«A Dissertation by SARAH ELIZABETH HART Submitted to the Office of Graduate Studies of Texas A&M University in partial fulfillment of the requirements ...»
Both Keats and Donne emphasize how speakers and listeners, selves and others, may stay connected with each other in spite of separations caused by death and loss.
Their speakers "maintain," in the face of death and/or physical separation, "a relationship that" is "still... personal"—i.e. a personal relationship with their listeners (Levinas, "Time" 47). Such a personal relationship "[v]anquish[es] death," according to Levinas ("Time" 47). Donne's and Keats's poems vanquish death in the sense that they change the fearful meaning that death holds both for the speakers and listeners, and for Donne's and Keats's readers. Such consolation seems ethical because it preserves a relationship with the other instead of substituting something else for the other. In these poems, desire for or the ethical value of connections with others overshadows the fear of death. Dialogic connections between the speakers and the listeners transcend or exceed death and loss in the poems, appealing to the reader's value of such enduring connections with others. This appeal is heightened by the reader's participation in the speaker-listener relationship through the act of reading. The poems suggest that if dialogic connections can exceed death within the poems, then, perhaps, the dialogic connections that the poems enable between writers and readers may also exceed death. Even though we realize that the enduring dialogic connections that the poems promise us are, in reality, only partial— that in reality we still miss those we care about and who have passed away because our memories of them are not an adequate substitute for their actual presence—these poems reveal to us readers how deeply we value connections with others and desire their preservation. Levinas clarifies that this value of connection resonates on a level as fundamental as death.
Rossetti Like Keats and Donne, Christina Rossetti appeals to her reader's value of connection with others in "Remember." The Levinasian and anti-elegiac implications of her poem are evident in the two contrasting interpretations of the poem that Margaret Reynolds identifies—one "nice" meaning of the poem and one "subversive" (32, 34). In the octect of the sonnet, the speaker aims to compel her reader to remember her, not unlike Keats's speaker. Much as Keats's speaker focuses on the sacrifices his death will require of his reader, Rossetti's speaker focuses on how the losses that her death invoke for her reader, who will "no more" be able to "hold [her] by the hand" or "to counsel...
or pray" (Rossetti 3, 8). Rossetti's rhetoric seems less vicious than Keats's, however, especially in light of her speaker's apparent shift in tone after the sonnet's turn. The "nice" interpretation is quite the counterpoint to Keats's threat to "[s]o haunt" his reader that she "wouldst wish [her] own heart dry of blood;" Rossetti kindly tells her reader, "Better by far you should forget and smile/Than that you should remember and be sad," apparently concerned that her memory not even impinge on the reader's happiness, let alone his life (Keats 4-5; Rossetti 13-14). The speaker's apparent shift in attitude—and the sonnet's turn—may not really be complete, however, as Reynolds argues when she interprets the poem's conclusion as "subversive" (34).
Reynolds offers an alternative interpretation, calling the poem "a curse, a threat" posed by a "vengeful speaker," takes a feminist shape (34). Reynolds demonstrates "that the he-listener is the chief actor in" the speaker-listener "relation," and that "if he...
really remembers the truth" about their relationship, "he will be sad"—and that "he should" feel so remorseful (33-34). Susan Conley likewise finds unhappy irony in "Remember;" she suggests that the repetition of memory actually "conjures...
forgetting" and that the speaker is ambivalent towards her lover-listener (268). These two effects invert the poem's "binary thematics:" "life is linked with remembrance and sorrow, while death is linked with the smile of forgetfulness" (Conley 269). Conley strongly resists conventional characterizations of the "spontaneity and simplicity" of Rossetti's poetry, arguing that her lyrics like "Remember" "should be heard as 'cool, bitter,' ironic commentaries on Victorian sexual and textual politics..." (269, 281).
More personal motives may also inform "Remember," however, since Marsh observes that Rossetti wrote the poem barely a month after a bout of anxiety that rendered the poet unable even to write down her poetry (99-100). Poetry was an important emotional outlet for Rossetti, especially when she was overburdened by caring for her invalid father at age thirteen (Marsh 39). By affirming the personal motives of Rossetti's writing, Marsh invites us to read "Remember" as motivated by more than merely political concerns. To read "Remember" as possibly informed by both political and personal motives underscores the poem's complex, even conflicting implications.
For Reynolds, the opposite meanings of Rossetti's poem "are simultaneously compatible," and I suggest that when we integrate both readings of the poem, Rossetti shows us how caring and aggressive modes of mourning may be closely intertwined (34). Her poem speaks not only to the complexity of our emotional responses to loss, but also to the conflicting ways in which we may experience and/or actualize Levinasian responsibility. "Remember" responds to loss in both Donne-like and Keats-like ways, indicating that one might respond in conflicting ways to a single event of loss. Both responses to loss that Rossetti represents, however, emphasize the importance of responsible dialogue, the loss of which motivates her speaker's elegiac mourning.
Both readings of Rossetti's poem address (at least implicitly) the speaker's sense of loss. The speaker imagines her own death when she is "gone... far away into the silent land" (Rossetti 1-2). Reynolds notes the ambiguity of "the silent land" and of "the darkness and corruption" that "vague[ly]" insinuates that the "speaker... [is] about to die" (Rossetti 2, 11; Reynolds 32). I suggest, however, that the ambiguity of these terms affirms that the speaker may not literally be about to die. Rather, her imaginings of her own death may be prompted by an encounter with any kind of meaningful loss, not unlike the way that Goldengrove's autumn leaves move Margaret to mourn for her own mortality. For example, it could be the speaker's experience of oppression by the "helistener," who may compromise her ability "to be able," that reminds her of her own death (Reynolds 33; Levinas, "Time" 42).
Rossetti herself may have felt so oppressed at times when she bore most of the burden of caring for her invalid father when she was only thirteen years old (Marsh 39).
Her father's illness and the family's resulting economic strife overshadowed Rossetti's own needs, Marsh explains, and only a year and half later, Rossetti herself suffered a nervous break (43). These traumatic, oppressive experiences may have felt like an encounter with death for Rossetti, whose ability "to be able" was severely imposed on by her family's demands that she alone stay home with her father (Levinas, "Time" 42;
Marsh 43). These experiences certainly seem haunting since after this trauma, Rossetti continued to experience bouts of malaise and anxiety—such as the one a month before "Remember" was written (Marsh 99-100). These experiences may have left Rossetti with complex feelings about—and ways of imagining—death, perhaps not unlike Dickinson, whose "mysterious fright" seems to have inspired her group of poems written around 1862, including "After great pain" (Manley 260). Like the speaker of Dickinson's poem, Rossetti may have felt or at least been able to imagine death-like feelings and attitudes.
When Rossetti's speaker imagines "the darkness and corruption" when she is "gone...
far away into the silent land," these images may connote not only death's literal imminence, as Reynolds suggests, but also the speaker's death-like feelings or state of mind (Rossetti 1-2; Reynolds 32).
The phrase "silent land" couches death in terms of the loss of sound—including self-expression and dialogue—specifically. This phrase seems to connote a mystical place (like Hades), an attitude or state of mind (like a psychological experience of imposed silence), and the very literal space of the grave inside the unspeaking ground.
For Conley these literal and psychological connotations coincide; she claims that "the poem's real interest... revolves less around whether the lover remembers or forgets, than around the 'darkness and corruption' of the grave and the fate of human 'thoughts' therein" (268). Rossetti's indirect reference to a grave echoes Keats's description of "the icy silence of the tomb," which similarly couches death in terms of the loss of sound, expression, and dialogue (Keats 3). This rhetoric emphasizes literal aspects of graves (i.e. they are cold and silent) in terms that appeal to readers' fears of death and of physical and/or psychological suffering (from cold temperatures or imposed silence).
Like Keats's speaker, Rossetti's speaker seems motivated by her fear of her own death and of the losses it implies to compose poetry. This motive of fear seems to hold whether we invoke a "nice" reading of Rossetti's poem or we focus on its threatening subtext (Reynolds 32).
If we do adopt a "nice" reading of Rossetti's poem, then we may find her tempering her appeal to her reader's fear of death in a way that Keats does not. Both Keats's and Rossetti's speakers mourn prematurely—and, I would suggest, antielegiacally—for their own future deaths. Like Keats's speaker, Rossetti's speaker seems to solicit her reader to revitalize her presence after she dies, although she does so in a much more caring manner. Keats's speaker threatens to "haunt" his listener and menacingly describes his "cold" hand "in the icy silence of the tomb," which not only threatens the listener's life, but also prevents the listener from expressing and acting on her genuine desire, presumably, to be separated from him (Keats 2-3). Rossetti's speaker, on the other hand, requests her listener to "Remember" her, a request that seems to give the listener the option not to remember and, thus, seems to preserve the listener's ability to express herself, her ability "to be able" (Rossetti 1; Levinas, "Time" 42). Keats's speaker, on the other hand, threatens his listener's ability to express herself and thereby inhibits her human agency in an anti-Levinasian manner.
In addition, Keats's visceral descriptions of death and the grave, his speaker's "cold" hand "in the icy silence of the tomb," emphasize the solitariness and physicality of death (Keats 2-3). Rossetti's body-less speaker, however, describes the losses that her death will cause for her listener. She characterizes her death as the time when her listener "can no more hold [her] by the hand," nor "tell [her] of [their] future that [he] planned," nor "counsel... or pray" with her (Rossetti 3, 6, 8). She focuses on how her death will impinge on the listener's ability "to be able" rather than on the way her death will extinguish her own agency (Levinas, "Time" 42). Her rhetoric may convey mourning for the pain she expects her death to cause the listener—she seems to anticipate and respond to her listener's grief in a far more caring, Levinasian way than Keats's speaker responds to his listener.
In contrast, Reynolds interprets these activities that the speaker and listener share as expressing the listener's oppression of the speaker. Reynolds emphasizes that in these activities, "the listener" is "the dominant party" (33). It is the listener who "does the holding," who makes the speaker "stay" when she "half turn[s] to go," who does all the "plan[ing]" for their "future" himself (Reynolds 33; Rossetti 4, 6). Reynolds suggests that the listener's "counsel[ing]" and "pray[ing]" entail "giving [the speaker] advice and asking her to do things" (Rossetti 8, Reynolds 33). In keeping with Reynolds's reading, we might take the line "It will be late to counsel then or pray" to also mean that the listener does not "counsel" or "pray" with her now—as if they speaker is pointing out that once she's dead, it will be too "late" to begin the kind of reciprocal conversation they have not yet shared (8). From this perspective, the speaker seems to mourn, perhaps bitterly and resentfully, her "failed intimacy" with the listener, which is, for Spargo, an anti-elegiac convention (Ethics 129). For Spargo, representations of failed intimacy guard against unethical assumptions that "the lost other" "was and remains knowable" in a way that might "benefit... the surviving community" (Ethics 129). In Reynolds "subversive" reading of Rossetti's poem, the speaker seems to know that the other was non-reciprocal and oppressive in their relationship; however, she also implies that she was distant from the listener, which suggests that she did not know him fully, intimately, and thereby ethically acknowledges that his difference exceeds her knowledge (Reynolds 34). Spargo helps us locate anti-elegiac, and even ethical, implications in Rossetti's vengeful implications.
Both "nice" and "subversive" readings of these middle lines in Rossetti's poem acknowledge the speaker's sense that her own death is closely tied to her connection with the listener. Rossetti's references to "tell[ing]... of... future" plans, "counsel[ing]," and "pray[ing]" describe acts of speaking to an audience, and thereby imply at least the potential for dialogue (Rossetti 8). Although counseling and praying connote acts of one-way communication, they also imply their speakers' anticipation some response from the audience. Rossetti's implication of dialogue is more prominent in the activities of holding hands and spending time together affirm the implication of dialogue (Rossetti 8, 3). By listing these activities, Rossetti affirms that dialogic activities are valuable and desirable, even if reciprocal dialogue is never achieved between the speaker and listener.