Lesson #181: Remembering a lost paradise: Christina Rossetti’s Poem ‘Shut Out’

One theme that often appears in English literature – novels and poetry – is that of a lost paradise. Christina Rossetti, one of the major female poets of the Victorian era, penned (wrote) a poem on this very theme, and since Saturdays are our days for enjoying a little bit of poetry, we will look at ‘Shut Out’ (1856) in detail below. 🌸

Christina Rossetti came from a very artistic family, which included her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a famous Pre-Raphaelite painter. Christina Rossetti’s poems were widely appreciated by the British public in her day, and some of her poems were even turned into Christmas carols, such as ‘In the bleak mid-winter’, which you may have heard before. 

As a poet of great literary talent, her work is still studied by British students as part of their standard school curriculum. In our lesson today however, we will be paying attention most of all to her language – I am sure that once this is clear for you, you will be better able to appreciate the literary beauty of its lines!

Indeed, each stanza (poetic paragraph) of ‘Shut Out’ has something to teach us about the English language (as well as having its own poetic meaning and beauty, of course!). 

I will analyse and comment on each of the 7 stanzas one after another. 

You can also find the poem without explanations here.

📝 STANZA #1:

📙 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:


To begin with, it is worth mentioning that when quoting between 2-3 lines from a poem, we insert a forward slash (/) to show that there is a break in the original text, for example:

📙 ‘The door was shut. I looked between / Its iron bars …’

If we want to quote more than three lines, it is better to quote the whole section in the same format as the poem itself, for example:

📙 ‘The door was shut. I looked between
Its iron bars; and saw it lie,
My garden, mine, beneath the sky …’

We also capitalise the first word of every line in keeping with the original poem (unless for some reason the poet has not done so). 

Also, when we want to give the title of a poem, we use quotation marks: ‘Shut Out’ by Christina Rossetti. But if we are referring to a book-length poem, we write it in italics just as if it were a book: e.g., Piers Plowman by William Langland.


📙 ‘… and saw it lie, / My garden, mine, beneath the sky …’

Here Rossetti is playing with word order, partly because she seems to want to emphasise the garden as being ‘mine’ – something she does by placing it at the start of its own line.

If we rephrased this section in English that sounds more natural, we would probably say, ‘[I] saw my own garden lie beneath the sky …’ Of course, this doesn’t sound as pleasant, dramatic or dreamy as Rossetti’s phrasing!


pied: This is a favourite word among English poets. It means having two or more colours; multicoloured. Another British poet and contemporary of Rossetti, George Manley Hopkins, even used it in the title of his 1877 poem ‘Pied Beauty’ which you can read here

green: Here it means more than just the colour; rather, it is describing what is green because it is alive and flourishing.


In last Saturday’s Lesson #175, we looked at the formation of new words from old ones using different prefixes. 

Rossetti here uses the word ‘bedewed’, which is a compound of ‘[to] be’ and ‘dewed’ (or covered in dew – the morning moisture that covers the ground).



📙 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.


bough: strong, often thick, branches of a tree

moths: a kind of butterfly, less colourful and sometimes seen as a pest (destructive insect) because it eats clothes

stately: elegant, noble-looking, grand


You may have wondered where the verb in line 2 of this second stanza is:

📙 ‘From flower to flower the moths and bees …’

The verb is in fact in the line just above it – ‘crossed’. But Rossetti does not repeat it, because its influence continues into line 2 if there is no other verb there to change its meaning. 

This is something you will often find in English – certain words are not repeated because their meaning in an earlier phrase or sentence is expected to apply clearly.


📙 ‘With all its nests and stately trees
It had been mine …’

If you were uncertain about what this section meant, it may help to rearrange the words in a different order. The meaning should become more clear:

It [the garden] had been mine with all its nests and stately trees …

This is the uniqueness of poetry; although we do not usually speak in this way, the different word ordering can show us a special emphasis or attitude that would be missed by plain phrasing!



📙 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.’


kept the gate: This means ‘guarded the gate’

blank and unchanging: We assume that this shadowless spirit’s face or aspect was blank (plain, empty) and unchanging

peering: < to peer (at): to look with difficulty or concentration at something

buds: flower buds, tiny flowers that are just starting to grow

outcast: rejected, thrown away from, repulsed from society, ostracised. Literally, cast out from.

state: Here it means situation, not a political country (as in ‘United States’)


So this stanza describes the narrator meeting a strange and bleak ghost or spirit, whom she asks for a simple ‘bud’ from the garden to cheer her in her low state.

An observation here on the punctuation: normally we would write the following lines with a comma before and after the descriptive or adverbial phrase ‘peering through’. So here is Rossetti’s original lines:

📙 I peering through said: ‘Let me have
Some buds to cheer my outcast state.’

And here is how we would write it now: 

I, peering through, said: ‘Let me have 

Some buds to cheer [me in] 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.’


but one: In this context, it means ‘only one’

twig: a very small branch, the kind that you can easily break off with your hands or even fingers

shrub: a bush

bid: < to bid: ask, call [out] to someone, (also, to place a bet on or offer of a price for something)


When you see the quotation marks starting at ‘Or give me, then, …’ you might be tempted to interpret them as belonging to the ghost or ‘he’ mentioned at the start of this stanza. 

But actually those quotation marks signal that the narrator is the one speaking to the ghost, who has not answered her.


Here is a simple paraphrase of the stanza in my own words, just to be sure you understand it well:

Rossetti’s version:

📙 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.’

My paraphrased version: The ghost/spirit didn’t answer me. [So I said to him] ‘Or else give me then only one small twig from a shrub or tree; and tell my home to remember me until I come to it again.’

You can see how much nicer Rossetti’s own stanza really is!



📙 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:


mortar: a sandy paste that is used in building houses (made of cement, sand, and water) and is used to stick or glue bricks together

loophole: a hole – usually figurative – that allows someone to escape through, especially in a sneaky way. For example, ‘the loophole in that law allowed the criminal to be released’

straining: force something with a lot of effort. Also can mean, to pour liquid through a sieve or colander to separate any dust or silt from the pure liquid.


This stanza shows well how semicolons can be used to indicate a pause that is longer than a comma but shorter than a full-stop / period. Semicolons indicate the end of a phrase or thought sequence, while they still connect it with the next phrase – something that the full-stop / period does not do, being a more final pause. 

✍️ I wrote a two-part lesson on semicolons, and punctuation in general, here in Lesson #143.

In the meantime, as an illustration of the differences between semicolons and full-stops, you can read my paraphrase of stanza #5 below, where I have inserted full-stops instead of semicolons, just to make this point (although normally I would always prefer Rossetti’s semicolons here).


The spirit was silent. But he took some mortar and stones to build a wall. He didn’t leave a single loophole, whether great or small, through which I could look with straining eyes / with the greatest effort.

In other words, the spirit blocked her view completely. 



📙 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.


for: Here it means ‘because’

grieve: to mourn, to be deeply sad and sorry for losing someone or something

nought: nothing


Remember in one of the points above where we mentioned that sometimes in English a verb might not be stated directly but still is hinted at (implied)?

The same might be said for a personal pronoun with a verb. 

In the second line of stanza #6, there is no personal pronoun in view. However, the ‘I’ of the first line still rules. So we could paraphrase the second line as 

‘… blinded with tears; nor do I grieve for that …’


Here is my plain version paraphrase of stanza #6:

So now I sit here quite alone, being blinded with tears. But I do not / Nor do I grieve for that, because nothing is left that might be 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.


bed: sometimes ‘plant bed‘: a unit of a garden where plants grow or are cultivated

violet: this can describe a soft shade of purple, but also a flower plant that grows wildy with flowers that are of this colour

wherein: literally, ‘where in’ or ‘in which’

lark: a small bird that sings a lot and flies very high in the sky. It tends to be associated with summertime weather. 


📙 ‘And good they are, but not the best; / And dear they are, but not so dear.’

Generally, in normal conversational English we would change the word order here. We would write it somewhat as follows: ‘And [even though] they are good, they are not the best …’ etc. 

Here is a complete paraphrase of this final stanza, in my own words:

A bed of violets is budding near me, in which a lark has made her nest. And even though they are good, they are not the best; and even though they are dear, they are not as dear [to me] as they could be.

If you have read this far, well done! 

Although it is a short and fairly easy poem, it has so much to appreciate – not just on the level of the English language, but also in its thoughts and the feelings it evokes (raises) in us. Nearly all of us have experienced at some point in our lives, a very human feeling of nostalgia or longing for something beautiful that is beyond our reach. 

Next time you experience something similar, you may remember these lines from Christina Rossetti – just maybe!

by J. E. Gibbons

English language tutor and researcher at 'Learn English Through Literature' (2024)