Art typically works best when an artist wishes to express an abstract concept, one that can’t be easily defined by casual languages. There is no point, for example, in writing a poem about feeling sad, because there is a simple word for that particular emotion. A poet will describe their feeling of sadness in such a way that their reader understands exactly how and why they are sad, and to what extent that sadness reaches. Other poets define their work through emotions that defy even those kinds of descriptions. When Christina Rossetti begins her Song with the line, “When I am dead, my dearest,” it is immediately clear that this work is delving into emotion and feeling that lies far beyond the words easily wielded by most writers and most other people as well.
Song: When I am dead, my dearest Analysis
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.
Song is divided into two verses, each with eight lines, each of which could be further broken down into two quatrains, rhyming off an ABCB pattern. There is a clear rhythm and beat to this work, and it is structured so as to flow in the most natural way for the reader. The content of the poem follows an unnamed narrator speaking to another individual identified only as “my dearest,” a strong word choice that instills deeply-felt emotion into the first line of the poem. The verse uses alliteration heavily to create pleasant sounds; the “dead” and “dearest” in the first line and the “sing,” “sad,” and “songs” in the second lie, for instance, give off a simple and calm atmosphere to the work.
The speaker is saying to someone important to them that they should not grieve once the narrator passes away. They cite off some of the things that people do in remembrance, such as placing flowers at a gravesite, writing sad songs, and planting trees, and asks that these rituals are not observed. Instead, they ask their companion to “be the green grass above me.” Grass is a plant that can be stepped on, drowned in rain, or put through drought and continue to grow. “Being the grass” is a likely metaphor for enduring, and continuing to move forward with life. The last two lines use repetition to emphasize the idea that whether their companion wishes to remember or forget the speaker, it is all the same. By changing only one work in those lines, Rossetti creates a sense of calm and creed; “and if thou wilt” very much embodies this idea that grief is personal and that it is important for their companion to think about what they would like, rather than what the dead would like.
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.
In the second verse, the speaker discusses their own experience after passing, but there is not much for them to say, as they are still alive. Instead, they focus on what they will not experience, and in each example, a sense of sorrow is instilled in the poem. There will be no “shadows;” no “rain,” and no “painful” songs from the nightingales. Each word creates an image of dark, with the rain especially emulating the image of tears. Once again, repetition is used to great effect, influencing what the speaker “shall not” know of, without really understanding what they “shall” be. The unfathomable nature of death to the living is another strong theme echoed throughout this poem, and just as the nature of grieving can be embodied by “if thou wilt,” the abstract nature of death can be embodied with “I shall not.”
In the second half of this verse, the speaker does touch slightly on what they believe death will be like. This time, the images are ambiguous and vague; they consider it to be like dreaming of an infinite twilight. The image of a dream calls to mind the idea of something that is simultaneously real and imagined, while the image of twilight is one that is both light and dark at once. The verse and poem concludes with an inverse of the theme that ended the previous verse; this time it is the speaker who may be remembering or forgetting, but it is unclear exactly what they have focused their mind on — life? Their companion? It is ambiguous; vague. It is treated as such in the text, but that first verse that speaks of not mourning death, but moving on with life suggests that while the speaker is not entirely prepared to conceive of death as a good thing, it is certainly inevitable, and so they are choosing not to think of it as a bad thing either.
Historical Context to Song: When I am dead, my dearest
Christina Rossetti lived between December 5th, 1830, and December 29th, 1894. Her poem Song was first published in her 1862 volume, Goblin Market and Other Poems, largely considered her most successful work, especially at the time of its publication. What inspired this particular poem is likely the fact that Rossetti dealt with a variety of issues with her mental and physical health throughout her life, leaving her with a great many potential times to reflect upon the nature of her own mortality. As early as when she was fourteen years old, she suffered a nervous breakdown that saw her withdraw from her school and receive a home education with a notable religious element; Christina Rossetti, along with her family, became deeply involved in Anglo-Catholicism. This led to the declining of three separate engagements offered to Rossetti in her teenage years, and she never married in her adulthood.
Apart from this, she was diagnosed later in her life with Graves’ Disease and suffered bouts of depression periodically through her adulthood as well. By the time Song was written, Rossetti had turned down her suitors already, so it seems likely that the “dearest” addressed to in the poem was meant either as a general mark of fondness, or as an address to a family member. Shortly before the poem’s publication, Rossetti experienced a crisis of faith that arose from a bout of depression. Dealing with all of this, her Song was likely written as a means of comforting her own self, and accepting the potential realities held by death (and indeed, after her death her works remained popular, and her contributions have earned her a feast day in the Anglican Calendar — April 27th).
It is clear that throughout her life, Rossetti fought some very unpleasant and very difficult emotions that might have otherwise ruined the life of an excellent poet who has expressed some of those feelings in Song, which is all the more powerful when the reader remembers the difficult life endured by the woman who wrote it.