What is the theme of the poem "When I am dead, my dearest"?

The theme of "When I am dead, my dearest" is death and mourning. It explores the idea that mourning is an act performed by the living, for the living, rather than for the dead person.

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In the simplest possible terms, the theme of Christina Rossetti's poem, "When I am dead, my dearest," is death. The speaker is in a melancholy mood, contemplating the prospect of dying. She asks that her "dearest," presumably her lover, not mourn for her.

Perhaps it might be more accurate to say, however, that the poem is about mourning, the necessity of mourning, and why we mourn. Rossetti's speaker is keen to emphasize the fact that mourning is not for the dead person but for the person who survives them. It does not matter to the dead person whether the beloved chooses to "remember" or "forget" because the dead person will not be there to witness what is going on in his or her absence.

The second stanza of the poem makes this very clear. Rossetti repeats the phrase "I shall not" at the start of three successive lines to emphasize the fact that the dead person is insensate to what is happening above their grave. Rossetti does not claim to know what the dead person will feel—they, like the mourner, may either "remember" or "forget." What happens, however, will not depend on the behavior of the mourner.

Ultimately, Rossetti's poem seems to convey the message that we must all choose to mourn in our own ways, rather than thinking about what the person we are mourning would prefer. This is because mourning is really about the living, not about the dead.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on January 8, 2021
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Christina Rossetti's "When I Am Dead, My Dearest" is the speaker's message to her beloved. She tells the beloved that he should not be sad and need not remember her because as she will be dead, she may or may not even know what he is doing in the land of the living.

The first stanza reads,

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. (1-8)
Here, the speaker tells her "dearest" not to "sing . . . sad songs" or leave flowers at her grave. She says that if he wants to remember her, he can, but if doesn't want to remember her, he can also forget her. Lines 7 and 8 basically tell the beloved that he can do whatever he wants after she is dead. This may seem cold or heartless, but it could also mean that the speaker cares about the beloved and wants him to continue to live his life as he sees fit.
 
In the second and final stanza, the speaker continues,
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. (9-16)
 
The speaker here repeats three things she "shall not" experience once she is dead and in her grave. She will not longer have human sensory experiences; therefore, she will know nothing of what people do at her grave. She will instead be "dreaming through the twilight" that has no end. She might "remember" or she might "forget." The afterlife is unknown to her. She does not want her beloved to devote so much time and energy mourning her if she does not even know that she will be aware of it in her afterlife. 
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This simple two stanza poem is actually quite a powerful evocation of the state of death and the kind of peace and tranquility that it gives those that die. The biggest emphasis that is placed on the thoughts of the speaker is the way that she will not be bothered by what happens in the world after she leaves it. She urges her audience to "Sing no sad songs for me" and then tells them at the end of the first stanza that they may remember or forget her as they like:

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

Just as she tells those she leaves behind that they are free to remember her or not, so she too is able to do the same, as the last stanza makes clear:

And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget.

Note the deliberate repetition of the same ideas and structure to the previous quote. Death is looked upon as some kind of resolution of peace where the troubles of this world pass and humans are unaffected by them and also they are beyond being hurt by other humans, and whether they are remembered or not. In this poem, death is looked upon positively, as suggested by the adverb "haply," which indicates the speaker has reached a position of acceptance of her imminent death and she is almost looking forward to the peace it will give her.

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