Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Memory” is a poem about a woman’s voluntary renunciation of love, although still cherished in memory in this life, with the hope for a perfect consummation of romance in a paradise of eros beyond the grave. What William Rossetti noted about his sister is relevant to the theme of self-abnegation in “Memory”: “She was replete with the spirit of self-postponement.” She created a poetry of deferral, deflection, and negation in which these denials and constraints gave her a powerful way to articulate a poetic self in critical relationship to the little that the world offers and to help her become one of the most moving religious poets of the Victorian era.

Antony H. Harrison, in Christina Rossetti in Context (1988), asserts a direct relationship between her strong religious sense of the emptiness of all worldly things and her portrayal of self-abnegation in a passionate romance: “As is clear to any student of Christina Rossetti’s poetry, vanitas mundi is her most frequent theme, andthis theme is as pervasive in her secular love poetry, as it is in her devotional poems, where a wholesale rejection of worldly values and experiences would be expected.”

Particularly arresting in “Memory” is the unusually honest and graphic description in part 1 of the woman’s courageous decision that leads her to relinquish and yet cherish in memory her deferred love of another. The arduous psychological process of delaying the consummation of romantic passion as a matter of coolly deliberate, even ascetic, choice is an uncommon theme for love poetry, and Christina Rossetti handles her unusual subject matter with a compelling excellence.

Although this is not really a Pre-Raphaelite poem, “Memory” does exhibit some traits of her brothers’ artistic preoccupations, such as an interest in a lover’s passionate devotion for a departed lover, as in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “The Blessed Damozel,” where an escapist hope of reunion in an afterlife also cheers a disconsolate female speaker overcome with a comparable longing for love.