When reading Christina Rossetti's 'The Thread of Life' one should think of a metaphysical poet bent on spiritual exploration of her Self. The ponderous nature of the poem announces itself through questions, word repetitions and first-person word plays that ambiguate the poem before it resolves itself. Like her predecessors Marvell and Donne, Rossetti structures her poem as an argument — here contained in the formal structure created by three separate sonnets. Sonnets two and three begin with the propositional hinge-words 'thus' and 'therefore' respectively, while sonnet one poses three questions that the poem attempts to answer
But who from thy self-chain shall set thee free?
What heart shall touch thy heart? what hand thy hand? —
Sound and singing are the favoured conceits of 'The Thread of Life', lending themselves to the Christian overtones of the piece that arise in explicit and implicit quotation of the Bible. The 'irresponsive' of the first two lines employs the liturgical language of the church in which the 'response' is the line sung by choir or congregation in answer to the petition sung by the clergyman.
Thus Rossetti uses the form of Church devotional singing as a metaphor to anchor her definitions of self and the world. To Rossetti both the self and the world participate in a divine Christian service of worship of God; the individual sings and the world answers or responds. In the first two sonnets the self and the world contradict each other. In sonnet one the speaker interprets 'the irresponsive silence of the land' and the 'irresponsive sounding of the sea' as 'one message of one sense' that she stands aloof or alone and independent from the world. So in her solitude the speaker encounters a world in diametrical opposition to herself. In sonnet two the reverse occurs but with the same opposition. The speaker characterizes herself as her own prison while everything around her is described as 'free and sunny and at ease'. Now birds are singing and 'sounds are music' and 'silences are music of an unlike fashioning'. The thought that the narrator might rejoice or sing with the 'merrymaking crew' of the natural world is immediately rebuffed as a 'foolish fancy' for, she says,
I am not what I have nor what I do;
But what I was I am, I am even I.
This is reminiscent of God's words in the bible 'I am that I am' and the 'I am' of these lines is chiastic to the first line of the sonnet
Thus am I mine own prison.
As we have seen, the first sonnet is chiastic to the second in terms of world-irresponsive speaker-responsive oppositions. Furthermore, sonnet one introduces the world and then the speaker whereas sonnet two does the opposite. To pose a question then, as Rossetti herself does, what does this all point to? The chiasmus seems to be a way for the speaker to define herself as ontologically independent from the natural world, while the liturgical metaphor seemingly unites the two under a higher power. They are part of the same song but sing independently of each other. But this also marks Rossetti (or the speaker) as decidedly anti-Romantic: the bounteousness of nature, 'where bees are found, with honey for the bees', does not incite her to perform pantheistic mimicry — her honey is elsewhere. Therefore to answer the questions her weary mind exclaims in the first sonnet she must turn to a higher power and that is what she does in the third sonnet.
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 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?
This final sonnet invokes the Christian doctrine of Kenosis, suggesting that the whole poem is an act of self-emptying that allows the poet to offer herself to God and (in doing so) conquer death like Christ in his redeeming of humanity. This final sonnet is the most assured and assertive of all three, the necessary conclusion, the 'therefore', of Rossetti's argument. The Self is finally defined positively as the repetition of 'mine own' and 'myself' indicates. In choosing to mirror Christ rather than Nature the speaker states her religious priority, a priority which edifies her definition of her Self.
1. The critic Packer, noting Coleridge's influence on the poem, called it Christina Rossetti's equivalent of 'a Dejection ode '. To what extent does the poem aim at defying, often male dominated, Romantic views of the world?
2. In a prose statement Christina Rossetti said that 'man's inherent feeling of personality seems in some sort to attest and correspond to this revelation' i.e. 'I am that I am' (Ex.3:14). In what ways does the poem mirror god and god's biblical exploits in the speaker's definition of herself?
3. In the first sonnet the speaker says,
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.
What do you think has caused her weakness and sudden loss of hope?
4. Does the poem convince us that the speaker's definition of herself is a positive one or are we left feeling only the negation that has taken place and that the Self is a prison?
5. What seems to be the reason for the sudden shift in the speaker's description of the outside world between sonnets one and two? Is it at all justified by the narrative?
6. Does the speaker manage to answer the questions she poses to herself in the first sonnet? How?
Last modified 30 October 2006