Death satisfies the speaker in Christina Rossetti's "After Death." On her deathbed, the speaker observes all that is around her, from the room to the man leaning over her. In death, she has the freedom to see without being seen. Rossetti opens with a series of images cloaked in secrecy:
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.
The window, the floor, the bed and the walls are veiled. Curtains hide the windows, the rushes cover the floor, flowers blanket the bed, and shadows overtake the room. Here Rossetti sets a quiet, dark, mysterious mood that suggests the speaker has a secret. The man cannot fully see her on her deathbed, for "he did not touch the shroud, or raise the fold that hid [her] face." Rossetti devotes no more attention to the lifeless body than she does the floor or the window. She seems to fade into her surroundings, just another part of the room that is still and concealed.
In life, the speaker wanted the man leaning over her to love her, but now in death, she has achieved a distance and an indifference. Rossetti frequently gives the speaker an active role: "I lay," "I slept," "I heard," "I knew" and most ironically, "I am." The man, however, only acts to lean and pity; he "did not touch...or raise...or take...or ruffle." He did not love her, but now, after death, she has made him pity her so much as to weep. Now she seems to have control, an upper-hand, and a transcendence above her emotions and desires. The speaker finds this pity sweet because their roles have reversed. The man becomes the one experiencing an unwanted sadness and an impossible wish. This is not sweet because it would seem to satisfy her need for attention from him in life; instead, it is sweet because she is now "cold." Death is for her a barrier, like the shroud or the curtains, that both frees her and contains her. She is contained within herself, secretly aware but unaffected.
1. Rossetti mentions rushes, rosemary (symbolizing constancy and fidelity), and may, as well as "ivy-shadows." Does her inclusion of these natural images hold any thematic significance?
2. Up until the last two lines, the poem is in past tense. At the end, "very sweet is is to know he still is warm though I am cold." What are the implications of this?
3. Would we interpret the poem differently if it were called "After Life?" How does Rossetti's conception of "life" after death differ from that in Dante Gabriel Rossetti's poetry?
4. How does the speaker's state after death differ from the speaker's in "Song?" Do they contradict each other or are they reconcilable?
- "After Death": A Female Perspective on Lost Love
- The Poetic Turn in Christina Rossetti's "After Death"
- Perceiving Life After Death
Last modified 20 October 2003