Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 651
The first five and a half lines of “The Continuous Life” consist of a rhetorical question. Rhetorical questions do not require answers. Rather, writers use them for special effect, often when they want to convince someone of a truth without making an argument. In these lines, Strand describes a relationship between parents and children in which the children look for signs that their parents have grown tired of their child-rearing obligations. He asks the question only so that he may answer it. The images of “children hunched in bushes” and “neighborhood homes” are general enough to apply to a wide range of people, places, and times. Likewise, figuring parenting obligations as “the swell of duty” allows Strand to steer clear of depicting his characters in any realistic manner, which he might do if providing examples of these duties. They are types, which means that Strand uses them to represent all parents and all children. The phrase “being adrift on a swell of duty” is an implicit metaphor in which the speaker uses imagery associated with water to describe how parents feel about their responsibilities to their children.
The poem’s narrator has access to both the thoughts of the children and the parents, and he speaks from a place seemingly outside history. In these lines, he answers his own question about how parents should respond to their children, who are watching them grow old and tired. By exhorting them to “confess,” he suggests that they have been less than honest or forthcoming with them so far. “Night” refers to death, and the speaker advises parents to reassure their children that they have plenty of life left in them, that they love doing “household chores.”
In these lines, the speaker urges parents to “describe” the meaning that can be found in everyday work tools such as “shovels and rakes” and the events that constitute daily life such as “cooking and cleaning.” There is no end to these things, the speaker suggests. Life is a series of such events, most of them small and seemingly insignificant. The narrator tells parents to “explain” life and death to their children, calling them “two great darks, the first / With an ending, the second without one.”
The tone of the poem, already mixed, becomes more complicated. In these lines, the speaker proffers the upbeat observation, “The luckiest / Thing is having been born,” but follows it with the recognition that “you live in a blur.” He encourages parents to tell their children that it is important to believe that this “blur” has meaning, in the face of feelings and evidence to the contrary.
In these lines, the speaker makes another command: “Tell the children to come inside.” This marks the end of playtime for the children and the end of the workday for adults. The speaker insists that parents now admit to their children their own uncertainty about life, their own attempts at un- derstanding their existence. Searching for a name or “a family album” mark attempts to understand one’s self in relation to others. By telling children that such a search is a lifelong activity, parents highlight the idea that life is a journey, and that the “getting there” is merely an illusion that keeps one trying.
In these lines, the speaker finally urges parents to admit that, in the end, they know nothing. He makes virtues out of “business” and “languor,” investing them with the power to create “small tremors of love.” As in many of his poems, Strand presents the idea that human beings have multiple selves, both across time (e.g., as a child, a parent, a grandparent, etc.), and in the present. This poem encourages parents to share with their children that fact, as well as the fact that, as they grow older, they too will experience the fears, anxieties, and desires that come with change.
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