London, 1862: the height of the Victorian Period. Christina Rossetti publishes a volume of poetry, the centerpiece of which is a strange little bugger in which a woman eats some tainted fruit that she purchases from goblins and then has to be saved by a courageous sister. Talk about odd, right? That poem was called "Goblin Market" (probably because of the, well, goblins) and it first appeared in a volume of poetry called, fittingly, Goblin Market and Other Poems. Nowadays, this is pretty much considered Christina Rossetti's magnum opus, the poem for which she is best remembered. Read more about it right here.
We're not here to talk about "Goblin Market," though, but rather one of those "other poems" that Rossetti published along with it: "Remember." Written in 1849, when Rossetti was just 19 years old, "Remember" is an interesting little sonnet that is obsessed with being remembered after death. In many ways, "Remember" sometimes sounds more like something somebody would write after they found out they had terminal cancer. The speaker, after all, commands her beloved no less than three times to remember her after she dies, almost as if she were afraid he might forget. It's hard to believe that somebody who was just 19 was already thinking about such unpleasant things, and in the context of love no less.
Well, let's backtrack just a second here—maybe this isn't as strange as it may seem. By the time she was 18, Rossetti had learned much about the fragility of life. Beginning in 1843, her father was continually sick with either the world's worst case of bronchitis, or, possibly, tuberculosis, and she herself had a serious mental breakdown sometime in the 1840s. Throw into the mix the relatively high mortality rate in Great Britain (remember, bad sanitation, no antibiotics, etc.) around that time, and you start to see why death was a more present reality for a 19 year old 150 years ago than it might be today.
Now Rossetti grew up in a fairly literate and intellectual household. Her father was a professor, two of her siblings became writers, her mother raised her on a diet of novels, classics, and fairy tales, and the Rossetti home was often filled with visiting Italian scholars and intellectuals. Perhaps most important, however, was Rossetti's relationship with her brother Dante, who became an important poet and painter, and his circle of fellow artists—the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
It was only natural, it seems, that Rossetti should turn to poetry in her spare time. And turn she often did. This modern collection of her poetry, for example, is over 1300 pages! "Remember" is just one page in that collection, but it was good enough to be… remembered.
Why Should I Care?
We might hate to admit it but we've all thought about death before. It's unpleasant, it's sad, it's scary, but wondering about death is part of being human. Now, if you've ever thought about death, it's also likely that you've wondered how people will feel after you die. We always ask ourselves questions like "Will Bill so and so remember me after I die? How about Jane such and such, will he?"
If death is scary enough in and of itself, the idea that people we were once close with might magically forget us is downright terrifying. To give you an idea of just how common this fear is, check out these Google search results, where the first page alone contains everything from song lyrics and blogs to somebody wondering if their dog will remember them after they're gone. True story.
If you have any experience with this fear about being remembered, or even if you've ever been the least bit anxious about it, then you're well on your way to understanding just where Christina Rossetti is coming from in "Remember." Sure, the speaker doesn't come right out with "OMG I'm so incredibly worried you'll forget me Johnny," but her anxiety is totally there.
Death is scary, that's for sure, and it seems so permanent. The very idea that somebody who supposedly loves us might forget about us is downright terrifying. While the speaker accepts death, and forgetting, by the end of the poem, it is her fear of being forgotten that dominates most of the poem. But it's not all bad, if you think about it. What are you reading right now? That's right—the speaker's poem is an immortal reminder. Even as she worries, putting pen to paper ensures that folks like you and us will indeed remember her. That's one of powers of poetry: it can even beat death. Awesome stuff, gang.