In her poem "After Death," Christina Rossetti draws her reader into what is a poetry of experience. We hear and see the entire poem from the perspective of a dead woman, and although such a vantage point may seem, at first, to be somewhat of an impossibility, Rossetti uses this perspective as a poetic device. By envisioning this scene through the eyes of the deceased, we, as readers, are able to observe the mourner (the other character in the poem) from a more objective standpoint. Thus we soon forget the speaker's odd ability to consciously perceive her surroundings after death, and we begin to focus our attention on the experience of the mourner. At first, this man's reactions seem to be familiar and typical reactions to death:
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. [lines 5-8]
At this point in the poem, we know nothing of the relationship between the deceased and the mourner. Therefore, we are inclined to view this scene as a very poignant depiction of a man's realization of his loved one's death. However, several lines down, the poem takes a turn when the speaker states:
He did not love me living; but once dead
He pitied me; and very sweet it is
To know he still is warm though I am cold.
Here, once we realize that the man's sentiments towards the woman are more tender after her death than during her life, we see the thematic implications of the poem. The last line resonates more than any other when we note the double entendre of the word "warm" which refers both to the man's physical temperature and to his newfound, emotional tenderness.
It is the form of the poem, however, that mostly forces us to realize the impact of these last three lines. Upon reading the first eight lines of the poem, we recognize them as the octave of what appears, at first, to be a classic Italian sonnet. Indeed, the octave is written entirely in iambic pentameter and follows the traditional rhyme scheme of an Italian (or Petrarchan) sonnet. How then are the last six lines unlike a traditional Italian sestet? Why does Rossetti choose to stray from the classic form of the sonnet? That is to say, how else does the shift in poetic form noted in the last three lines impact our reading and experience of the poem?
Other Victorian authors such as Tennyson and Robert Browning have dealt with the theme of death and mourning. How can we relate Tennyson's speaker's experiences in In Memoriam to what Rossetti is saying about our love for other's after they have died? Do you think Tennyson would agree with what Rossetti is suggesting in the last few lines of "After Death?" And finally, Rossetti is trying to capture a similar theme or sensation to that in Tennyson's and even Browning's work, but she attempts to execute such themes within the confines of a much smaller space. Does her means of playing with form and perspective effectively emphasize both the content and experience of the poem?
Last modified 19 October 2003