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by Christina Rossetti
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 dew drops wet
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt forget.
I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not see 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.
Christina Rossetti had barely turned eighteen when she wrote 'Song' on 12th December,1848. The world outside her comfortable Charlotte Street home in central London was being shaken by rumours of foreign revolution and Chartist demonstrations and, domestically, her life was in some turmoil also. The poem was written as an engagement present for her new fiancee, James Collinson: a painter friend of her brother's, Dantë Gabriel, and a fellow member of his fledgling Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. It is doubtful whether she harboured any especially strong feelings for Collinson, and she was to end the engagement after two years when he returned to his previous Roman Catholic persuasion.
Christina's high church Anglicanism was to be one of the defining aspects of her life. Her elderly father (Professor, minor poet and Neapolitan political-exile, Gabriele) had suffered a deterioration in both general health and eyesight and she herself appears to have undergone some form of nervous collapse around this time. A doctor, Hare (the family physician), who attended upon her when she was 'about 16-18...[was reported to have been convinced]...that she was more or less out of her mind (suffering, in fact, from a form of insanity, I believe a kind of religious mania)'. Christina, in stark contrast to the demure paragon of Christian virtue she was to become, seems to have been quite wilful and to have engaged in self-harm as an adolescent (as she reveals in a later letter): 'On one occasion, being rebuked by my dear mother for some fault, I seized upon a pair of scissors, and ripped up my arm to vent my wrath'. This type of behaviour has led at least one biographer to speculate about the possibility of an incestuous and/or abusive relationship between Christina and her 'papa'.
There seems scant evidence of religiosity in 'Song', which may indeed even be read from a humanistic perspective. It does however deal, in a way which was to become typical of the poet, with the classically adolescent subject matter of Death and the possibility of survival of some form of personal identity.
Though Christina had been writing poetry from a very early age, her work would not reach a wider public until the 1862 publication of Goblin Market and other poems (which includes 'Song'). The Literary Review perhaps best summed up the critical accolades heaped on this volume, when it enthused: 'Simultaneously with the publication of Mrs Browning's Last Poems, the legacy of one whose untimely death has robbed us of many a noble thought set to rich music, we receive from a poetess whose name is known to but few, a first work of singular merit'. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, although Christina never met her, remained a great inspiration: she was later tempted to write the older woman's biography - though Robert Browning effectively scotched the project.
Christina Rossetti's later years were to be characterised by a determined self-effacement in the path of life's vicissitudes. She would work for ten years as a volunteer at the St Mary Magdalene refuge for single mothers and former prostitutes, in Highgate. She would lose her equally celebrated elder brother (for whom she'd once acted as painter's model) in 1882. Looking after her mother and aunts until late middle-age, she was to be denied a tranquil senescence of her own by the twin afflictions, stoically endured, of Graves' Disease - a thyroid disorder - and terminal breast cancer. Her literary reputation, which had suffered neglect for many years, underwent a significant re-appraisal in the Nineteen Seventies, with the advent of feminism.
Jones, K., Learning Not To Be First, Oxford University Press (1991).
Marsh, J., Christina Rossetti, A Literary Biography, Jonathan Cape (1994).
Rossetti, C., Selected Poems (ed., Roe, D.), Penguin Classics (2008).
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