Summary and Analysis
Elizabeth Siddal (1829–1862), a Pre-Raphaelite writer and artist, never saw any of her poems in print. Published thirty-two years after she died at the early age of thirty-two, “Dead Love” is a dramatic lyric wherein an experienced speaker warns a naive addressee about the inevitable loss of love.
“Dead Love” has three six-line stanzas that consist of common meter, a rhythmic structure which alternates between iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. In this poem, Siddal employs superlatives when describing the often extreme, ever-changing nature of romance. The speaker uses “never weep” as an imperative to urge the less-experienced addressee not to mourn the fact that true love does not exist in this earthly world, because it is waiting for us in death.
- The first stanza begins with an indirect address, as the speaker briskly advises the addressee not to be so sentimental about a lost relationship. By positing love as a fickle man (personifying love as “him”), then perhaps this monologue can be read as a feminine exchange, in which an older, more experienced woman warns her younger female friend against the falsities of love.
- In the second stanza, the speaker draws upon the superlatives of “deepest sigh,” “fairest words,” and “truest lips” to warn the addressee against falling for these extreme markers of love. The speaker references the addressee’s “bonny face,” which also suggests that the relationship between the speaker and listener is close, but reminds us that she is here to educate, not commiserate.
- In the third stanza, the speaker repeats the command from the first stanza to “never weep for what cannot be,” but she softens this command by calling the addressee affectionate endearments such as “my dear” and “sweet.” The speaker builds upon the string of superlatives from the previous stanza to reinforce her point, claiming that even “If the merest dream of love were true / Then, sweet, we should be in heaven.” Love, in some capacity, does exist, but “this is only earth, my dear,” she cautions. True love was never ours to have on earth, never “given” to us by God, only perhaps found in heaven.
“Dead Love” employs informal diction as a way of appealing to the sensibilities of a younger audience. “Oh never weep,” the poem begins casually, followed by the repetition of the phrase “Love is seldom true” twice. The speaker is sure to include the crushing yet pliant adverb “seldom” when describing how fickle love can be. This argument is echoed throughout the entire poem, but the speaker does not outright say that love is never true, only that it is rarely true, perhaps to preserve a sliver of the addressee’s innocence. The speaker calls the addressee “my dear” and later “my sweet” to indicate closeness and to temper her otherwise harsh and pragmatic statement about love.
The Character of the Speaker
The speaker describes a love that is “born to an early death,” which reveals more about the speaker’s bitter experiences with love’s failures than about the addressee’s current situation. However, the speaker is careful and reticent in including her own personal experiences. She focuses instead on the broader experience of what it means to fall in and then out of love. Exhibiting such restraint on an emotionally charged subject reinforces the speaker’s authoritative stance. The speaker reinforces that she is a voice of experience by employing superlatives for subtle emphasis. The speaker references radical displays of emotion, such as the “deepest sigh,” “fairest words,” “truest lips,” and “merest dreams,” to heighten the emotion of the second stanza and to emphasize that mistaking one’s feelings for the most idyllic version of love will only end in loneliness and despair.
Siddal explores the symbolism of love as a fickle, untrustworthy character. “But [love] changes his fashion from blue to red, / From brightest red to blue,” the speaker says, personifying love as a man with the pronoun “his.” Here, the male love personification can be read as Cupid, who offers her the lure of true love (“brightest red”), thus inviting the speaker’s idealization, but then shifts to “blue,” thus dashing her idealization. She uses colors to denote the spectrum of love, from passion (“red) to melancholy (“blue”), from naive to experienced. The speaker claims that “Love is seldom true”—that one is left vulnerable to pain when love inevitably fails. Perhaps, then, the speaker is also making an embittered statement about the unpredictable, untrustworthy patterns of men. She is not only wary of men, but the women who weep over them, conveying again how imperfect, mortal, and ever-changing emotions can be. After all, with time, love will “pass on and surely die.”