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After Death by Christina Rossetti

Christina Rossetti wrote the sonnet “After Death” at the mere age of nineteen. It is considered to be one of her best-known love lyrics. Through this poem, the poetic persona draws a picture of her imagined death. She explores the enclosed nature of the female form and paints a self-portrait for the readers. Rossetti brings to light the intimate subjects of unrequited love and desires that women possess. These aspects make this poem an exceptional read. It was included in one of Rossetti’s greatest collections of lyrical poetry, Goblin Market and Other Poems, published in 1862.

  • Read the full text of “After Death” below:
Up-Hill Poem by Christina Rossetti
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After Death
by Christina Rossetti

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.
He leaned above me, thinking that I slept
   And could not hear him; but I heard him say:
   “Poor child, poor child:” and as he turned away
Came a deep silence, and I knew he wept.
He did not touch the shroud, or raise the fold
   That hid my face, or take my hand in his,
      Or ruffle the smooth pillows for my head:
      He did not love me living; but once dead
   He pitied me; and very sweet it is
To know he still is warm though I am cold.

- from Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862)
Analysis of After Death by Christina Rossetti


Summary

“After Death” by Christina Rossetti is a traditional Petrarchan sonnet that consists of an octave and sestet. The octave begins with images of “curtains,” “floors,” “rushes, rosemary and may,” and “ivy-shadows” which are suggestive of a mourning room in the evening time. The poetic persona is introduced to readers as lying lifeless in a flower-strewn bed. From this description, they can infer that the body of the speaker is separate from her spirit, which is the narrative voice of this poem.

Then Rossetti introduces the main subject of the poem—a man. This man leans over the deathbed of the speaker and thinks that she cannot hear him as she is eternally silenced. In contrast, she is present there in the spirit form. She hears him say, “Poor child, poor child.” It is an expression of pity. He then turns away. There is a deep silence that follows. The speaker speculates that this man “wept” to lose her, but it remains uncertain because there is no concrete evidence of his crying.

In the sestet, the speaker grows disillusioned as she becomes aware of his actual actions. He never touched the shroud, nor did he take a look at her face for the last time. He did not even hold her hand or ruffle the pillow beneath her. All these actions lead her to think that he never really cared for her or loved her. He did pity her once she was dead. It is a sweet thought that he still lives and she does not. He has to face the challenges of life alone but she is after all peaceful in her death.

Meaning

The central meaning of “After Death” lies in the last line of the sonnet: “To know he still is warm though I am cold.” The contrasting words “warm” and “cold” are indicative of life and death. Through this remark, readers understand that death is peaceful. It is living that is difficult and problematic. The man who is still alive feels the emotion of “pity.” This implies the living ones are bound by emotional upheavals whereas the speaker finally feels at ease—free from feeling anything. She had struggled all through her life for the love of this man, but in her coldness, she feels none of that. So, her emotions also died with her physical death. Therefore the death of her love for the man results in the birth of her everlasting peace.

Form, Rhyme Scheme, & Meter

Form

Rossetti’s “After Death” is a Petrarchan sonnet, also known as the Italian sonnet. It is a sonnet form that was devised by and named after the 14th-century Italian poet Francesco Petrarca. This sonnet type uses iambic pentameter. The lines are divided into two sections: one octave (the first eight lines) and one sestet (the last six lines). The octave almost always follows the rhyme scheme of ABBAABBA. The sestet proves to be more flexible in following a typical rhyme scheme depending on the poem’s subject. Some common rhyming patterns of a sestet include CDECDE, CDCDCD, CDDCDD, and CDDECE.

Rhyme Scheme

“After Death” follows the rhyme scheme of ABBAABBA in the octave and CDEEDC in the sestet. The closed nature of the rhyme scheme is representative of the finality of death. The constant oscillation between life and death and vice versa is precisely depicted through the indentation of the poem.

In the first four lines of the octave, lines one and four end up with a similar rhyme: “swept” and “crept.” Lines two and three contain the rhyming pair of words “may” and “lay.” The ABBA scheme is repeated in the next four lines. “Slept” (line five) rhymes with “wept” (line eight) and “say” (line six) rhymes with “away” (line seven). The lines ending with the same rhymes are aligned accordingly through indentation.

In the sestet, “fold” (line nine) and “cold” (line fourteen), “his” (line ten) and “is” (line thirteen), and “head” (line eleven) and “dead” (line twelve) form the rhyming pairs. Thus, readers get the CDEEDC scheme. The rhyme pattern of the first three lines (CDE) is reversed in the last three lines (EDC).

There are a number of imperfect rhymes in this poem. This type of rhyme is not entirely identical, but they share almost the same sound. The words “swept,” “crept,” “wept,” and “slept” rhyme with the word “death” in the title. In the octave, “say” and “a-way” and in the sestet, “his” and “is” are examples of half-rhymes.

Meter 

Rosetti employs iambic pentameter to write “After Death.” It is a traditional metric scheme used in sonnets. Iambic pentameter denotes the total number of iambs used in a poetic line. Each line has ten syllables made up of five pairs of alternating unstressed (short) and stressed (long) syllables. The following scansion will give a better overview of the sonnet’s stress pattern:

The cur/-tains were/ half drawn,/ the floor/ was swept

   And strewn/ with ru/-shes, rose/-ma-ry/ and may

   Lay thick/ up-on/ the bed/ on which/ I lay,

Where through/ the lat/-tice i/-vy-sha/-dows crept.

He leaned/ a-bove/ me, think/-ing that/ I slept

   And could/ not hear/ him; but/ I heard/ him say:

   “Poor child,/ poor child:”/ and as/ he turned/ a-way

Came a/ deep si/-lence, and/ I knew/ he wept.

He did/ not touch/ the shroud,/ or raise/ the fold

   That hid/ my face,/ or take/ my hand/ in his,

      Or ruf/-fle the/ smooth pil/-lows for/ my head:

      He did/ not love/ me li/-ving; but/ once dead

   He pi/-tied me;/ and ve/-ry sweet/ it is

To know/ he still/ is warm/ though I/ am cold.

Rossetti uses perfect iambic pentameter lines with a few variations. For instance, “half drawn” and “Poor child” are spondees. In order to mark the shift, Rossetti uses a trochee (“Came a”) at the beginning of line eight.

Poetic Devices & Figurative Language

Imagery

Rossetti makes use of descriptive language to create a kind of picture or image in readers’ minds. There are various visual images throughout the poem “After Death.” The half-drawn curtains, swept floor, flowers like “rushes, rosemary and may,” lattice, and “ivy-shadows” help in creating a mourning ambiance. The attitude of the man towards the dead woman is presented with the help of tactile images of not touching the shroud or not lifting the fold of the garment covering her face. These images suggest that he had no compassion or attachment for her. Certain actions such as him not taking her hand or “ruffling” the pillow suggest that he never loved or cared for her even when she was alive.

Euphemism

Euphemism is the use of a milder or indirect expression for one that is considered harsh or too direct when something unpleasant or embarrassing is mentioned. This device is present in the following verse lines:

  • “He leaned above me, thinking that I slept” — here “slept” means death.
  • “To know he still is warm though I am cold” — “warm” represents life and “cold” represents death.

Alliteration

Alliteration is the repetition of identical consonant sounds at the beginning of closely placed words. It occurs in the following instances:

  • drawn, the”
  • swept/ And strewn”
  • rushes, rosemary”
  • hear him; but I heard him”
  • hand in his”
  • love me living”

Assonance

Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds in a line of verse. It can be found in:

  • “may/ Lay
  • “lattice ivy-shadows”
  • “He leaned above me, thinking”
  • “silence, and I
  • “sweet it is”

Anaphora

Anaphora is the recurrence of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive lines or clauses. For instance, “the” is repeated in the first line: “The curtains were half drawn, the floor was swept.” It also occurs in the following lines of the sestet:

   That hid my face, or take my hand in his,

      Or ruffle the smooth pillows for my head:

      He did not love me living; but once dead

   He pitied me; and very sweet it is

Caesura

A caesura is a pause or a break in a metrical verse. It is that point where one phrase abruptly ends and another begins, signifying a dramatic pause in the middle of a verse line. There are three kinds of caesuras: initial, medial and terminal. The most commonly occurring caesura in “After Death” is the medial one. They are used to create a kind of dramatic effect that is desired by the poet. Without these pauses, readers would be left with words that, when put together, fail to evoke the intended effect.

In this poem, the caesuras are depicted with a comma, semi-colon, or colon. By using this device, Rossetti hints at a breakaway or separation between perception and reality, thought and action, and, most importantly, life and death. The following lines contain the use of medial caesuras:

He leaned above me, thinking that I slept

   And could not hear him; but I heard him say:

   “Poor child, poor child:” and as he turned away

Came a deep silence, and I knew he wept.


Line-by-Line Explanation & Analysis

Lines 1-4

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.

In the first four lines of “After Death,” Rossetti presents a number of images that create the atmosphere of a mourning room, which is the setting of the entire poem. There are images of half-drawn curtains and swept floors suggesting a mellowing ambiance. Then there are funeral flowers, such as rushes, rosemary, and may. The flowers are spread upon the deathbed of the speaker. Her body is adorned with these flowers, which suggests that there had been a lot of people who knew her while she was alive. They had gathered to mourn her death.

The last image is that of “ivy-shadows” creeping through the lattice. This represents the evening time and a dimly lit room with half-drawn curtains. The time of evening signifies death—a movement from light to darkness. The shadows are also symbolic of ghosts and apparitions as they are often denoted as blurry, murky things lurking in the dark. This implies that the speaker herself is in a spirit form. In this way, Rossetti creates a significant contrast between the world of the living and that of the dead.

Lines 5-8

He leaned above me, thinking that I slept

   And could not hear him; but I heard him say:

   “Poor child, poor child:” and as he turned away

Came a deep silence, and I knew he wept.

In the second half of the octave, Rossetti introduces the subject of the poem. The sonnet is addressed to this man. The relationship between the speaker and the man is unclear. He leaned over her and thought that she probably “slept.” The term “slept” is a euphemistic expression for death. In the sixth line, the phrase “but I heard him say” implies that the spirit of the speaker is very much present in the room. As she was there, she could hear him exclaim out of pity, “Poor child, poor child.”

The person then turned away. All she heard was nothing other than the sound of “deep silence.” She assures the readers that the man might have shed tears for her. It is almost as if she is trying to convince herself that her death had some kind of effect on the man. However, the readers remain uncertain as there is no solid evidence of him actually lamenting.

Each line in this half has dramatic medial caesuras. The use of such metrical pauses is suggestive of three things. Firstly, they signify that the speaker’s relationship with this man is breaking apart. Secondly, it helps readers imagine an invisible rift between the living and dead. Lastly, the caesuras draw a contrast between the speaker’s perception and reality.

Lines 9-11

He did not touch the shroud, or raise the fold

   That hid my face, or take my hand in his,

      Or ruffle the smooth pillows for my head:

The last six lines of the sonnet are called the sestet, which traditionally exhibits the volta. This turn represents a shift in the speaker’s sentiment or a change in action. In the first three lines of the sestet, Rossetti describes how the man did not show any warm regard for the dead speaker. He was rather passive in his attitude. He did not perform the last rites that justify his love for the dead woman. Moreover, he neither touched the “shroud” (a garment that is used to cover the dead) nor did he lift the “fold” to look at her face one last time.

The man even abstained from holding her hand nor did he adjust the pillows beneath her head. The acts of ruffling pillows and holding her hand are a symbolic attempt to provide comfort to a loved one. Thus, it only implies that he felt no need to comfort her, even when it was his last chance to do so. After reading these lines, the audience finally senses a shift in the speaker’s thinking pattern. She leaves her illusions of the man’s true feelings behind and confronts reality.

Lines 12-14

      He did not love me living; but once dead

   He pitied me; and very sweet it is

To know he still is warm though I am cold.

In the last three lines of “After Death,” the poetic persona is able to confront reality. These lines have an air of finality. The speaker accepts the fact that this man did not love her at all when she was alive. Once she was dead, he pitied her. Thus, she could extricate some kind of emotion from him at last. In her death, she is happy because now he is the one left to deal with his emotions. She thinks the man may regret the fact that he never had the chance to truly love her. This thought finally gives peace to the speaker.

There are two caesuras in lines twelve and thirteen. They are representative of the pause while voicing a conclusion. She has finally been able to break away from the lopsided relationship with this man. Thus death seems a sweet thing to her.

There is no caesura in the last line because the speaker finally accepts her death, indicating the end of her own feelings for the man. The euphemistic words “warm” and “cold” represent life and death respectively. Overall, acceptance and reality are at the core of the sestet.

Themes

Death

One of the main themes of “After Death” is the concept and acceptance of death. It is not looked at as a dreadful or disastrous outcome in life. Rossetti shows it in a positive light. Death brings peace and ends all the suffering. Paradoxically, the speaker feels “sweet” in death’s “coldness.” Even if death proves to be such an important aspect of the poem, it is not mentioned explicitly except in line twelve: “He did not love me living; but once dead” and in the title.

Unrequited Love

Unrequited love is another important theme in “After Death.” Rossetti hints that the speaker craved after the love of the man. In contrast, the man was unwilling to love her when she was alive. Even when she was dead, she was under the illusion that he “wept” to lose her. The only emotion he felt was that of “pity,” nothing else. She came to terms with his passivity by witnessing his actions after her death. Her love was never reciprocated. In the last lines, readers witness that she finally finds peace in death. Her misery caused by unrequited love comes to an end.

Perception vs. Reality

Another integral theme of this piece is the difference between one’s perception, a manifestation of one’s desires and feelings, and reality. The speaker foolishly convinces herself that the man wept after looking away from her. How could a man who really loved a woman turn his eyes away so dispassionately? Her perception of the person made her so unrealistic that she probably forgot to ask the question. Later, when she witnessed the man’s cold actions, she finally came to terms with reality.

Supernatural Experience

The presence of supernatural elements like ghosts or spirits is an important aspect of the poem. This is a consequence of the religious beliefs of Rossetti. Ghosts and apparitions are a common trope in her poetry. In this poem, the poetic persona speaks not through her physical body but through her spirit. When alive, her emotions for the man blinded her to see reality. Through her out-of-the-body experience, she finally realizes how much he cared for her.

Historical Context

One of the finest love sonnets of Christina Rossetti, “After Death” was written when she was nineteen years old. She penned this sonnet along with its companion piece “A Pause” in the spring and summer of 1849, regarded as the most productive period of her literary career. It was published in Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862). In most of her early poetry, readers can find her obsession with death and loss. The Victorian period gave birth to art and literature using the common tropes of death and tragedy. A number of poetic works from this period revolve around the theme of death.

The influence of the Pre-Raphaelites is evident in the poetry of Christina Rossetti. Pre-Raphaelites were a group of seven English painters, poets, and art critics. Her brothers Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Michael Rossetti were founding members of the group. Together they formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. They promoted classical styles used by Italian painter Raphael and explored any form of art with a more spiritual and realistic approach. These principles did not just remain with the seven but were accepted and applied by others.

Questions and Answers

What is the poem “After Death” about?

“After Death” by Christina Rossetti is about two important subjects: death and love. Through this poem, readers get an understating of the disastrous nature of human emotions. The strong emotion that the speaker had for the man blinded her reasoning abilities. Apart from that, readers also notice the peaceful nature of death. Overall, this sonnet is about the death of bodily emotions that finally results in everlasting peace.

What does Rossetti think about death?

In the sonnet “After Death,” Rossetti presents her perspective on death. The last line of the sonnet, “To know he still is warm though I am cold,” helps in understanding her idea of death. For her, death is not a negative idea. The acceptance of death has a pacifying impact on her speaker. The man who is alive and “warm” is the one who has to suffer the consequence of human emotions. He has to undergo the highs and lows in life. After her death, the speaker’s soul is indeed at peace. It is actually an end to her emotional sufferings caused by the passivity of the man. Paradoxically, it feels sweeter to be in the cold embrace of death than to live under constant emotional turbulence.

Why did Christina Rossetti write “After Death”?

Christina Rossetti wrote “After Death” to understand the tragic nature of unrequited love. She does so in a rather unconventional manner. The topic is approached through a scenario of her imagined death. Rossetti’s poetic persona is present in a spirit form opening up an entirely different realm for readers. Through this poem, she also explores the female perspective in an essentially patriarchal society. In this way, Rossetti provides a feminist angle to explore an uneven relationship.

When was “After Death” by Christina Rossetti written?

“After Death,” one of the best-known love lyrics by Christina Rossetti, was written around the spring and summer of 1849 along with its companion piece “A Pause.” It was first published in Goblin Market and Other Poems in 1862.

What flowers are mentioned in the poem “After Death”?

The funeral flowers, such as rushes, rosemary, and may are mentioned in this poem.

What is the theme of the poem “After Death” by Christina Rossetti?

The main theme of Rossetti’s “After Death” is unrequited love. This sonnet also evokes the themes of the finality of death and perception versus reality.

What is the rhyme scheme of “After Death”?

The rhyme scheme of the sonnet “After Death” is ABBAABBA CDEEDC. This piece is modeled after the Petrarchan sonnet form.


Similar Poems about Death & Unrequited Love

  • Is My Team Ploughing” by A. E. Housman — This poem is about a conversation between a dead speaker and his living friend.
  • Song of Myself, 52” by Walt Whitman — In this final section of “Song of Myself,” Whitman describes how he wants to be remembered after his death.
  • One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop — This poem is about the universality of loss and how to cope with it.
  • Monna Innominata: I wish I could remember that first day” by Christina Rossetti — This poem also taps on the theme of unrequited love, but from a different angle.
  • The Nightingale” by Sir Philip Sidney — This poem is about a lovelorn speaker’s heartache induced by a nightingale’s sweet song.


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