Christina Rossetti’s Poem “When I am Dead My Dearest” Summary, Analysis, Theme

Christina Rossetti was a nineteenth-century English poet of Italian origin. Rossetti’s poem “When I am Dead, My Dearest” is elsewhere published under the title “Song.” This poem is not just about death but also about life, especially the happenings after the death of a close one.

In the respective sections below, we have placed the summary, the analysis, the theme, and other technical aspects of Christina Rossetti’s poem “When I am Dead, My Dearest.”

When I am Dead, My Dearest Summary

Christina Rossetti’s poem “When I am Dead, My Dearest” has two stanzas and each addresses different issues. In the first stanza, she talks about what she expects her loved ones to do after her death while in the second, she talks about what she will do after her death.

In the first stanza of “When I am Dead, My Dearest,” the speaker asks her near and dear ones not to sing sad songs for her. She further demands of them not to plant roses and not even shady cypress tree. Instead, she asks them to let there be the green grass above her that is soaked by showers and dewdrops. Finally, she asks them to remember if they wish to and to forget if their wishes are so. However, this is only about living beings.

In the second stanza of “When I am Dead, My Dearest,” the speaker makes several announcements about what she will do once she is dead. It specifically deals with the poet’s experience in the grave. She says that she will neither see the shadows nor feel the rain. Moreover, she will not even hear the sad songs of the nightingale. She promises to dream during the twilight but cannot guarantee if she can remember or forget her dearest.

What the speaker is not certain about is whether she will still share emotions and feelings after her death with her dearest.

When I am Dead, My Dearest Analysis

In Christina Rossetti’s poem “When I am Dead, My Dearest,” the first stanza is about the world of the living while the second stanza is the poet’s imagination of her experience in the grave. the entire poem does not have a well-organized rhyming pattern which symbolizes the poet’s unstable mentality before her death.

When the speaker says ‘When I am dead, my dearest,/Sing no sad songs for me,” she is imagining her impending death. Since Rossetti was not married throughout her lifetime, we cannot expect her ‘dearest’ to be her beau. Instead, she might be referring to everyone who loved her. She does not want her dearest to sing sad songs for her because she thinks it only makes them weak. To be precise, she does not want an emotional farewell from her family and other loved ones, and above that, she also wishes not to ruin the moments of others’ lives by letting them mourn her death.

She further says ‘Plant thou no roses at my head,/ Nor shady cypress tree’. By ‘head’, the speaker means her grave where she asks her dearest not to waste time planting roses or cypress. She neither needs roses nor a shady cypress tree to protect her from the Sun and rain. In their place, she rather wants them to ‘Be the green grass above me/ With showers and dewdrops wet’. The term ‘be’ does not obviously mean that she is requesting them to be the green grass, she would rather love to see green grass that bears showers and dewdrops above her grave.

Do you wonder why she is asking for grass? The grass, in fact, grows naturally and hence, she does not want any decorations on her grave. She just wants a proper burial and be left alone that way because there will be grass over time above her. It might also connote that she wants to mingle with Nature after she is done living.

Finally, she does not know whether she wants to be remembered or forgotten. Hence, she ends up with an intellectual request, ‘And if thou wilt, remember,/ And if thou wilt, forget’. The poet is leaving her dearest with a choice of either to remember or to forget her. It is because she knows that she can convince them not to plant trees and rose above her grave. In contrast, she can never control her dearest’s emotions and feelings at her death.

In the second stanza of ‘When I am dead, My Dearest’, the poet is talking about what she will experience while in the grave. ‘I shall not see the shadows,’/ I shall not feel the rain’, she mentions. Now, she is explaining the worthlessness of planting cypress tree above her. While alive, she suffered from diseases like depression, grave’s disease, breast cancer, etc. and she had had enough of her dearest’s love. She is, now, consoling them by arguing that her death is her freedom from all those diseases. In that respect, ‘the shadows’ connotatively means the darkness that she had to go through while alive. Likewise, ‘the rain’ connotes the tears the poet shed when she was ill.

The speaker claims, she will also lose the sense of hearing after death by saying ‘I shall not hear the nightingale/ Sing on, as if in pain’. Similar to the Lord Buddha’s preaching of pain’s inevitability, there is pain even in the world of the speaker or we might also say Rossetti’s life. Once she is dead, she tells her dearest, that she will no longer hear about the worldly sufferings implicated by the nightingale’s song of pain.

‘And dreaming through the twilight/ That doth not rise nor set’, she may either remember or forget her dearest. By ‘twilight’, the speaker is most possibly referring to her belongingness. Like the twilight is the time when the Sun is neither fully rising neither fully set, death also does not qualify her for extreme pain or extreme joy. Moreover, she does not know whether she will ever remember her addressee or forget forever, because she is not dead yet and she cannot tell the truth after her death. She is not sure whether she will ever share the feelings with her dearest ones after her passing.

When I am Dead, My Dearest Theme

Christina Rossetti’s poem ‘When I am Dead, My Dearest’ thematically revolves around death and its resulting activities. It carries the themes of death, mourning, life, pain, attachment, etc. Let’s see how the poet views specific themes through her poem, ‘When I am Dead, My Dearest’.

  1. Death – Rossetti takes death as an inevitable follower of life, and it is also a relief from all the worldly pains including diseases.
  2. Mourning – Rossetti argues that since no one can escape death, even the bereaved family should not mourn unnecessarily.
  3. Life and Pain – for Rossetti, life and pain are synonymous and the only escape from pain is death.
  4. Attachment – Rossetti accepts that human attachment is not easy to break; however, they must learn to break it once it is time.

Watch and listen to Christina Rossetti’s ‘When I am Dead, My Dearest’ recited and performed by Brigitte Bordeau! 

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