Known in Vain

Alternately titled: Work and Will

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1853
Rhyme: abbaabbacdcddc
Meter: iambic pentameter
Genre: sonnet


◦ Baum, ed., The House of Life 165-166

◦ WMR, DGR as Designer and Writer. 229


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


DGR distinguishes the differences in awareness that are possible in the same persons: “love” is the subject of the verb “Knows” (lines 1-2), whereas the two lovers do not at first possess their own love's total intuitive apprehension. In the argument of this sonnet, their fuller understanding may come “too late” (line 10) ever to actually achieve love's complete understanding.

The sonnet is the first of a group that DGR places at a central place in the sequence of The House of Life. All of the sonnets in the group were written many years before their printing in DGR's 1870 volume. They function in a kind of prefigurative relation to the project of the sonnet sequence, as “The Landmark” shows very clearly. The other sonnets in this group are “The Landmark”, “A Dark Day”, and “The Hill Summit”. In 1881 DGR added “Autumn Idleness” to the group, another early work, as well as “The Heart of the Night” (writen in 1873).

This sonnet is a monitory text that can be usefully read beside “Lovesight” and “Stillborn Love”. Its brilliant wordplays (see glosses below) are central to its meaning and they exhibit Rossetti's characteristic skill with extreme forms of poetic wit and artifice.

Textual History: Composition

According to WMR this was written in January 1853 (see WMR, Family Letters I. 167 ). He dates it “?1857” (see DGR as Designer and Writer but the 1853 date is correct, as the early manuscript in the Duke University Library shows. The text in the Fitzwilliam composite manuscript is not substatively different from the printed texts, which are also quite stable.

Textual History: Revision

At some point DGR (temporarily) altered the manuscript title from “Known in Vain” to “Work and Will”. This alteration would have been made after the 1869-1870 printings of the sonnet, for in all those cases it is printed “Known in Vain”, which is the title it kept through the 1881 and all subsequent printings.

Printing History

First printed as sonnet XIII in the sequence of sixteen sonnets published in the Fortnightly Review in March 1869. It was then printed in mid-August 1869 as part of the Penkill Proofs and remained in all proof stages until it was published in the 1870 Poems and thereafter. It is The House of Life Sonnet XXX in the 1870 volume, and Sonnet LXV in 1881.


WMR reads the sonnet in a straight autobiographical vein, as an expression of DGR's self-reproach at his “desultory” artistic habits. This reading appears to be his response to the title “Work and Will” that DGR once gave to the sonnet.

DGR told Hall Caine that he set the highest value on this sonnet (see Caine, Recollections 237 ).

Electronic Archive Edition: 1
Source File: 1-1853.raw.xml