hristina Rossetti's "Song" ("When I am dead, my dearest") has several points in common with Wordsworth's "A Slumber Did my Spirit Seal." On a basic level, revity and plainness of expression characterize both poems. The unadorned rhymes give each work an air of simple, yet direct poetic statement.
Wordsworth's "A Slumber Did my Spirit Seal" is perhaps best known for its ironic reversal. As Paul de Man has argued in "The Rhetorical of Temporality," the second stanza circumscribes the naive perspective of the first. The "now" of the second stanza situates the reverie of the first stanza firmly in the past. The foreboding suggested by how Lucy "seemed a thing that could not feel / The touch of earthly years" (lines 3-4), only retrospective finds its dreadful significance. Lucy's "seeming" immortality is as fleeting as her condition as a "thing" is permanent. Lucy's status as an inanimate object arises concomitantly with the speaker's dispelled slumber; he comes to realize the trajectory of "earth's diurnal course" through Lucy's transformation from life to death.
Christina Rossetti's "Song" ("When I am dead, my dearest") immediately departs from Wordsworth's example. The speaker is not a man reliving the loss of a beloved woman. Rather, the departed woman, assumedly, addresses her soon to be grieving lover. Given Rossetti's status as a female poet, it is tenable to conjecture that she reverses the gender roles. Rossetti's female speaker abjures melancholy poetry and the male conventions of memorialization:
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant though no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree. [lines 2-4]
Rossetti's speaker goes so far as to dismiss, out of hand, the entire gesture of Wordsworth's reverie for Lucy: "And if thou wilt, remember, / And if thou wilt, forget" (lines 7-8). The conditional, "if," commits the speaker's mourners to neither remembering nor forgetting; she obviates the need for poetic expression of male suffering.
Like Wordsworth's "A Slumber Did my Spirit Seal," Rossetti's "Song" undergoes a dramatic shift in its second stanza. The poem closes by revising the end of the first stanza from the second to the first person: "Haply I may remember, / And haply may forget" (lines 15-16). Rossetti's speaker is not only indifferent to her would-be mourner's loss, but she is even "happy" with her own post-mortem status as an inanimate object. Perhaps the greatest commonality between these poems is their recognition of how death deprives the organic body of its sensibility. Having said this, these poems use this awareness to drastically different effects. Whereas Wordsworth's speaker meditates on his lover as an occasion to explore the ironies of his naiveté and subsequent demystification, Rossetti's speaker points toward her future senselessness as a chance to disrupt the male mourner and his attempt to make her into an object of poetic regard. In other words, while Wordsworth privileges the male poet, Rossetti returns her experience to her own auspices. Rossetti's speaker will remember or forget on her own terms. She dictates her own poetic fate. It is this element of control that gladdens the speaker even when considering the grim prospect of her death. Rossetti then asserts the simple claim — though not a self-evident one for Wordsworth, at least — that a woman's lived experience is her own.
1. How does Christina Rossetti react against and borrow from the romantic tradition?
2. Where do Christina Rossetti's views dovetail or diverge from those of her brother?
3. What kinds of poetic forms are expected of female authors?
4. How would a poem like Rossetti's "Song" play to her male readership? What possibilities does it open for female poets?
- A Woman's Voice in Rossetti's "Song"
- A Reversal of Roles in "Song [When I am Dead]"
- Death in Christina Rossetti's "Song"
- The Rossetti Anatomy of Melancholy
Last modified 24 October 2006
Last modified 8 June 2007