Broken Music

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1852 October
Rhyme: abbaaccadedede
Meter: iambic pentameter
Genre: sonnet


◦ Baum, ed., The House of Life 132-134

◦ Doughty, A Victorian Romantic 131

◦ Fredeman, “Rossetti's ‘In Memoriam’” (1965) 131

◦ WMR, DGR as Designer and Writer 214-215


Editorial glosses and textual notes are available in a pop-up window. Line numbering reflects the structure of the 1870 First Edition Text.

Scholarly Commentary


The sonnet culminates (though it does not close) the sequence in The House of Life that began with “Life-in-Love”. Perhaps the central dramatic unit in the sequence, it details the erotic tension that develops when the poet, like Dante before him, is forced to negotiate the conflicting claims of Love. This conflict is (philosophically) the ancient Platonic dialectic between “memory [and] desire” (see e.g., “Supreme Surrender” line 10); for DGR it is played out in his dual love for Elizabeth Siddal and Jane Morris.

This poem is especially interesting in the way it uses the octave's image of a process of writing as a prophetic figure for doubled and changed meanings (in both art and life). The image of the mother listening for her child's second cry turns in the context of the sequence to an image of doubled meanings, new lives, new loves. So this very sonnet, originally written in 1852 in circumstances that had nothing to do with The House of Life, turns itself over to whole new ranges of significance when it discovers, as it were, a new context in 1869-1870; and the context, as well as the meanings, shift yet again when the sequence is reconstructed in 1881. But whatever changes develop, in 1870 the essential form of the dynamic of change is fully articulated.

The sonnet focuses the change as the difference between a “song” with “sweet music [and] tears”, on one hand, and a tormented song on the other. One does not want to forget that, so far as art and poetry is concerned, the difference is emotional, not (necessarily) aesthetic. In a moral perspective, the difference is represented as ambiguous (in DGR's sonnet sequence, the key figure of Death precisely locates this moral ambiguity).

Textual History: Composition

Dated “Oct. 1852” by WMR (in Peattie, Letters of William Michael Rossetti 7), although he had earlier dated it 1869. Fredeman ( “Rossetti's ‘In Memoriam’” ) and Baum ( The House of Life ) ignore WMR's amended date; but it is unlikely WMR would have made such a change if he didn't have clear evidence of its factualness. The 1852 date is supported by DGR, who appended the October 1852 date to his early fair copy now in the Huntington Library. Charles Fairfax Murray's fair copy is in the Fitzwilliam composite “House of Life” manuscript.

Textual History: Revision

The text of the poem as published in the Fortnightly Review in March 1869 does not change in any substantive way in any of its later printings.

Printing History

First printed as Sonnet XI in the initial Fortnightly Review sequence of sonnets (March 1869) of The House of Life project. It was printed again in the Penkill Proofs in August and kept through all prepublication texts until its publication in the 1870 Poems. The sonnet is number XXII in The House of Life as published in the 1870 volume, and number XLVII in the sequence as published in 1881.


WMR commented on the octave as an accurate record of DGR's process of composition (see WMR, DGR as Designer and Writer 214 ). But here DGR is arguing that “now” his process of writing is riven by pain and torment.


The October 1852 composition date underscores the strong autobiographical character of the sonnet. Read in the context of 1869, DGR would have been translating the sestet of the sonnet as referencing his memories of his dead wife, and the poem would emerge as a description of the effect those memories have upon his immediate circumstances— notably, on his relations with Jane Morris, the Innominata of the sequence.

Electronic Archive Edition: 1
Source File: 1-1852.raw.xml