A summary of a classic Rossetti poem by Dr Oliver Tearle
Christina Rossetti (1830-94) was one of the leading female poets of the Victorian era. Her ‘Song’, beginning ‘When I am dead, my dearest’, remains one of her best-loved poems. In this post we offer a short summary and analysis of ‘When I am dead, my dearest’ (as it’s sometimes known), paying particular attention to its language and meaning.
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.
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.
‘Song’ (or ‘When I am dead, my dearest’, if you prefer) was written in 1848 when Christina Rossetti was still a teenager, but not published until 1862 when it appeared in her first volume of poetry, Goblin Market and Other Poems. The poem is a variation on the theme of John Donne’s ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’, and provides a neat complement to another of Christina Rossetti’s early poems, the sonnet ‘Remember’, which she wrote a year after ‘When I am dead, my dearest’.
A brief summary of Rossetti’s ‘Song’, then. In the first stanza the speaker asks her beloved that when she dies, he doesn’t sing any sad songs for her, or put flowers or plant a tree on her grave. The grass on her grave, showered by rain and morning dew, will be enough – and if he does remember her, that’s fine, but if he forgets her, so be it.
In the second stanza, the speaker explains why she isn’t fussed about what her beloved does to remember her after she has died: she will not 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 perpetual ‘twilight’, and she may remember him, but she may not.
This poem seems like a very simple little song upon first reading, but some of the implications it subtly raises are not so straightforward once we embark upon a closer analysis of ‘When I am dead, my dearest’. Take that ending, for instance: Christina Rossetti implies, through stating that she may not remember her beloved after she has died, that there may be no afterlife, and that she may not be capable of remembering him. ‘Haply’, the word Rossetti uses twice at the end of the poem, is not quite the same as ‘happily’: it means ‘by chance’ or, if you will, ‘perhaps’.
Rossetti seems to be unsure. She rejects the glib message of Christianity which reassures us that there will be an afterlife to go to, and that when we die we will be able to ‘look down on’ those we love and ‘watch over’ them (assuming we go to heaven rather than the other day); but Rossetti seems less sure of this. Indeed, the poem’s very message – asking that her beloved not seek to remember her in all of the usual conventional ways a lover was expected to: placing flowers on the grave, singing sad songs.
Even the tears of mourning are absent from Rossetti’s poem: instead, nature will provide the ‘tears’ on her grave, in the form of the ‘showers and dewdrops wet’, but these are forces of nature and so don’t weep in mourning for her – they would be there anyway.
Similarly, the request that her beloved ‘Sing no sad songs for me’ is echoed in the second stanza by the reference to the ‘nightingale / Sing[ing] on, as if in pain’. The nightingale, in a story from Greek myth which Christina Rossetti knew well, is linked to the tragic story of Philomela, a woman who was raped by her brother-in-law and turned into a nightingale when the gods took pity on her – this is supposedly why the bird sings ‘as if in pain’.
But this is a story, nothing more: Rossetti knows that the nightingale sings the way it does because we, as humans, hear its song as sorrowful and full of tragedy – we impute this human feeling (a version of the pathetic fallacy) onto the bird’s song.
‘When I am dead, my dearest’ is a remarkably accomplished song for Christina Rossetti to have written while still in her teens. It also repays closer analysis because of its departure from the sort of funereal dirges and songs of remembrance we associate with Victorian poetry. Rossetti’s ‘Song’, unlike the nightingale’s in the Greek story, is unusually stoic and free from tragic self-pity or sorrow. We see in this poem the quality that Philip Larkin so admired in Christina Rossetti: her ‘steely stoicism’.
About Christina Rossetti
Christina Rossetti (1830-94) was one of the Victorian era’s greatest and most influential poets. She was the younger sister (by two years) of the Pre-Raphaelite artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Christina Rossetti was born in London in 1830, and lived with her mother virtually all of her life. She never married. Many of her poems engage with the question of religious belief, such as ‘Good Friday’ (a poem about honest religious doubt as much as faith) and ‘Twice’, about the importance of Christian forgiveness and redemption (the poem is spoken by a fallen woman, a theme that can also be seen in ‘Goblin Market’).
Christina Rossetti composed her first poem while still a very young girl; she dictated it to her mother. It ran simply: ‘Cecilia never went to school / Without her gladiator.’ Goblin Market and Other Poems was the first collection of her poetry to be published, and it was the book that brought her to public attention. The title poem is a long narrative poem which is often taken for a children’s poem because of its fairy-tale motifs and imagery; Rossetti, however, always denied that the poem was intended for children. Several of the poems in the volume, such as ‘Remember’ and ‘When I am dead, my dearest’, were composed before she had turned twenty.
Rossetti’s influences were as diverse as the many poetic forms in which she wrote: sonnets, ballads, narrative poems, lyrics, even Christmas carols (‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ to name but the most famous). She was remarkably prolific: the Penguin edition of her Complete Poems runs to well over 1,000 pages and is a treasure-trove for the poetry-lover.
Rossetti died in 1894 and was buried in Highgate Cemetery where fellow Victorian writer George Eliot had earlier been laid to rest. She went on to influence a range of later poets, including Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ford Madox Ford, and Elizabeth Jennings.
Discover more about Rossetti with our short overview of her life, our analysis of her classic poem Goblin Market, our summary of her underrated poem ‘Twice’, and our thoughts on her poem about being ‘shut out’.
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.