The Speaker's Lack of Sincerity

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1161

When it comes to poetry, many readers assume that the “I” in a poem must be the voice of the poet him or herself. While it is often true that at least a glimmer of the author’s own beliefs, experiences, and perspectives show up in any creative work, one should not take for granted that a first-person narrative is always an autobiographical account. All that being the case, however, Christina Rossetti and her sonnets are hard to separate. That is, because her pious, reserved lifestyle is so heavily reflected in her work, a reader can safely make the assumption that was just warned against. Rossetti usually is the “I” in her sonnets, and “Remember” is a good example. Just like the poet, the speaker in this poem wages a war of conscience, one side leaning toward human love, the other toward divine love. And in this case, it is a struggle that renders her feelings on the human side hypocritical and false.

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The title of the sonnet seems appropriate, at least through the octave. Beyond that, there is room for debate, but even in the first eight lines there are hints foreshadowing the abrupt change of heart that occurs in the sestet. It appears the speaker cannot make up her mind about whether she should stay with her lover or “turn to go.” This would be an odd hesitation if she were describing only her impending death, but the dilly-dallying has more to do with living than with dying. A part of her wants to remain with the man she addresses and to enjoy a loving relationship as a typical couple. Another part denies worldly pleasure by placing God at the center of her attention, and, therefore, death, since that is the vehicle to heaven in the Christian faith. Rossetti forfeited two romantic relationships in her lifetime because the suitors fell short of the religious fervor she expected in them. The speaker in “Remember” opts to give up hers as well, supposedly because she is dying, but that notion turns out to be a facade for something all too commonly human.

The last three lines of the octave are nonchalant at best, callous at worst. If the reader accepts that the male companion here is truly in love with a dying woman—and there is no evidence suggesting otherwise—then imagine his emotion upon hearing her say what amounts to, “Yes, I know you were planning on a future together, but all you will have is your memory because I’m going to meet God. You’re too late.” This sentiment, of course, implies that there have been false feelings on the woman’s part long before the impasse she and the man now face. Apparently, the speaker has always had hidden doubts about her love for him. She has never denied her love for God though, and given that she cannot resolve loving a human being and a supreme power at the same time, it must be the commitment to her suitor that does not quite ring true.

The speaker finally comes clean in the sonnet’s sestet. Here, she reveals an opposing, and apparently more accurate, sentiment toward her lover’s memory of her. She now gives him permission to forget. At first, this may seem to be a noble, selfless gesture, one reflecting such strong love for the man that she is making decisions to benefit his best interest even after she is gone. And perhaps her motive is charitable and devoted, but she also points out that her lover’s pending grief will stem from a “vestige of the thoughts that once” she had— thoughts about leaving him because she did not love him or because her attraction to him interfered with her religious faith. He may likely look back on their relationship and recall that it was not as secure and loving as he had imagined and hoped for. In that case, he should put the painful memories out of his mind and go on with his life, presumably with another woman who really loves him. If he accepts this instruction as selfless on the woman’s part, then all is well and the poem ends resolutely, if not happily. But can the man overlook the fact that the speaker states her case in such a nonchalant, carefree manner?

An abrupt change of heart or mind often implies falseness in whatever notion is suddenly altered. Three times in the first eight lines of Rossetti’s sonnet she uses the phrase “remember me.” Include the title and the context is fairly solid: this poem reflects a longing to be remembered by a loved one. The sestet, of course, indicates this is not so. The constant pull between opposites has resulted in the speaker’s inability to be completely sincere in either direction. Whatever initial appeal she may find in a man is quickly thwarted by her tendency to see him as less than perfect, less than godly. On the other hand, as devoted as she is to her church and her God, she nonetheless admits a longing for human intimacy. While obviously the vast majority of individuals who are just as devout in their religious faith have no problem carrying on long-lasting, loving marriages at the same time, the speaker in “Remember” cannot. Rossetti died a single woman, perhaps making this poem an eerie foreshadowing of her own circumstance at the end of her life.

Some readers will find this criticism harsh or overstated, and one could make a good argument in either case. The problem often faced with sonnets in which there is an “I” addressing a “you” is that subtlety far outweighs concrete description. This leaves the poet’s history, a good knowledge of the poet’s other work, and much implication as the starting point for comments and critique. Whether one views “Remember” as a flippant poem about a woman who has been a wishy-washy lover with a neurotic hang-up on religion or as an honest outpouring of true love and devotion from the lips of a dying woman, one point is clear: the circumstance is unfortunate for both the speaker and the man she addresses. Even if she has been insincere in the relationship, she at least attempted; the hypocrisy and falseness are not necessarily intended. She is caught between two opposing forces and appears helpless in standing firm for one or in finding a way to resolve a conflict that does not need to exist in the first place. Therefore, blame is not the issue here. While there may be room for a bit of guilt on the part of the speaker, she is a victim as much as is her companion.

Source: Pamela Steed Hill, Critical Essay on “Remember,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2002. Hill is the author of a poetry collection, has published widely in poetry journals, and is an associate editor for a university communications department.

Rossetti’s Cold Women: Irony and Liminal Fantasy in the Death Lyrics

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2242

In the sonnet “Remember” (1849) the speaker addresses a lover concerning her imminent death, with the repeated imperative to “remember me.” Unlike “Song” (“When I am dead, my dearest”) (1848), in which the speaker withdraws from the beloved into the indifference of death, “Remember” presents a speaker who at least appears to engage with the beloved and offer remembrance as the possibility of continuity between life and death. However, while adopting a different strategy to that of “Song,” in which death renders null and void the terms “remember” and “forget” through an equivocating diction of indifference—“Haply I may remember, / And haply may forget”—“Remember” privileges first one term and then the other, until their independent value is eroded.

Death is never named in “Remember,” but is invoked in the opening lines through the common conceit of the distant, “silent land”, and elaborated in lines 3–6 in a description of a future of loss, of a negation of the lovers’ present happiness. Yet what is the nature of their present relationship— why does the speaker vacillate between going and staying; why is it “our future that you planned” (my emphasis)? The subtle suggestion through these details of a problematic love relationship retrospectively undermines even the apparently easy intimacy of line 3—“when you can no more hold me by the hand”—until it hints at coercion: unlike the lover, death at least lets her “turn [and] go.” As in “Song,” the desire for death rather than the beloved speaks loudest in the poem; death as an escape from a life that is enigmatically unsatisfactory, from an intimate relationship that mysteriously falls short.

Why, then, the repeated exhortations to “remember me”? The phrase occurs three times in the octave, becoming urgent in the final repetition, “Only remember me.” The addition of the adverb here is further highlighted by its inverted stress, and the phrase as a whole is isolated by the caesura which follows, the only mid-line break in the whole poem. Yet the ambiguous syntax—“remember me alone” or “simply remember me”—undermines the very urgency of her plea; and the value of remembrance itself is in turn made dubious by what follows—“ you understand / It will be late to counsel then or pray”—which implies that remembrance is what is left when it is too late to do something more effective. So even before we reach the sestet and the sonnet’s turn, the rubric “remember me” appears to be virtually emptied of its literal meaning. While in one way a talisman against death, the realm of forgetting, its repetition creates a somnolent refrain where sound overwhelms sense, until it proleptically signifies the dissolution of meaning and the speaker’s own forgetting in death. Its loss of proper meaning conjures its opposite: the void of forgetting.

Nevertheless, after the entreaties to “remember me,” the turn at line 9 is still unsettling, especially due to the ease with which the speaker permits the lover to forget her. Lines 9–10 illustrate the paradoxical nature of the relationship between remembering and forgetting, acknowledging as they do that the lover will grieve only when he remembers he has forgotten; that remembering depends for its meaning on, and is only kept alive by, the possibility of forgetting: “Yet if you should forget me for a while, / And afterwards remember, do not grieve.” As the dialectic of remembering and forgetting becomes more intricate, Rossetti takes bold license with the rhyme scheme in the sestet, with a nonsymmetrical pattern, cddece. One way in which the subtle and subversive effects of this poem are achieved can be observed by noting that the lines in which the word “forget” appears (once in the first line of the sestet and once in the penultimate line) also contain the most widely spaced of the poem’s five end rhymes, forming thus the subtlest of alliances: “while” and “smile” link the passing of time with the passing of grief, suggesting the inevitable passage from remembrance to forgetting.

Such an inevitable progression, or perhaps regression, is suggested more directly in lines 11–12: “For if the darkness and corruption leave / A vestige of the thoughts that once I had.” These lines seem to reveal the poem’s real interest, which revolves less around whether the lover remembers or forgets, than around the “darkness and corruption” of the grave and the fate of human “thoughts” therein. By projecting the speaker into the grave, rather than into an identifiably Christian afterlife, these lines could be read, like many of Rossetti’s poems on the death-state, as a virtual denial of such an afterlife in their exclusive focus on the grave, the place of the body. The vision of death is especially bleak in these lines, with their metonymic extension of the literal destruction of the dead body to the figurative destruction of her “thoughts” of the lover, and, vice versa, their extension of a figurative, that is, metaphysical “darkness and corruption” to the “thoughts that once I had.” Further, the use of the neutral “thoughts,” rather than the expected “love,” creates an emotional detachment consonant with the speaker’s ambivalence toward the lover detected in the octave. As in “Song,” the speaker seems to become absorbed into the indifferent world of the dead during the course of the poem. Thus, by the closing lines—“Better by far you should forget and smile / Than that you should remember and be sad”—the poem has achieved a complete volte-face, from imploring remembrance, to preferring that the lover forget her. Rossetti has employed the form of the Petrachan sonnet with a sinister logic. The binary thematics of the poem, based on both stated and implicit pairs of terms— living/dead, stay/go, past/future, smile/sad, remember/ forget—are completely realigned by the end: life is linked with remembrance and sorrow, while death is linked with the smile of forgetfulness.

As I have suggested, these lyrics are the basis on which Rossetti’s work has been characterized solely and often dismissively in terms of a lyric spontaneity and simplicity. Even in a recent critical anthology on Rossetti, a prolific critic of Victorian poetry writes that by the end of “Remember,” “tactful concern for the lover . . . displaces any selfcentred desire to live on in his memory.” Such a reading is clearly overdetermined by the prevalent biographical myth of Rossetti as a meek, deferential Victorian spinster, “tactfully” self-renouncing. By contrast, I am arguing for a reading that hears a skeptical, ironic female voice.

“Remember” and “After Death” (1849) were copied into Rossetti’s notebook within three months of each other; and in Goblin Market and Other Poems she placed “After Death” immediately following “Remember.” This latter fact at least invites comparison between the two; at most, it suggests that “After Death,” in which we hear the voice of a woman now dead, may be read as the sequel to “Remember.” “After Death,” however, establishes an altogether different mood from that of “Remember.” This is partly due to its different use of the sonnet form. Unlike the unbroken lines and verbal echoes of “Remember,” contributing to its dreamy melodiousness—“gone away / Gone far away”; “turn . . . turning”; “day by day”— “After Death” breaks up the line more often than not with increased punctuation and enjambment. In addition, the octave, consisting of the speaker’s description of the scene in the room where she has just died, has less of a lyric and more of a narrative structure than “Remember”:

The curtains were half drawn, the floor was swept
And strewn with rushes, rosemary and may
Lay thick upon the bed on which I lay,
Where thro’ the lattice ivy-shadows crept.
He leaned above me, thinking that I slept
And could not hear him; but I heard him say:
“Poor child, poor child:” and as he turned away
Came a deep silence, and I knew he wept.

The first quatrain suggests an archaic, perhaps medieval setting—the rushes, herbs, and flowers, and the ivy-covered lattice window—and this, as part of a deathbed scene, immediately conjures the world of Pre-Raphaelite gothic. Enhancing this is the effect of the uncanny, produced by the contrast between the speaker’s straightforward, nonemotive reportage, and the awareness that she is dead.

The next quatrain introduces the would-be mourner of her death, an unnamed “he.” The speaker appears at pains to display her superior vantage point over this man; for while “He leaned above me” connotes a figuratively superior position, this is quickly shown to be falsely assumed, both by him and us: “but I heard him say.” The speaker’s ascendancy over him is heightened here by the simple, monosyllabic diction and balanced syntax of line 6, as she coolly negates his presumption of her deathly insentience. The inclusion of direct speech (“‘Poor child, poor child’”) is unusual among these death lyrics, in giving the lover a voice, however small, in the poem. Yet it is not a voice in dialogue with the speaker, but a solitary voice on which she eavesdrops; further, his words sound merely patronizing, his pity ironically undercut, placed as it is within her knowing narrative, in which she demonstrates the supreme vantage point of death.

The sestet abandons the narrative mode in which the speaker has quietly established her authority over the living, and offers instead a catalogue of omitted actions through which “he” is judged and found wanting. Here is an ironic variation on the litany of worldly rejection usually uttered by Rossetti’s dying speakers (“Sing no sad songs,” “Wreathe no more lilies in my hair” [“‘The Summer is ended’”]). Speaking “after death,” rather than before, the woman rebukes “his” stance of denial or rejection toward her. The object of the actions listed in lines 9–11 is the dead body, so these are symbolic ministrations, signifying an intense emotional attachment to the physical person of the beloved—the passionate bereavement she would have him feel, if he was the lover she wishes he were. The parallel syntax of lines 9 and 12— “He did not touch,” “He did not love”—reinforces the equation offered between these sins of omission and the absence of love.

The final lines of “After Death” have been conventionally read as granting “his” redemption through his pity, the poem ending on a note of selfeffacing generosity (not unlike the “tactful” renunciation of “Remember”) or, alternatively, of “immature self-pity.” Yet to what extent pity redeems him, if at all, depends on the worth assigned it by the poem. Pity is distinguished from love, clearly to its detriment:

He did not love me living; but once dead
He pitied me.

Firstly, “He pitied me” is isolated by enjambment, to parallel “He did not love me living”; secondly, there is an alignment through alliteration between “love” and “living,” and through consonance between “dead” and “pitied.” The apparent self-effacement of the closing words—

. . . and very sweet it is
To know he still is warm tho’ I am cold.

—is in one sense real. For when for the first time in the poem the speaker expresses emotion, she effaces herself, as subject, from the utterance. This is in marked contrast to the sprinkling of simple verb phrases in which she has so far presented herself—“I lay,” “I slept,” “I heard,” “I knew”— that collectively emphasize her heightened awareness “after death,” even as such emotionally neutral verbs sustain an impression of aloofness and selfcontrol. This leads me to suggest that the speaker attaches herself only obliquely to “very sweet” because of the emotional freight of this moment, and instead lends weight to her final words, “I am cold.” Abandoning the prose syntax of the rest of the poem, these closing words promote ambiguity, as they simultaneously uncover and obscure the intense feeling they bear. “Sweet” is the only significant term in the last three lines without a companion word: there is “love” and “pitied,” “living” and “dead,” “warm” and “cold.” In such a context, “sweet” invokes “bitter,” and indeed bittersweet seems to capture precisely the conclusion to this poem.

The words “warm” and “cold” in the final line clearly operate metonymically for “the living” and “the dead.” Yet, in addition, their several literal and figurative meanings flicker retrospectively over the poem. The word “cold” is given structural prominence both by being the final word of the poem, and by forming part of a rhyme (“cold”/“fold”) that is so widely spaced it is barely heard. This neardissonance contributes to the unsettling effect of the final line. “Cold” has resonances throughout the poem, from the creeping “ivy shadows,” to the dead body whose hand is not held, to “his” tears of chilly pity. “Cold” also is the speaker’s voice, a voice that reveals little emotion as she turns a cold, judging eye on the scene of her death and on “him.” Such all-pervasive coldness enhances the irony of the final line, in which the epithet “warm” resonates with all that the poem shows to be lacking—life, love, and passionate emotion. And while replete with irony, the final line is, at the same time, sincerely spoken; for, as with almost all of Rossetti’s dead or dying, death is to be preferred over life, and for this speaker in particular, death is a bittersweet victory over the unloving living.

Source: Susan Conley, “Rossetti’s Cold Women: Irony and Liminal Fantasy in the Death Lyrics,” in The Culture of Christina Rossetti, edited by Mary Arseneau, Antony H. Harrison, and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, Ohio University Press, 1999, pp. 260–84.

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Critical Overview