'Song (When I am dead, my dearest)' - Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery and symbolism

Cypress treeNatural imagery - The speaker requests that the lover plant ‘no roses' on his/her grave and no ‘shady cypress tree' in his/her memory (lines 3-4)

  • Whilst roses represent love, the cypress tree traditionally symbolises mourning because cypress branches were carried at funerals.
  • By declaring that s/he has no need of these things, the speaker reassures the lover that s/he will not be jealous or resentful if the lover continues living his/her life rather than to mourn for the speaker.

Silence - In the second verse, the speaker claims that once dead s/he will no longer:

         ‘hear the nightingale
Sing on, as if in pain' (l.11-12)

  • The nightingale was a common symbol in Romantic poetry (see Literary Context > Romantic Poetry). Keats used it in Ode to a Nightingale to speak of joy, music, self-expression, nature and immortality
  • By suggesting that the nightingale's song is associated with pain, Rossetti denies the idea that the natural world is a place of pure joy.

Twilight - The speaker looks forward to:

         ‘dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise or set' (line 15)

The notion of resting in a place where the rising and setting of the sun is not necessary comes from the New Testament book, Revelation. There, John describes heaven as a city where God's light shines so brightly the sun is not needed Revelation 21:23

Investigating imagery and symbolism

  • Throughout Song, the speaker expresses her emotion through the denial of certain images and symbols. List all the occurrences of the words ‘no' and ‘not'
    • Why do you think that there are so many?


Self-expression and the natural world

This poem is concerned with natural and spontaneous expression through song or poetry, such as the song of the ‘nightingale' (l.11). Poetry provides a natural outlet for the speaker's emotions.

Memory and forgetfulness

Memory is a sustaining force. In Song forgetfulness is the axis upon which the poem is rooted. This hints at the notion that identity is founded upon memory and that self-awareness is constructed by the remembrance of a former self.

Earthly life and ‘life after life'

The images of natural growth in Song can be seen to replace the grief that the speaker anticipates her lover will experience after she has died.

Investigating themes

  • List all the allusions to the natural world
    • How do these allusions correspond to the speaker's emotional state in the poem?
    • What do they reveal about the purpose of the poem?
    • What do they reveal about the identity of the speaker?
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