A summary of a classic Rossetti poem by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Shut Out’ was published in Christina Rossetti’s first collection of poetry, Goblin Market and Other Poems, in 1862. Below we offer some notes towards a summary and analysis of Rossetti’s ‘Shut Out’ in terms of its language and meaning.
The door was shut. I looked between
Its iron bars; and saw it lie,
My garden, mine, beneath the sky,
Pied with all flowers bedewed and green:
From bough to bough the song-birds crossed,
From flower to flower the moths and bees;
With all its nests and stately trees
It had been mine, and it was lost.
A shadowless spirit kept the gate,
Blank and unchanging like the grave.
I peering through said: ‘Let me have
Some buds to cheer my outcast state.’
He answered not. ‘Or give me, then,
But one small twig from shrub or tree;
And bid my home remember me
Until I come to it again.’
The spirit was silent; but he took
Mortar and stone to build a wall;
He left no loophole great or small
Through which my straining eyes might look:
So now I sit here quite alone
Blinded with tears; nor grieve for that,
For nought is left worth looking at
Since my delightful land is gone.
A violet bed is budding near,
Wherein a lark has made her nest:
And good they are, but not the best;
And dear they are, but not so dear.
We’ll begin with a brief summary of ‘Shut Out’. Rossetti’s speaker peers between the iron bars of a garden gate and sees a garden full of flowers (‘Pied’ suggesting the garden is dappled with lots of different colours and shades of flower – compare Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘Pied Beauty’). She observes the birds moving from tree to tree and the insects from flower to flower, and laments that this garden had once belonged to her, but is now lost.
A spirit without a shadow guards the gate; Rossetti pleads with this mysterious guard, who is always on duty, to let her take some flowers to cheer her in her outcast state. The guard doesn’t answer. Rossetti then requests a simple twig from one of the shrubs and trees in the garden, so that her garden might remember her until she is able to enter it again; once more, though, the guard doesn’t answer.
Instead, the guard sets about building a wall to complement the gate which already shuts Rossetti’s speaker out from her garden (or the garden that used to be hers). Now she can’t even look through the iron bars of the gate and admire the garden from afar! Her view is completely obscured. (Her eyes are ‘straining’ not only because she has been peering in at the garden, trying to look at it through the gate, but also because they are straining to fight back tears.)
Now she cannot even look at the garden, she sits all alone and cries, but doesn’t grieve, because now she can’t see the garden any longer, there is ‘nothing left worth looking at’. Out of sight, (almost) out of mind.
Rossetti’s speaker concludes by announcing that a flowerbed full of violets is budding nearby, and a lark has made its nest in it. This newer, smaller garden is good, the speaker acknowledges, but she cannot love it as much as she loved the garden she has lost.
What are we to make of this poem? How should we interpret or analyse ‘Shut Out’? When a garden is used in a poem like this – that is, suggesting some sort of allegory or symbolism (and the shadowless ‘spirit’ which guards the garden certainly suggests we are to interpret this garden as symbolic) – it’s tempting to relate it to the Garden of Eden, that paradise which, in the Christian story found in the Book of Genesis, Adam and Eve lost when they flouted God’s commandment and ate the fruit of the forbidden Tree of Knowledge. As punishment for their disobedience, God throws them out of the Garden of Eden. Paradise has been lost.
Has Christina Rossetti’s speaker in ‘Shut Out’ been exiled from her garden for a similar reason? Is she unable to enter the Pearly Gates of the Kingdom of Heaven? Why has she lost her paradise?
The poem doesn’t vouchsafe this information, but the central message might be interpreted as follows: those things which we have lost attain a status which far exceeds their actual value, by virtue of being lost. We want the things we cannot have, and – equally – we long to regain the things which have been taken from us. In love, for instance, we often find it more difficult to move on when it was not our decision to end the relationship, and long to regain the person who has left us. Anyone who comes after them will find it difficult to live up to the reputation of that lost beloved.
Of course, this is only one example: the poem isn’t ‘about’ lost love any more than it’s about an actual garden. It functions as a metaphor for many things. Similarly, we might say that somebody who dies and is taken from us in their prime will always live in our memories as they were when they left us – they become semi-legendary because, taken from us, they are no longer around to remind us that they were, in fact, less than perfect.
Indeed, on the issue of death and mourning, the rhyme scheme of ‘Shut Out’ might be analysed as significant. The most famous poem to use the abba quatrain in the decade prior to the publication of ‘Shut Out’ was also one of the most popular poems of the entire Victorian era: Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam, which had appeared in 1850. Tennyson’s poem is a long elegy for his friend, Arthur Henry Hallam, who died suddenly in his early twenties in 1833.
Tennyson’s use of the abba rhyme scheme throughout this book-length poem suggests an inability to move beyond his grief, something that characterises much of In Memoriam: he takes one step forward (moving from the a to the b rhyme of the stanza) only to find himself, at the end of each stanza, taking a step back to the a rhyme with which it began.
It might be said that Christina Rossetti’s ‘Shut Out’ is using the abba rhyme scheme for a similar reason. It is about losing something – or someone – and being unable to replace that something (or someone). In the last analysis, ‘Shut Out’ contains such emotional force because its garden imagery can be interpreted in a number of ways.
About Christina Rossetti
Christina Rossetti (1830-94) was one of the Victorian era’s greatest and most influential poets. She was the younger sister (by two years) of the Pre-Raphaelite artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Christina Rossetti was born in London in 1830, and lived with her mother virtually all of her life. She never married. Many of her poems engage with the question of religious belief, such as ‘Good Friday’ (a poem about honest religious doubt as much as faith) and ‘Twice’, about the importance of Christian forgiveness and redemption (the poem is spoken by a fallen woman, a theme that can also be seen in ‘Goblin Market’).
Christina Rossetti composed her first poem while still a very young girl; she dictated it to her mother. It ran simply: ‘Cecilia never went to school / Without her gladiator.’ Goblin Market and Other Poems was the first collection of her poetry to be published, and it was the book that brought her to public attention. The title poem is a long narrative poem which is often taken for a children’s poem because of its fairy-tale motifs and imagery; Rossetti, however, always denied that the poem was intended for children. Several of the poems in the volume, such as ‘Remember’ and ‘When I am dead, my dearest’, were composed before she had turned twenty.
Rossetti’s influences were as diverse as the many poetic forms in which she wrote: sonnets, ballads, narrative poems, lyrics, even Christmas carols (‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ to name but the most famous). She was remarkably prolific: the Penguin edition of her Complete Poems runs to well over 1,000 pages and is a treasure-trove for the poetry-lover.
Rossetti died in 1894 and was buried in Highgate Cemetery where fellow Victorian writer George Eliot had earlier been laid to rest. She went on to influence a range of later poets, including Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ford Madox Ford, and Elizabeth Jennings. Philip Larkin was an admirer, praising her ‘steely stoicism’.
Discover more about Rossetti with our short overview of her life, our analysis of her classic poem Goblin Market, our summary of her underrated poem ‘Twice’, and our thoughts on her classic sonnet about an artist painting a female model.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image (bottom): Christina Rossetti by Dante Gabriel Rossetti; Wikimedia Commons.