Song (When I am dead, my dearest)

Overview
Rossetti again uses her hypothetical death to explore her feelings about life and the feelings of the loved one(s) in it. She forbids them to spend a life without her in mourning, but they should go out and make the most of it, remembering or forgetting about her as they choose.

Click the tabs on the left to view each stanza.

Stanza 1Stanza 2

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.

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

ContextThemesContentLanguage and techniquesStructureTone

Context

Not a massive amount to be found on this one.

It was published in 1862 as part of Goblin Market and Other Poems and the sentiments of the poem don’t seem to neatly fit with any aspect of her recent life, so I don’t see any connection between Rossetti and the feelings expressed, but rather see this as a pure piece of art.

 Themes

We’ve definitely got the struggle between earthly emotion and thoughts about the next life going on and perhaps a comment on how we should remember loved ones in death.

Content

This is a lovely little one and pretty simple for the most part.

She opens with the hypothetical positioning of herself as a goner and speaking to her ‘dearest’, instructing him (presumably) about what he should do with his life. The long and short of this is that he should not spend his time mourning her and wasting his time keeping her graveside all pretty and adorned with beautiful roses. Instead his life and happiness is enough for her, whether he would choose to remember her or not.

In the second stanza she explains the reason for this. She’s not going to be able to see any of his mourning, an idea she explores through various metaphors that represent misery and pining. This is continued in the fifth and sixth lines where she worries that he will be stuck in an everlasting twilight of misery dreaming about whether her spirit or soul still remembers or has forgotten him.

Language and techniques

I don’t think it’s possible to ramble about this one – fingers crossed.

Start by talking about the hypothetical positioning of herself as being dead. We can view this in two ways: (1) is this a device used merely to explore her feelings for her ‘dearest’ and express her desire that he would continue to live his life without her; or (2) is this death meant to represent a metaphorical death caused by her decision to forsake earthly love and focus her life around her faith only?

This will really control your interpretation of the poem as either a lovely little love note trying to comfort her loved one or, alternatively, as a message that he should not waste his life on her now as she is gone and wants him to move on.

The fact she refers to the intended audience of this poem as ‘dearest’ indicates that she is writing with affection and love, but that could be either romantic love or friendly/fond love, depending upon your interpretation.

Now what about the imagery around her hypothetical grave. She pleads for ‘no roses at my head’ the meaning of which again changes with interpretation. On the one hand a rose is a delicate flower and takes a lot of care to keep it flowering and beautiful (or you need to keep bringing new stems), thus it could be her saying ‘don’t waste all your life at my grave’; on the other hand roses are commonly associated with romance and she could be asking for him to withdraw his romantic intentions from her life. Personally, I like to think of this as a positive poem and not a cruel attempt to redirect a lover after she’s moved on – Rossetti doesn’t strike me as a mega bitch, but maybe she does to you.

Next, a ‘shady cypress tree’, which again could be linked to length of mourning as planting a tree and then revisiting it often enough that it would be tall enough to provide shade would mean revisiting the grave for a number of years. There are also traditional associations of cypress trees with death and warding off evil spirits for those entering the afterlife; conversely they are also associated with life, as an evergreen tree, and immortality as they never die or lose their leaves. Both these images could also be associated with ostentatious misery rather than genuine and lasting grief.

The other image is really beautiful, I think… well, maybe not the image, but the sentiment that I take from it. If he is the ‘green grass above’ her, then he is growing and ever fertile as the grass, particularly with the added association with rain and dew. This is a more positive image of the way he would live his life as he would continue to grow and be unrestricted. It also makes me image an overrun gravestone that isn’t being tended every day, but instead her loved ones are getting on with their lives. However, the fact she says ‘above me’ suggests that even without constantly worshiping her grave, this would provide a connection between them even through her death.

Let’s deal with those three metaphors at the beginning of stanza two. Actually, first the repetition that begins each. ‘I shall not’ times three represents an emphasis from Rossetti that his mourning is going to be in vain. A none Rossetti expert might presume this is some sort of nihilistic statement about the emptiness of death, but we know better. As she is in heaven she is not going to be focused on his grieving (she’ll probably be enjoying the party, playing Twister with Moses and Gandhi or something – I know how many problems there are with this sentence).

Anyway, these things she won’t see are ‘shadows’, ‘rain’ and ‘the nightingale’. There are pretty obvious connotations with misery here – a shadow can be linked to darkness and a half life/existence; rain as pathetic fallacy can represent misery; while ‘the nightingale’ was in mythology associated with the lament and miserable song of Philomela (I always assumed she was in a perpetual state of melancholy because of a lost love, but Wikipedia assures me that she was actually a bit ticked off after being raped by her sister’s husband who then cut out her tongue to stop her telling on him). Rossetti is pretty clear she doesn’t want him to act like these different images. Alternatively you could see this as her reassuring him that she won’t encounter these things in her afterlife, but I think this interpretation is a bit flawed. There is a good alternative interpretation of the whole second stanza if you click here.

Almost done!

I’ve mentioned lines five and six in stanza two above, but I’ll just make it clear. When she says the twilight ‘that doth not rise or set’ she creates an image of an everlasting night with no end in sight, which we should link to his potential state of mourning. This is linked to the idea that he is ‘dreaming’ that she may ‘haply… remember… forget’. Again the emphasis here is on his mourning being pointless.

Just on the repetition of ‘remember’ and ‘forget’ at the end of each stanza. If you want to interpret this poem in a nasty way, both stanzas could be seen to be ending with her basically saying she doesn’t care whether he ‘remember[s]’ or ‘forget[s]’ and then saying she may or may not, again as if she isn’t bothered.

Structure

The regularity (each line is written in iambic tetrameter – 8 syllables) of the overall structure of the two stanzas suggests some calmness, which should reflect the mood as it is presented to its intended audience; she doesn’t want extreme passion or emotion to greet her death.

The rhyme scheme is basically none existence. The second and fourth lines of each stanza rhyme, but I can’t really relate that to my overall understanding of the poem, let me know if you can.

One other thing I would comment on is the enjambment between the fifth and sixth lines of each stanza. This is like a brief burst of passion or intensity. In the first stanza this is related to her hopes for what he will go on and do after her – i.e. live a full life. In the second it is maybe more emotional about what she doesn’t want to see happen to him – i.e. he is stuck in a perpetual state of misery.

Tone

A lot depends on your interpretation, but I would like to see this as being a calm expression of deep affection, trying to show someone that their happiness is more important than your desire to feel important in their life or memory.

 

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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