Christina Rossetti's poem "The Convent Threshold" expresses the struggle between the narrator's doubt and her belief in Christianity. She begins by expounding on the strength of blood relations and then describes the bloody mud on her feet. This mud tells a tale that will unfold in the upcoming lines. On an expository level, the narrative follows a person climbing stairs to rise above her sinful human existence.
Rossetti develops the contrast between one who looks Heaven-ward and one who looks towards Earth. Looking up, the narrator sees a vision of Heaven as a grand city, where the righteous souls sing hymns alongside angels. These righteous beings partake in a feast, which symbolizes the death of Christ and the sacrifices he made for the sins of man. As a result of these beings' righteousness, their faces gleam brighter than the sun. In comparison, the humans down on Earth have milky white faces that have become flushed and healthy with wine. Although the humans on Earth are happy at this moment, the narrator reminds her readers that their living days are running out. She also encourages her reader to engage in acts of spiritual devotion before death comes.
By the fourth stanza, the narrator reminisces that she and whomever she is addressing have both engaged in pleasant sin. However, they now must repent. The narrator wishes that she had not lived her life the "easy way." She believes that joy and love are fleeting, and if one does not repent, he or she will experience long years of regret before death. The human body will not last, the narrator declares to her audience. The narrator then continues exploring the contrast between paradise and Earth, emphasizing that while life may be long and sorrowful, it will end one day. Therefore, it is vital to repent in order to save one's soul and lead it to paradise.
In the seventh stanza, the narrator relates her dream from the night before, in which a figure resembling Lucifer battles for power. After his greedy quest for "light" and knowledge," he falls gruesomely. Rossetti describes him collapsing under the weight of knowledge, and she uses his fall to demonstrate that although knowledge is important, love is sweet and therefore, greater.
After the narrator's disturbing dream, God asks her if she had been dreaming of Him. The narrator attempts to reject this idea. Although she does not mention it explicitly, the narrator's audience in the next few stanzas is likely God or Jesus. After the narrator's attempt to push God away, both parties end up feeling devastated.
In the ninth and final stanza, the narrator alternates between sleep plagued by dreams of God and waking up to pray against her will. The narrator undergoes a religious experience which she cannot describe in words. This intense struggle between doubt and belief eventually alters her appearance: her hair turns gray and her face becomes wrinkled. She wonders if God will ask her what happened to His beloved face. The narrator undergoes a transition when she expresses her earnest desire to be with her beloved God and Jesus Christ in Heaven.
Christina Rossetti's poem "The Convent Threshold" reflects the poet's struggle between her doubt and her belief in Christianity. In the title and the first stanza of the poem, Rossetti makes it apparent that her narrator has not yet fully committed to a life of devotion, but rather, is standing at the threshold (literally meaning "doorway") of doing so. The first stanza contains contains imagery of blood, invoking the sacrificial blood of Christ. Christians believe that Christ's blood can protect human beings from our own sinful nature. In the poem, blood forms the bond between the narrator and her beloved.
The second stanza sets up the contrast between Heaven and Earth. In Rossetti's vision of Heaven, she portrays righteous devotion through the image of a feast. This feast symbolizes the Christian ritual of the Eucharist, or Communion. Meanwhile, she describes the righteous beings' lives on Earth, where they were martyrs: "racked, roasted, crushed, wrenched limb." Here, Rossetti emphasizes the Christian belief that life on Earth can be difficult, but it will pay off in the afterlife as long as a person remains committed to his or her faith.
In contrast to the gleaming faces of the righteous beings in Heaven, the humans living on Earth have milky-white complexions flushed by wine. They sing, fall in love, and are happy. While Rossetti does not negatively judge these humans, she makes sure to warn her audience that death is near and that their happiness will be short-lived unless they repent. The repetition at the end of the third stanza, "Why will you die? Why will you die?" heightens the sense of urgency surrounding the question of human mortality. When she addresses her beloved, the narrator names the parts of his body that will one day disappear, like his cheeks, his eyes, and his hair. At the end of the fifth stanza, she displays a devastated outlook on life through her repetition: "O weary life, O weary Lent, O weary time whose stars are few."
The sixth stanza solidifies the narrator's acceptance that repentance is necessary for salvation, yet her faith becomes shaky after her disturbing dream. She dreams about Lucifer and his minions battling for glory and power in Heaven. The prophet Isaiah tells relates this story in the Old Testament, which forms part of the foundation of Christian theology. Although Rossetti does not explicitly name Lucifer in "The Convent Threshold," there are many obvious clues, like the repeated line "Give me light!" (Lucifer's name means light). Rossetti links light closely with knowledge, and it is possible that she is referring to the European quest for enlightenment through rational thought. Rossetti herself often felt a personal conflict between irrational feelings and rational doubt. However, in this poem, she concludes her description of the dream with the strong assertion that faith is greater than knowledge.
At this point, the narrator's inner struggle with belief is still playing out. It is unclear who comes to the narrator in the dark hours before dawn, but it could be God, Jesus, or perhaps the Holy Spirit. The narrator says that her heart used to get excited by God, but it is now like dust: lifeless, dirty, and showing traces of her worn-down life. Rossetti makes a powerful choice to refer to God as a playfellow or lover who shares the narrator's bed. This image of the relationship between God and His followers was common in medieval literature, which Rossetti grew up with because her father was a scholar of Dante. When the narrator tries to persuade God to leave her, they are both devastated, as if they were star-crossed lovers in an epic tragedy.
In the final stanza, the narrator undergoes more inner turmoil as she wakes from dreaming about "you," which presumably refers to God. She prays against her will, which suggests her physical inability to reject Christianity and God's love. Her gray hair and wrinkled face show that she has gone through an intense religious experience, but also symbolize the transience of human life. In a sense, this is the moment when she crosses the "threshold" to accepting God. After her religious experience, the narrator describes God as "an old familiar love," which echoes the poem's opening statement about how familial ties of blood and love cannot be broken.