Featured Poem: A Pause for Thought by Christina Rossetti

The Reader’s Learning and Quality Leader, Chris Lynn, shares his thoughts on this week’s Featured Poem, A Pause for Thought by Christina Rossetti.

This week’s featured poem ‘A Pause for Thought’ by Christina Rossetti seems immediately recognisable – the idea of making space for a moment for reflection or introspection is almost an everyday phrase for us. So my first line of questioning as we take a closer look is ‘What’s in this thought?’. The first two lines are a good place to spend our time:

I looked for that which is not, nor can be,
And hope deferred made my heart sick in truth:

Immediately, I’m struck by the yearning in these first lines, a longing for something ‘which is not, nor can be’. What is this longing for – a dream, a desire? Its sheer impossibility lands twice: ‘which is not, nor can be’. So even stranger that this person ‘looked for’ this! This leads me to ask, do we tantalise ourselves with things that are out of reach because deep down we know they’re aren’t possible? Do we just convince ourselves they’re impossible? Is longing for something that is out of reach an easy thought for us to have precisely because our desire is safely out of reach?

To have a heart ‘sick in truth’ is such an interesting phrase – I would not normally think of truth as a ‘sickness’! Or is this a truthful plea? This makes me think of times when we are dragged down by the brute reality of events, when hope (the possibility for something else) feels lost; ‘hope deferred’ has an odd distance and formal ring to it and ‘made my heart sick in truth’. Is this hope ‘deferred’ for a later date – dormant for another day? A comforting thought to know that hope may be present even if we can’t reach for it at a given moment.

Back to the text to help us through and root our thinking!

I watched and waited with a steadfast will:
And though the object seemed to flee away
That I so longed for, ever day by day
I watched and waited still.

Personally, I’d love to have more ‘steadfast will’ so I’m drawn to these lines – and there’s a real satisfaction of completion in the rhythm of ‘I watched and waited still’. I’m still trying to work out what this ‘object’ might be for us in relation to our own experience? These next couple of lines:

I will resign it now and be at peace:
Yet never gave it o’er.

connect with the bottom last lines

Thou knowest the chase useless, and again
Turnest to follow it.

and gets at the tension at the heart of this poem – that space between a dedicated resolve and a liberation in letting go. A cogitative dissonance married with a frustration at yourself that rings true: ‘I know it isn’t good for me, and yet I still do it’.

That ‘and again’ has a will of effort in it! It’s almost a slog to say. On one level it makes me think of the difference between decisions of head and heart – but that feels too simple. It feels deeper than that. Those things we can’t help but do – an intangible, undeniable pull.

What does this pause for thought do? What does it change? Being aware of this real mix of feelings feels like a helpful first step. Go slowly, re-read and surely a rewarding poem to use for any group!

A Pause for Thought

I looked for that which is not, nor can be,
And hope deferred made my heart sick in truth:
But years must pass before a hope of youth
Is resigned utterly.
I watched and waited with a steadfast will:
And though the object seemed to flee away
That I so longed for, ever day by day
   I watched and waited still.
Sometimes I said: This thing shall be no more;
My expectation wearies and shall cease;
I will resign it now and be at peace:
Yet never gave it o’er.
Sometimes I said: It is an empty name
I long for; to a name why should I give
The peace of all the days I have to live?—
    Yet gave it all the same.
Alas, thou foolish one! alike unfit
For healthy joy and salutary pain:
Thou knowest the chase useless, and again    
Turnest to follow it.

by Christina Rossetti

Would you like the opportunity to read this or other poems in a Shared Reading group?

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