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Tennyson's "Come Not, When I am Dead"

Updated on October 9, 2017
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Tennyson
Tennyson | Source

Tennyson's "Come not, When I am Dead"

Come not, when I am dead,
To drop thy foolish tears upon my grave,
To trample round my fallen head,
And vex the unhappy dust thou wouldst not save.
There let the wind sweep and the plover cry;
But thou, go by.
Child, if it were thine error or thy crime
I care no longer, being all unblest:
Wed whom thou wilt, but I am sick of Time,
And I desire to rest.
Pass on, weak heart, and leave me where I lie:
Go by, go by.

Reading by Jean Aked

Commentary

Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s "Come Not, When I am Dead" features qualities of the versanelle form, using stark images as it concludes its message in just twelve short lines.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s versanelle, “Come Not When I Am Dead,” features two rimed sestets each with the rime scheme, ABABCC. Each sestet features a concluding couplet with the same rime. The poem dramatizes the theme of a spurned lover who speaks harsh words to the one who has jilted him.

(Please note: The incorrect spelling, "rhyme," was erroneously introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson. For my explanation for using only the correct form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

First Sestet: “Come not, when I am dead”

The speaker addresses his former lover with the intention of showing her that she is silly, so silly that after his death, the speaker does not welcome her to come to his grave and mourn his passing. He does not want her to “drop [her] foolish tears upon [his grave].”

Furthermore, the speaker does not want her “to trample round [his] fallen head.” He paints her as a graceless person grinding the dirt around his grave into “unhappy dust.” True lovers who truly mourn the loss of a lover would want to scoop up some of that dirt and save it, but not his lover; she would merely cause his grave to look untidy.

The speaker demands that she not visit his resting place but instead merely “let the wind sweep” in place of her skirts swishing around his grave. And because she would not cry for him, he demands she not appear but let the “plover cry.” He welcomes a crying bird and imagines its plaint more appropriate than the “foolish tears” of his faithless former love.

Thus, the speaker demands that she “go by.” She should just keep walking past his grave and not stop and pretend to care.

Second Sestet: “Child, if it were thine error or thy crime”

Continuing his disdain for his fickle lover, the speaker addresses her by calling her “Child.” He speculates that if she was, in fact, the cause of his death, he “care[s] no longer.” Indicating that at one time he cared very much, he makes it clear that now he does not. She abandoned him and caused him to be “unblest” by her love, and even if her departure has killed him, he does no welcome her pretense or acknowledgment that she once cared for him.

He tells her to “[w]ed whom thou wilt.” By this remark, he is, again, trying to demonstrate his current apathy. But he adds that he is “sick of Time, / And [he] desire[s] to rest.” His protest reveals that the love he lost has taken a mighty toll on him; it has made him not care for anything in life any longer.

The speaker then commands her once again to keep away, to keep walking, not to stop at his grave, but simply “Go by, go by.” He repeats for a third time that he wants her pass by his grave and not stop to mourn him.

Final Comment

The speaker, of course, has not died but uses the imagined occasion of his death to emphasize how destructive to his heart has been the break with the lover addressed in the poem. This ploy remains a common theme for many lost love poems, but an unusual choice for Tennyson, who is famous for his profundity.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

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    • Maya Shedd Temple profile image
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      Linda Sue Grimes 2 years ago from U.S.A.

      Yes, Tennyson was a master at structuring. Thank you, Anne, for your observation, and especially thank you for using the correct spelling of "rime." I sometimes think I should start a campaign to get editors to change their insistence on use of the inaccurate and cumbersome "rhyme." Maybe I could call it, "Writers for Rime, against Rhyme." Just a thought, for now! Have a great day, Anne!

    • Anne Harrison profile image

      Anne Harrison 2 years ago from Australia

      Thank you for an intersting commentary on Tennyson's poem. One thing which also strikes me, especially on reading the poem aloud, is the rythym. Very structured, the varition of length and metre reflecting the rime, then the iambic pace completed halted by lines 6 & 12, pulling emphasis onto those lines.

      Many thanks for ssharing

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