Saturday, April 24, 2010

When I am dead my dearest and Remember by Christina Rossetti

Yesterday's selection, Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe, was about love surviving death, told from the point of view of the survivor. The bonus poem, Shakespeare's Sonnet 73, contemplates aging and death (in a way), but I opted to go back to Poe before moving on today. And the Poe poem called to mind for me some of the poems of Christina Rossetti, which are from the perspective of the dead or dying person in the relationship.

When I am dead, my dearest
by Christina Rossetti

When I am dead, my dearest,
  Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
  Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
  With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
  And if thou wilt, forget.

I shall not see the shadows,
  I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
  Sing on, as if in pain:
And dreaming through the twilight
  That doth not rise nor set,
Haply* I may remember,
  And haply may forget.

* haply: perhaps

Form: It's a form of hymn metre, with alternating longer and shorter lines. The first, fifth and seventh line of each stanza is compose of two iambs and an amphibrach (taDUM taDUM taDUMta, or i-AMB i-AMB am-PHI-brach). The third line of each stanza is in iambic tetrameter (four iambs per line - taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM). The even-numbered lines are all in iambic trimeter (taDUM taDUM taDUM).

Analysis: Rossetti gives her loved one permission to remember or forget her once she's dead, and acknowledges that she will no longer be aware of what transpires in the world once she is buried. She goes on to indicate that she believes in some sort of immortality of the soul with the phrase "And dreaming through the twilight/that doth not rise nor set", but it appears she does not hold out hopes of heaven or belief in hell, and is uncertain what sort of consciousness her own soul will have - maybe it will remember her loved one, maybe not. To me, this is the reading of the poem on its face, which I find fascinating because Rossetti has a reputation as a devout Anglican, who refused to see one of Wagner's operas because it was based in paganism and gave up chess because winning gave her too much pleasure.

In any case, this poem reminds me in many ways of one of Rossetti's sonnets, which I'm posting here as well:

by Christina Rossetti

Remember me when I am gone away,
  Gone far away into the silent land;
  When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
  You tell me of our future that you planned:
  Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
  And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
  For if the darkness and corruption leave
  A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
  Than that you should remember and be sad.

Form: An Italianate sonnet written in iambic pentameter, and rhymed ABBAABBACDDECE.

Discussion: I like this so much better than Mary Frye's "Do not stand at my grave and weep" - I can't even tell you. I like that Rossetti simply wants to be remembered from time to time, but not to give pain to her loved one with that memory: "Better by far your should forget and smile than that you should remember and be sad."

Although, the precursor for that closing sentiment is a bit ambiguous, and I rather suspect that Rossetti was addressing particular thoughts or ideas she held and had expressed to her loved one. It says "If the darkness and corruption leave/ a vestige of the thoughts that once I had,/ better by far you should forget and smile/ than that you should remember and be sad." Where this becomes ambiguous is that we don't know what thoughts Rossetti is referring to. Perhaps her thoughts were troubling to the person left behind - maybe she said she didn't believe in heaven, or thought she was doomed to hell, or something similar, which would cause a person with different beliefs pain when thinking of her being departed and not in heaven, or in being departed and merely being worm food (if she didn't believe in an afterlife at all), or perhaps she's referring to something else entirely that she'd said that had given the loved one pain. Again, given her reputation as a devout Anglican, nonbelief in an afterlife seems unlikely, but I think that a closer reading of this poem indicates that there was a difference of opinion between her and her loved one on a point, the memory of which disagreement would upset the survivor.

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Anonymous said...

Christina is my one of the best poet!she wrote her feelings and her view through her poems! she is too much emotional while writing her art!!this is the best part of her! thanks Christina for being my love!!

Shaleen Meelu said...

I love this poem and am about to send it to a friend whose wife passed away last year as it relates to a discussion we had about life, death, belief. I'm based in the UK and lucky to be living near an art gallery that houses a collection of beautiful paintings by Dante Gabriel Rosetti (her brother).They both produced such moving work that seems to silence all thoughts in my head.