In "The Thread of Life," Rossetti echoes another of her works, "At Home," in which her soul, newly departed from her body, visits old friends of hers who live still. She becomes disheartened when she discovers that they do not speak of her, but only of their own futures. "'Tomorrow and to-day,' they cried; / I was of yesterday." Similarly, the narrator of The "Thread of Life" stands apart from the rest of life's varied participants, who seem to revel in the joys and opportunities of each passing instant. The world is a place "[w]here bees are found, with honey for the bees; / Where sounds are music, and where silences / are music of an unlike fashioning," and yet she, unrecognized, uninvited, may only ask, "Why can I not rejoice with you?" She feels no kinship with the particulars of Creation, but only with the great, lonesome bodies of land and ocean, who keep, like her, aloof from any brother or sister spirit. Yet the narrator's solitude does not spring from any external isolating forces; neither nature nor individual does her any wrong. Rather, she exacts sentence on herself, delegating her earthly existence to "mine own prison," bound in a "self-chain". The world, it seems, does not neglect to invite her to participate in its pleasures; she simply does not know how to accept.
This aloofness, or paralysis, on the narrator's part has a dual edge. On the one hand, she seems envious of life's fellowship and celebration, speaking of herself disparagingly as a prison, and the world in high reverence as functioning in accord with some musical cadence. Yet at the same time her attitude is a bit condescending, assuming that only she suffers, while the rest of the world is "free and sunny and at ease." And ultimately she regards her wish to join it as a "foolish fancy."
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 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?"
Her self is her lone solace — her companion, her strength and playing ground. Yet one does not know for certain precisely what she means by "herself." It does not mean her body, for it will still belong to her "when saints break grave and sing," presumably on the Day of Judgment. And she remarks, at the close of the second stanza, "I am not what I have nor what I do; / But what I was I am, I am even I." Within her there seems to be some force of permanence, of stability. Earthly creatures identify themselves with their deeds — bees with their honey-making, birds with their song, revelers with their dance; yet she relates to herself on a primarily spiritual level; and, against the backdrop of eternity, a spirit's first occupation comprises no deed, but, instead, simple existence. She bides her life, awaiting that day when her sole judge and friend is no frivolous mortal, but He who is the great bider, the great endurer, and the architect of all existence.
1. The narrator remembers "days of old / When fellowship seemed not so far to seek." What kind of life is she hinting at, and why has her situation changed since then?
2. In her reference to Christ she remarks both that He "gave Himself for me" and that He "gives Himself to me." What is the distinction between the two acts, and which, if either, has greater consequences for the speaker?
3. Rossetti clearly divides the poem into three segments or sections, each of which acts as a self-contained unit; yet together the three also form a logical progression. Can this journey through the poem find parallel with the more general idea of one's spiritual journey, or do the comments pertain specifically to the narrator's very personal experience?
4. We find in this poem the themes of worldly isolation and of sustaining Christian faith. How do the attitudes toward these compare with those in other of Rossetti's poems?5. The poem's title seems to suggest a certain fragility of earthly existence, or else, earthly existence as the material that knits the fabric of some larger existence. Yet the content of the poem does not quite tend in either direction. Why choose this title?
Last modified 4 March 2009