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Christina Rossetti's "The Thread of Life"

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.

Portrait of Christina Rossetti

Introduction and Text of "The Thread of Life"

Each sonnet of 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. 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 "The Thread of Life"

Commentary

Christina Rossetti's "The Thread of Life" features three 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 "bound with the flawless band / Of inner solitude." The land and sea cannot bind her, 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 a time when "life itself [was] not weak."

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: "Everything / Around me free and sunny." 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 "silences / Are music of an unlike fashioning." 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, "I am not what I have nor what I do; / But what I was I am, I am even I." 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 "saints break grave and sing."

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?"

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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