‘After Death‘ was written by Rossetti in the 19th Century 1862 and it touches upon themes of death, love, and an afterlife. Within the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood- an artistic society which Rossetti was not allowed to enter- many poems addressing similar themes were produced. However, ‘After Death‘ offers a much different perspective on the themes as it was written by a woman.
At the time, women lacked many basic rights, and the sense of patriarchal, traditional systems were much stronger than they are today. Victorian society had not yet seen the emergence of the ‘New Woman’ trope, however, Rossetti proved to be quite ahead of her time through her boundary-breaking poetry and her opinions on sex outside of marriage and prostitution.
After Death Christina Rossetti The curtains were half drawn, the floor was swept And strewn with rushes, rosemary and may Lay thick upon the bed on which I lay, Where through the lattice ivy-shadows crept. He leaned above me, thinking that I slept And could not hear him; but I heard him say, ‘Poor child, poor child’: and as he turned away Came a deep silence, and I knew he wept. He did not touch the shroud, or raise the fold That hid my face, or take my hand in his, Or ruffle the smooth pillows for my head: He did not love me living; but once dead He pitied me; and very sweet it is To know he still is warm though I am cold.
‘After Death‘ is from the perspective of somebody who appears to be dead. It sets the scene of a domestic environment, where perhaps the narrator is on her deathbed.
Then a foreign figure enters who ‘leaned above’ the narrator. What follows is a progression of mourning in which the male figure expresses sympathy, ‘poor child’, then cries. The speaker expresses discontent in how this figure did not touch her or do other comforting acts to ease her state.
‘After Death‘ ends with a selfless statement; where the narrator says that despite the male’s lack of love, she is still glad that he lives. This poem acknowledges the continuation of ordinary life after a person’s death, and it distances itself from the religious connotations associated with the ‘afterlife’.
Historically, Petrarchan Sonnets are love poems written by men and addressed to women; yet here, the male is the passive listener to Rossetti’s discussion of death and tragic love. This echoes a sense of role reversal and establishes Rossetti as a strong, female figure.
In addition, the use of iambic pentameter within this poem is effective in demonstrating the progression and regularity of life- and how it continues the same after a person’s death. The level of control associated with the rhyme scheme and the use of iambic pentameter skillfully juxtapose with the lack of control over death. The rhyme scheme also acts to hold the entire poem together, which suggests the narrator’s attempt to gain control over death; again emphasizing feminine strength.
Rossetti skillfully uses a variety of literary and structural techniques in ‘After Death‘ to portray the themes and tone associated with death and tragic romance. For instance, she uses nouns like, ‘curtains’, ‘floor’, and ‘bed’ which share domestic connotations, in order to allude to the ordinary feel of life despite the looming sense of death. These connotations also help to break down the readers’ expectations of the poem to be about a religious afterlife.
The thorough use of enjambment is powerful in showing the continuity of domestic life, as well as conveying a flow of emotion. Rossetti uses personification in regards to the ‘ivy-shadows’ which ‘crept’. The active verb, ‘crept’, demonstrates a sense of movement which, again, links to the speaker’s view that life is going on ordinarily without her.
There is also a skillful use of epizeuxis repetition within the poem, where the male figure refers to the narrator as, ‘poor child, poor child.’ Here, the expression of sympathy seems both emotive, yet also patronizing- thus alluding to the conflicting behavior of their love for one another. Rhetorical antithesis is used in the final lines where Rossetti places distance between the male who is, ‘still warm’, whilst the female narrator is ‘cold’.
A variety of themes are addressed within this poem; in particular, the theme of death, the afterlife, unconventional or tragic love, and gender stereotypes. The theme of death is instantly revealed through the title of the poem, ‘After Death.’ However, such a title could illustrate the afterlife in a religious sense- as, at the time, religion was a fundamental part of Victorian life.
Yet the poem lacks this religious allusion, which suggests an air of hopelessness, and bluntness associated with death. There is a key, recurring theme of domesticity, which is effective in offering a juxtaposition to the traditional connotations of death- including Heaven, religion, grand Victorian ceremonies, etc.
The theme of love is also effective, as a form of disrupted relationship is revealed through the two characters. The speaker states that, ‘he did not love me living’ which alludes to a lack of love within Victorian marriage; a trope not unfamiliar to many readers at the time. Due to gender stereotypes and the patriarchal system, many Victorian relationships did appear this way due to many women being forced to marry just for financial stability, and men marrying women purely for their appearance (as a material accessory). The fact that Rossetti touches upon these themes in ‘After Death‘ is effective and engaging to readers, as they echo the social issues endured by women at the time. The theme of death is also effective as it is an inevitable, universal experience.
The tone within ‘After Death’ varies throughout the lines. For instance, it begins quite ordinary, then seems sorrowful; where the narrator expresses desperation and hopelessness towards the lack of affection shown to her by her living lover. In the last few lines, the tone of the poem is bitter, but also contains elements of selflessness- where the narrator says, ‘very sweet it is to know he still is warm.’ This highlights the tension in their relationship, and it also echoes gender stereotypes within a patriarchal society. To expand, despite the narrator’s state, and her discontent with the male figure who ‘did not love’ her, she still remains calm and selfless towards him. Therefore the tone at the end of the poem is one of contradicting emotions.
A sarcastic tone can also be seen through this last line; where the speaker expresses bitterness towards the male who no longer cares for her. The varying tone throughout ‘After Death‘ is highly effective in showing the different stages of death- for both the dead and the living. These stages include ordinary life, the realization of death, a period of mourning, reflection of the past, and finally the acceptance of death.
The curtains were half drawn, the floor was swept
And strewn with rushes, rosemary and may
The nouns, ‘curtain’ and ‘floor’ have domestic connotations and thus allude to elements of normality. They also act as spatial deixis to set the scene of ‘After Death’ in a form of a Victorian deathbed environment. Also, the fact that the ‘curtains’ are ‘half drawn’ offers a sign of respect, yet the adjective, ‘half’ suggests an ‘undead’ state that the narrator may be occupying; one which could be purgatory- neither life nor death.
Where the narrator states that the ‘floor was swept’, this again reinstates the theme of domesticity, which distances the poem from religious connotations associated with death. The active verbs, ‘swept’ and ‘strewn’ allude to the active and busy continuation of everyday life, which proceeds the same despite this girl’s death. The reference to ‘rushes, rosemary and may’, which are mentioned in a triadic structure, represent traditions associated with death. For example, rosemary is a herb that is associated with memory.
Lay thick upon the bed on which I lay,
Where through the lattice ivy-shadows crept.
In the poem ‘After Death,’ Rossetti refers to a ‘bed’ which could allude to a deathbed. This sets the scene of a Victorian deathbed; a scene prevalent in many pieces of literature from the Victorian era. Rossetti skillfully uses the personification of nature to convey an ominous atmosphere. This is seen in the quote, ‘ivy-shadows crept’, where the movement of the plant seems sinister and almost unsettling.
As well as this, ivy is commonly seen to cover abandoned buildings, so this reference to wild and unkept ivy growing over the narrator’s house is extremely skillful in highlighting the abandonment she feels after death. The active verb, ‘crept’ also symbolizes the rest of the world, or the ordinary cycle of life, going on without the speaker now that she is dead.
He leaned above me, thinking that I slept
And could not hear him; but I heard him say,
At this point in the poem, readers are introduced to a new character; an unnamed, ambiguous, male figure who appears to be the narrator’s lover. This figure ‘leaned above’ her, a scene that suggests intimacy between the two. Yet the proposition, ‘above’, places the female narrator as a passive figure, and the male as one with authority. This skillfully reinforces the idea of the patriarchal system and emphasizes the husband’s power over her. The narrator is considered the passive figure as she is not only dead but she is also a woman.
This could be used by Rossetti to allude to the ‘Fallen Woman’ trope at the time; in which a woman who had sexual relations outside of marriage was deemed ‘fallen’ and an outcast in the eyes of society. Perhaps this offers readers some background insight into the fate of the speaker; who is likely to be a ‘fallen woman,’ as it is not uncommon within Rossetti’s work. Also, the fact that the narrator, ‘could not hear him; but heard him say’, is an example of contradiction, and successfully shows the unusual communication boundary which had been placed between the two by death.
‘Poor child, poor child’: and as he turned away
Came a deep silence, and I knew he wept.
Dialogue is used in ‘After Death,’ where the male character uses epizeuxis and says, ‘poor child, poor child,’ in reference to the narrator who is dead. Due to the use of the noun, ‘child’, this could be considered patronizing, according to a modern audience. The enjambment used ‘as he turned away came a deep silence’, is effective as it echoes the continuity of mourning. The ‘deep silence’ could refer to the male figure crying, yet keeping it quietened and hidden. This successfully demonstrates how at the time, men openly expressing emotions was a taboo and marginalized topic. The fact that the narrator ‘knew he wept’ suggests that she is just attempting to reassure herself of his ‘love’ for her.
He did not touch the shroud, or raise the fold
That hid my face, or take my hand in his,
The fact that the man, ‘did not touch the shroud’, is effective as it suggests that he finds death to be disturbing and unsettling, and wishes to keep it hidden. A syndetic list is used here, where the narrator states the things that the man does not do, including to ‘raise the fold that hid my (her) face’. This reinstates the lack of love between the two, as well as the boundary that has been placed between them by death. This boundary takes metaphorical or spiritual form, yet also physical form- in relation to the ‘shroud’, and ‘fold’ which ‘hid’ her face. The man also did not ‘take’ her ‘hand in his’, which again links to the deteriorating sense of love.
Or ruffle the smooth pillows for my head:
He did not love me living; but once dead
Here, the narrator still expresses discontent with the male figure’s lack of care, and his reluctance to offer her physical support or ‘ruffle the smooth pillows’. This emphasizes the distance between them which had been placed there by death, or possibly by another event.
As readers, we do not discover this event, yet it is open to interpretation. She states that ‘he did not love me living’, which is unusual, as they were likely to be married and thus it is strange that their relationship lacked love. This illustrates marriage conventions at the time ‘After Death‘ was written; where disloyalty, traditional gender roles, and the influence of the patriarchy disrupted and destroyed romance.
He pitied me; and very sweet it is
To know he still is warm though I am cold.
It is revealed that the man, ‘pitied’ the narrator, which further highlights the lack of love and the disturbance of their relationship due to death. The use of caesura is effective in this line as it stops the sorrowful tone, and acts as a Volta in the poem. Following this line, the narrator states, ‘very sweet it is to know he is still warm tho’ I am cold’. This reveals how despite him not loving her, she is still content that he lived and she did not.
Thus, to some, this line may appear sensitive and selfless. However, it could also be seen to have a bitter tone, as perhaps the narrator is glad because now her ‘lover’ is trapped within the monotonous, domestic cycle of life- that she is happy to escape from. The ending of the poem comes with a range of emotions, and different tones that can be identified.