Poet's Pick April 6
Christina Rossetti: Song ("When I Am Dead My Dearest")
Selected by Gregory Djanikian
National Poetry Month 2018

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Gregory Djanikian's Poetry Month Pick, April 6, 2018

Song ("When I Am Dead My Dearest")
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.


* Gregory Djanikian Comments:
Christina Rossetti’s poem was one of the first poems I memorized as a young boy.  It was in Alexandria, Egypt where I was born, where we didn’t have television and, as I remember, listened to the radio only when the BBC news came on. Many of my afternoons were filled by listening to my mother read poetry to my sister and me—poems of Victor Hugo, Tennyson, Shelley, Poe, François Coppée, Matthew Arnold, and of course, Christina Rossetti whose “Song” she still loves and recites. Often, she would ask us to memorize her favorites and declaim them back to her, which we did happily, and I remember taking my turn with Christina Rossetti, reciting her poem with as much devotion as I could muster. Little did I know that some 15 years later, after we had immigrated to the U.S., I would start writing poetry with a love of language and cadence that I must have absorbed during those blissful afternoons in Alexandria when poetry seemed a way of speaking intimately to one another and being near.

Did I ever memorize the whole of the poem? I don’t think so, not then.  It was only many years later that I discovered the second stanza which was a welcome revelation for me. Why do I say “welcome”? It’s the last two lines of the first stanza that make me a little queasy now:

And if thou wilt, remember,
   And if thou wilt, forget.

Aren’t those lines asking us to suspend our belief in the ways of love, trying too easily to provoke our grief and pity and our protestations of “Yes, of course we will remember!” Do any of us really forget our own true dearest?

How wonderful then to arrive at the second stanza with its subversion of the pathos of the first, the speaker coolly imagining herself stripped of all sensation, her connections to the earth undone. Even the beloved disappears from the stanza altogether, and frankly, don’t we, the readers, identify with that lonely dearest one, haply unremembered and standing in all likelihood under a drizzly cemetery sky? What a reversal! Pity poor us who are left behind.

What I admire about the poem is its final stoicism in the face of death with hardly a notion of an afterlife. There are no angels, there is no paradise, and nothing is assured.  The word “haply” introduces a note of indeterminacy, of not-knowing. And the speaker in her grave relies not on the balm of lingering past sensations, or something like a life beyond that might soothe, but only on a kind of dreaming that has no texture, no extremes of feeling or heights and abysses, only an in-between-ness, twilight that remains twilight. Such an unremitting equilibrium makes us all the more eager, I think, to embrace the voracious life we have, and to love a little more fiercely.

It’s astounding that Christina Rossetti wrote the poem in 1848 when she was still a teenager (though it was not to appear until 1862 in her collection, Goblin Market and Other Poems), so balanced is it in structure and effortlessly crafted. Could I have ever written such a poem at her age?  Not even in my dreaming. At least I can say that as a lovely coincidence, Frances Rossetti, Christina’s mother, read to her children as mine did to me. My mother, who is now 94, still recites the poem when we are together, and it is not surprising that she has asked me to read “When I am dead, my dearest” as a way of celebrating her when she is gone. I will do it, with sadness of course, but with an abiding sense of our life together in language and song.

About Gregory Djanikian:
Gregory Djanikian has published 6 collections of poetry with Carnegie Mellon, the latest of which is Dear Gravity (2014). His poems have most recently appeared or are forthcoming in The Adroit Journal, The Atlanta Review, The Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review, The Florida Review, Juxtaprose, New Ohio Review, Poet Lore, Tampa Review, and Tar River Poetry,and they are included in many anthologies and textbooks. He teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Pennsylvania.

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