Poet's Pick April 27
Christina Rossetti: "Song"
Selected by Kate Northrop
National Poetry Month 2012

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Kate Northrop's Poetry Month Pick, April 27, 2012

by Christina Rossetti (1830-1894)

    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.

* Kate Northrop Comments:
Many of the poems I’ve loved best seem to be haunted: someone most definitely absent feels living and present, but only for a moment, as a voice, in the moment of my reading.  Rossetti’s poem is not only haunted, it is haunting.   The speaker of the poem can’t find sanctuary or stillness (always a good reason to haunt) and we readers too, called into that place, that predicament, get left there, alone at the end of the poem.  It is the quickness of the leave-taking that cuts me cold, every time.  And cuts me cold because it is the future, and true.

I often sense that when people refer to “the world” in a grain of sand, this image reads to them as delightful,  i.e. What a bounty!  The small world is very big!  But I find the image really frightening.  A space inside—without interruption, without end.  And I find Rossetti’s image of “dreaming through the twilight / that doth not rise and set” to be even more terrifying than Dickinson’s horses’ heads “toward Eternity” since after all, at least there are horses’ heads in Dickinson’s poem.  In Rossetti’s image, we’ve got a vision of nothing, just twilight unending, and worse, a bodiless consciousness dreaming through it.  It is the sort of image that makes me want to go around touching everything in my house.  Cup, cup, table, dog.  (But I am not strong in religious faith; Rossetti was.)

I think that image succeeds, in part, because the poem is built of cuts, of openings, of all falling away.  The rhyme threading through the first stanza (me/tree/me) falls away in stanza two, which is divided cleanly (rain/pain; set/forget).   Instead of the object pronoun “me”, now we find, at the start of stanza two, “I” repeated, at the front of the line, three times.  And the repetition seems to erase even as it insists, to drop away even as it clings.  The “I” becomes the shell of itself.  And “dearest” too, to whom the poem is addressed, falls away.  Out of the silence of the stanza break, the speaker breaks into the real issue at hand (I am going to die; how to imagine it?) and she is talking now to herself.  We knew this was coming: we felt it, at the first line of the poem, with “dead”, although the poem quickly softens the sound with almost-mirror of “dearest”.   And after that image of the twilight, the final moment of repetition (the speaker may remember, may forget) is an unbearable echo with the end of the first stanza.  Such an echo makes—and is made from—a vast and empty space.


About Kate Northrop:
Kate Northrop is the author of Back Through InterruptionThings Are Disappearing Here (a New York Times Book Review "Editor's Choice" and finalist for the James Laughlin Award), and Clean. She teaches at the University of Wyoming and lives in Laramie.

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