In "After Death" (1862) Christina Rossetti addresses common themes in Victorian poetry at the time — death, tragic love, and the possibility of an afterlife. As a female author, however, Rossetti offers a different perspective on these subjects from the standard tone and attitude of other male poets, including that of her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Rather than depicting a male narrator lusting after a lifeless, thoughtless female, Rossetti elects to write from the woman's perspective. Laying on her death bed, the female subject remains a motionless object of male desire, as in Tennyson's "Lady of Shallott" (text) and Dante Gabriel Rossetti's "The Blessed Damozel" (text); however, in giving her consciousness and a voice, Rossetti endows the woman with power in her own right.

Not only did "After Death" provide a rather new female perspective, but the poem's lack of description and visual details also countered the general style of other poets associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, who endowed their works with hard-edge realism. Rossetti begins the poem with a short passage, setting the scene:

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, through the lattice, ivy-shadows crept.

This rather cursory description affords the reader only the most basic understanding of the setting: she describes a floor and bed, covered in rushes, and a half-covered window. Rossetti provides no physical description of the man and woman portrayed in the poem. Instead, she engages readers with more active verbs, such as, "swept," "strewn," and "crept," when illustrating the setting. Then, to relay the man's actions at her bedside, Rossetti selects more forceful verbs, "leaned," "turned," "wept," "touch," "ruffle," "take," "raise," and "pitied."

Rossetti also uses active verbs to describe the female narrator's perceptions — verbs that show her as an intelligent, feeling human. Despite being deceased, the woman sees, hears, and feels her male admirer's grief. As Rossetti writes, the narrator "heard him say, 'Poor child, poor child," "knew that he wept," and perceived his strong love for her, which did not truly surface until after her death:

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.

These last few lines assert the female subject in a position of power. Other Victorian authors often afforded their feminine objects of desire a sense of authority, derived from a man's devotion toward them. In selecting a female narrator and giving her a voice, thoughts, and feelings, however, Rossetti heightened the woman's prominence in her own right. In doing so, Rossetti essentially made a feminist statement, whether intentionally or not.

Questions

1. Both Christina Rossetti and her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, wrote extensively on the notion of temporality, focusing specifically on the topic of "lost youth and missed opportunity" (St. Armand). In what ways is this poem an expression of missed opportunity? It certainly seems that the man in the poem missed his chance to realize his true feelings for the woman, but is there some suggestion that she might have failed to express her feelings for him as well? Do you think that she loved him or simply relished the idea of being desired?

2. What parallels can you draw between the female narrator and the "fair ladies" of Rossetti's brother's paintings and poems, such as his representations of Lady Lilith and Dante's Beatrice?

3. As with Rossetti's other poetic works, "After Death" lacks symbolism. The poem relies more on its short length and simple, but powerful word choice to convey meaning. Perhaps the only instance of double meaning occurs in the final line: "To know he still is warm though I am cold." Why do you think that Rossetti chose to use the words "warm" and "cold" rather than "alive" and "dead" when the remainder of the poem is so direct?

4. Rossetti, "disassociated herself from the suffrage movement and thought women's rights and Christianity were at odds" (Blake). Why, then, did Rossetti place the female narrator of "After Death" in a position of power? In what ways might the women's suffrage movement have been at odds with religion at the time?

Related Materials

Bibliography

Blake, Kathleen, "Christina Rossetti, Women, and Patience."Love and the Woman Question in Victorian Literature. Sussex: The Harvester Press, 1983.

Bowra, C.M., "Love as an Influence on Christina Rossetti." Victorian Web.

Landow, George P. "The Dead Woman Talks Back: Christina Rossetti's Ironic Intonation of the Dead Fair Maiden." Victorian Web.

Landow, George P. "Image and Symbol in Christina Rossetti's poetry"Victorian Web.

St. Armand, Barton. "Deathbed Scenes in Rossetti, Dickinson, and Sigourney." Victorian Web.


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Last modified 19 October 2003