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Featured Poem: The Thread of Life by Christina Rossetti

Written by Lisa Spurgin, 7th February 2011

Last week, we pondered the sound of silence – or should that be the sounds of silence plural, as Hood’s pensive poem introduced us to what he called ‘the true Silence’ which emerged as something altogether more complex than the drowning out of chatter, traffic and any other annoying little noises which chip slowly away at any sense of tranquillity we possess. Instead it was marked by a sense of distance, disconnection and separation from the self and humanity; another world entirely.

Touching upon quite similar themes and visions as Hood is Christina Rossetti in a threaded trio of sonnets focused on silences, sounds, the self, all that surrounds and the conflict as well as the inherent connection between them. From the start of the first sonnet where the land and the sea, both silent and not, are marked as ‘irresponsive’ the same disconnection between people and nature that Hood brought to the fore is reinforced; yet simultaneously a strong connection between the two is made in the fact that ‘we stand aloof’ – a connection through being disconnected, if you will. The constant declaration that all is so resolutely distanced, physically but more crucially emotionally, establishes a pervading melancholy that is carried through. Hood categorised his true Silence as ‘self-conscious and alone’ and we see evidence of that in Rossetti‘s silent and aloof self, banished from the world of pleasant sounds. Indeed, Rossetti’s silence is firmly focused upon the self and the inner world of ‘solitude’ which is even more resolutely alone, marked by no sound or any other identifiable sign of life. This is emphasised in the second sonnet when another distinction is made between the outer and inner worlds; the silence of the self is precisely that – completely devoid of sound. Compare this with what surrounds, ‘where sounds are music, and silences/Are music of an unlike fashioning’.

Given the dual quality of silence, and the self that stands very much separated from a world where sound and life is amplified, its little wonder that Rossetti feels so critically self-conscious and trapped, as references to being bound, a ‘self-chain’ and the opening line of the second sonnet make clear. It set me thinking about how significant individual perceptions can be, not just in moments of silence (enforced or otherwise) but at anytime, although silence does provide an illuminating example; depending on your perspective, it can be a comforting refuge or conversely a claustrophobic prison. Being in possession of a pair of rose-tinted spectacles or a half-full glass can appear to make all the difference at times, but they’re not always necessary. The thread of life unravels and eventually through enough self-torture a realisation will be reached. Rossetti accepts that her inner world, far from being a prison, is something special; that being apart and aloof from everything else is not so bad, and emerging from the silence with a voice and singing your own song a victory in itself.

The Thread of Life

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.

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.

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 sanitive;
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
he bids me sing: O death, where is thy sting?
And sing: O grave, where is thy victory?

Christina Rossetti (1830-1894)

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