Christina Rossetti was one of the best poets of the Victorian era. The Victorian era was the period when Queen Victoria reigned. It started on 20 June 1837 and ended when she died on 22 January 1901. In the history of the United Kingdom, the literature that was written in that era is known as Victorian literature. Robert Browning along with Alfred Tennyson is one of the best-known poets of this era but among females, Christina Rossetti has good contribution in writing poetry that was liked by everyone as obvious from the bare analysis of her poem “When I am Dead My Dearest”.
In fact, it is a song that she wrote and was read all over the whole world. To those who don’t know the difference between a song and a poem: the only major difference between the two is musical composition. A song must be sung in a focused melody whereas a poem always has more than one manner of recitation.
When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me;
At a very young age (in fact, in her teenage), Christina Rossetti wrote “When I am Dead, my Dearest”, a complete analysis of which divulges the theme of death from the very beginning. No interpretation of these two first lines of the poem is required as they are self-explanatory. Most of the writers and poets portray horrifying images of death. Death has become a symbol of negativity and pessimism in English literature; however, there are poets who like to show death as a certain moment of one’s life. Emily Dickenson’s poem “I could not stop for death” is a well-known example of it. In this song too, it seems that the poet is against the convention of presenting death as a deadly moment of life.
The speaker (obviously, who is the poet) addresses her beloved. She is very much aware that death is certain and no one can escape from it; like others, the poet also has to leave this world and face death. It is astonishing for us that as a teenager, she wrote such a kind of poetry in which she imagined her own death. She says to her beloved that he should not cry or become sad about her death. The poem abruptly starts. Sing no sad songs means not mourning her death. It is common in every society to mourn and sing sad songs on death occasions; however, the poet does not want traditional songs on her death.
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:
See any grave, you would find flowers, roses and shady trees but the poet does not want that too. She also does not want a tall cypress tree on her grave alongside her head. Apparently, she wants to console her beloved and wants him not to lose patience but a deep analysis of Christina Rossetti’s song “When I am Dead My Dearest” transpires that she talks about formalities. On every death, there are some persons who show feelingless deep condolences. Perhaps, she has experienced it; therefore, she does not want all that protocol on her death. From the first line of the poem, it is clear that she addresses her beloved but he is not the only one to whom she advises. She has written this song for every person who will be there at her death ceremony.
Prima facie, she talks about roses, grass, plants and trees but all that symbolically refers to customs that almost every person observes residing in any corner of the world.
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet;
These lines also share similarities with previous lines. There are two meanings: apparent and hidden. Apparent meaning is self-redundant and does not need any explanation; however, regression analysis of “When I am Dead My Dearest” predicts that Christina Rossetti wants unending prayers for her. She was a devout Anglo-Catholic and was a believer in life after death; therefore, “Be the green grass above me” indirectly refers to prayers that she expects from her beloved. Nothing is beneficial for a person after his death except prayers and perhaps she too wants these; therefore, she says to her beloved to be the green grass; the grass that provides cold, shelter and pleasure to eyes when it becomes wet with dewdrops.
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.
Life goes on after the death of a person. Even the near and dear ones forget the one whom they buried a day ago. It does not matter to the poet. She is well aware of this fact due to the reason she tells her beloved that it is alright in both cases whether her beloved remembers her or not. In fact, she predicts her future and knows almost everything that she is going to face. This prediction of “Christina Rossetti” in “When I am Dead my Dearest” has been verified by the result of analysis of her death. She died due to cancer in London on December 29, 1894. In short, it does not matter to her whether someone remembers her or not in the end as she will not be there to see and feel anything.
I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;
Poets and writers often use shadow as a source of evil. If we consider the previous lines of the poem/song we realize that she is happy and that many things do not matter after death; even the evil of the world. It is one of the core ingredients of Victorian literature to represent realism in poetry as the same is preceded by romanticism. Although some elements of romanticism are there even in most realistic poems yet the focus of Victorian writers was to portray reality. The poet perhaps also wants to elucidate the same in her song. She talks about the harsh reality of life that after death no one can see the evil nor can one feel good in the world. The word “shadow” symbolizes evil whereas “rain” she uses for righteousness.
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on, as if in pain:
The poet talks about the song of the nightingale. She revokes the Greek myth. It is said that Philomela was raped and mutilated by her sister’s husband named Tereus. She avenges him and is transformed into a nightingale, analysis of which proves that somewhere there is revival of Greek myth in Victorian poetry as is in “When I am Dead my Dearest” by Christina Rossetti. The poet has good knowledge of Greek myths. Song of the nightingale is always melancholic, and it sings even after the death of the poet but she will not be there to listen to it. Thus, the poet will have no concern that whether the nightingale sings the song forever or not.
It should be noted that the belief of Christina Rossetti on the afterlife sways with the development of thoughts in “When I am Dead my Dearest” as a patent from its analysis.
And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Love for nature is also there in the poetry of the last children of the Rossetti family. She exaggerates natural beauty and creates stunning images from words: “twilight”, “shadow”, “grass”, “rain”, “dewdrop” and then sunrise and sunset but at the same time laments that she will no longer see them. We can say that she paints the theme of human mortality in this song, just like the last but best romantic poet John Keats in “Song of Nightingale” but she nowhere mentions immortality of art.
Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget.
She is happy in both the cases as mentioned earlier. Beloved may forget her or may remember her; she is satisfied with it as it doesn’t matter anymore. Analysis of concluding lines “When I am Dead my Dearest” indicates that “Christina Rossetti” portrays a beautiful picture of a certain moment of life that ends it (life).
The song in plain lines is just like a will but it is full of wisdom and sketches a merciless reality.
Analysis of the Theme of Death in Christina Rossetti “When I am Dead my Dearest”
Critics and students of literature often compare this song with John Donne’s A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning due to the representation of the theme of death as the same is common between both of them. Another similarity in both of these poems is that the poets address to their respective beloveds/lovers. Theme of merciless death is dominant in these poems.
Besides, Victorian literature was also known as the age of pessimism, realism and modernism and confusion which was highly influenced by science; therefore, the song shares all these necessary ingredients. By reference to the analysis of “When I am Dead my Dearest” given above, I conclude the poem as highly melancholic and pessimistic that presents a gloomy atmosphere.