An echo is a concept that initially might feel ill-suited for poetic purposes. Of course, most are familiar with the concept, this lingering, fading repetition of a sound that has already been made. Christina Rossetti, who was well-known for her deeply emotional and sentimental use of metaphor in poetry (among other things, of course), is able to use this simple, everyday concept to craft a powerful, touching piece that is related to its title only thematically. Many artists will do this, name one of their pieces by a related concept, rather than by an idea that actually appears within the piece, and oftentimes — this one included — the work is that much stronger for the inclusion of a unique idea.
Come to me in the silence of the night;
Come in the speaking silence of a dream;
Come with soft rounded cheeks and eyes as bright
As sunlight on a stream;
Come back in tears,
O memory, hope, love of finished years.
The language used in the first verse, and throughout the poem is well-designed to be touching and moving to the reader. The word “come” is used often, and the final line begins with the word “O;” phrases such as “soft rounded cheeks” and “sunlight on a stream” all invoke strong details in an individual that are not the kinds of things noticed by the average person. There is also heavy use of alliteration, seen in likes such as “speaking silence,” “sunlight on a stream,” and in words surrounding these lines, particularly “soft” and “silence.” Combined, these traits give the first a sense of euphony, and a deeply moving attention to detail that shows the reader how much the person being referred to means to the speaker. The ABABCC rhyming pattern of the piece adds to this sense of euphony, though in a more minor way, as it directs the pace of the poem as much as its actual sound.
The line, “come back in tears,” coupled with the reference to “finished years” suggests that the person being referred to will not ever return, implying that they have passed away. The somber atmosphere of the piece is both suggested and enhanced by these lines, as the speaker attempts to call back their lost loved one (“love of finished years”) in the night, hoping they will appear in a dream, the only way they now can.
O dream how sweet, too sweet, too bitter sweet,
Whose wakening should have been in Paradise,
Where souls brimful of love abide and meet;
Where thirsting longing eyes
Watch the slow door
That opening, letting in, lets out no more.
The second verse continues the sentimental and sorrowful theme established in the first one. The first word, another “O” simply adds to the atmosphere, and furthers the image in the reader’s mind of a lost soul, yearning to know what has become of their loved one. By the admission of the second line, the speaker believes that upon their passing, their loved one is worthy of Heaven. The purpose of the verse seems to be remembrance and speculation of the meaning behind their dreams. The repetition of the word “sweet” in the first line seemingly invalidates its meaning; the “sweet” dream is only so because it makes the speaker remember a time long gone, and this turns it bitter in their mind. The Paradise portrayed in this dream is centered around a door that only opens and closes to let people in. This is a likely metaphor for death, the finality of the loved one leaving and never returning.
Despite the positive imageries used, and words like “Paradise,” “sweet,” and “love,” this verse continues to display a very somber atmosphere for the piece as a whole. Descriptions such as “souls brimful of love” continue the romanticized writing style that focuses on deep emotion rather than physical description, and the themes of finality and loss are present between the lines. Recalling that this verse is here to describe a dream makes it even more somber; few happy people dream of “thirsting, longing eyes.” Even in the speaker’s dream, there are tears for souls departed beyond the world of the living.
Yet come to me in dreams, that I may live
My very life again though cold in death:
Come back to me in dreams, that I may give
Pulse for pulse, breath for breath:
Speak low, lean low,
As long ago, my love, how long ago!
In the final verse of Echo, references to returning and death make clear that the speaker’s loved one has passed away, and it also gives meaning to the title of the poem. An echo is a remnant, and nothing more; a sound that is not unique, but simply lasting. In the speaker’s dreams, they yearn for their loved one to appear so that in those dreams they can feel that they are once again alive. In truth, these dreams are only dim reflections of the past, and the poem even concludes by reminiscing on how long it has been since the passing. To dream of a lost companion is to listen to an echo in the hopes of hearing something new; it does not work, but the simple hearing of a pleasant sound is a happy thing to do. In this case, the narrator of the poem simply wants to be comforted by the memory of their loved one.
Despite the admission that seeing loved ones in dreams is a means for the speaker to feel alive again, it is the dreamer who is returning life to the deceased. “Pulse for pulse, breath for breath” suggests remarkable attention to the detail (think about how often you breathe in a minute), and adds to the desperate plea experienced by the lonely soul. The revelation at the end of the poem that this is not a recent passing creates an image of an intelligent and well-written person who is unable to be freed from their past, where their loved one is still alive and can be spoken to and relied upon. Each night for many nights, they have gone to sleep and dreamed of their loved one’s breathing and of their heartbeat, the things that drive life. They dream of those soft cheeks, of their bright eyes, and of tears when they remember that they are only dreaming. They listen to an echo, because the original sound is one of the best sounds they’ve ever heard, and they cannot move forward, remembering what they once had, and never will have again.