have the blood of King Duncan on their hands which they cannot remove.

Blood loss is an image that is used repeatedly throughout the poem. In the second dream the speaker's ‘sheets are red' and she revives either to discover herself dead (laid ‘stifling' across the sill) or to find herself grown old overnight, the loss of vigour depicted by the ‘frozen blood' on the sill of her room.

Either way, by describing the blood as ‘frozen', Rossetti suggests an absence of life and points to a coldness that is so intense it prevents movement. Rather than turning backwards or moving forwards, the image suggests being literally stuck on the threshold.

Jacob's ladderStairs - The speaker begins her monologue by declaring her intention to ‘choose the stairs that mount above' and anticipates climbing ‘Stair after golden skyward stair' towards paradise (lines 4-5). The image alludes to the Book of Genesis, where Jacob's dream of a stairway resting on the earth and leading up to heaven is described (Genesis 28:12). See Jacob's dream of a staircase to heaven.

The image of climbing stairs suggests gradual and progressive movement towards a destination. It also suggests that the journey will be tiring and therefore, must be one of active perseverance. As ‘stairs are meant to lift us higher', so the speaker alludes to the upward movement of her soul to heaven. To progress upwards on the ‘golden skyward' staircase, the speaker suggests that a person must endure hardship and sacrifice, imitating the righteous who have gone before. In her dream, she imagines herself ‘like lead / Crushed downwards thro' the sodden earth' (lines 122-3). Using this simile, she envisages her body dying to the world so that her soul can rise to heaven.

Paradise - Throughout The Convent Threshold, images of paradise are taken from the descriptions given in the gospels and the final book of the New Testament, Revelation.

1. The far-off city - The speaker claims that, whilst her lover can only look at what is material and earthly, she has grown accustomed to looking up and seeing ‘the far-off city grand' (line 18). In this city, she sees ‘mansions' where the ‘righteous' eat, rest and sing (lines 19-24). She eagerly looks forwards to joining them once she has overcome the painful circumstances of the world.

2. Mansions / place is set - The description of the ‘mansions' in heaven prepared for believers is taken from John's Gospel. Jesus comforts his disciples with the promise:

2In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also. John 14:2-3 AV

3. The sea of glass - The speaker's description of the ‘far off city' surrounded by a ‘sea of glass' (lines 6, 13), is taken from the glimpse of heaven that John recalls in Revelation:

And I saw what looked like a sea of glass glowing with fire and standing beside the sea, those who had been victorious over the beast and its image and over the number of its name. They held harps given them by God. Revelation 15:2 TNIV

4. The throne - The speaker imagines that once she gets to paradise, she will sit on a ‘throne' (line 72). This image is taken from Revelation 3:21 where God declares that to those who overcome the difficulties of the world, he will give the right to sit down with him on his throne.

5. The door - The speaker looks forward to standing ‘safe within the door' of paradise after her death. Revelation uses the image of the door to describe both the entrance to the human soul and the entrance of heaven. It depicts Jesus 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 them and they with me. Revelation 3:20 TNIV

6. Palms - The speaker anticipates the day when she will be able rest in paradise with her lover. She suggests that on this day, their ‘palms' will have ‘grown' (line 146). In Revelation, the righteous who are in heaven are described as standing before God in white robes and holding palm branches in their hands (Revelation 7:9). By looking forward to a time when their palms will have grown, the speaker indicates a time when they will have already been in heaven for a while.

Lent - Highlighting the weariness she feels with life, the speaker alludes to ‘weary Lent' as a ‘weary time whose stars are few' (line 68). In the Christian Church, the period of Lent includes the 40 weekdays extending from Ash Wednesday to Easter-eve. This period is often observed as a time of fasting and penitence, in memory of Jesus' fast in the wilderness as described in Matthew 4:1-11.

A spirit with transfigured face – The speaker's first dream depicts a disturbing and ambiguous image for the reader. A non-human individual mounts towards heaven and appears to be welcomed (‘Heaven bells rejoicing') and blessed (‘light was poured on him'), outstripping even the angels as he seeks the revelation that knowledge brings. However, this spirit ‘shriek[s]', uses force to push past other angels and ends up ‘drunk with knowledge'.

In fact, Rossetti is drawing on the imagery associated with the devil in the Bible:

  • According to tradition developed by early Christian commentators, satan (the enemy of human souls) was once known as Lucifer, a name which means ‘Light-bearer'
  • His ‘transfigured face' (l.86) draws on the idea that he was once an angel who subsequently fell from God's grace and he is now known as the ‘father of lies' (John 8:44)
  • He was also understood as being the serpent who tempted Adam and Eve to disobey God in the Garden of Eden and was consequently cursed to ‘crawl on [his] belly and…eat dust'. This becomes clear in the imagery of l.102-4
  • He is associated with the fires of hell (l.86), a traditional place of torments of one which is a thirst that can never be satisfied (l.98-9)
More on Lucifer: Lucifer was the brightest of God's angels in heaven, but he rebelled against God and with his followers, was thrown out from heaven into hell (an event known as the Fall of the Angels). This is recounted in Revelation where John tells how the ‘ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray … was hurled to the earth and his angels with him' (Revelation 12:7-9).

Veils - At the end of the poem, the speaker imagines that, one day, when her lover seeks her face; he will find that it is ‘veiled in paradise'. Once he has repented, she suggests that he will be able to ‘lift the veil' and finally be reunited with her (lines 140, 144).

More on the image of the veil: Veils are used in the Bible as a metaphor for the barrier that exists between God and sinful humanity and the lack of comprehension that any mortal can have of the Immortal (God). However, this can be removed. Writing to the early Corinthian church, Paul declared that ‘whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away' (2 Corinthians 3:16 TNIV). By this, he meant that, when a person believes that Jesus is God, mysteries that previously remained hidden will eventually be revealed to that person and there will be complete reconciliation with God. See Curtain, veil.

In the context of the poem, the speaker distorts this teaching as she applies it to the reunion of herself and her lover rather than to the union of the individual with God.


Investigating imagery and symbolism

  • Consider the image of lead in lines 118,122. What associations do you have with the idea of lead?
    • How are these associations met in the description that the speaker gives?
  • What images or symbols in The Convent Threshold surprised you?
    • What effect do you think that Rossetti was trying to create by including them?



In the speaker's first dream, Rossetti is contrasting what the world offers, which at first appears so attractive, yet does not ultimately satisfy, with the truth of love. It can be read as a comparison of the lover's carnal love compared to the saving love of Christ. Certainly, as an entrant to a convent, the speaker's best love is to be directed to God. However, the force of the speaker's passion and desire for union with her lover throughout the poem also upholds the power of human love. The best outcome is that this human love should be made eternal and sanctified by first submitting to God.


The speaker of The Convent Threshold repeatedly speaks of the present as ‘Today' and re-iterates that ‘time is short'. She warns against lingering and delaying, because ‘the day wanes', the ‘night draws nigh'. Rather than indicate a single day, she uses the word to allude to life on earth. Thus, her warning ‘Today is short, tomorrow nigh' (line 49) conveys the idea that it is not enough to remain passive in this life since, ‘tomorrow' or the final Day of Judgement, is fast approaching.

Lent – preparation, struggle and fulfillment

By describing the entirety of life as a period of Lent, the speaker indicates that it is a time of waiting for fulfillment. She criticizes her lover who takes life to be ‘a time for smile and sigh' (line 43). Instead, she feels that he should regard it as a time of endurance in which believers should ‘Kneel, wrestle, do violence, pray' (line 48). Read in the context of the Bible, the wrestling and violence she alludes to here can be seen to indicate the passion with which, it is taught, one should approach God. In Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament, the patriarch Jacob is seen to wrestle with God in form of prayer (Genesis 32:22-32)


To renounce something is to give it up. The term renunciation has come to be associated with ideas of giving up pleasurable activities, relationships and earthly possessions. The Convent Threshold can be described as a poem of renunciation in that its speaker voices her determination to give up:

  • Her relationship with her lover (lines 61-3)
  • Resting in the natural world (lines 43-5)
  • Taking pride in her appearance (lines 61-2,134)
  • Striving for the sort of knowledge that the world prizes instead of striving towards Christian love (lines 105-9).

The purpose of renunciation is to grow spiritually and to appreciate divine rather than earthly pleasures. The speaker stresses her determination to derive joy from God alone and not from anyone or anything else. She voices her struggle to do this when she suggests, at the end of the poem, that she looks forward to heaven because it will be a place of reunion with her lover.

In Rossetti's 1892 commentary on the New Testament Book of Revelation, The Face of the Deep, she instructs her readers:

Look beyond the sun and moon and thou shalt see greater things than they. Stint bodily indulgence and thou shalt enlarge spiritual capacity. (p. 512)

Recognising the beauty of the sun and the moon, she suggests that dwelling too much on the appreciation of nature involves indulging the eyes and the other senses. To increase ‘spiritual capacity', she suggests that acts which please the senses need to be deliberately curbed, if not renounced.

Investigating themes

  • Can you identify any other themes or significant ideas that run through the poem?
  • Think about the expressions of movement that occur throughout the poem. How do you think that these expressions add to the overall meaning and link certain ideas together?
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