'Up-hill' - Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery and symbolism

The road - In Up-hill, the road symbolises the journey the speaker takes. Instead of being straight, the fact that it is ‘winding' and ‘up-hill' suggests that the path is long and difficult. However, that there is actually a road leading up the hill indicates that plenty of others have already taken the route that is being contemplated. The speaker will not have to carve or find her own path since it has already been revealed to her.

The road can be interpreted:

The inn - The traveller is told that she ‘cannot miss that inn' (line 8) that stands at the top of the hill and offers rest for those who have spent the entire day climbing. Literally, the fact that it stands out in the darkness of the night indicates that the light that it sheds is powerful and will not be overpowered. Metaphorically the ‘inn' represents security. Against the context of the Bible, the idea of a place of welcome and rest echoes two allusions:

1. The description of the ‘rooms' in heaven prepared for believers (as referred to in A Convent Threshold), taken from John's Gospel. Jesus comforts his disciples with the promise:

My Father's house has plenty of room; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. John 14:2-3 TNIV

2. The inn which Joseph and his pregnant wife Mary sought for rest and a chance to give birth to Jesus. Although there was ‘no room for them in the inn' (Luke 2:7) the poem gives assurance that there will be space for the speaker.

The door - The traveller asks whether s/he will have to ‘knock' the door of the inn when s/he reaches it or whether s/he will be kept waiting for admittance. S/he is reassured that the door will be opened upon arrival and that ‘those who have gone before' will be ready to greet him/her (lines 10-12).

If the poem is to be understood in a Christian context, Rossetti can be seen to take the image of the door from two references in the New Testament:

1. In Luke 11:9-10 Jesus encourages people to turn to God with their concerns:

So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives; those who seek find; and to those who knock, the door will be opened. TNIV

2. In the last book of the New Testament, Revelation Jesus is depicted as a friend ready to share with those who ask for him:

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

In this passage, the door spoken of refers to the acceptance of Jesus in the human heart. In Up-hill, the one knocking at the door is not Jesus but the traveller. However, the responsibility for creating an environment in which the door is ready to be opened lies with the individual - it is the speaker's choice whether or not to persevere on the journey in time to reach the inn. See Gateway, door.

Beds - The traveller is promised ‘beds for all who come' (line 16) to the inn. The image of beds indicates rest, comfort, shelter and security. After a long struggle, the idea of resting is all that the speaker can look forward to.

The idea of beds also points to Rossetti's engagement with a doctrine spoken of as ‘soul sleep'. This doctrine teaches that when Christians die, instead of going to straight to heaven, they experience a period of rest and sleep in preparation for the Second Coming of Jesus, at which point they will be taken up to heaven and be rewarded with eternal life. This doctrine is also apparent in Rossetti's poem Song(When I am dead). See Rest.

Investigating imagery and symbolism

  • What associations do you have with travelling on foot?
    • Are these associations met in Up-hill?
  • What images do you find the most surprising?
  • To what extent does the answer that there are ‘beds for all who come' offer reassurance to the speaker?


Moving upwards

Throughout her poetry, Rossetti draws on the imagery of flames, mountains, stairs and hills to emphasise the upward progression of the spiritual journey. She suggests that the journey to heaven is one of continuous upward movement in that the soul is moved upwards away from the earth and its pleasures as it learns more of God and of heaven.

In Up-hill, Rossetti emphasises the idea that the upward progression of the soul is not a simple and easy process. Lots of distractions, concerns and doubts can weigh a person down and the upward movement can turn into one of struggle instead of one of joy.


The speaker's questions all arise from a sense of uncertainty and doubt. S/he is unsure what the journey holds and what will be found at the end of it. The incessant questioning is short and simple and the answers received often serve to create more questions. It is not a poem which expands on certain doctrines or ideas.

Investigating themes

  • List the specific doubts of the questioner
  • What, if anything, is s/he certain of?
  • How would you describe her questions?
  • How would you describe the answers s/he receives?
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