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Christina Rossetti's "The Thread of Life” and Charlotte Brontë's "On the Death of Anne Brontë"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Introduction and Text of "The Thread of Life"

Each sonnet of the three sonnets comprising Christina Rossetti's "The Thread of Life" follows the Petrarchan, or Italian, tradition with the rime scheme of each octave, ABBAACCA, and of each sestet, DEDEDE.

Thematically, without directly mentioning the name of Jesus Christ, the speaker celebrates the true meaning of Christmas with her profound drama of soul awareness.

(Please note: The spelling "rhyme" was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

The Thread of Life

1

The irresponsive silence of the land,
The irresponsive sounding of the sea,
Speak both one message of one sense to me: —
Aloof, aloof, we stand aloof, so stand
Thou too aloof bound with the flawless band
Of inner solitude; we bind not thee;
But who from thy self—chain shall set thee free?
What heart shall touch thy heart? what hand thy hand?—
And I am sometimes proud and sometimes meek,
And sometimes I remember days of old
When fellowship seemed not so far to seek
And all the world and I seemed much less cold,
And at the rainbow's foot lay surely gold,
And hope felt strong and life itself not weak.

2

Thus am I mine own prison. Everything
Around me free and sunny and at ease:
Or if in shadow, in a shade of trees
Which the sun kisses, where the gay birds sing
And where all winds make various murmuring;
Where bees are found, with honey for the bees;
Where sounds are music, and where silences
Are music of an unlike fashioning.
Then gaze I at the merrymaking crew,
And smile a moment and a moment sigh
Thinking: Why can I not rejoice with you?
But soon I put the foolish fancy by:
I am not what I have nor what I do;
But what I was I am, I am even I.

3

Therefore myself is that one only thing
I hold to use or waste, to keep or give;
My sole possession every day I live,
And still mine own despite Time's winnowing.
Ever mine own, while moons and seasons bring
From crudeness ripeness mellow and sanative;
Ever mine own, till Death shall ply his sieve;
And still mine own, when saints break grave and sing.
And this myself as king unto my King
I give, to Him Who gave Himself for me;
Who gives Himself to me, and bids me sing
A sweet new song of His redeemed set free;
He bids me sing: O death, where is thy sting?
And sing: O grave, where is thy victory?

Reading of Christina Rossetti's "The Thread of Life"

Commentary on Christina Rossetti’s “The Thread of Life”

Christina Rossetti's "The Thread of Life" features three masterfully crafted Petrarchan sonnets, each contributing to the finely constructed dramatization of the theme of soul realization.

First Sonnet: The Duality of Silence and Sound

The irresponsive silence of the land,
The irresponsive sounding of the sea,
Speak both one message of one sense to me: —
Aloof, aloof, we stand aloof, so stand
Thou too aloof bound with the flawless band
Of inner solitude; we bind not thee;
But who from thy self—chain shall set thee free?
What heart shall touch thy heart? what hand thy hand?—
And I am sometimes proud and sometimes meek,
And sometimes I remember days of old
When fellowship seemed not so far to seek
And all the world and I seemed much less cold,
And at the rainbow’s foot lay surely gold,
And hope felt strong and life itself not weak.

In the first sonnet, the speaker reports that both duality of silence and sound—of land and sea—report to her the same message; they both "stand aloof." The speaker, however, while aloof is wrapped in “inner solitude” that guards and guides her, as it protects her.

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The land and sea cannot lesser her soul freedom, because she is responsible for her own freedom of will. The speaker then confesses to her own dualities of pride and meekness. She remembers "days of old" when life seemed easier, when "the world and I seemed much less cold."

She envisioned gold at the end of the rainbow and had more hope. It was during a time when life seemed to be stronger.

Second Sonnet: Nature's Easy Ways

Thus am I mine own prison. Everything
Around me free and sunny and at ease:
Or if in shadow, in a shade of trees
Which the sun kisses, where the gay birds sing
And where all winds make various murmuring;
Where bees are found, with honey for the bees;
Where sounds are music, and where silences
Are music of an unlike fashioning.
Then gaze I at the merrymaking crew,
And smile a moment and a moment sigh
Thinking: Why can I not rejoice with you?
But soon I put the foolish fancy by:
I am not what I have nor what I do;
But what I was I am, I am even I.

The speaker then realizes that she makes her own prison. In the natural environment, she observes nature's easy ways of sunshine that made her environment seem free and unrestricted by trials and tribulations.

She seems, however, enchanted with nature, remarking that the sun kisses the trees which offer shade. Bees have honey; sometimes there is music, and other times even the silence offers an unusual music.

After some musing on it all, she arrives at a question for her attitude, "Why can I not rejoice with you?" But, fortunately, she is able to snap out of any melancholy that might have been commencing.

She realizes that it is she who is responsible for her own attitude; her soul is complete, and she understands that she is not defined by her possessions, nor is she ever other than her own individual self.

Thus, possessions and acts do no define the human being; only the integrity of the soul defines the human being.

Third Sonnet: Soul Possession

Therefore myself is that one only thing
I hold to use or waste, to keep or give;
My sole possession every day I live,
And still mine own despite Time’s winnowing.
Ever mine own, while moons and seasons bring
From crudeness ripeness mellow and sanative;
Ever mine own, till Death shall ply his sieve;
And still mine own, when saints break grave and sing.
And this myself as king unto my King
I give, to Him Who gave Himself for me;
Who gives Himself to me, and bids me sing
A sweet new song of His redeemed set free;
He bids me sing: O death, where is thy sting?
And sing: O grave, where is thy victory?

The speaker understands that the "only thing" she possesses is herself—or her self, with "self" meaning "soul." She retains the power to "use or waste," "to keep or give" this only possession, and she retains this power always, "every day I live."

Even "despite Time's winnowing," she retains this soul power. As the days, nights, and seasons pass, bringing their own special natural qualities, she remains aloof with the power of her own soul.

Even death who may "ply his sieve" cannot reclaim her soul; she knows this because she is aware that the souls of saints have continue to live beyond the grave for they reported their freedom after death.

The changing of nature on the earth plane cannot cause a change in the soul. The speaker realizes that her free soul's power is infinite and eternal. In the final sestet, the speaker dramatizes her tribute to the Divine Christ-Consciousness, "Who gave Himself for me."

And not only did the Divine give Himself once, He continues to do so, "Who gives Himself to me." And He also "bids me sing."

Like the Creator, the created individual, the spark of the Divine comes infused with the celestial power of creativity, and "A sweet new song of His redeemed set free." The speaker by realizing the immortality of the soul can sing with 1 Corinthians 15:55, "O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?"

Charlotte Brontë's "On the Death of Anne Brontë"

In Charlotte Brontë's poem, "On the Death of Anne Brontë," the speaker dramatizes her reaction to the death of her sister, who was so important to her life that she would have died to save her if she could.

Introduction and Text of "On the Death of Anne Brontë"

Charlotte Brontë's "On the Death of Anne Brontë," consists of four quatrains, each with the rime scheme ABAB. The formal feeling provided by the strict structure of this poem gives it the seriousness that its title addresses.

The speaker is dramatizing her reaction to the death of her beloved sister, who was so important to her own life as well as to the family dynamic that the speaker would have chosen to die to save that sister if she could have done so.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

On the Death of Anne Brontë

There's little joy in life for me,
And little terror in the grave;
I've lived the parting hour to see
Of one I would have died to save.

Calmly to watch the failing breath,
Wishing each sigh might be the last;
Longing to see the shade of death
O'er those belovèd features cast.

The cloud, the stillness that must part
The darling of my life from me;
And then to thank God from my heart,
To thank Him well and fervently;

Although I knew that we had lost
The hope and glory of our life;
And now, benighted, tempest-tossed,
Must bear alone the weary strife.

Reading of Charlotte Brontë’s "On the Death of Anne Brontë”

Commentary on Charlotte Brontë’s "On the Death of Anne Brontë"

In this poem, the speaker is dramatizing her reaction to the death of her sister.

First Quatrain: Equanimity and Existence

There's little joy in life for me,
And little terror in the grave;
I've lived the parting hour to see
Of one I would have died to save.

The speaker asserts that she feels a certain equanimity toward existence with "little joy" for living and "little terror" of dying. But she also implies that she is experiencing a time of sorrow, because she has lived long enough to see the death of someone about whom she cared deeply.

The speaker expresses her great affection for this person, who is, of course, the poet's sister, by claiming she would have died to save her. But such is life and death, and here she is expressing her utter sorrow in a poem.

Second Quatrain: The Final Hours

Calmly to watch the failing breath,
Wishing each sigh might be the last;
Longing to see the shade of death
O'er those belovèd features cast.

In the second quatrain, the speaker dramatizes the final hours of watching her sister as Anne is dying. As the dying one gasps for breath, the watcher can only helplessly "wish" that each "failing breath" would be the last.

The saddened speaker intuits that her poor sister is suffering, and she wants that suffering to end. And although it is, of course, the last thing she would "wish" and "long" for, she is forced to anticipate "the shade of death / O'er those beloved features cast."

The speaker struggles as she wishes for her sister's soul to finally experience its exit from the body because she finds it so painful to see her sister's body suffering.

Third Quatrain: Death as a Cloud

The cloud, the stillness that must part
The darling of my life from me;
And then to thank God from my heart,
To thank Him well and fervently;

The speaker likens death to a "cloud" and to "stillness" that will take her beloved sister's soul from her body, thus "part[ing] / The darling of my life from me." The speaker anticipates that she will "thank God from [her] heart."

The speaker will be grateful when her sister's soul has departed, and the dying one no longer has to suffer the sorrowful and painful transition she is now undergoing. The speaker attempts to report as calmly and objectively as possible as she, at the same time, dramatizes the event that is so crucial, so vitally important.

The experience of dying represents one of the most critical events for the individual soul as well as for the loved ones who have become attached to that individual as a loving personality.

Fourth Quatrain: Importance

Although I knew that we had lost
The hope and glory of our life;
And now, benighted, tempest-tossed,
Must bear alone the weary strife.

In the fourth quatrain, the speaker expresses how important that sister was to her and the rest of the family. They had "lost / The hope and glory of [their] life." And each family member now has to "bear alone the weary strife," as each feels "benighted" and "tempest-tossed."

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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