Read real teacher answers to our most interesting Remember questions.

Understanding the Poem Remember

It is tempting to interpret, as opposed to analyze, poetry text from the perspective of one's current historical, social, or cultural era and personal experience (interpretation can often reduce to extrapolations of meaning from one's own personal experience). While this might be useful with some texts, perhaps with Contagion by Robin Cook or Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Thomas Schell, it is counterproductive with other texts, especially so with works having universal themes.

It can also be counterproductive to finding understanding to analyze texts without due attention carefully paid to syntax and punctuation structures: a semicolon versus a colon can radically alter the meaning of written text; this is why writers use them with such selective care (although styles of punctuation alter periodically and must be understood within their historic time frame to avoid confusion).

Christina Rossetti has been generally acknowledged by readers and critics alike to write "poetry displaying a perfection of diction, tone, and form" (PoetryFoundation.org). It is also acknowledged that Christina wrote on recurring ideas of the "inconstancy of human love, the vanity of earthly pleasures, renunciation, individual unworthiness, and the perfection of divine love [as] recurring themes in her poetry" (PoetryFoundation.org).

Thus, in consideration of these two aspects of her work--structure and theme--in order to fully understand Rossetti's work a two-fold approach to analysis is needed. Bear in mind that "analysis" can be very different from and yield very different results to "interpretation." Interpretation of a literary work may arise from one's personal experience, one's culture, one's society, one's historical period, or one's emotional response (which may or may not be related to direct personal experience, for example the emotional response elicited when watching The Blind Side though most of us are not underprivileged high school football players). Examples of these kinds of interpretation might be reading Oliver Twist through your own experience of poverty; reading "Remember" by Christina Rossetti through your own cultural norms; reading The Red and the Black through your own social-religious structure; reading Pride and Prejudice through the eyes of a 19th century Marxist; or reading Evelina by Fanny Burney according to the emotional response elicited, which may or may not relate to personal experience.

In general, analysis of literature applies more structured application of logic than these interpretive approaches do, although there are literary criticism approaches that incorporate interpretive elements, such as Reader-Response Criticism and Marxist Criticism. What is the advantage of either analysis or interpretation over the other?

The advantage of analysis over interpretation is that analysis helps us understand, as much as possible, what the author was expressing. Some think this is the most advantageous way to know what literature illustrates (illustrates rather than suggests) about human nature, the pitfalls of living, the nature of life, the pain of death, and metaphysical hopes.

To illustrate this concept of advantage, if Crime and Punishment is about a student who becomes obsessed with the philosophical notion of the "superman" who is above the regulating norms of life, that has little bearing on the majority of people that ever were or ever will be since most of us are not thus obsessed. Yet if Crime and Punishment is about a student who has an altruistic heart motivated by pity and anguish who literally and figuratively throws himself into his neighbors' fires thereby depriving himself of what is required for the sustenance of life and sanity, that could very well be applicable to many overly-large-hearted students anywhere in the world. Analysis rather than interpretation will identify which of these themes is the driving force in the text.

In order to accurately understand the complex form and structure of "Remember," a two-pronged analysis approach is needed to identify theme and meaning. For meaning, the close reading and formal analysis of New Criticism is needed to understand diction, syntax and the distinctions in meaning made by punctuation. For theme, the application of the principles of Historical Criticism (also called Traditional Criticism), which keeps touch with the author by examining biography (also society and culture if applicable), is needed.

Christina Rossetti Biography and Theme Notes

(Historical Criticism)

For the purposes of understanding "Remember," the salient parts of Christina Rossetti's biography are health--hers, her brother's and her father's--and the recurrence of themes in her corpus of work. Here, the job of the literary analyst is to understand the implications of life events and the significance of the dominance of some themes and the absence of others.

HEALTH

Health seems to have been an issue with some in the Rossetti family. Gabriel, Christina's father--a librettist, poet and Latin scholar--suffered a collapse of health in 1843, when Christina was thirteen. Her brother, Dante Gabriel, the poet and Pre-Raphaelite painter, later became dangerously ill in 1872, an illness that had devastating psychological components. Christina herself became seriously ill for the first time in 1845 after two years of helping to care for her father; she was fifteen. Her brother, William, an art and literary critic and editor, writes in his memoirs that understanding Christina's work requires understanding how seriously poor health impact and plagued her life, not once but repeatedly:

"Rossetti had bouts of serious illness throughout her life; William insists in his memoir that one cannot understand his sister unless one recognizes that she 'was an almost constant and often a sadly-smitten invalid.' The morbidity that readers have so often noted in her poetry, William suggests, was attributable to Christina’s ill health and 'the ever-present prospect of early death....'" ("Christina Rossetti," PoetryFoundation.org)

As literary analysts, we are well advised to understand the nature of Christina's life, full of the suffering of ill health as it was. We are well advised to take into account the instances when her health forced--or even seemed as though it would force--her body and mind to turn toward the portal of death only to be allowed by recovery to turn again toward living. Her first collapse in 1845 led to heart symptoms and depression (biographers understand little about the this first event).

Between 1870 and 1872, Christina suffered the worst of the bouts of illness she experienced (ironically, 1872 being the same year Dante suffered the turning point of his decline). She was at last diagnosed with Graves disease, a condition of the thyroid gland, after much suffering and many approaches toward death. Since "Remember" was published in 1862, ten years earlier, this particular incidence has no bearing on understanding this poem, yet it does illustrate and corroborate William's assertion that understanding Christina requires understanding the effects of her ill health on her everyday life beginning from her fifteenth year in 1845.

[1870-1872] "Her hair fell out, her skin became discolored, her eyes began to protrude, and her voice changed. After some months her doctors diagnosed a rare thyroid condition, exophthalmic bronchocele, more commonly known as Graves’ disease. Although Rossetti recovered, the threat of a relapse always remained. Moreover [according to William], the 'crisis left her appearance permanently altered and her heart weakened.'” (PoetryFoundation.org)

THEMES

Rossetti's first collection of poetry Verses appeared in 1847, two years after her first major health collapse, and had distinctly recognizable themes, particularly an emphasis on mortality and corruptibility. This is understandable since for four years she had been personally, physically and psychologically preoccupied with illness, the potential for death, and loss (loss because of the financial ruin the family fell into with Gabriel's illness and inability to work, although William and sister Maria helped mother Frances try to fill the financial gap).

"Remember" appears in Rossetti's second collection Goblin Market and Other Poems, which came out in 1862, the same approximate time that she began a tentative romance with Charles Bagot Cayley, one of her father's former students. Two things are of note: (1) this second collection continued the themes of death and corruptibility and (2) part of the reason her romance with Charles was tentative is that for more than twenty years she had been plagued with horrible bouts of illness and depression attending it.

Christina might well have had occasion to think that a romance with Charles was doomed to end in the grief of parting through death. Charles did propose in 1866, and Rossetti refused him. William states that, being very reticent, she never discussed the matter but that she did give the reason as being on "'on grounds of religious faith.'" (PoetryFoundation.org)

This significant event, though occurring after the writing of "Remember" published in 1862 (the approximate year of the commencement of their romance), relates to understanding Christina's psychological framework, which relates to understanding the overall meaning of "Remember." Of all Rossetti's poetry, from the 1847 collection Verses to all that she published up until the end of her life, more than half is religiously devotional in nature, indeed, all in her later years is religiously devotional.

Indicators of Context

In this context--a tentative romance with marriage refused on religious grounds and a poetess of devotional works--how likely is it that Rossetti would write a poem about ambiguous love and the rejection of a lover who will probably not regret her loss very much?

In this biographical context and in the context of a corpus of work that is serious, not frivolous, and that has corruptibility and mortality as the thematic "keystone" (PoetryFoundation.org), it is highly unlikely. In fact, it seems highly doubtful that she would have had the inclination or experience to write a poem about an insincere, ambiguous love that is broken off in life to avoid breaking it off in death. Such a poem would be inconsistent with her biography, with the themes that recur in her corpus and with the devotional nature of her psychology and poetic expression.

Structural Analysis of the Poem Remember

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.

Sonnet Form and Meaning in Rossetti's Remember

"Remember" is constructed as a sonnet. The sonnet form can do a lot to help us understand the somewhat elusive meaning of "Remember." The sonnet form, in this case, the Petrarachan form (not Shakespearean nor Spenserian) tells us several important things:

  • The volta of line 9 turns the sonnet toward the presentation of the paradox underlying the sonnet and the paradox in the resolution.
  • The sonnet problem and resolution are presented in the sestet, last 6 lines, of the sonnet.
  • Three ideas, including a problem, and a resolution are presented as subdivisions of the theme of the sonnet.
  • The first 8 lines, the octave, presents the point argued while the last 6, the sestet, present the counterpoint argued and the resolution paradox.

The last six lines, the sestet, seems to present some problems for readers. Line 9 is what is called the volta. The volta is where the sonnet turns form presenting the first two thematic ideas to presenting a problem and solution, usually a paradoxical one.

So then, what's happening in the volta of line 9, "Yet if you should forget me for a while (9)," is that the sonnet turns from the point argued in lines 1-8 and turns toward the counterpoint argued in 9-12. The point of this very complexly organized sonnet is: "Remember me" after I have gone "into the silent land" of death. The counterpoint is: but if you "forget me" [for awhile], my poems remember me, so smile. Voltae most often start with conjunctions of opposition, often "yet" "but" or "and yet." Line 9, the sonnet volta, introduces the counterpoint argument with the oppositional conjunction "Yet": remember me yet if you forget me.

Troublesome Phrases

Before going further with the analysis of lines 9 through 14, it is important to explain the meaning of some troublesome phrases, three in the first 4 lines of the octave and four in the sestet:

Phrases to Explain

Lines 1-4
into the silent land
half turn to go
yet turning stay

Lines 9-14
for a while
darkness and corruption
vestige of my thoughts

Line 2: "into the silent land"

In Christianity, there is a long history to the phrase "into the silent land." In 1597, the phrase was used as the title for a collection of hymns; there was likely to be a hymn of the same title but this has not been confirmed. The phrase is a symbol for and an implied metaphor for death: going into the silent land is going into the land of death. The probability is high that Rossetti would have known this collection (and the possible hymn). Even though she was born in 1830 and it was compiled in 1597, there is a strong likelihood that she would have known it. There is a very strong probability that the phrase was then in common use as a Christian allusion for death. I say there is a strong probability that she knew the hymn collection because, even today, church congregations sing hymns from long-gone centuries. Here are a few titles, and the dates of their composition, of hymns that are still sung in churches today, indeed, hymns some here grew up singing:

"O Christ, Thou Lamb of God"
From the German, 1528

"Praise God, from Whom All Blessings Flow"
by Thomas Ken, 1695

"Oh, Bless the Lord, My Soul"
by Isaac Watts, 1719

"Oh, for a Thousand Tongues to Sing"
by Charles Wesley, 1739

To make it more interesting, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow composed a hymn titled "Into the Silent Land" in 1840. While it is not possible at this remove to speculate on whether English Christina Rossetti might have encountered American Longfellow's hymn, the hymn does illustrate that the phrase was current in Christian vernacular from the 1500s through the 1800s, 300 years. More importantly, it illustrates clearly and without any ambiguity that Rossetti sets firmly in the first two lines the point of the poem as remember me in death. Some are tempted to argue that "into the silent night" symbolizes the breaking up of a love affair; they incorrectly understand the silent land as the silence of rejected love. One verse of Longfellow's hymn very clearly illustrates the metaphorically symbolic meaning of the Christian allusion "into the silent land," clearly equating the silent land with death:

O land! O land!
For all the broken-hearted;
The mildest herald by our fate allotted,
Beckons, and with inverted torch doth stand,
To lead us with a gentle hand
Into the land of the departed,
Into the silent land!
(Longfellow 1840)

Line 4: "half turn to go"

If you understand that the poetic speaker is dangerously ill and forestalling the shock of her death by providing comfort and guidance for herself and her beloved, and if you understand "the silent land" as a symbolic location for death, then you can understand how she would think of being on the brink of death as a "half turn to go" to the silent land. This abridged paraphrase of what she is saying may help to illuminate this concept:

[paraphrase] When I am gone to death and you can no more hold my hand and I can no more half-way turn toward death (but must turn all the way and go into the silent land), remember me.

Line 4: "yet turning stay"

Remembering that the speaker is dangerously ill and that she has at least once been on the brink of death and half turned to go "into the silent land," you can understand that "yet turning stay" describes an unexpected recovery that allows her to turn again toward life and to stay with the living: "half turn to go yet turning stay." In the context of the meaning of the 4 lines, she is saying: When I am dead and you cannot hold my hand nor can I be nearly dead but recover again, remember me.

Line 9: "for a while"

"For a While" is significant here because it helps define her relationship with her listener and it helps define what she is expecting to happen. A very specific amount of time is signified by "for a while": a short time. In other words, she is anticipating and expecting those times when life will intrude into his mourning and distract him by the demands of living into forgetfulness. This is not the forgetfulness following a deliberate action, like breaking up a romance between people who are dubious about their reciprocal love. This is the momentary forgetfulness caused by the distractions of being alive. Acknowledging that he might "forget [her] for a while" is a testament to the compassion, mercy and devotion of her love for him; this defines their relationship as one of the most sincere love.

Line 11: "the darkness and corruption"

The "darkness and corruption" is something that has the capacity to "leave" something. But what is it? The theme of the sonnet is remembrance: "Remember me." The problem brought out in the volta of the sestet is forgetting for a while: "[should you] forget me for a while." The "darkness and corruption" leaving something represents the solution to the paradox of remembering yet forgetting.

In light of these elements, darkness and corruption cannot logically represent something related to the listener: his darkness and corruption in grief cannot solve a problem of his making. What textual clue do we have that indicates the meaning of "darkness and corruption"?

The speaker anticipates going "into the silent land" of death. A classic Biblical allusion likens death to corruption and the land of death to darkness. The logically consistent source of "darkness and corruption" is not the listener nor the listener's grief and loss, but rather the logically consistent source is "the silent land" of death, which, in taking her away, "Gone far away," leaves something behind. What is left behind?: "A vestige of the thoughts that once I had" is left, safe from the silence of death.

Line 12: "vestige of my thoughts"

This phrase is an original expression of a standard poetic convention. Spenser talks about the words he writes in sand; Shakespeare talks about the poems he writes. All talk about the immortality imbued in poetry that attaches to the writer, the recipient/listener, to the words themselves. Like Spenser's words in sand, Rossetti's "vestige of my thoughts" are her poems, the words of her poems. In answer to our last question, "What is left behind?": The darkness and corruption of death in the silent land takes her but leaves a vestige of her thoughts. What does this reference? The vestige of her thoughts are her poems. If the paradoxical condition of forgetting while remembering is the problem, then her poems that live on after her are the solution.

In a complexly connected series of thoughts in logical progression, the speaker tells her beloved listener that if he forgets, the darkness will leave untouched her poems so he mustn't grieve, she will always--in a second paradox--be remembered by her words (and their readers) even while he forgets. So he should smile, not be sad.

Meaning of Text Lines 9-14

It may be tempting after a hasty reading of "Remember" to interpret lines 9-12 as the argument of a young woman who is dubious and ambiguous about her love for her supposed beloved. It might be tempting to think she is acknowledging that his love for her is equally dubious and that he will all too soon conquer his grief and rebuild his life. It may be tempting to think that she has realized that she has never fully loved him, that she has had doubts throughout their time together. But if you know that a sonnet presents a point of argument and a counterpoint and that the counterpoint presents a problem and a solution and that the solution represents a paradox, then you will realize that this hasty sort of interpretation is in conflict with the text and fails to reflect the form and meaning of the text.

What is the meaning of the text in lines 9 through 12?

Yet if you should forget me for a while 9
         And afterwards remember, do not grieve: 10
         For if the darkness and corruption leave 11
         A vestige of the thoughts that once I had, 12

The speaker has just reminded her beloved, in lines 1-8, that when she is gone into the silent land of death, he will no longer hold her hand; he will no longer plan or speak of their future life together (seemingly her illness has prevented them from marrying); he will no longer be able to comfort and counsel her and pray for her. Her request of him is that, with all this that they will lose, he remember her: "Remember me when I am gone ... / far away into the silent land." The theme is being remembered after death. The point being argued is that, when she is so ill that she must turn to go toward death when she can no longer recover, he must replace the planning and counsel and prayer--which will do no good then--with remembrance of her.

The counterpoint being argued from the line 9 volta to line 12, is that while life may distract and cause him to forget for a while--"for a while" is critical to understanding the depth of their love, the dynamic of their relationship and the problem presented--the "darkness and corruption" of death will not touch the vestige of her thoughts as expressed in her poems.

This is a sonnet of mourning written by a poetess, not automatically assumed to be the poet herself (the poetic speaker is not always the poet), whose words will live as a "vestige" of her thoughts after she has died. This is a standard Shakespearean convention that was used equally by Edmund Spenser: the poet's words bestow immortality. Rossetti has given the convention a new aspect and says that her words will remember her. This remembrance clarifies the problem of the sonnet and the solution.

The problem is that humans cannot always remember the beloved departed: they forget even in mourning. The solution is that her poems will keep her immortal by remembering her to the world through their substance: "A vestige of the thoughts that once I had" refers to her poems. The first four lines, 9-12, of the sestet and are her way of comforting her beloved when explains why he need not grieve for forgetting for a while: her words also remember her to the world, to all who read them.

Anyone who has grieved over the death of a loved one knows there are moments in their days during which the world intrudes and forces distraction from grief through the demands of productivity or admits distraction through unexpected laughter with a child or a playful kitten. For the grieving mourner, these moments of distracted living amplify grief and add new grief over the moments we forgot. The poetic speaker recognizes this new grief by acknowledging the inevitability of forgetting and by forestalling grief through compassion and forgiveness and by presenting her original understanding of a poet's immortality: the words hold the remembrance.

What is the paradox of the resolution?

An element of sonnet form is the paradox in the resolution. A paradox is something that seems false but is nonetheless true. Rossetti, who is recognized as the master of form among her generation of poets in Victorian England, has given us two paradoxes. The first paradox is between the octave--in a rhyme scheme of abbaabba--and the sestet--in a rhyme scheme of cddece (the rhyme scheme is central to building the flow of logic in a sonnet). The paradox is: remember me while you forget. The second paradox is in the resolution and is represented by the conflict between "forget" and "smile." Forgetting would be to fail to honor her request, her love and his own love, yet she advices him that it is better to "forget and smile" while discouraging remembering and being sad. It seems false, yet it is true because her poems eternally keep her remembrance offered to those readers who read the vestiges of her thoughts in them.

Remembering Theme

The central theme of "Remember" is remembering. Rossetti explores remembrance after death through two perspectives: the perspective of one who loves and is left behind, after "darkness and corruption" consumes the beloved in death, as well as through the perspective of continuing, or immortal, remembrance.

The poetic speaker, not assumed to be the poet, requests that her beloved remember her when she is "gone far away" into death. She acknowledges that human will cannot resist the distractions of living--whether of productivity, trouble or pleasure--and counsels "do not grieve" when he forgets "for a while."

The speaker then presents a novel twist on the conventional theme of attaining immortality--or attaining continuing remembrance--through the words of poetry, which escape the ravages of death: words of poetry are what death leaves. The poet's words are the "vestige of thoughts" that are left behind by the "darkness and corruption" of death.

These words, or vestiges of thoughts, remember the poet continuingly as they are read--or even as they are simply saved though perhaps never read again, though of course Christina Rossetti is read again and again and again and is continuingly remembered for her thoughts though in "the silent land."

Death Theme

The next most obvious theme in "Remember" is death. Death is presented in the allusion ending the second line: "into the silent land." The placement of this allusion to death is critical since it completes the first clause, the first thematic idea, of the poem.

Remember me when I am gone away, 1
         Gone far away into the silent land; 2

The theme of death is significant because the dying poetic speaker is preparing herself and her beloved--the listener to whom the words of the sonnet are addressed--for what is to come when she can no more recover and turn away from death's pull, death that pulls her toward its silent land: "I half turn to go yet turning stay." Line 4 here, tells us that up until now, she has been fighting to recover and renew her strength to stay alive. She foresees the upcoming time in which this effort of hers will fail and wants her beloved to be prepared, "you understand," for her death.

In this sonnet, the poetic speaker is not assumed to be the poet, Christina Rossetti, herself. According to William, her brother, it is true that Christina lived with constant suffering from serious health conditions. Later in her life she was diagnosed with a thyroid disease, although her first collapse in health occurred in 1843 at age thirteen. Yet since the poem was written before she had experienced the worst from her health during an episode that repeatedly took her to the edge of death and that occurred in 1872, the details of her life may be too scant to let us assume the death invoking illness of the poetic speaker reflects Christina's personal experience up to that point, although "Remember" certainly presages the experiences she would both pass through and witness in others ("Christina Rossetti," eNotes.com/topics/christina-rossetti).

The theme of death introduced in the first clause of the poem and in the second hinges upon recognition of "into the silent land" as an allusion to and a symbol of death. The phrase "into the silent land," has been used in Christian hymns and collections of hymns since at least 1597 when it was the title of a hymn collection. Longfellow wrote an hymn by the same title, "Into the Silent Land," 300 years later, in 1840, when Christina was ten years old. The symbol of the silent land and the implied metaphor behind it equate "the silent land" with death. The phrase was a conventional enough symbol and metaphor for Christian death for Longfellow to have used it again 300 years after it is first recorded. Therefore, "into the silent" is a Christian hymn allusion that introduces death as a theme of importance in "Remember."

Mortality and Immortality Theme

The theme of death often juxtaposes the theme of mortality and immortality. The poetic speaker faces her mortality by accepting the pull of death "into the silent land." She seeks to imbue herself with a kind of immortality by requesting that her beloved remember her after she enters "into the silent land," after she enters into death.

Here, the idea of the frailty of human intention enters in as she recognizes--not with rancor or bitterness, only with compassionate resignation--that life will override human intention and produce short intervals of forgetfulness, "for a while."

She attempts to forestall the added grief he will feel because of forgetting--thus rendering her continually mortal--by telling him that another will continue to remember her without interruption. This other that will remember her is the remnant of her thoughts that are left behind in her poems and that, by always remembering her to her readers, will imbue her with the constant immortality she seeks.

This theme represents a standard convention used by poets, including Edmund Spenser and William Shakespeare, who attest that their words, their poems, give them immortality as well as give immortality to the subjects of their poems.

Yet if you should forget me for a while 9
         And afterwards remember, do not grieve: 10
         For if the darkness and corruption leave 11
         A vestige of the thoughts that once I had, 12
Better by far you should forget and smile 13
         Than that you should remember and be sad. 14

The original twist that Rossetti gives to this standard poetic convention is that beyond her words (the "vestige of the thoughts [she] once had") giving immortality because they exist eternally, as Spenser and Shakespeare both attest, Rossetti imparts to "the vestige" of her thoughts--to her words--the power of remembrance. This theme of mortality and immortality, then, is integral to the paradoxical resolution that frees her beloved from the task of always remembering--thus providing a form of immortality--by declaring that her words remember, thus give her continuing immortality.

Compassion, Expressed in Caring Actions

Both the poetic speaker and the listener, the one to whom the sonnet is addressed, show compassion in acts of caring. In the octave (the first 8 lines organized as two related quatrains with an abbaabba rhyme scheme), the speaker acknowledges four specific acts of caring that show her beloved's compassion (and devoted love) for her:

  • He compassionately physically comforts her in her suffering by holding her hand, as act they both value and will regret the loss of: "When you can no more hold me by the hand,..."
  • He both makes plans for their future life together (suggesting they have never been able to marry) and compassionately tells her daily of these wonderful plans: "when no more day by day / You tell me of our future that you plann'd:..."
  • He gives her compassionate "counsel" to comfort her and guide to quiet thoughts that will sustain her through her suffering. Counsel intended to guide and strengthen is an act of compassion.
  • He compassionately prays for her. His prayers are undoubtedly for her recovery as well as for her endurance, strength and courage in suffering. These prayers are acts of compassion: "... remember me; you understand / It will be late to counsel then or pray."

In the sestet (the last six lines conveying a turn in the idea pursued--starting at the line 9 volta--with a cddece rhyme scheme), the speaker expresses her own compassion in three distinct acts of caring:

  • She compassionately and kindly acknowledges that, although she requests that he remember her after she is dead, he will forget: the distractions of life must draw his thoughts away from remembrance of her.
  • She kindly counsels him to not grieve when he forgets: "Yet if you should forget me for a while / And afterwards remember, do not grieve:...."
  • She consoles him by saying that if he forgets, her words, the "vestige of the thoughts that once [she] had," would remember her, so it is "Better by far [he] should forget and smile."

These two perspectives thus demonstrate the critically important theme of compassion as it is expressed in acts of caring. He acts from his compassion to comfort her, counsel her, pray for her, and she acts from her compassion to console him, comfort him and release him from guilt.

Resignation Theme

The definition of "resignation" is to have an accepting, unresisting attitude of acquiescence or submission (Random House Dictionary). If the theme of resignation is present in this sonnet, then the first-person poetic speaker will indicate acceptance of her upcoming death and acceptance of the reality of human frailty in upholding intentions. Does she do this?

In the octave, lines 1 and 4, she requests that she be remembered when "Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay." Since we know that the "silent land" is the land of death, we can understand this elusively constructed line to mean: [paraphrase] When I can no longer resist death; when I can not again recover when at death's threshold and turn away from death's face to stay in the land of the living....

The tone here--as displayed by the vocabulary and the sound choices--has no rancor, no bitterness, only quiet and soothing recognition of what is coming: she is accepting of and unresisting toward the approach of death. She is resigned to death.

The analytical details illuminating this quiet, soothing tone are these:

Vocabulary: She chooses simply "remember me," not you must remember, I want to be remembered, say you will remember etc that imply demand or desperation or fear.

Word Sounds: She selects, in the tradition of Edmund Spenser, combination of consonants and vowels that enhance the tone she establishes with her vocabulary: the sounds of the vowels and consonants are open, as in /mem/ /gone/ /land/ /hold/; elongating, as in /m/ /w/ /n/ /lf/ /ay/; soothing, as in /more/ /far/ /n/ /m/; and quiet and quieting, as in /s/ /l/ /lf/ /f/ /-member/.

In the sestet, lines 9 and 10, she forestalls quilt and grief over likelihood that her beloved will, for short moments of time, be distracted from remembering her, although he mourns and grieves his loss of her. She does not speak in a judgmental tone but in a gently consoling tone: "Yet if you should forget..." She requests that he not grieve when the inevitable happens; when human frailty allows distraction and forgetting. She goes further and offers him a consoling solution to the dilemma in the paradox of remembering while forgetting: she attests her words of poetry will remember her. She is resigned to--more than resigned to, she is compassionate of--human frailty in fulfilling intention.

Yet if you should forget me for a while 9
         And afterwards remember, do not grieve: 10
         For if the darkness and corruption leave 11
         A vestige of the thoughts that once I had, 12
Better by far you should forget and smile 13
         Than that you should remember and be sad. 14