In "My Sister's Sleep" (text) Dante Gabriel Rossetti describes the last moments of a dying girl's life throught the narration of her brother. Rossetti develops an intensely sensory poem characterized by a dark mood through his descriptions of sight and sound. Various techniques invite the reader to experience the pain of loss along with the mother and brother. The poem explores different emotions and reactions to the death of a loved one. This piece emphasizes such differences between the brother and mother of the girl. Rossetti expertly develops these qualities in his descriptions of the character's body language and speech; he never has to announce his characterizations bluntly. The reactions of the characters, along with the descriptions of sight and sound, simile, and word choice, produce a dark and somber mood. Stanzas ten through fifteen showcase these techniques effectively:

Just then in the room over us
       There was a pushing back of chairs,
       As some who had sat unawares
So late, now heard the hour, and rose.

With anxious softly-stepping haste
       Our mother went where Margaret lay,
       Fearing the sounds o'erhead—should they
Have broken her long watched-for rest!

She stopped an instant, calm, and turned;
       But suddenly turned back again;
       And all her features seemed in pain
With woe, and her eyes gazed and yearned.

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

Our mother bowed herself and wept:
       And both my arms fell, and I said,
       'God knows I knew that she was dead.'
And there, all white, my sister slept.

Then kneeling, upon Christmas morn
       A little after twelve o'clock
       We said, ere the first quarter struck,
Christ's blessing on the newly born!'

Rossetti shows his sophisticated talent as a poet in his impressive depictions of tangible and intangible elements, which all enhance the mood. The attention to detail and emotion parallel the same precision he exhibited in his paintings. "My Sister's Sleep" provides a strong example of PRB poetry because of these qualities.

Questions

1. Rossetti creates brilliant visual descriptions within the poem. In particular, the fourth stanza contains powerful visual images:

Without, there was a cold moon up,
       Of winter radiance sheer and thin;
       The hollow halo it was in
Was like an icy crystal cup.

Word choice and simile help to produce a sad mood in this stanza. What specific words promote this feeling? Also, does the use of the words "halo" and "cup" seem to connote a religious element to the poem, or do you think Rossetti uses these words purely for descriptive purposes?

2. Rossetti also creates visual images by describing the bodies of his characters. Prior to the climax of the poem, Rossetti characterizes the mother as attentively watching and caring for her daughter. He does this by describing the mother's body language. He uses phrases such as "With anxious softly-stepping haste" to show her attentiveness. The twelfth stanza ("She stopped a moment...") is the climax of the poem. Here, Rossetti describes the body language of the mother as she realizes that her daughter has died. How does this transformation of the mother, from alert nurse to mourner, contribute to the mood of the poem? Compare the mother's body language to her son's, as seen in stanzas thirteen and fourteen ("For my part..." and "Our mother bowed herself and wept..."). How does the son's reaction differ from the mother's? How do their personalities differ?

3. Rossetti also incorporates various sounds into this piece. The reader experiences the scene through Rossetti's descriptions, from the whisper of the flames of the fire to the chimes of the bells in the distance. The seventh stanza ("Twelve struck..."), for example, contains both sound and silence. What makes this stanza effective, both in the context of the poem and the development of the mood?

4. Another sound Rossetti incorporates in his poem is through the spoken words of his characters. There are several moments in which either the mother or son speak. The first is when the mother utters "Glory unto the Newly Born!" The second instance is the brother's sullen declaration, "God knows I knew that she was dead." The final spoken line is the last line of the poem, in which both mother and son say "Chirst's blessing on the newly born!" How does each of these lines affect the poem and its mood? In what manner do you think each of these lines are spoken? Bitterness, sincerity, another emotion?

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Last modified 11 October 2003