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Memento Mori

By Sacha Staples


It was in the writing of my seminar presentation that I became intimately acquainted with Sing Song, the nursery rhyme book written by Christina G. Rossetti and illustrated by Arthur Hughes. Each time that I return to it, for scholarship or pleasure, it reveals something new, something I did not detect in my last read. Although first published in 1872, it is evident that Sing Song remains an important cultural, social, literary, and artistic document with its continued publication. I would argue that Rossetti’s poems and Hughes’ illustrations complement one another in such a way that it is difficult to imagine one without the other; in some pieces, Hughes faithfully reflects Rossetti’s poem, and in others he creates new meanings with his illustrations. Of particular interest to me are the text-image composites (or “pieces”) that take on the subject matter of death as these pieces enact an engagement with this tabooed topic.

In preparation for this creative assignment, I wanted to further catapult Rossetti’s poems into the modern era by integrating the poem, “A baby’s cradle…” with the ancient—yet wildly popular—ritual of El Día de los Muertos (translated from Spanish as “The Day of the Dead”). This ritual originated in the fourteenth-century in Mexico by Aztec tribes and continues to be celebrated there, as well as in Spanish communities in North America. The Day of the Dead is a time to remember lost loved ones—by celebrating their lives—as well as remind those who are living of their mortality.

While there are many potent symbols associated with this ritual event, I elected to use the symbol of the skull and the marigolds in my piece. Rossetti’s poems and Hughes’ illustrations highlight the natural, cyclical nature of life and death; many of the pieces refer to nature and thus foreground death as part of the life cycle as opposed to a horrific ending. Both the skull and the marigolds may be considered as symbols of nature: the skull represents the anatomical underpinnings of one’s subjectivity, while the flowers (like the human life) germinate, grow, and then wilt or die in nature. With regard to the ritual practices of The Day of Dead, many believe that those who have died return on this day to visit their living loved ones, and the skulls—visual symbols of death and decay—are meant to honour those who return. In the poem, the autumn leaves have become “sere” or dry, signalling death, and yet the soul has reached the afterlife, signalled by “Paradise” which suggests a rebirth. Thus, death is not the final event, but rather a stage of the life cycle and marks the beginning of one’s eternal life. To reflect this in my artwork, I chose to juxtapose the skull (to represent death) with the marigolds, as flowers that are still alive are lusciously vibrant and may be read as potent symbols of rebirth (as the pollen of one flower can go on to create many other flowers).

I chose the medium of collage because I felt that the integration of pieces of images would lend to the holistic nature of the subject matter. I have used an image of a skull with printed photographs of marigolds along with my own hand-drawn marigolds; the poem has been printed in a cursive font and framed by a hand-drawn and hand-cut flower to mimic the shape of the marigolds. I decided to place the poem as if it is emerging from the skull’s mouth to highlight the process of reading that Sing Song would have enacted: it is likely that the adult/parent reader would read poems such as “A baby’s cradle…” to the child listener, and in turn educate the child about the natural, cyclical, and holistic nature of death.