The fact that the poems of Sara Teasdale recall those of [Christina] Rossetti has long been noted by critics. . . Despite the general recognition of stylistic affinities, however, the full extent of Teasdale’s relationship with her Victorian predecessor has yet to be explored. . .Although as a child Teasdale loved the music of Rossetti’s “A Christmas Carol,” as a young woman she showed most interest in Rossetti’s love lyrics. In 1917 she included five of them in her anthology of women’s poetry, The Answering Voice.
One of these is Rossetti’s “Song,” beginning “When I am dead, my dearest” (Crump, 1:58). Teasdale’s “I Shall Not Care,” one of her early and most famous lyrics, clearly recalls both the dramatic situation of Rossetti’s poem, one in which a female speaker imagines her lover’s response to her death, and the poem’s first line. Despite these similarities, however, there is a distinctive difference in tone.
The bitter tones of Teasdale’s female persona embody precisely the worldly response to loss that Rossetti’s persona rejects. Rossetti’s speaker calms her lover, attempting to free him from guilt: she wants no “sad songs,” and she does not worry about being remembered. Teasdale’s speaker responds quite differently: she wants her lover to be “broken-hearted” after her death, perhaps as a form of punishment for his “cold-hearted” response to her while she is alive. In death she might be beyond caring, but in life she cares very much. “I Shall Not Care” expresses disappointment, whereas Rossetti’s “Song” offers no such sign that disappointment in love gives rise to the speaker’s thoughts of death. In fact Rossetti’s belief in heaven requires the rejection of “sad songs.” Rossetti writes of “dreaming through the twilight,” implying an awakening on the last day. (In her devotional poetry, rest and sleep are often the terms used by Rossetti to describe the state after death and before the resurrection of the body). Teasdale’s poem offers no hope of rebirth. Behind the dark humor of the last two lines lies the cold and silent image of the dead. Although Teasdale echoes Rossetti’s earlier love lyric, she does so in order to revise and rewrite it. Not only is evidence of an underlying Christian mythology missing from “I Shall Not Care,” but the Victorian values of self-sacrifice and renunciation, values once associated especially with women’s sphere, are not part of the underlying ideology of the poem.
Victorian Poetry 32.3-4 (Autumn-Winter 1994): 387-407