Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) wrote two poems that we all know – “Love came down at Christmas” and “In the bleak midwinter”. This poem is, perhaps, the finest and most moving of all. For the record, it’s a sonnet, consisting of a 1st part with 8 lines, followed by a 2nd part with 6.
The poet imagines herself asking something from a loved one. Like all of us, she will die and, irrespective of religious views, the human experience for those who remain is that someone is now “gone far away.” They cannot now “tell” or be told anything, nor can there be the holding of a “hand’. Turning “to go” can no longer give way to “turning [to] stay.” The “land” to which the loved one has gone is silent, and that image of “the silent land” somehow speaks loudly of loneliness. Whatever future was “planned” and shared, will not now come to pass.
The pain of this, causes the heart-felt cry, “Remember me,” to rise to the surface. It does so three times in the 1st part of the poem, and twice more in the 2nd. Remembrance matters! The soul comfort, and countermeasure to the silence, cut-off-ness and loneliness of that “far away .. silent land”, would be remembrance in a loving heart, keeping at least the memory of a loved one alive, lest even that should be forever lost, just as the body is in the “darkness and corruption” of the grave – which brings us to the last 6 lines in which there is a telling change …
The word “forget” twice appears. The realities of life tell us that memories fade. Where there was ongoing sorrow, one day a moment of light heartedness may suddenly arrive – at once to be replaced by guilt and renewed sorrow. But, “do not grieve” says the poet. As deeply as she feels the need to stay alive in the memory of her loved one, yet for the sake of their happiness and well-being, it is “better by far” that they should not “remember and be sad”.
And so, this poem, for me, while also about the need to “counsel” and “pray” while we still enjoy life and togetherness, is chiefly about unconditional love. The love the poet has given to her loved one, cannot and will never be withdrawn. It has no conditions attached. Even if that loved one, whose remembrance of her is such a deeply felt need, should one day forget, her love is unaltered, because its deepest desire is for the happiness of her loved one. Even before what personally matters most to her, she puts her care and consideration for the one she loves – such is unconditional love, irrespective of personal cost.
Christina Rossetti was woman with a Christian faith, and it may be that the image of the crucified Christ was, for her, a symbol of unconditional love. She would certainly have known the words of Jesus in John 15:13 – ‘There is no greater love than this, that someone should give up their life [or even the memory of their life] for a friend’. She might also have known these words of a fellow poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “I love thee with the breath, smiles, tears of all my life; and, if God choose, I shall but love thee better after death”.
For myself, I’m reminded of some words of Walt Whitman, set to music by Frederick Delius at the very end of his final composition, the “Idyll” – “Dearest comrade, all is over and long gone, but love is not over” …..