This poem conveys a mood of deep melancholy and grief despite being reluctant to explicate a simple narrative or situation in which this passionate feeling is being felt. The poem can be seen as a plea to and for the speaker’s lover or friend on their death-bed, yet the picture is kept just out of focus, as if the exhortation of the title were intended to be extended to the reader as well. Through repetition we are made witness to the change in tone behind this phrase, from the resolution and coldness of the first stanza to a deep anguish and compassion in the last. The adapted sonnet form of the poem fits this dramatic shift in mood and the soul-searching that accompanies it.
A mood of bold defiance is conveyed in the opening lines with the imperative ‘Ask me no more’. The construction comparing tumultuous natural forces with the speaker’s maintained silence, ‘when have I answered thee?’, works on the idea that while the elements are subject to influence, the speaker’s resolution not to respond is unshakeable. The lines are given a Biblical cadence by the conditionals ‘may’ balanced against ‘but’ as in a psalm, as well as the idea of a ‘cloud’ reaching down from ‘heaven’. With the entrance of death into the poem at stanza 2 this will be reconfigured as an allusion to the death of Elijah or the ascension of Jesus, but here it simply demonstrates that storm clouds are shaped, and so influenced, by the land they pass over. The speaker’s exclamation ‘O too fond’ hangs unexplained in the stanza, but could apply to the speaker himself or the subject of the poem with a tone of admonishment. At this point in the poem the speaker might be rejecting an enamoured lover – he wants to distance and silence the person he is addressing.
The mood changes dramatically in the second stanza to one of grief and helplessness. The vulnerability and frailty conveyed by ‘what answer should I give?’ contrasts starkly with the firm coldness of stanza 1. ‘I love not the hollow cheek…’ attempts to explain this remoteness as a profound insight that sees beyond mere mortality, but the whole poem suddenly pivots on following word, ‘Yet’. This can be seen as the volta of this semi-sonnet, as the speaker allows the outpouring of his true emotion indicated by the exclamation mark at the end of the line. ‘O my friend’ counters ‘O too fond’ in the first stanza, turning that from a reproach towards the addressee, to a complex expression of self-admonishment, at having become too attached to the ‘hollow cheek and faded eye’ of a person that must inevitably die.
There is a bitter irony in the seeming command, ‘I will not have thee die!’, where the speaker tries desperately to imagine that it is in his hands to save the person he’s speaking to. The earlier mention of the moon that can ‘draw the sea’ is now retrospectively recast as an allusion to King Canute – the speaker’s command to death is as vain as trying to command the sea. A similar mismatch in tone can be found in the following line, where ‘lest I should bid thee live’ strikes us as a nonsensical threat. Just as the admonishing ‘too fond’ was turned back on the speaker, so the apparent threat of ‘lest’ towards the addressee implies a deep fear and consciousness of weakness in the speaker himself. It is not ‘lest I make the command to spare your life and it is enacted’, but rather ‘lest i make the command and it is not enacted, hence I am made palpably aware of my own frailty’. The final ‘Ask me no more’ has become, instead of an emphatic command, a fearful, compassionate plea.
Resignation and passionate love are the underpinning tones of the final stanza, as the speaker confronts the inevitability of death, ‘thy fate and mine are seal’d’. A return to the imagery of nature seen in stanza 1 shows the difference – where before the speaker held himself in contrast to the changes or nature, he now sees himself within it and subject to it, also recognises that although he ‘strove against the stream’, he was never actually outside the influence of mortality. Life’s passing is elevated beautifully in the image of the ‘great river’, and the passionate grief in ‘No more, dear love’ is touching. We see that his ‘yielding’ refers both to the deathbed requests of his lover or friend, and to the ‘touch’ of death of itself, of which he now has a heightened consciousness.
This poem addresses the inner struggle to reconcile oneself with death and the fact of mortality. The speaker’s love for the person he addresses is movingly portrayed as breaking through the superficial coldness with which he attempts to evade the unalterable and inevitable approach of death.