'My Sister's Sleep' describes the death of a girl, as experienced through the eyes of her sibling. The poem contains minimal action and movement, but rather creates mood through an accumulation of subtle descriptive devices which gently stimulate the senses. The family is isolated in a peaceful pocket of warmth; the chill of winter outside is unable to penetrate their domestic space, even as a shadow of death looms over the sleeping girl. There exists a powerful air of tension and we understand the necesscity that the dying girl remain undisturbed; her mother works 'some distance from the bed', so as to avoid awakening her daughter with 'the glare made by her candle'.

A sense of calm and stillness pervades Rossetti's language in this poem. The chiming of the clock and the movement of chairs on the floor above provide the only audible disturbance to the long held vigil. All remains still, except for when the mother lays down her knitting needles and rises to observe the arrival of Christmas day. Few words are spoken by the pair, but the poem ends with the joint exclamation 'Christ's blessing on the newly born', a somewhat ambiguous and unusual statement.

For my part, I but hid my face,
And held my breath, and spoke no word:
There was none spoken; but I heard
The silence for a little space.

In the above passage, the speaker reacts to the death without uttering a word or a cry. All that exists is silence, not even disturbed by the sound of his breath.

Questions

1. The poem temporally spans only a brief portion of the night, and is set in a sparse and minimal environment. How does Rossetti's language reflect or relate to the situation?

2. What is the reason for mentioning 'the people 'o'er head' who create noise by moving their chairs? Without this disruption, would the girl's passage into death have gone unnoticed? How is such an un-disruptive action as the moving of chairs amplified by Rossetti to create a sense of drama?

3. Even the mother and son's reactions to the death are understated and calm, in keeping with the tone of the whole poem. The death does not come as a surprise to the family. At any point in the poem, does Rossetti hint that death was inevitable, or at least imminent?

4. We are informed of the speakers mental state in a subtle manner, and mostly through he and his mother's subtle movements and reactions. How does this compare with Rossetti's Jenny which also involves the observation of a 'passive' (sleeping) character?


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Last modified 11 October 2006

Last modified 26 June 2007