In a recent post, I wrote about Christina Rossetti’s ‘Remember me’. This poem is a companion piece, with similarities and differences.
Anticipating her death, the poet, in the 1st verse, thinks about the loved one who is her ‘dearest’. He is not to sing any ‘songs’ for her, for they would most likely be ‘sad’, and make him even more so. He needn’t feel that he must ‘plant roses’ at her grave in order to express his love, nor express his grief by planting a ‘cypress tree’. The world of nature, with its ongoing rain ‘showers’ and ‘dewdrops’ will weep tears enough. If her ‘dearest’ cares to continually remember her, then that choice is rightly his to make. If, on the other hand, his remembrance, with the passage of time, begins to fade, or even fall away entirely, then this does not upset her. Why so?
In the second verse, the poet changes focus to think about herself. When she is dead, life’s ‘shadows’ will trouble her no longer, nor will the dampness ‘rain’ brings. As to the ‘nightingale’, in Greek myth, after Philomela was raped, the gods turned her into a nightingale, whose song recalls her ‘pain’. Life’s pains will not be looked back on by the dead poet. She will be ‘dreaming’, and her only awareness will be of a ‘twilight that doth not rise nor set’. Will it happen, in that twilight, that she’ll ‘remember’ her dearest, or will it happen that she won’t? She doesn’t know, and neither do you or I, or anyone else – and so she can be untroubled, and at peace.
What I take from this poem is that there is no need for us to be afraid of death – of the process of dying perhaps, but not of death itself. There are many, and much varied, beliefs about whether death ends all awareness, or begins awareness of a different kind. Beliefs, however, despite what some of us think, are nothing more than that – they are not verifiable facts or certain truths. What we do not, and cannot know, need not be a source of anxiety, let alone fear – assuming we have rightly left behind us, all pernicious prognostications of a hell of torment in everlasting fire.
In this life, it may be of great importance to us, that the memory of our having lived should live on after us. We may feel that this is what gives our lives value and meaning, but if there’s some kind of awareness after death, that needn’t be the case. Value and meaning might no longer rest in ourselves, but in the awe and wonder of the totality of Being in which we have had, and may somehow continue to have, the priceless privilege of playing a part. Don’t be afraid of death, the poet is saying. Whatever comes after, all will be well. Should it be a final sleep, it may have dreams, but won’t have nightmares.
A long time ago, a Greek philosopher, Epicurus, addressed this same issue in a trenchantly decisive manner. There’s no such thing as death – “seeing that when we exist death is not present, and when death is present we do not exist” ! And as for our no longer being here, there was a time, before we were born, when we were not here. Did that in any way trouble us, he asks? Why then should it trouble us to be again not here?
The message is, don’t worry about what’ll happen after you’re dead. Underneath all the various religious picture-book images of ‘heaven’, there is a single, unifying, intuition or awareness that ‘all will be well’. We’ve all emerged like individual droplets of water from the great ocean of Being. Let’s be trustingly content to be reabsorbed into it.