Indepth Analysis of Christina Rossetti’s “When I am Dead, My Dearest”
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Literal and Figural Meaning
The poem literally illustrates the speaker’s reflection upon whether or not he or she and the “dearest” shall remember one another when the speaker dies. Yet, figuratively, the poem conveys the poet’s perception of death as a dreamy, intermediate existence that compares to “twilight”.
Structure and Meaning
Christina Rossetti strategically structures her poem, “When I am dead, my dearest” to convey her notion of love and death. She presents her stanzaic poem through two octaves with the pattern iambic abc4b3deFE3. Even though Rossetti writes six of the sixteen lines in iambic trimeter, the abundance of variation throughout the octaves portrays the poem as more of a free verse. On average, Rossetti uses 6.7 syllables per line, which, in a way, conveys the sensation of uneasiness and uncertainty that humans feel towards the notion of death since the syllables irregularly vary per line. Rossetti employs this method of confusion throughout her poem in order to establish a comparison between the perplexity with which humans view death and the optimism with which Rossetti views it.
Rossetti, in her poem, ponders upon death and whether or not her beloved and she may “remember” each other after she dies. In the first stanza, Rossetti requests her dearly loved to perform certain actions “above” her grave once she dies. By presenting this image of an ideal ceremony occurring above her grave through the first stanza, Rossetti differentiates between underground as being the stage of death, and above ground as being the stage of life. Each stanza, therefore, structurally demonstrates this notion of life above and death below as Rossetti places the stanza regarding the ceremonies above the second stanza, which enters the realm of unknown, where Rossetti offers her view of the afterlife from deep beneath the ground in her grave.
Rossetti applies the variations in the iambic pattern of this poem for the same reason that she does not employ a sonnet structure even though this poem speaks of love. A sonnet, traditionally, conveys the sensation or emotions of love, yet, by merely employing free verse, Rossetti implies that she herself shall “forget” her beloved after she dies. Similarly, Rossetti varies the metrical structure of the poem to demonstrate the mystification she experiences as she ponders upon whether she shall “remember” or “forget” her love. The erratic structure also demonstrates the spontaneity with which Rossetti creates her poems; as mentioned previously, as an extremely religious woman, Rossetti endeavors to conceal her passionate emotions, yet, while writing verse, her passion prevails over her religious morals, at times, and the poem becomes a heart-rending depiction of her innermost thoughts.
By structuring most of the lines with three feet, Rossetti conveys a sense of the three religious layers of heaven, earth, and hell. This structure, in conjunction with various dark, evocative words in the poem, implies that Rossetti fears that her passion may lead her to hell. The two refrains at the end of each stanza serve to demonstrate Rossetti’s suspicion towards the trueness of her “dearest[‘s]” affections as she repeatedly questions whether or not he shall “remember” her.
By rhyming the second and fourth lines, but not the first and third lines, Rossetti groups lines 1-2 and 3-4 together as one idea. She continues this pattern with lines 5-6 and 7-8; likewise, the second octave consists of two abcb quatrains. The grouping effect of the rhythmical pattern separates the poem into four four-line sections: the first and second sections announce what the speaker’s beloved should not and should do above ground, respectively, while the third and forth convey what the speaker cannot and can do underground.
Sound and Meaning
Sound plays a key role in Christina Rossetti’s poem “When I am dead, my dearest” in conveying her emotions and thoughts. “My dearest” refers to the female speaker’s beloved who never loves the speaker while she lives and the poem explores whether or not the speaker and the man shall remember one another when the speaker dies. By referring to the one she loves as “my dearest”, the speaker suggests a husband-wife relationship between the man and herself; yet, by introducing the topic by merely stating “when I am dead”, rather than using more pleasant or implicit phrases such as “when I pass away” or “If I should pass away”, the speaker conveys a sense of disrespect or carelessness for this man probably because the man never loved her in the first place. By lacking decency, the phrase serves as an interest catcher, possibly for the speaker’s beloved, as it defies the usual decorum that characterizes a poem regarding love. Furthermore, the plosive “t” sound in the term “dearest”, which creates a brief caesura because of the release of breath, serves to emphasize the fact that the speaker writes this poem in reference to a specific individual.
The second line obviously applies alliteration; however, it strays from the iambic form as the speaker stresses “sing”, “sad”, and “songs”. Rossetti also applies consonance as both the “s-” and “-ng” repeat in “sing” and “songs”; in turn, this emphasizes the “-d” in “sad”, which, through its connotation and sound, evokes the notion of “death”. Thereby, the speaker requests that her beloved should not sing a “dirge” or “requiem”. The consonant “s-” in all of these words augments the quickness and fluffiness of the line, which suggests a sarcastic aspect to the poem since the speaker views death positively. The euphonious sounds of the consonants “s”, “f”, and “m”, and the vowels “i”, “a”, and “o” further establish the satirical potential of the poem as the euphony makes the line seem almost playful.
Rossetti establishes an undercurrent of tension in the third line as she abandons the playful trimeter pattern of the first two lines and applies a tetrameter containing an undefined foot: “Plant though no roses”. The pace, however, remains quick as the speaker employs more unstressed syllables than stressed and applies mostly liquid vowels and consonants with the exception of “p”, “t”, and somewhat “d”; this rapid pace augments the effectiveness of Rossetti’s notion of death as not so appalling as it appears since a quick pace contradicts the lethargy that characterizes a gloomy subject. The speaker requests that her beloved “plant… no roses at [her] head”, which portrays the speaker’s desire to merge into nature without any landmark that clearly exposes her burial site. Furthermore, the statement indicates the speaker’s desire that her beloved remember her as she truly was and that he should not embellish her life, as with the beauty of “roses”, when he thinks of her. Rossetti still employs euphonious sounds to convey this notion.
In the fourth line, the speaker continues her desire from the previous line by stating that her beloved should not “plant…roses… nor shady cypress tree”. In essence, the speaker deems that her beloved should not forget her completely as by planting a cypress tree that overshadows his memories of her. Rossetti employs internal rhyme in the form of consonance through the terms “shady” and “tree” in order to emphasize the size of the tree as it conceals the speaker’s grave; however, she maintains the pleasant tone of the morbid poem through the term “cypress”, which contains the euphonious “s” sounds. Since the lines up until this point convey what the “dearest” “shall not” do, the semicolon at the end of the line serves to convey a transition in ideas as Rossetti explains what the “dearest” should do.
Rossetti once again employs alliteration in the fifth line, a line that also contains a variation in the metrical pattern. The variation serves to emphasize the beginning of a new section of the poem and the meaning of the line. Rossetti presents the alliteration of “grass” and “green” as phonetic intensives, whose “gr-” sounds call to mind the term “grave”. Furthermore, Rossetti employs internal rhyme as she relates the terms “me” and “be”. Within the line, the speaker requests that her beloved “be the green grass”; yet, the implications of the phonetic intensives in conjunction with the internal rhyme suggest that Rossetti desires that the man die as well: “be… me”, thereby, “be” the speaker, who is “dead” and in a “grave”. The connotations of the “gr-” sounds augment the effect of this notion.
The tone of the poem now seems much less euphonious; rather, the cacophonous sounds of “b” and “gr” portray Rossetti’s spontaneity as she reveals a slight revulsion towards the man whom she loves. The assonance of the long “ee” sounds in “be”, “me”, and “green”, and the long “s” sound in “grass” suggest that the speaker views death as a liberating experience as the sound conveys a sense of magnitude since the entire seven syllable line sounds longer than the others. The green grass, unlike a tombstone, spreads without bound and takes up an enormous area that becomes the speaker’s burial place. This expresses the grandeur treatment that the speaker desires when she dies. Rossetti uses neither a colon nor a comma, which indicates that the following line contains what treatment the “dearest” must use. Rossetti employs enjambment in this line to emphasize the notion of “showers and dewdrops wet”.
Rossetti exemplifies the notion of independence mentioned previously as the speaker mentions the “showers and dewdrops” that nourish the grass. However, the “dewdrops and showers” may also refer to the tears of the speaker’s “dearest”, which implies a scornful attitude on the speaker’s behalf when considering the following lines that state “And if thou wilt, remember/ And if thou wilt, forget”; this again suggests a satirical aspect to the poem as the line contains ambivalent emotions towards the “dearest”. The repetition of the phrase “and if thou wilt” effectively assists in creating the musical facet of the poem as it reflects the notion of repetition as in rhythmical beats. Rossetti emphasizes the term “forget” through its rhyme with “wet”, which, again, refers to the religious qualities of Rossetti as it implies that the speaker desires that her beloved “forget” her. Rossetti further emphasizes this notion by applying a semicolon after “wet”; this punctuation in conjunction with the plosive “t” in “wet”, forms a caesura that stresses the term “wet”, and, thereby, the term “forget” since the two terms represent an end rhyme. Plosives also play a key role in emphasizing the word “wilt”, which purposely serves to evoke a sense of confusion (Discussed in Other Devices).
The first three lines of the second stanza, which provide the speaker’s point of view as she lays in her grave, demonstrate how the speaker shall never “see”, “feel”, or “hear” what her beloved does above her and how the first stanza only presents what she wishes for him to do. Rossetti presents the long “ee” sounds of these words as phonetic intensives that suggest the “deepness” of the grave; a point at which the speaker can only “dream”. In essence, the speaker explains that she shall lose all of her senses. The plosive sound of the “t” in “not” not only creates a brief pause, but, in doing so, it also emphasizes this notion that the speaker shall never experience these suffering sensations. However, Rossetti establishes a despiteful tone as the “shadows”, “rain”, and “nightingale” refer to the way the “dearest” views the world; thereby, Rossetti suggests that the speaker’s beloved may suffer in these dreary colors, while she strives in her dreams. However, the euphonious sounds throughout the first three lines augment the harmoniousness that exists throughout the poem; this pleasantry, again, suggests that Rossetti views death as not so unfortunate as it seems.
In the sixth and seventh line of the second stanza, Rossetti once again illustrates her notion of death as an intermediate state of existence through the term “twilight,” which describes the light from the sky “that doth not rise nor set”; thereby, the euphonic description of the speaker “dreaming through the twilight”, supports Rossetti’s optimistic view of death. The long “ee” sound of “dreaming” and the long “oo” sound of “through” convey a sense of deep trance just as the sounds, earlier, conveyed the depth of the speaker underground. Rossetti, in a way, also applies onomatopoeia as the words “rise” and “set”, according to the pitch of the vowel sound, seem to convey a sense of rising and setting; the “i” sound in “rise” contains a higher pitch than the “e” in “set”.
The plosive sound of the “t” in “set” once again emphasizes the term “forget” just as “wet” does in the last line of the first stanza. The fact that “doth” sounds like “death” once again exemplifies Rossetti’s perception of death as not such a concrete concept. According to her, the stage of death requires that an individual neither possesses all of his or her earthly senses, nor does he or she possess the inertness that characterizes a corpse in its grave; rather, the dead live in an intermediate state of “dream[s]” just as in twilight, where the light neither “rises” nor “sets”.
The last two lines of the poem portray the speaker’s choice to either forget or remember her love. The seventh line runs much more swiftly than the eighth line because it contains more unstressed syllables; this, in effect, emphasizes the eighth line, which implies that the speaker desires to “forget”. Rossetti applies the term “haply”, intended to mean “by chance”, as almost a pun in order to convey the satirical notion that death may no be so unfortunate as it seems. “Haply” sounds similar to “happily”, and, therefore, the entire meaning of the poem depends upon the reader’s interpretation of the word; “haply” portrays the poem as principally pertaining to love, whereas, “happily” refers to the death aspect of the poem since the speaker thereby depicts that happiness may be attained regardless of whether or not she “remembers” or “forgets” her beloved.
Other Poetic/Stylistic/Literary Devices
In her poem, Christina Rossetti also employs superb diction in establishing a comparison between her emotions towards death versus that of humans. For example, the term “wilt”, which she uses in the seventh and eighth lines, at a glance, denotes “will”. However, in considering the words that precede it, the term “wilt” conveys an image of a weakening plant. In the fifth line, the speaker requests that her “dearest… be the green grass above [her]”; yet, by employing the term “wilt”, Rossetti creates an image of a weakening, or dieing “dearest”. The morbid and perplexing connotations of the word establish an uneasy, bewildered feeling within the reader, which characterizes the emotions that humans possess when discussing the notion of death. On the other hand, Rossetti conveys her optimistic perception of death through the term “haply”, as mentioned previously.
Rossetti also employs metaphor in describing the agonies that the speaker shall not endure since she loses all of her senses. In essence, Rossetti restates the idea introduced in the second line of the first stanza through the metaphor of the “nightingale” in the third line of the second stanza. Both lines convey how the speaker desires to never hear the “songs” of death, or dirges. She compares these requiems to the “song” of the “nightingale”, who “sings” in “pain” as it mourns over the speaker’s death. As only the male “nightingale” sings, Rossetti also emphasizes the speaker’s female gender. Furthermore, Rossetti states that the nightingale, or the “dearest”, merely sings “as if” in pain and not entirely “in pain”. Thereby, Rossetti suggests the potential mendacity and falsehood in these solemn chants.
In his commentary, “Christina Rossetti”, Ford Madox Ford unsuccessfully endeavors to portray Rossetti as more of a modernist writer than a Pre-Raphaelite. Early on, Ford overgeneralizes his notion that “the last thing Romanticists desired was precision,” which characterizes Rossetti, as he merely provides one example from a small section of a random book by Mr. Ruskin and even excludes the title of the book. Furthermore, Ford applies an either or fallacy when endeavoring to relate Rossetti’s supposedly modernistic writing to her environment; he presents the “drawing-room in [Rossetti’s] London square” as either “ennobling” and “inspiring” or “exceedingly tragic”. Ford again exploits an overgeneralization as he attempts to portray Rossetti as a modernist by defining one similarity between modern humans and her as being the fact that “[modern humans] have to face such an infinite number of little things that [they] have no longer any time to arrange them in our minds or to consider them as anything but as accidents, happenings, the mere events of the day.” Ford never provides any proof that supports this theory on modern existence and, yet, he insists that the theory defines the life of Rossetti.
Jerome J. McGann, in his commentary, “Christina Rossetti’s Poems: A new Edition and a Revaluation”, successfully presents his theory of Rossetti’s unique symbolic technique of writing and her “spinster”-like qualities. McGann clearly portrays how Rossetti employs symbolism to create a sense of “bewilderment” by analyzing her various poems, including “May” and “Listening”. By employing symbolism, according to McGann, Rossetti establishes many “layers” of meanings that perplex the reader, which reflects the mystification that readers undergo when relating to Rossetti’s themes of love and death. Furthermore, through effective use of logos, McGann refers to various poems by Rossetti to illustrate her “spinster and fallen woman” appearance; for example, he provides themes from “The Triad”, “The Iniquity of the Fathers Upon the Children”, and “The Lowest Room” to convey Rossetti’s despise for marriages, yet possession of lustful emotions.