eath is the mother of beauty, according to the twentieth-century American poet Wallace Stevens, who is here paraphrasing Plato's Symposium. Readers and writers of elegies, poems that make something beautiful out of death, will understand part of what Stevens means.
Edgar Allan Poe makes a quite different connection between death and beauty when he proposed that the death of a young woman was the most beautiful of all poetic subjects. Romantic and Victorian poets who agreed with Poe produced sentimentalized depictions of dead and dying women as aesthetic objects. These include the many nineteenth-century pictures, poems, and statues of women in chains, Ophelia, and the dying-woman-in-a-boat; this last subject appeaers in many illustrations and paintings of Tennyson's Lady of Shalott and Elaine, "the lily maid of Astalot." These poetic and pictorial representations of dead and dying women provide the most powerful (and often repugnant) depiction of the suffering woman as object of male pleasure.
Many such painterly and literary works clearly embody male vantage points. Many such poems are actually spoken by male characters throughout (as in "The Blessed Damozel" and "Porphyria's Lover"), or end with male voices (as in "The Lady of Shalott"). Christina Rossetti offers the rare example of a Victorian woman poet who talks back. She does so in several poems the nature of whose speakers suggest how difficult, almost impossible, that act is: her female speakers are dead and their voices come from beyond the grave.
Christina Rossetti is one of the few poets, male or fermale, who creates such unusual poetic characters; the American poet Edwin Arlington Robinson is another, but whereas Robinson uses this unusual vantage point somewhat like Dante to create a broad picture of human life and the human beings who live it, Rossetti's dead speakers concentrate more narrowly upon offering a woman's view of male conceptions of romantic love and loss. "After Death," which we may pair with "Song," another poem dating from around 1862, presents what seems to be a conventional view of pure, sacrificial womanly love. In this brief poem, the speaker, whom we gradually realize is dead, seems to embody the standard self-pitying adolescent fantasy expressed in the words, "they'll miss me when I'm gone (sob)": Here a man whom the female speaker loves but who did not see her worhty of love while she was alive at least notices her now she's dead — and that seems to be some sort of consolation, as the speaker concludes:
He did not love me living; but once dead
He pitied me; and very sweet it is
To know he still is warm though I am cold.
The lines, which seem to owe a lot to the close of Tennyson's much earlier "Lady of Shalott," contrast dramatically to those that end "Song," a poem that begins where "After Death" ends — in the female speaker's acceptance that she is so much less than her male beloved. In fact, "Song" begins with the plea, "When I am dead, my dearest/ Sing no sad songs for me," and the lines that follow suggest that the female speaker is not worthy of being remembered, especially if that remembrance causes pain to her beloved.
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.
The lines that close the first half of the poem — "And if thou wilt, remember, / And if thou wilt, forget" — at first reading seem to state the dead woman's unwillingness to have her death trouble her beloved. These lines apparently to embody a stereotypical Victorian view of female selflessness. These lines at first seem, in other words, to echo the attitudes in her brother's earlier "The Blessed Damozel," in which the bereaved male lover imagines his dead beloved grieving for him in heaven. By the end of the poem, Christina has shattered Dante Gabriel's noton of an ideal woman. The next lines do not make that final conclusion completely clear, for the speaker mentions only that she exist in a world of sensory deprivation and apparent peace:
I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on as if in pain.
The poem's concluding four brief lines, which present the dead female speaker withdrawing farther and farther from her supposed beloved, first make clear that she exists only in a twilight world beyond human desire — hardly the vision of a lover's afterlife proposed by Dante Rossetti (or at least by the speaker in his dramatic monologue). The final two lines of the poem make a reversal just as sharp and just as ultimately satiric as one of Pope's couplets.
And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget.
The note of complete indifference on which Christina Rossetti ends this poem is particularly shocking when seen in the context of male tradition. Rosetti's speaker here does not pine for her male partner to join her; indeed, she suggests that she has increasing difficulty in remembering him at all — and that's not a matter of serious concern or regret. The poet's wordplay increases the effect, for much depends on "haply," which might mean "possibly" or even serve as a poetic version of "happily." The first meaning of the word is harsh enough because it conveys the speaker's increasing indifference, the second her pleasure in such forgetfulness. Either way a new female voice reconfigures the poetic tradition.
Last modified 23 October 2002