n Christina Rossetti's "Convent Threshold," a young woman tormented by guilt breaks with her lover and urges him to repent, as she has, in order to ensure a place in heaven. Rossetti's narrator seems torn between her earthly love and spiritual fervor. The poem, though it presents a moment of spiritual revelation, is filled with images of regret. For example, the speaker refers to her "pleasant sin" (51) and cries "alas for the joy that went before, for the joy that dies, for the love that dies" (63).
Rossetti's narrator directs her gaze to a chaste heaven, while her still-unrepentant lover is preoccupied with a lusty earth.
I see the far-off city grand,
Beyond the hills a watered land,
Beyond the gulf a gleaming strand
Of mansions where the righteous sup;
Who sleep at ease among their trees,
Or wake to sing a cadenced hymn
With Cherubim and Seraphim;
They bore the Cross, they drained the cup,
Racked, roasted, crushed, wrenched limb from limb,
They the offscouring of the world.
The heaven of starry heavens unfurled,
The sun before their face is dim.
You looking earthward, what see you?
Milk-white, wine-flushed among the vines,
Up and down leaping, to and fro,
Most glad, most full, made strong with wines,
Blooming as peaches pearled with dew,
Their golden windy hair afloat,
Love-music warbling in their throat,
Young men and women come and go.
At first it seems the couple must separate in order to enter heaven. The "far-off city grand" does not contain any lovers, only "the righteous" who sing hymns. Couples singing "love-music" are strongly allied with the earthly realm. The narrator begs her companion to "repent with me, for I repent," (52) and proclaims that she will "turn from you my cheeks and eyes, my hair which you shall see no more . . . only my lips still turn to you, my livid lips that cry, Repent" (61-66). Interestingly, rather than claiming a need for an end to the lovers' relationship, the narrator asks for a conversion of it — from physical to spiritual love. At the end of the poem, she offers the possibility, previously unmentioned, of a union in heaven.
Look up, rise up: for far above
Our palms are grown, our place is set;
There we shall meet as once we met,
And love with old familiar love.
Here the narrator implies that if both she and her companion renounce their physical, earthly love, a happy spiritual union will be possible. This final vision unites the earlier vision of heaven with the vision of earthly men and women in love.
1. Did her brother's fascination with the story of Dante and Beatrice influence "The Convent Threshold"? How do both poets' treatments of ideal relationships between men and women differ?
2. The vision of heaven described in "The Convent Threshold" contrasts greatly with the heaven of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's "The Blessed Damozel," in which "lovers, newly met 'Mid deathless love's acclaims, Spoke evermore among themselves Their heart-remembered names." In Dante's heaven, lovers are welcome; in Christina's they have a limited place. In what ways do the two poems differ in their attitude towards couples and heaven, and in what ways are they similar?
3. Rossetti's narrator uses fond terms to describe the relationship she has supposedly renounced. Are we meant to read her conversion ironically? Is her repentance false? What clues tell the reader how Rossetti judged her character?
Last modified 15 October 2006