What is a structural analysis of the poem "Remember"?

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Structural Analysis of "Remember"

(New Criticism)

When performing a structural analysis for "Remember," the four things that dominate our attention are the allusion she uses in line 2; the punctuation she uses in two or three troublesome spots; the syntax (sentence construction and grammatical relationships) and diction, which includes vocabulary, she has chosen; and the sounds of individual phonemes (letters) within words and lines that modulate (regulate) the moods of the poem: sound = mood.

SOUNDS

It was well established by Edmund Spenser, if not earlier, that the sound of the words a poet selects regulates the mood of the poem by providing harshness or softness and by slowing down progress through words or between words or by speeding progress up. The various characteristics of various phonemes create natural stops, naturally softened sounds, naturally flowing tones, or natural elongation of sounds. Christina Rossetti capitalizes upon these qualities in her diction choices (choices which, by necessity, also effect her poetic syntax) to vary the mood within the sonnet, "Remember."

SYNTAX

Poetic syntax can be governed by considerations other than meaning. Creation of poetic mood--which is the emotional response elicited from the reader by the poem--through the use of phonetic sounds (sounds of letters) can govern poetic syntax. To illustrate, if one set of words conveying the desired meaning in a romantic poem has many sounds that stop the flow through and between words, like /t/ /p/ /d/, then the romantic, dreamy mood will be lessened. If another set of words conveying the desired meaning has many sounds that elongate or soften the flow, like /m/ /w/ /ou/, then the romantic, dreamy mood is heightened. A skilled poet will select the latter set of words, a choice that may require the use of techniques in rhetoric to develop a syntactically sound poetic sentence.

PUNCTUATION

In conjunction with syntax, punctuation will be selected for the function it performs in governing the meaning of the syntactical arrangement of words in a sentence. For instance, a colon will indicate that what follows is an explanation of or an elaboration on what precedes the colon, for example, "He's a singer: he sings contratenor." In contrast, a semicolon will indicate that a closely related but separate statement--not one elaborating or explaining--follows the first one, for example: "He's a singer; he's one of my favorites."

CHRISTIAN HYMN ALLUSION

Line 2 contains a Christian hymnology allusion in the words "into the silent land." This is an allusion (allusion: suggestion of something familiar that helps shed the light of understanding on something unfamiliar) that dates back to at least 1597 and that provides the title to a collection of Christian hymns compiled by J. G. Salls-Seewis: Into the Silent Land (1597). The standard understanding of this allusion--and if the standard understanding of an allusion is not employed, then the objective of the carefully chosen allusion has failed--is that "the silent land" is a symbol of and an implied metaphor for the land of death. The allusion is significant because it (1) embodies a specific vision of death as a place of silence, not horror, and it (2) embodies a Christian response of resignation to or even acceptance of death, since death is the "sting" that Christ conquered.

Thus in the second line, through the allusion, we have the knowledge that (1) the speaker is a Christian of firm and devotional belief (2) the poem centers on death, (3) the poetic speaker is religiously devout and (4) the listener is assumed by to be equally devotional and devout, and that (5) the tone is one of peace and caring while the initial mood is one of quiet mournfulness: "when I am gone away, / ... / When you can no longer hold me by the hand /."

Since such an apt allusion to Christian hymnology is used, we do not have to wait and wonder about the subject of the poem: we know right from the outset that the speaker is anticipating her impending death and that she is speaking out of mournful peace to a listener whom she loves and who loves her. The identity of the listener is revealed in line 6 when their commonly held future plans are spoken of: "You tell me of our future that you plann'd: ...." We know, because of the words "our future" that the listener is her beloved rather than a brother, father, mother sister.

PROBLEMATIC PUNCTUATION

The punctuation in lines 5-8 causes some readers problems. Line 5 ends with no punctuation, it ends in enjambment, which means that the sentence logic continues in thought to line 6. To understand these lines, you need to consider the four lines as the single thought they express. The thought is governed by three punctuation marks that indicate the meaning of this complex sentence (lines 5-8) that is comprised of two matrix (i.e., main) clauses, a clause before the colon and a clause after the colon.

Matrix clauses have subordinate clauses embedded within them. While the embedded clauses may be set off by punctuation as in "The red car, which you dislike, stopped at the light," it also happens that there may be no punctuation to indicate subordinate clauses. Understanding the significance indicated by the punctuation that is present, or absent, leads to understanding the meaning of the text.

Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you plann'd:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.

The colon at the end of line 6 tells that the sentence continues but has two separate units. The first unit is a matrix clause--which has two subordinate clauses--that comes before the colon: "Remember me when no more day by day / You tell me of our future that you plann'd." The second unit is a matrix clause joined by a semicolon a second independent clause; the semicolon replaces the omitted conjunction. This independent clause has it's own subordinate clause embedded although there is no punctuation indicating the subordination, and there is an elided (omitted) introductory "that": "Only remember me; you understand / [that] It will be late to counsel then or pray."

Lines 5 and 6 tell us that the poetic speaker wishes to be remembered after her dying has made it impossible to speak of joint future plans. The colon at the end of line 6 tells us that what follows after is an explanation of or an elaboration upon the thought that came before the colon. In other words, "Only remember me; you understand ..." explains or elaborates on "Remember me when ...." After the colon, two independent clauses are joined by the semicolon in line 7. This means that the semicolon (1) replaces a conjunction, like "because," and it (2) connects two closely related thoughts. This close relatedness is different from the explanatory or elaborating thoughts that follow a colon.

The first independent clause after the colon, "Only remember me," seems to answer the unspoken query "Could remembering possibly be enough?" This calls up the idea of how some people in grief set up shrines with candles and flowers and prayers or leave rooms frozen in time with belongings untouched. The answer to the suggestively implied unspoken query is the resigned response, "Only remember me." Here, "only" means with nothing more than; merely; with just this. It follows that the semicolon substitutes the conjunction "because" and introduces the justification for the request as this paraphrase illustrates:

[paraphrase] Merely, simply remember me, nothing more, because after death the time is past for comforting words and for prayers. ("It will be late to counsel or pray.")

The punctuation has led us to the meaning of lines 5 through 8. The poetic speaker and the listener have dreamed of a future that he has planned for the two of them; this listener is the speaker's beloved. When death takes her to the silent land of the dead, and he can no longer speak of their common future--she will have no future; they can have no future--she asks that she be remembered. There follows a suggestion of an implied protest that might have been something like this hypothetical dramatic protest: "Remember only?! That is not enough! A shrine! Prayers! More is necessary!" She responds, "Only remember me" because--as she reminds him--"you understand," in death, in the silent land, it will be too late for words that comfort in "counsel" and for "prayers" that pleadingly hope.

PROBLEMATIC SYNTAX

If we analyze the same four lines according to their syntax, it is logical that we should come up with the same result in terms of understanding the meaning of the passage. Syntax--which is the arrangement of grammatical elements to form phrases and sentences that have relationship with each other--governs meaning through how elements function in a phrase or sentence. Understanding the syntax of lines 5-8 will open our understanding to the poet's meaning. Six clauses are present in the four lines, 5-8.

Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you plann'd:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.

The first clause, ending with a colon, is "Remember me when no more day by day / You tell me of our future that you plann'd: ...."

The second clause is dependent and embedded in the first and is: "when no more day by day / You tell me of our future that you plann'd:...." The difference between these two is that "Remember me" in the matrix clause is excluded from the second clause, which is a dependent when-clause.

The third clause (dependent) is also embedded in the initial matrix clause and functions as a post-modifier of the noun "future"; it is: "that you plann'd:."

These first three clauses nest together like nesting Russian matryoshka dolls.

The fourth clause, is another matrix clause and is set off from the first matrix by the colon; it stands alone with no embedded clause within it: "Only remember me;..."

The fifth clause follows as a closely related though separate matrix clause; the semicolon replaces a conjunction and indicates their close, though separate, relationship: "you understand / It will be late to counsel then or pray."

The sixth clause may easily escape our attention because it is a that-clause in which the "that" is elided. "That" introduces an embedded clause. It functions as the clause Object since it follows immediately after the Verb, "understand": "understand / [that] It will be late to counsel then or pray."

A simplified paraphrase of the two matrix clauses--the one before the colon and the one after the colon--may help bring forward the essential meaning of the complex sentence that comprises lines 5 through 8:

[paraphrase] Remember me when you can't talk about our future: merely remember me because it will be too late to comfort me or pray for me.

CONCLUSIONS DRAWN FROM ANALYSES

By employing both an analysis of the punctuation and a separate analysis of the syntax, the meaning of these four lines is illuminated, and we find that from both directions we end with the same meaning.

Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you plann'd:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.

1. It is clear that "Only remember me" is not a plea of desperation but rather a resigned explanation--since explanations or elaborations follow an colon--of why remembering is enough.

2. It is clear that the speaker is reminding her beloved that comforting words of counsel and prayers for mercy will be too late after she enters the silent land of death, so nothing beyond remembering has any value or worth. The semicolon connects her reminder, "you understand," closely to her resigned explanation, "Only remember me;" as illustrated by this paraphrase:

[paraphrase] Remember me and do nothing more because, you understand, don't you, words and prayers will be useless in death.

3. Both analyses (punctuation and syntax) reveal that a beloved woman (we assume a female poetic speaker because the poet is a woman) is speaking to her beloved man. There is no textual evidence of anything other than a conversation between two who love and who are preparing for the end of the woman's illness, an end that will take her to the silent land of death. There is nothing in the text as understood through close analysis of the two components of punctuation and syntax that even hints at the woman doubting her ambiguous love for the man and forestalling an unhappy, unloving end to their relationship. If this is the interpretation that a reader settles on, then it is an interpretation derived from culture, society, personal experience or emotional response: it is not derived from the written text as analysis of the text shows.

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