In both “Song” and “Remember”, Rossetti conveys her own attitudes towards death through writing about how others should treat her death and how she wants to be remembered, respectively. She addresses important ideas as well as using word choice and the metrical template to paint a clear picture of her perceptions of death.
As a poet, Rossetti uses her choice and form of words as a way of conveying her initial feelings towards death. In “Song” the tone is immediately set by the ingenuous and candid first line, “When I am dead my dearest”. It portrays a surprisingly pragmatic approach to death on behalf of the poet and demonstrates an emotionally detached attitude to it, believing that it is inevitable; hence she does not disguise the subject of this poem in clichéd euphemism.
The rest of the verse develops this, where she uses imperatives, “Sing”, “Plant” and “Be”, stressed at the beginnings of their lines, to show that she is adamant that her partner should dispense with all the conventional trappings of grief. The verse is heavily embellished in connotations of mourning, Rossetti making reference to as many symbols of it as she can, “roses at my head”, “sad songs” and a “cypress tree”, almost to satire the traditions of the day. Clearly, her views are that people should accept death as fated, although she also carries a tone of indifference as to what her partner should do, telling him that she does not mind whether he wishes to remember or forget her, “And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget”. This apathy is just as effective as the orders to not grieve, as she rejects the traditional and overt emotional intensity of the Pre-Raphaelites, demonstrated in poems such as “The Blessed Damozel”, parodying them. She finishes the poem in this manner, using the ambiguity of “haply, whereby it could be an archaic form of happily, so she will not be sad, or it could mean “perhaps” showing her casual and impervious attitude to whether she dies or not.
In “Remember”, imperatives are also used to give a sense that she wants her death treated in a certain way, the first line being demanding and insistent, “Remember me when I am gone away”. Immediately, her perceptions of death seem to be that it is a final thing, hence she needs her partner to be sure to remember her, using this same imperative verb three times in the octet. It could almost suggest that she is scared of death, realising that she will be “Gone far away” and have no contact with earth again, and “Nor I half turn to go, yet turning stay” reflect her unwillingness to die, and a sense of fear of it. However, these lines also reveal a flawed relationship, whereby she had been controlled by her officious partner.
The use of the imperatives therefore may be Rossetti now trying to reverse these roles and control him, because of her resentment towards him; “You tell me of our future that you plann’d”. The accusatory tone is emphasised by the spondee on “you plann’d” and the shift from “our” to “you” suggests bitterness. Clearly, she is using her death as a way to make her partner realise his wrongs, and feel guilty through having to think about her for a change, and the fact that now she is going to have to be in a “silent land” where he can “no more hold me by the hand”. However, there is a shift in Rossetti’s tone indicated by the volta, “Yet”, as the sestet begins, moving from this idea of demanding that her partner remember her, to that of indifference to the matter.
It seems she realises that their relationship was flawed and that she didn’t really love this man who tried to control her after all, and so she suddenly does not appear to mind if he “should forget me for a while” and in fact tells him, “do not grieve” if he feels guilty for doing so. She reaches a fatalistic acceptance that she is going to die, and that it doesn’t matter what her partner chooses to do, because she now appreciates that she should not make him “remember and be sad” when he could “forget and smile”, moving on with his life, and not tied to remembering someone who did not love him.
However, it could be interpreted that here, Rossetti is again playing with the idea of guilt, and that she puts on this apathy in order to leave her partner in limbo to whether to forget or remember her. Perhaps this is her ploy to make him feel the guilt of trying to control her and through doing so, he will realise his wrongs, and thus been controlled by her, which you could argue as being her object, as the ultimate form of revenge.
Rossetti also addresses the idea of religion in both “Song” and “Remember”
which broadens her portrayal of her attitudes towards death.
In “Song”, as already discussed, Rossetti rejects convention in her pragmatic approach to death, but also consciously rebuffs the traditional religious views of the time. There is no sense of celestial bliss or heaven in her mention of what death will be like, with no mention of a desire for a ceremony. She deliberately talks of her partner being “the green grass above me”, which shows that she has no belief of her dead body ascending into a divine afterlife, but rather staying firmly buried under the ground. Rossetti thus rejects the Pre-Raphaelites’ Anglican moral influences by her subversive reference to the afterlife. She writes of how she will be “dreaming through the twilight”, and given our associations of twilight- a time between day and night, it seems Rossetti imagines that she will merely be in an in-between stage, rather than in a true life in heaven or hell.
Her reference to how she “shall not hear the nightingale sing on as if in pain” is also subversive, this time, of literary tradition. In poetry at the time, there would always be a reverent and eulogistic attitude to the nightingale, such as in “Ode to a Nightingale” by Keats, where he writes how the bird “singest of summer in full-throated ease” and so depicting a bird with a beautiful song, enjoyed by everyone. However, Rossetti writes that the bird sounds “in pain”, demonstrating an irreverent and caustically dismissive attitude to such conventional writing. Rossetti describes how death will be a form of sensory deprivation for her; “I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain” and again, it is surprising, but she seems to find a comfort in this, writing of these bad things- “shadows….rain” and what she finds as a horrible noise, and how she will not miss them when she is dead. This shows how she does not fear death but rather sees it for its benefits.
In “Remember”, she rejects religion, writing that “It will be late to counsel then or pray”. She uses the conflict in her relationship with her partner to form the structure for this clash- advice and guidance, her approach, verses looking to religion for the answer, which would be her partners approach. Thus, from this, we can conclude that she does not see death as something in the hands of any devout power above her.
Rossetti also uses the meter, and structure of rhythm and rhyme to her advantage to help convey her attitudes towards death.
The poem “Song” is written in two verses of eight lines, with an ABCB rhyme scheme. The simplicity of this metrical template suggests contentment and serenity, as it is familiar to the reader. The stresses are placed on important words such as the imperatives in the first verse, and the rhyme gives it an easy bouncing rhythm associated with humorous nursery rhymes, which fits the light-hearted feel the poem has when it concludes, with the balanced ending, “Haply I may remember, and haply may forget”, reflecting Rossetti’s nonchalant attitude towards death.
The second verse could be interpreted to be a response to the first, however, whereby Rossetti’s lover is conveying his feelings, although Christina Rossetti herself is still writing. Perhaps he is talking of the relief it will be to not hear her constantly complaining- he will not have to hear her “sing on as if in pain” as she suffers from her illnesses or even just rambles on about death, or be surrounded by negative feelings, represented in the poem by the “rain “and “shadows”. Given our associations with twilight as a calm and quiet time, it seems he will be able to live in peace without her, and have entire free will as to whether he “may remember” or “may forget”.
However, considering that Christina Rossetti is credited as the poet for the entire poem, perhaps she is paranoid that this is what he thinks, so is putting herself in his shoes, and feels guilty for this selfishness, and so, when she writes, “And if thou wilt, remember, And if thou wilt, forget, she is merely trying to ensure that she does not dominate any more of his life.
The poem “Remember” is a sonnet, composing of fourteen lines written in iambic pentameter. The fact that sonnets are synonymous with love makes this poem again subversive, as it deals with love in a surprising way, whereby the relationship has broken down and Rossetti’s obsession now seems to be with her own demise, rather than a lover. It is made up of an octet, with the rhyme scheme ABBAABBA and a sestet, with the rhyme scheme CDDECE, and the latter begun with a volta, which in “Remember”, is “Yet”. This clear separation marks how the poem deals with her death in two separate parts, the octet with the remembrance of her, and the sestet, with forgetting her,
and hence in turn marks her change in attitude between one where she requires her partner to remember her, and where she realises that there is no need.
In conclusion, Rossetti’s attitudes to death, presented in both “Song” and “Remember” are highly subversive, and reject the pre-Raphaelite conventions of religion and the belief that the woman is dependant on their partner, in a passive role, and fears death away from their partner who they rely on.
Courtney from Study Moose
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