Featured Poem: Later Life: A Double Sonnet of Sonnets by Christina Rossetti

This week’s Featured Poem is the choice of Casi Dylan, our Training Manager, who considers the many layers within this meaningful sonnet by Christina Rossetti.

I thought that I knew this poem. I heard it for the first time around three years ago in a class led by Brian Nellist and it’s been with me ever since. I’ve often gone back to it in my mind, certain moments seem to call upon it. But coming back to re-read it on the page I find that the poem is different, changed from what I remembered or expected it to be: ‘Surely this wasn’t as wrenching when first I heard it? Where did my initial elated response come from?’

Perhaps such a slip in meaning is what is to be expected from a poem in which certainty is precisely built upon the awareness of what ‘we lack’. This ‘lack’ in ourselves is what we know – or come to know – but it’s knowledge beyond easy expression: ‘Not this, nor that; yet somewhat, certainly.’ It’s that ‘somewhat’ that I like. The measure of this ‘lack’ of ours, those ‘Hopes that were never ours yet seem’d to be’ is not metric, as it were, not something within our grasp; it’s movement that matter here. This is ‘lack’ as verb, not noun. And I see now that the poem itself moves, changes almost without my knowing it: ‘Why face we not our future once again?’ The hearts that we will need for this voyage are not only hardy but ‘hardier’ – stronger and more courageous for the realisation that what once drove us was never quite the thing.

Why is it that I found, and come once again to find, this poem so affirming, when so much of it is concerned with what we’ve missed, or lost, or do not have? Where our eyes are not only ‘dim’ but the ‘sight’ for which they search ‘invisible’? It’s that ‘once again’. The re-launch. That moving faith in an unknowable future, a state as tangibly absent as the ‘lack’ which drives us there. The poem not only reminds me to be brave, but reminds me what brave means.

From Later Life: A Double Sonnet of Sonnets

VI

We lack, yet cannot fix upon the lack:
Not this, nor that; yet somewhat, certainly.
We see the things we do not yearn to see
Around us: and what see we glancing back?
Lost hopes that leave our hearts upon the rack,
Hopes that were never ours yet seem’d to be,
For which we steer’d on life’s salt stormy sea
Braving the sunstroke and the frozen pack.
If thus to look behind is all in vain,
And all in vain to look to left or right,
Why face we not our future once again,
Launching with hardier hearts across the main,
Straining dim eyes to catch the invisible sight,
And strong to bear ourselves in patient pain?

Christina Rossetti

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