C Christina Rossetti

Song: When I am dead, my dearest by Christina Rossetti

A second analysis: From 1830 to 1894, Christina Rossetti was regarded as one of the top female poets of the Victorian Poetry and Poetics (1968). Her Song: starting with When I am dead, my dearest, is regarded as one of the best-loved poems up till now. Written in 1848 when Christina Rossetti was under her teenage, the Song: When I am dead, my dearest was published during 1862 in her first volume of poetry, Goblin Market and Other Poems. The poem varies John Donne’s ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’, and renders a Rossetti-neat complement to another of Christina Rossetti’s initial poems, the sonnet ‘Remember’, which she had written a year after ‘When I am dead, my dearest’.

Let’s face it; many of Rossetti’s poems declare that mortal life is worthwhile only in so far as it symbolizes divinity, warning that nature’s temporal cycles will be replaced by the eternal reality of heaven. Rossetti says both the world and the sinful self will inevitably pass away. Yet she also complicates her dualistic tendencies by attempting to arrest flying time. Adapting a ballad rope, she often gives voice to a moribund or stunned or dead woman, permitting her to speak only from a liminal place between earth and heaven. In fact, poems like: When I Am Dead, My Dearest, Rest and Remember by Christina Rossetti create not a direct path to paradisiacal bliss but an in-between time and space, which is a memorial realm central to Rossetti’s poetics.


Song: When I am dead, my dearest Analysis

Verse One

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.

Before I start analyzing the poem, let me tell you that the very first verse of this song doesn’t make it clear whether she is addressing her male lover or female lover. But it is very clear from the first and following verses that the speaker doesn’t want her near and dear ones to mourn over her death, defies the formalities that are normally done by those who come to attend the death ceremony of their near and dear ones.

In the first stanza of the poem, Song: When I Am Dead, My Dearest by Christina Rossetti, the speaker of the poem asks her near and dear ones that when she dies they need sing any sad songs for her, nor plant any tree, nor put flowers on her grave. The speaker says that only the grass that will grow on her grave, due to morning dew and rain, is going to be enough. The only thing she (the speaker) expects from all of them is to remember her, keep her memories in her mind and heart, but if they (her loved ones) forget her, the speaker will not be able to enjoy what has been mentioned in the next stanza.


Verse Two

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.

When the second stanza starts, it becomes quite clear from the very first verse of this stanza that she is going to reveal what she may have to face if her near and dear ones will not remember her, or forget her. Where the speaker advises in the first stanza, expects what not to do from her near and dear ones, in the second stanza, she reveals what will happen if her advice is not followed by them.

Explaining the after-effects of her loved ones if they do not follow her advice, she says that she won’t be there to see the shadows or feel the rain, or hear the nightingale singing; after death, she will be ‘dreaming’, and sleeping, through a ‘twilight’, which neither rises nor sets, and she may also either Haply remember them, and forget them.

The Song: When I Am Dead, My Dearest is an abnormally accomplished song that Christina Rossetti wrote when she was in her teens. It also repays more in-depth analysis due to its departure from the kind of funereal requiems and songs of remembrance we consort with Victorian poetry. Rossetti’s ‘Song’, different from nightingale’s in the Greek story, is remarkably stoic and devoid of tragic sorrow or self-pity.

On the first reading of the poem, Song: When I Am Dead, My Dearest by Christina Rossetti, it looks like a very simple little song, but the way some of the implications have been subtly raised by it does not look so straightforward as we analyze it analytically and attentively. For instance, take the last two verses where the speaker says: “Haply I may remember, And haply may forget.” Through these lines, the poet may mean that after she has passed away, she may not remember her near and dear ones. This statement from the poet indicates that she does not believe in the afterlife, or she may be in such a condition from where she will not be able to remember her near and dear ones.

However, the use of the word ‘Haply’ twice in the last two lines of the poem does not mean happily, it may mean either ‘by chance’ or ‘perhaps’. Even Rossetti is not sure of this. She completely discards the glib message of Christianity, which ensures that there is going to be an afterlife to go to, and that when we pass away we’ll be able to ‘look down on’ those we love and ‘watch over’ them; but Rossetti isn’t much sure of this.

Actually, the poem’s very message is to ask her near and dear ones not to remember her after her death as is normally done when someone dies. For example, she says that neither put flowers on her grave, nor sings sad songs. The poet through the speaker completely defies this traditional way of mourning or grieving over the death of someone. Even there is no mourning of tears in the poem, rather the speaker prefers nature and says that nature is here to shed tears on her grave (in terms of raindrops and dewdrops). Since ‘showers and dewdrops wet’, are forces of nature, they will always be there with her.

Likewise, her wish that her near and dear ones should ‘Sing no sad songs for me’ is best manifested in the second stanza when the speaker refers to the ‘nightingale / Sing (ing) on, as if in pain’. The reference of nightingale in the poem has a mythological background.

From the mythological point of view, it comes to know that this nightingale story relates to the Greek myth of which Christina Rossetti is also aware. This is a tragic story about Philomela, who, on being pitied by God, turned into a nightingale after having raped by her brother-in-law – this is therefore supposed why the nightingale bird sings ‘as if in pain’. But it is just a story and not more than that.

However, Rossetti is aware of this fact that the nightingale has a very natural way of sorrowful and tragic singing, and we ascribe this human feeling to the bird’s song.

Read the first analysis again

We enjoyed ‘Song: When I am dead, my dearest’ so much, we had two of our team of poetry experts analyze the poem for you.
Read the first analysis

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Andrew joined the team back in November 2015 and has a passion for poetry. He has an Honours in the Bachelor of Arts, consisting of a Major in Communication, Culture and Information Technology, a Major in Professional Writing and a Minor in Historical Studies.
  • Excellent and well described..
    It helped me a lot because I am a student of BS English Literature..

    • Lee-James Bovey says:

      I know I shouldn’t have found this amusing but BS is the initials of something else and it put a smile on my face! Glad we have helped. Keep coming back!

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