Christina Rossetti's dramatic monologue "The Convent Threshold" presents a situation which resembles that of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's "The Blessed Damozel," but takes the opposite perspective on that situation. In the former poem the speaker's love for her beloved has somehow caused their relatives' blood to be shed, and accordingly, as the title of the poem indicates, the speaker has chosen to expiate her guilt by entering a convent. In her monologue she urges her beloved to do likewise: to turn away from the evanescent pleasures of this life and to repent his sins, thereby ensuring that the two of them can reunite in heaven if not on earth. She emphasizes that if he fails to repent and thus suffers spiritual death, her own afterlife reward will suffer as a result:
How shall I rest in Paradise,
Or sit on steps of heaven alone
If Saints and Angels spoke of love
Should I not answer from my throne:
Have pity upon me, ye my friends,
For I have heard the sound thereof:
Should I not turn with yearning eyes,
Turn earthwards with a pitiful pang?
Oh save me from a pang in heaven.
The speaker imagines herself in the same predicament as the blessed damozel: in heaven, but unable to enjoy it in the absence of her beloved. Dante Gabriel Rossetti's poem presented this situation from the viewpoint of the earthbound male beloved, who apparently imagined this vision in order to congratulate himself on how much the damozel loved him. By contrast, Christina Rossetti adopts the perspective of the female lover, who conjures up a similar hypothetical situation for a seemingly more altruistic purpose. In adopting the woman's perspective Christina Rossetti avoids the trap of objectifying the beloved, as her brother's poem had done. Furthermore, she permits he man to control his own destiny. Her speaker urges the beloved to repent and earn entry into heaven, suggesting that he can choose whether or not to do so. On the other hand, Dante Gabriel Rossetti presented the damozel as praying that God would allow the speaker into heaven, thus taking the choice of the speaker's afterlife destination out of his own hands.
1. Does it make sense to read "The Convent Threshold" as a feminist version of "The Blessed Damozel," assuming that one poem directly influenced the other? Or do both poems feature the same type of male chauvinism?
2. This poem's description of heaven focuses on its sensual beauty and its associated pleasures: "Beyond the gulf a gleaming strand / Of meansions where the righteous sup; / Who sleep at ease among their trees." This view of heaven seems similar to the "gold bar" of heaven as described in "The Blessed Damozel." Would Christina Rossetti's contemporaries have criticized her conception of heaven as overly materialistic?
3. As we discussed in class, Anglican convents were a relatively new phenomenon at the time of this poem, and some scholars believe that the act of entering a convent had feminist implications. Should we read the speaker's decision to enter a convent in this way?
4. In lines 85-109 the speaker narrates a dream she has had, which she takes to signify that "Knowledge is strong, but love is sweet; [...] All is small / Save love, for love is all in all." How does this dream function in the overall scheme of the poem? What connection does it have to contemporary debates over science and religion?
Last modified 20 October 2003