«A Dissertation by SARAH ELIZABETH HART Submitted to the Office of Graduate Studies of Texas A&M University in partial fulfillment of the requirements ...»
In both readings, the speaker seems to mourn the loss of such a dialogic, reciprocal relationship with her listener—either because her death ended their intimate connection or because the oppressive listener failed to participate in the kind of dialogic relationship she desired. Both interpretations recognize the speaker's value of her connection with the listener; she seems to mourn the loss of a non-reciprocal relationship, not the fact that she is connected to the listener. In this respect, Rossetti seems to appeal strongly to her readers' value of reciprocal, dialogic connection with others because the appeal resonates whether we read the poem as caring or as threatening. The speaker's mourning for her loss of connection in either reading, however, ultimately seems like a kind of mourning for herself, for her own loss, more than mourning for the listener's losses. Such selfmourning seems like a motive shared by Keats's speaker—and Frost's, Dickinson's, and Hopkins's as well.
The final lines of Rossetti's poem, "Better by far you should forget and smile/Than that you should remember and be sad," seem to have both Levinasian and anti-Levinasian, caring and uncaring implications, depending on how we read the poem.
In a "nice" reading, these lines seem to express "a valediction forbidding mourning," aiming to relieve the listener's grief much like Donne's poem (Marsh 100). However, Donne and Rossetti prohibit their readers' mourning in different ways: while Donne lists logical reasons why the speaker and the listener should not grieve because their relationship is only expanding, not breaking, Rossetti offers a succinct emotional appeal, asserting that it is "[b]etter" that the listener "smile" and be happy than that he "be sad" (13-14). According to the emotional logic of the poem's "nice" meaning, the speaker tries to console herself by asking the listener to remember her—to revitalize her presence after death. However, she would grieve even more if the listener felt "sad" when he remembered, so she tells him not to remember if it causes him pain (Reynolds 32;
Rossetti 14). She values the listener's consolation and happiness more than her own, and her willingness to sacrifice her own consolation to ensure her listener's happiness seems like a gesture of Levinasian responsibility. Her prohibition against the listener's mourning, like Donne's, also seems anti-elegiac in that she encourages her listener to adopt an attitude toward death that seems "out of step" with the mourning of "other survivors" (Spargo, Ethics 129).
In Reynolds's "subversive" reading of Rossetti, the final lines curse the listener (34). The possibility that "the darkness and corruption" might "leave/A vestige of the thoughts that once" the speaker "had" convey "the darkness and corruption of her anger, her distress, at [the listener's] conventional use of her" (Rossetti 11-12; Reynolds 33).
The speaker's "anger" would constitute the "vestige of [her] thoughts," which, if the listener remembered them—"remember[ed] the truth" about their relationship—he would "be sad" (Reynolds 34; Rossetti11-12). Reynolds implies that even the oppressive listener values reciprocal, dialogic relationships at some level and would mourn his irresponsible treatment of the speaker. For Reynolds, the speaker's final claim, "Better by far you should forget and smile/Than that you should remember and be sad," reads "like a curse, a threat, a bitter promise..." spoken by a "vengeful speaker" who feels that the listener "should remember and be sad" about his unethical behavior (Rossetti 13Reynolds 34). Alternatively, the speaker may view the listener as incapable of remembering—of being a Levinasian subject—and implicitly defines herself as the only one capable of Levinasian self-sacrifice. This reading characterizes the speaker-listener relationship in Rossetti's poem as the inverse of the speaker-listener relationship in Keats's poem, in which the listener is the one who adopts the Levinasian stance in response to an oppressive speaker.
In subversive readings of Rossetti's poem, the speaker mourns for herself, for her own hindered ability "to be able" caused by the listener's oppression (Levinas, "Time" 42). Mourning for the loss of her human agency seems continuous with the paralyzing emptiness that Frost's and Dickinson's speakers express. Reynolds points us to ambiguity in "the darkness and corruption" that might "leave/A vestige of the thoughts that once [the speaker] had," which may refer to "death" in the "nice version" of the poem and to the speaker's "anger" and "distress" in the "subversive" version (Rossetti 11-12;
Reynolds 33-34). These ambiguous connotations of death, of oppression, and of emotional distress point to continuity between death and death-like emotion. Like Dickinson and Frost, Rossetti seems to affirm that we may have death-like emotions and or experience when we lose our ability "to be able," a loss that may result from various kinds of trauma (Levinas, "Time" 42). Rossetti's speaker seems to revitalize her agency, however, by writing the poem and expressing herself.
Both readings of Rossetti's poem preserve the possibility for dialogic connections beyond death. The speaker suggests that posthumous connection may be possible when she refers to the "vestige of thoughts" that "the darkness and corruption" of death might "leave" behind (Rossetti 11-12). Whether we interpret these thoughts as caring or as angry, these thoughts may linger as a "vestige" after the speaker's death or beyond her death-like emotions, indirectly connecting the speaker and listener through their emotional effect (Rossetti 12). Rossetti's speaker implies that her listener may be haunted—much like Keats's listener—by these thoughts since they may make him "sad" (Rossetti 12, 14; Keats 4). Both speakers seem to remain partially present after death in the effects that they continue to have on others. Other terms in the Rossetti's poem also connote partial presence: "counsel" suggests discussing an issue that has yet to be settled or seeking advice about something of which one has only partial knowledge; "pray" suggests speaking to God, who is not physically present, and, by extension, any apostrophe to an absent audience (8). These two terms simultaneously connote dialogue and loss, indicating that loss or partial presence underlies dialogue.
Dialogic loss is similarly connoted by the speaker's partial presence in "half turn[ing] to go yet turning stays" (Rossetti 4). Her turn is both a going away and a "stay[ing]," a kind ambiguous or partial presence that would make room for another person. This gesture also connoted a psychological or emotional turning towards—or away from—someone. For example, in that persuasion changes someone's mind and/or moves his or her emotions, it turns him or her away from one point of value, at least momentarily, and towards another. Thus, Rossetti's description of this physical gesture also connotes a psychological or emotional effect of dialogue.
Rossetti seems to present dialogue and memory as ways of attenuating loss.
Memory seems to be not only a theme of her poem, but also part of its effect on her reader. In the next section, I compare the kind of memory Rossetti evokes in her reader with the way memory and self-reflexivity affect Keats's reader. Kenneth Burke's explanation of how poetic form in general affects our experience of reading poetry helps clarify poetry's dialogic, consoling effects on readers. These effects speak to Levinas's argument in "Dying For..." that sacrificing one's life for another person may negate the separation that death invokes. Such "'non-separation in death'" may be a most consoling—and ethical—hope in situations of loss ("Dying For" 215).
Memory and Poetic Form When Rossetti's speaker tells her listener that he will "no more" be able to "hold [her] by the hand," nor "tell [her] of the future that [he] planned," she rehearses activities that seem to be part of their normal, "day by day" routine (2, 6, 5). In this respect, the poem explicitly describes the very memories that the speaker asks the listener to recall, such that the act of reading the poem is, especially for the listener, simultaneously the very act of remembering—the act that the speaker calls the listener to perform. These activities also provide a narrative context for the speaker-listener relationship that reminds Rossetti's historical readers that they are not, in fact, the implied listener of the poem. Present readers experience the activities only as a narrative and not as actual memories, as the speaker and implied listener supposedly would. In a sense, though, Rossetti's reader imitates or mimics the listener's act of remembering insofar as she reads the same words, the same rhymes and rhythms that the implied listener would.
Kenneth Burke speaks to the formal connection between implied and historical readers in Counter-Statement. He claims that "form... is... the psychology of the audience" because form appeals to the reader's "'potentiality for being interested by certain processes or arrangements" like "crescendo, contrast, comparison, balance, repetition..." etc. (Burke, Counter-Statement 31, 46). These patterns also "characterize" a reader's "experiences outside of art," since we may experience various kinds of crescendos, repetitions, etc. in any activity (Burke, Counter-Statement 143). Thus, a poem's "form is a way of experiencing" (Burke, Counter-Statement 143). For example, Rossetti's implied and historical readers share the same form of experience in reading her sonnet; they both negotiate the repetitions of Rossetti's rhyme scheme and iambic pentameter. Although we may identify the implied and historical readers based on their shared encounters with Rossetti's form, we would not conclude that their experiences are identical in every way. For example, Rossetti addresses an implied reader who actually shared the speaker's experiences of holding hands, etc., although Rossetti's historical reader would not have shared these experiences with the speaker.
While Rossetti's repetitive form would have different meanings for her implied and historical readers, her form would engage both readers' memories insofar as her form functions as a mnemonic device. Her form appeals to memory in that rhymes, like that between "away" and "stay," appeal because the reader remembers the previous word and recognizes its similarity to the second word (Rossetti 1, 4). By recognizing the repetitive vowel sounds, the reader may participate in the way that "stay" imitates "away," such that the reader enjoys the poetic pattern because it simulates the kind of imitation that "everyone enjoys," according to Aristotle ("Poetics" 37).
Although the content of Rossetti's poem has different memorial and narrative meanings for her implied and historical readers, we may identify them in terms of their shared encounter with the poem's form. Keats's formal appeal, however, seems to connect his implied and historical readers far more closely. Keats's speaker narrates no past relationship with his listener; rather, he positions his listener as first and foremost a reader of poetry and his own "survivor" (Macksey 854). In his poem, the phrases "This living hand" and "see here it is—/I hold it towards you" reflexively emphasizes the act of writing, and, by implication, of reading the poem itself (Keats 1, 7-8). This metadiscourse constantly refers the reader back to the poem, to its handwriting, to the hand that wrote it—and thereby emphasizes the listener/reader's present—and poetic— relationship with the speaker. By self-reflexively reminding the reader that she is, in fact, reading, Keats creates ambiguity between the reader and the listener, ambiguity that contrasts with the distance between Rossetti's historical reader and implied listener.
Keats's implied listener and historical reader are more closely identified because Keats emphasizes their formal connection over any individual differences that would distinguish them. While Rossetti focuses on narrating past experiences in terms of her future death, Keats's speaker seems to desire connection with someone, anyone, regardless of who he or she is; thus, Keats places greater value on connection itself than on who that connection is with. Rossetti, on the other hand, seems to place greater value on a specific relationship, one with the implied listener specifically.
Keats's self-reflexive meta-discourse about the act of reading not only conflates the listener and the reader's positions, but also interrupts the poem's fictional scene. For example, the present tense of the last lines ("see here it is—/I hold it towards you") draws our attention to the fact that a poem, not a real hand, is what is literally before us (Keats 7-8). This shift in emphasis prompts the reader to conflate the hand and the poem as both possible antecedents of "it" (Keats 7-8). Although the pronoun grammatically refers to the hand, this grammatical meaning may be complicated by the reader's association of "it" with the poem itself (Keats 7-8). The hand as creator of the poem becomes the hand as itself poem. The reader's awareness of her own act of reading interferes with the poem's grammatical meaning. The reader's memory of reading the poem shapes the meaning that she deduces from that act of reading. This circularity emphasizes the reader's structural relationship to the poem, not unlike the "compasses" that make Donne's speaker's "circle just" (26, 35). In addition, the poem allows the reader to experience how memory can make meaning present where it is absent. To the extent that the poem is already in the reader's memory, in a sense, then so too is the hand which wrote it and which it describes. By the end of the poem, the poem and its hand already "haunt" the reader who remembers in the act of reading (Keats 4). The poem and its hand may continue to haunt the reader even after her initial reading if she continues to remember the poem.
The poem's form produces in Keats's reader a haunting effect much like the one that its content threatens to invoke in the future. The poem's performance of haunting seems similar to the performance of loss that Susan Wolfson reads in Keats's last lyrics to Fanny Brawne. For example, in "I cry your mercy," Wolfson finds that "the way the syntax pushes past 'mind' to 'Losing' all but enacts that loss even as it anticipates it. The rhyme is almost lost, almost as lost as the rhyming poet feels himself to be" (64).