One of Christina Rossetti’s most enduringly popular poems, analysed by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Remember’, written by Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) when she was still a teenager, is a classic Victorian poem about mourning and remembrance. It was written in 1849 but not published until 1862 when it appeared in Rossetti’s first volume, Goblin Market and Other Poems. Here is the poem, along with a few words by way of analysis.
Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you plann’d:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.
In summary, the poet requests that the addressee of the poem remember her after she has died. (The addressee is presumably her lover, since they had ‘plann’d’ a ‘future’ together.) But what gives the poem a twist is the concluding thought that it would be better for her loved one to forget her and be happy than to remember her if it makes that person sad. It is this second part of the poem’s ‘argument’ that saves it from spilling over into mawkish sentimentality.
In this respect, ‘Remember’ is similar to Rossetti’s earlier poem ‘Song’ (‘When I am dead, my dearest’), also written when she was in her teens: in that poem, too, Rossetti entreats someone not to sing any sad songs for her when she dies, and says it does not matter whether her lover remembers or forgets her.
‘Remember’ is composed in the form known as the Petrarchan sonnet, rhymed abba abba cdd ece, traditionally associated with love poetry (indeed, Petrarch, who pioneered the form, wrote love sonnets to the woman he admired, Laura). As with all Petrarchan sonnets there is a volta (or ‘turn’) at the end of the eighth line and the beginning of the ninth, marking the point where the octave (eight-line section) ends and the sestet (six-line section) begins. This ‘turn’ is signalled by Rossetti’s use of the word ‘Yet’: the argument of the sonnet changes direction at this point.
The context of the poem is the Victorian era, known for its cult of mourning: people would go into mourning for Dickens’s characters when they died (e.g. Little Nell), while Victoria herself would effectively spend the last forty years of her life in mourning for her husband, Prince Albert (who, incidentally, had died the year before Rossetti’s poem was published: Albert’s death created an appetite for poems about mourning, as had Tennyson’s popular long elegy, In Memoriam, which had been published in 1850).
What marks Rossetti’s treatment of this theme is the plainness and directness of her speech: she speaks to her lover with an intimate simplicity and tenderness. And, as noted at the start of this analysis, her refusal to give way to a sentimental desire to be eternally and continuously remembered by those she leaves behind.
Rossetti’s ‘Remember’ features in our short history of English poetry as an example of Victorian literature. For more poetry, check out our classic short Victorian poems, and our analysis of another fine sonnet by Rossetti, ‘In an Artist’s Studio’. You can learn more about the life of Christina Rossetti here and we’ve analysed her classic poem Goblin Market here.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Portrait of Christina Rossetti by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1866), public domain.