The role of the outsider in Christina Rossetti’s Poetry

Many of Christina Rossetti’s poems explore the theme of those who are placed outside of society, supporting the claim that the outsider is always an intriguing figure in literature. However, this concept is explored and presented by many ways by Rossetti in a variety of her poems.

“Shut Out” is a poem that deals directly with the theme of the outsider and the narrator and events within the poem can be interpreted in a variety of different ways. The narrator describes how “the door was shut” on her and she can no longer access her “beautiful” “garden”. The narrator describes how she is “quite alone” and “blinded with tears “in her “iron bar” prison. This description does generate some sympathy from the reader especially when Rossetti contrasts the despair of the narrator with the beautiful natural imagery of the garden outside. The poem also includes a “shadow less spirit at the gate” guarding the narrator and showing her no mercy. One way this poem can be interpreted as a fallen woman “shut out” of society for her sins. In the Victorian era, women who had sex before marriage were declared “fallen”. It was believed that they were eternally tarnished due to their grave sin and were “shut out” of society to repent. During her lifetime, Rossetti did a lot of work with fallen women, particularly prostitutes, and believed that they should not be treated so harshly. This poem could be seen as a representation of this, Rossetti’s attempt for readers to feel sympathy for these women. However, the poem can also be interpreted as a portrayal of Eve being removed from the garden of Eden for her sins. Rossetti was a devout Christian who would have held great importance to this biblical story, “The Shadow less spirit” may be a depiction sinners. Regardless of which interpretation is applied, the narrator is clearly an extremely intriguing figure, as the reader is left to ponder why they have been shut out in this way.

Similar in some ways to “Shut Out” “from the Antique” also depicts a narrator outside of society. Whilst the narrator of “From the antique” has not been forcibly shut out, it seems as though she feels she would rather be out of society than in it, due to the hardships it entails. The narrator first claims “I wish and wish I were a man” before taking it a step further by saying “or better than any being were not”. This is a direct contrast to “Shut Out” as this narrator is longing to be removed from society, whereas the narrator of shut out longs to be returned to it. The narrator of “From the Antique” presents a very bleak version of life, by describing how all we do is “wake and weary and fall asleep”. The Victorian era was full of poverty and life for the working class was full of hardships. As the poem suggests, life for women was particularly hard. Seen as inferior to men, they faced large inequalities, in education, employment, political and social opportunities. As previously mentioned, Rossetti did lots of work with struggling women, and this knowledge enhances the reading of this poem as one about wanting to be removed from the hardships of society. Once again, this narrator is extremely intriguing as an outsider, we are curious to find more about her life and why she has come to feel this way. This is also particularly interesting when contrasted to “Shut Out” as the narrators have very different view of outsiders – one longs to be reinstated back in her society whilst the other wants to remove herself from it.

Maude Clare is another one of Rossetti’s poems that deals with the role of an outsider. Maude Clare is a proud fallen women, unashamedly attending the wedding of her former lover. Whilst Maud Clare is clearly on outsider in this environment she is more intriguing as she has not fully been removed from society like the narrator of “Shut Out”, but rather walks with a “lofty step” and remains proud “like a queen”. Because of her work with fallen women, Rossetti saw them as real women who shouldn’t face such exclusion from society. It is likely that Rossetti deliberately contrasts Maude Clare to shut out, to show how she believed fallen women should have the right to behave, against how they are actually treated in society in a way that she believed is wrong. The character of Maude Clare is also on outsider in her treatment of Tom, her former lover. Maude Clare public ally embarrasses him with “scorn” whilst he “hid his face”. This is a gender reversal the opposite of what would have been expected to happened in Victorian society. Maude Clare’s disregard for traditional Victorian behaviour makes her seem even further removed from Victorian society and causes us to see her as even more intriguing.

In Souer Louise de la Misericord, Rossetti presents the story of Louise, a real mistress to king Louis who gave up her life of luxury and sin to become a nun and devote herself to God, In the poem, Rossetti presents Louise as an outsider to her previous life, looking back on a former version of herself, Louise remarks that now “the days are over of desire” and that “the rose of my life has gone all to prickles”. This poem is extremely reflective – it shoes how drastically Louise’s life has changed the former “rose” is now “prickles”. This shares similarities with From the Antique – Louise has chosen to remover herself from a corrupt society that she no longer wants to be a part of, however she has achieved this unlike the narrator in From the Antique who just longs for death to remove her. This poem is also slightly reminiscent of Maude Clare, similarly to Maude Clare’s pride and “lofty step”, Louise boldly and openly declares that “I have desired and I have been desired” suggesting she shares the same pride and shameless attitude. This makes her even more intriguing, as someone who has chosen to make themselves an outsider by walking away from their previous luxurious life.

To conclude, it can be said that Rossetti’s poems do support the idea that the outsider is always an intriguing figure in literature. She explores the removal of those from society in several different ways, from those who desire to these to those forcibly removed, the reasons for this and the reactions and emotions that follow.

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