The curtains were half drawn, the floor was swept
And strewn with rushes, rosemary and may
Lay thick upon the bed on which I lay,
Where thro’ the lattice ivy-shadows crept.
He leaned above me, thinking that I slept
And could not hear him; but I heard him say:
“Poor child, poor child:” and as he turned away
Came a deep silence, and I knew he wept.
He did not touch the shroud, or raise the fold
That hid my face, or take my hand in his,
Or ruffle the smooth pillows for my head:
He did not love me living; but once dead
He pitied me; and very sweet it is
To know he still is warm tho’ I am cold.
* * *
Not a poem that amazes one by a sudden impact. The realization, at least for me, was one of gradual puzzling in the silence after the poem, one that seemed to take shape by gathering substance into form from the fogs of my confusion. I only want to observe something on an aspect of the poem, branching away from the possibilities for improvement she suggests in the chap who remains alive and with the possibility of life.
The realization about the chap is a bit, one can’t help feeling, of a jab at the kind of sentimentality that must have been pretty thick on the ground in the age of Dickens. And it is very apt that the subject and the object are switched on us at the very end: it proves the truth of what Scruton says regarding sentimentality, that it is an eclipse of the perceived object by the perceiving subject.
By picking a subject whose pity cannot be sentimentalized she exposes the silliness of her object’s sentimentality, his wallowing in feelings of pity rather than pitying. And the pity of the subject is only hinted at, we know it only by a gesture as the subject tells us what it is she feels and it is nothing pitiful. The aspect of sentimentality brought to light is its deadly suffocation in the mire of its wallowing. Our dead subject sees better, feels more clearly.
By switching the subject and object, and instead of providing the anticipated further confusion of subject and object that we expect (the dead narrator saying woe is me, etc.), Rossetti denies the essential sentimentality of further confusion, further commingling which would have resulted in a greater mire and greater obscurity–and a death of perception and feeling. Her bed is clean and pure with death, and she provides us a living perception. She subverts the ultimate sentimental situation and anti-sentimentalizes it.