If we had to describe the sound of "Remember" in two words, those two words would be "commanding" and "consoling." We'll just call them the two C's. And it makes sense that we need two words to describe the sound of this poem because, well, it's a sonnet, and sonnets are often divided into two parts (an octave and sestet), which you can read more about over at "Form and Meter."
So, without further ado, let's dig into this poem's sound. The poem's title is a command—"Remember." That same command is repeated three more times in the poem, at lines 1, 5, 7. In addition to this repeated imperative, there's also that "do not grieve" in line 10. Now even though this poem is definitely marked by a commanding tone, it's not the same tone your mom would use when yelling at you to clean up your room. It's a gentler kind of commanding. Note, for example, that the speaker's orders are often flanked by tender recollections (all that hand-holding business, for example).
Notice, too, that you get some alliteration in the first section to soften the commanding blow. Check out all the H words in "When you can no more hold me by the hand, / Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay" (3-4). Those soft, breathy Hs make the line seem less sharp and demanding, more desperate in a way with the panting desire of the speaker's plea.
The commands in the first section are also flanked by various consoling remarks. This brings us to our second sonic quality. When the speaker tells her beloved not to grieve, technically she is commanding or ordering him, but she's also speaking like a comforting friend, or lover, or parent, or what have you. It's "Please do not grieve sweetheart," not "HEY! I SAID DON'T GRIEVE, BUSTER!" This consoling tone can be heard in the poem's alliterations here, too, with the B and F words (no, not those F words) in "Better by far you should forget and smile" (13). The combinations create a sonic symmetry in the line that puts the ear at rest, soothing us as the speaker soothes her lover.
Besides these two major tones, we need to address the fact that there's a lot of repetition in the sounds of this poem. If you've read our "Form and Meter" section, you know that this poem's rhyme scheme is cyclical. That, combined with the alliterative repetitions, represents sound that "comes back," reinforcing one of the poem's major themes. "Remember" is about how people are dead can come back to life, or be kept alive, via the memory. The way in which these sounds keep returning makes the same claim at the level of sound. Pretty cool, if we do say so ourselves.
"Remember"—that's it. Pretty simple title, right? Yep, it's just one word that summarizes the poem's major theme: remembrance. This is a poem, after all, spoken by a woman who is thinking about her death and wants to make darn sure that her beloved never forgets her. Okay, actually she's obsessed with making sure her beloved doesn't forget her. It's almost like she's worried that he might do exactly that. Hmm, well that's not a very pleasant thought now is it?
This brings us to another important idea about this poem's title. It is a command, an order—an imperative. The title might as well be "Listen you, remember me or else!" Sure, it's not quite that bossy, but the speaker definitely orders this guy to remember her at least four times, if you include the title. The fact that an imperative introduces the poem, and that keeps popping up, confirms what we've already noted: the speaker is worried that her beloved will forget her, and is overcompensating.
Sure, by the end of the poem the speaker basically changes her mind, and says, essentially, "On second thought, it's better that you forget me because remembering me might cause too much pain, and I just can't have that," but for most of the poem, she's more concerned with making sure he doesn't forget her. When you, ahem, remember this, it kind of makes the title seem a little deceptive, doesn't it?
"Remember" sometimes seems like the kind of poem you would hear from somebody lying on their death bed. The repeated "remember me" business sure sounds like the kind of fare you hear from people just before they shuffle off this mortal coil.
Speaking of death, this poem indirectly gives us an idea of what kind of "place" death is: it is a "silent land" where couples can no longer share their dreams of the future with one another and a place where darkness reigns. Okay, okay, so the speaker doesn't go out of her way to bemoan the horrors of death, but all these indirect comments give us the impression that it is scary. Like Hamlet once said, death is an "undiscovered country from whose bourn / No traveler returns."
Of course, the pleas for remembrance represent the speaker's attempts to establish another kind of setting. What's the only thing that can trump deathland? Loveville, population her and the addressed. She calls upon their relationship as a basis on which memory dude will do his thing, and keep her memory alive in spite of her passing. This is a kind of anti-silent land, which allows the speaker to live on, after she's gone.
Finally, when it comes to settings, you should also know something about the circumstances surrounding the poem's composition. With an Italian ex-patriot-turned-professor for a father (Gabriele Rossetti), a well-read mother, two siblings who became writers, and another (Dante Gabriel Rossetti) who became an influential painter and poet, the Rossetti household was a hot bed of intellectual and cultural discussions of all kinds (a steady stream of intellectuals frequently passed through the Rossetti home). The wide variety of available books in the house (Italian works, English novels and poetry, fairy tales, etc.) in particular bred in the young Christina Rossetti a love for literature, and a deep familiarity with the sonnet, a form she would utilize with tremendous success.
Being remembered after death—it's just what makes the speaker of "Remember" tick. She keeps telling her beloved to remember her, because, well, she's obsessed with death. Okay maybe obsessed is putting it a little strongly, but she's clearly somebody who is really thinking a lot about death.
And why might that be? Well, for one thing, this poem was written in the middle of the nineteenth century. People died much more suddenly, and much more frequently, than they do nowadays. That's one reason. Another reason may be because this speaker has a few, well… let's just call them hangups. She's not quite goth or EMO or anything like that, but she's definitely thinking about death a heck of a lot, but this isn't necessarily a bad thing. The speaker is at least realistic.
And not only that, she's definitely a very caring person. Sure, the whole "remember me remember me remember me" business might seem a tad selfish, but by the end of the poem the speaker shows us how selfless she actually is. In the poem's final lines, she essentially says "On second thought, it's actually better if you forget about me, because remembering me will only cause you sadness." Wow, talk about the ultimate gesture of selflessness. She would rather the man she loves be happy than remember her. She just can't bear the thought of him being unhappy.
Now we're sure you're wondering if the poem is spoken by a "real" person or not. Technically no, but technically… yes. Let's explain. In poetry, it's never a good idea to confuse the speaker with the poet, even if the poem is written from a first-person perspective ("I," "me"). Here, though, that rule may need a bit of bending. In many ways the speaker of this poem is the young Christina Rossetti, at least a little bit. If you've read our "In a Nutshell" or "Calling Card" sections, you know Rossetti thought about death a lot, and that she was well aware of how short life really can be. Moreover, she suffered a mini nervous breakdown sometime in the 1840s, which likely contributed to some of her, ahem, compulsions.
"Remember" is a pretty easy go. Other than a few strange phrases (all that stuff about it being too late to counsel or pray or the part of darkness and corruption), everything runs pretty smoothly. The only real confusion stems from the speaker's little about-face in the second half of the poem (she goes from being obsessed with being remembered to wanting her dude to forget her). That may make your brow furrow just a little bit, but then again, isn't that what great art is supposed to do?
Christina Rossetti was obsessed with death, no doubt about that, but in a very strange way. Time and time again her poems about death (which are usually about what happens after death) are also weirdly about love and forgetfulness. Take "When I am Dead" as an example. There Rossetti gives her lover (her "dearest") a set of instructions and concludes with a line about forgetfulness ("haply may forget"). The same goes for another little charmer called "After Death", where the speaker imagines a man leaning over her dead body who, apparently, didn't really love her at all while she was alive. "Remember" explores very similar themes. It is a poem about dying, about love, about forgetfulness, and about how all those things relate to what happens after somebody kicks the proverbial bucket.
When it comes to the form and meter of "Remember," there are two things you need to know: iambic pentameter and sonnet. Iambic pentameter, now that sounds familiar. You've probably heard that phrase tossed around here and there because, well, it's the only the most common type of meter in English poetry. In a poem of iambic pentameter, each line is composed of five ("pent-" means five) iambs. An iamb is type of beat (often called a foot) that contains an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable (daDUM). To hear what five of them together sound like, check out line 1:
Remember me when I am gone away.
Scanning through the poem, we've noticed that pretty much every line in "Remember" is very regular iambic pentameter (often, poets like to get cute and throw little curve balls in), a sign that Rossetti was still a young poet learning the ropes, so to speak.
Now that we've covered that base, we need to talk about the form of this poem. It's got 14 lines, which means it's a sonnet. There's a whole lot to say about sonnets—heck, there are tons and tons and tons of books and articles written about them, like this one. For now, you just need to know that sonnets have 14 lines, and that they come in two basic types: the Shakespearean (named after our pal William "the Man" Shakespeare) and the Petrarchan (named for Petrarch, the famous Italian dude who pretty much invented the form).
"Remember" is a Petrarchan sonnet. This means that the poem can be divided into a group of eight lines (called the octave, lines 1-8) and a group of six lines (the sestet, lines 9-14). In most Petrarchan sonnets, there is a noticeable change of direction around line 9 (called the volta, or turn). Sometimes the sestet will solve a problem posed in the octave, while at others the octave will explore one idea, but then the sestet will take things in a completely different direction.
And you know what? This is kind of what happens in "Remember." In the first 8 lines of the poem, the speaker is obsessed with telling her beloved to remember her after she dies. Starting around line 9, however, the speaker starts to shift her focus away from remembrance to forgetfulness. By the end of the poem, the speaker actually says it is better for her beloved to forget about her than to remember her and feel sad. Sheesh, the two sections of this poem are almost polar opposites. Talk about a change of heart.
Now besides this structural characteristic, Petrarchan sonnets also have fairly specific rhyme scheme. Most of the time, the octave, follows this scheme: ABBA ABBA. The rhyme scheme of the sestet, on the other hand, is much more flexible, with a whole variety of options on the poetic table. The octave of "Remember" follows your basic ABBA ABBA scheme, while the sestet has the unique, but still perfectly legal, scheme CDD ECE.
Now, it's our job to tell you that rhyme schemes aren't just for kicks. They are an important part of any poem's sound and meaning. In the case of this poem, Rossetti's choices actually mimic the poem's general trajectory. In the octave, we start with A, then get a few B's, then back to A, and then back to B, In the sestet it's very similar—C, then a few D's, then E, then C again, then E again. These rhyming patterns are cyclical, meaning things always manage to come back to where they started.
Of course, one of the major ideas in "Remember" is the cyclical nature of life. Think about it like this: the speaker is thinking about death. She knows she will die, and that death is pretty much permanent. But she also knows that remembering somebody is a way of keeping them alive, at least metaphorically. In other words, we could summarize the poem as saying "there is life, but then there is death, but then there is kind of life again"—A to B to A again. So heads up, out there: as you continue to study this poem, be alert to the various ways in which its rhymes reinforce that meaning. Rosetti was using both form and content to get her ideas across.
Well, it's only natural that a poem about death would have something to say about going away forever, right? Yep, that makes sense. Sure enough, everywhere you turn in this poem, the speaker seems to be saying something about going away, leaving, or not being around anymore. Clearly, going away is the poem's metaphor for death. Yeah we know it sort of sounds like something you would tell a 5 year old ("sorry Timmy, but your turtle has left forever now"), but the reality is death is scary, and sometimes talking about it in that way can actually make it seem a little less frightening.
We certainly expect a poem called "Remember" to have something to do with memory, no doubt about that. The speaker of this poem tells her beloved no less than three times to remember her, and for good reason. In a poem where death is pretty much a total separation, remembrance becomes a way of keeping somebody metaphorically alive. Hey—at least it's something.
Hey, opposites attract right? And what of it? Well, that would explain why forgetting is a big part of a poem called "Remember." For the most part, the speaker is obsessed with being remembered, except towards the end, where she changes her mind. At first she's all "Well, I guess it's okay if you forget me, as long as you remember me later," but then she essentially says, "Yeah, actually it's better that you forget me." Why? Remembrance is associated with sadness and pain, and the speaker doesn't want this for her lover. So, she decides that she deal with being forgotten, as long as her lover will remain happy. That's pretty weird because, well, she'll be dead so it won't make any difference anyway.
Sadly folks there's nothing raunchy, dirty, or sexual in here. Yeah, sometimes love and death can be made pretty erotic, but that's just not what the young Christina Rossetti was going for in "Remember."