Memory

Overview
This is an intriguing poem as the two separate parts of the poem were composed 8 years apart and there is a sea-change between them. The first part details her struggle between earthly love and heavenly devotion with faith coming out on top, but her earthly desires never truly being conquered or vanquished from her mind. It ends with a suggestions of its death after an age and a state of mourning is presented. However, in the second part Rossetti reveals that this emotion is buried, but not yet dead and is something she still holds dear, but it is now completely private and hidden from the world. She looks forward to finally realising the feeling of love when she ascends to heaven and meets her lover there.

Click the tabs on the left to view each stanza.

Part I - Stanzas 1-5Part II - Stanzas 6-9

I nursed it in my bosom while it lived,
I hid it in my heart when it was dead;
In joy I sat alone, even so I grieved
Alone and nothing said.

I shut the door to face the naked truth,
I stood alone — I faced the truth alone,
Stripped bare of self-regard or forms or ruth
Till first and last were shown.

I took the perfect balances and weighed;
No shaking of my hand disturbed the poise;
Weighed, found it wanting: not a word I said,
But silent made my choice.

None know the choice I made; I make it still.
None know the choice I made and broke my heart,
Breaking mine idol: I have braced my will
Once, chosen for once my part.

I broke it at a blow, I laid it cold,
Crushed in my deep heart where it used to live.
My heart dies inch by inch; time grows old,
Grows old in which I grieve.

I have a room whereinto no one enters
Save I myself alone:
There sits a blessed memory on a throne,
There my life centres;
 

While winter comes and goes – oh tedious comer! –
And while its nip-wind blows;
While bloom the bloodless lilly and warm rose
Of lavish summer.

If any should force entrance he might see there
One buried yet not dead,
Before whose face I no more bow my head
Or bend my knee there;

But often in my worn life’s autumn weather
I watch there with clear eyes,
And think how it will be in Paradise
When we’re together.

Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.

ContextThemesContentLanguage and techniquesStructureTone

Context

It’s very important that you understand the context of this one or the sea-change will leave you confused and disorientated.

While the first part of the poem (1857) reads like a state of misery and is thoroughly moany and depressing, the second part (1865) is beautifully expressed hope relating to her certainty that she is merely waiting to realise this love and emotion in paradise where it will not be fragile, brittle and have a time limit. Rossetti is seen as being at the height of her powers in the mid-1860s and I think even the inexperienced eye can pick out the difference between the two parts.

If we want to think about this poem biographically, we could associate it with the two refused proposals that Rossetti had racked up by 1857, which may have left her a bit miserable about her prospects of being fulfilled on earth. In 1865 perhaps we could relate her renewed optimism with her friendship with Charles Bagot Cayley, which would result in another refused proposal on Rossetti’s part, but a lifelong friendship.

 Themes

This a great poem to discuss in relation to Rossetti’s struggle between earth and heaven. In the first part she is distraught about the choice she has made and feels like a part of her is dying/dies. This makes her choice seem like a rubbish one and one with no silver lining at the end, but part two corrects this and is filled with a sense of renewed hope for a realisation of eternal love in the sky.

Content

I’ve given you quite a good overview already, but let’s summarise each stanza.

Part I

Stanza one – she is talking about giving up something dear to her and holding on to it even when she’s made the choice to let it die. This thing is earthly love. She feels pretty miserable and lonely after her choice.

Stanza two – again we’ve got that shut door symbolising her self-denial of an opportunity to love, but here she has done it to face the ‘truth’ of faith and a higher calling. However, she feels vulnerable and weak having made this choice.

Stanza three – she explains why she made this decision. She weighed up the two options and describes them as being ‘perfect balances’ and thus both having strong appeal and benefits, but eventually her faith tips the scales in its favour slightly. She’s not shouting out with joy about it, but she accepts it.

Stanza four – this was a personal choice and not influenced by others. However, she emphasises the pain it has caused her, even though she knows she has made the right decision.

Stanza five – sorry, Christina 🙁 She’s pretty upset by the whole thing – devastated might be a better word. She’s killed off the joy and hope of earthly love in her heart.

Part II

Stanza six – it’s not dead! In fact it continues to be worshipped in her mind and is the centre of her thoughts and life.

Stanza seven – she is frustrated with life going on. It is described as winter because earth is dead and unfruitful for her, but she is waiting for the next stage of her life where she can finally realise the summer of her existence.

Stanza eight – she gives us some details about the private throne room where she worships love. Love is just buried deep, but will never die for her. She doesn’t bow to this emotion as she recognises earthly love is ab out equality and unlike religious devotion and worship.

Stanza nine – she’s tired of waiting, but envisions what it will be like when her love becomes eternal and finally realised.

Language and techniques

Right, there are a million things to say and this poem is one of my favourite, but I will narrow it down to some of the bigger and more interesting ideas you could write about.

First of all you need to notice the gravity of her decision and the state it leaves her in. She repeats the word ‘alone’ four times within the first two stanzas demonstrating how devastating this decision is for her; she feels like she is trapped in solitary confinement while she waits to ascend to heaven. ‘Alone’ also conjures feelings of vulnerability, which are added to in the second stanza when she mentions facing truth ‘naked’ and ‘stripped bare’ that both imply she feels exposed and weak. We also have a sense of her loneliness in the fact that ‘none know the choice [she] made’ (repeated twice in stanza four) and her vulnerability, in the same stanza, is demonstrated through the fact she ‘braced [her] will’ as if she is protecting or defending herself against her difficult decision.

The ‘truth’ she refers to is an acknowledgement that faith is the meaning of life. She repeats this as well in a way that makes me think she is partially trying to convince herself or maintain her resolve in the face of her own outpouring of misery at her choice.

It’s not particularly important, but I know it will be bugging you. Rossetti says she is ‘stripped bare of self-regard or forms or ruth’. What the hell is ‘ruth’? I was convinced it was simply a letter missing, but apparently ‘ruth’ means sorrow for one’s own faults, so she is saying she no longer feels sorry for her loss. Odd idea as this whole section of the poem is exactly that!

I’d also discuss the semantic field of death that is utilised throughout this section: ‘dead’, ‘grieved’, ‘silent’, ‘cold’, ‘used to live’, ‘dies’. This analogy between her decision and a death should enable you to recognise just how difficult it has been for her. She associates it with losing a loved one or family member and that should help us understand the magnitude of her misery. Additionally you could refer to the repetition of ‘broke’/’breaking’  and the word ‘crushed’ as furthering this sense of devastation and making the death a violent one and something difficult to take.

Oh, also this idea of ‘breaking my idol’ needs a bit of explaining. In Christianity there is a bit of history of idolatry, where people worship false idols or gods, and in this poem the false god is earthly love that was worshipped or respected in the same way as the big guy. The ‘breaking my idol’ refers to her knocking earthly love off its pedestal next to God and making God the sole focus of her worship.

The second part of the poem contains some of the same language of loneliness and vulnerability, but it is now framed with positivity and hope. There is still ‘no one’ else and she is ‘alone’, but she now seems content as she worships a ‘blessed memory’ and her ‘life centres’ around this. The fact her love is described as being seated on a ‘throne’ associates it with royalty and thus elevates its significance. Despite renouncing earthly love it still dominates her life.

You could also comment on the use of pathetic fallacy to describe the difference between her earthly life and what she expects in heaven. Earth is ‘winter’ with its ‘nip-wind’ being painful and difficult to cope with is compared to the ‘bloom’, ‘warm’ and ‘lavish summer’ that is what she is expecting in heaven.

This seventh stanza positions our poetic voice as being fed up with life as she exclaims ‘oh tedious comer!’ in frustration at the continually winter as life seems to drag on and on. She is bored of this life and wants to move on, but don’t take this to be in any way suicidal as she is really filled with hope and bounce in this part of the poem. The same impression is conjured in the final stanza when she talks about ‘worn life’s autumn weather’ that suggests boredom and frustration and the fading colour of life.

Her love is not dead! ‘Buried yet not dead’ suggests that although she has made her decision, the intensity of these feelings have lingered in her mind and heart. The fact she ‘no more bow[s]’ or ‘bend[s her] knee’ imply that she has recognised that God and heaven are the only truth and things to be worshipped, but welcomes earthly love as an equal and something she desires though she need not worship or revere in the same manner as the big cheese in the sky.

The final thing to mention is the change achieve in the final line. She has been alone, vulnerable and miserable throughout the poem, but here the pronoun changes to ‘we’ and thus she reveals the poem is about one person in particular and she has faith that they will be ‘together’ ‘in Paradise’. Good job, Christina, you’ve hit us with a surprise happy ending!

Structure

The most important thing is to comment on the distinct nature of the two parts of the poem and the dramatic change in tone and emotion.

There are also about a hundred thousand instances of repetition that are usually used to emphasise the extent of her suffering and loneliness. A good general comment to make about this would be that the repetition mirrors her mind as she is fixated with her pain and the difficult decision she has made and cannot shake it – thus the repetition shows her coming back to it time and time again. Wallowing in her own misery!

Another point to make would be the change in pace between the two parts. The first part is dominated by heavy pauses, although not much in the way of caesuras. However, the second part skips along and has tonnes of enjambment throughout and even a bit of exasperated shouting. This reflects the shifting mood.

Tone

We start with melancholy and utter devastation, but the second part is filled with hope and optimism as Rossetti pictures eternal paradise and fulfillment in heaven with her lover man.

Author: Mr Sir

Although I've only been teaching Literature since 2011 and did my degree in History, I think that makes me better placed than many Lit teachers to provide notes that make sense and aren't garbled and wrapped up with inaccessible terminology and effluent nonsense. After adventures in Uganda and Uzbekistan, I am now settling down in the Netherlands. However, currently I am just about as unsettled as I have ever been, with a new job, a new baby, a new country and a hundred other things going on! Ask me a question, collaborate or abuse me.

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