Stillborn Love

Alternately titled: The Stillborn Hour

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1870
Rhyme: abbaabbaccdeed
Meter: iambic pentameter
Genre: sonnet


◦ Baum, ed., The House of Life, 147-148

◦ WMR, DGR as Designer and Writer., 220-221


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


WMR and others accept a literal interpretation of the sonnet's central distinction between an order of Time and and order of Eternity. But these ideas may of course be read as dialectical tropes that come to signify a set of purely mortal experiences—in which case the fulfilled hour of love would represent a mortal and embodied engagement more perfect even than a consummated union of lovers (“consummate joys”). It is crucial to see that this idea is being entertained in the poem, for DGR's whole project depends upon imagining not merely a higher order of spiritual bliss (i.e., a more fleshly order), but a higher order of fleshly bliss (i.e., a more spiritual order). On each side of this traditional dichotomy, in DGR's view, lies a conceptual and imaginative failure. Hence the ironic force of the phrase “consummate joys” in line 5 of this sonnet.

How we read the cryptic first line controls the remainder of the sonnet. The line's difficulty is extreme if we take the sonnet as accepting the unproblematic truth of the dichotomy time/eternity. If we do not, then “The hour which might have been” signifies the poet's awareness/belief not merely in the possibility of a perfected mortal love, but of an hour when one would see and know that perfection. In fact, the perfected hour seems to be defined in DGR's imagination by a consciousness, as it were: an ecstatic love experience that simultaneously transacts the whole of the sensuous body and the whole of the aware mind. (One wants not to lose sight of the important detail that this experience is imagined by DGR as an hour and not (say) a moment: sonnets may be measured as moments, but love is by hours, as the famous “Introductory Sonnet” to The House of Life explicitly argues. So the thought here, as elsewhere in DGR, is of a sensuous experience that will have not only perfection but duration of perfection.) This “hour”, furthermore, both “might have been” and also “might not be”, ever; both possibilities must be entertained.

Baum reads this poem as “a companion piece to the previous sonnet” (i.e., “Love's Fatality” ) and he relates it to “Severed Selves” and “Love and Hope” via the references to the “hour” (Baum, The House of Life, 147-148 ; see also Baum, Poems, Ballads, and Sonnets, 295n ). His comments apply only to the 1881 sequence, however, since those three sonnets were not published in the 1870 text. In the 1870 sequence the sonnet connects most directly with the opening pair of sonnets, “Bridal Birth” and “Love's Redemption”.

DGR told Hall Caine that he thought this sonnet, as well as “Known in Vain” , were the best of “the series in value” (Caine, Recollections, 237 ).

Textual History: Composition

DGR wrote the poem in August 1869, as the pencil draft of the text shows: the latter is written on one side of the initial pencil draft for “The Stream's Secret”. Two other manuscripts survive, both in the Fitzwilliam composite “House of Life” manuscript: a heavily corrected copy and a fair copy with one correction.

Textual History: Revision

The text as printed in the A2 Proofs is substantially unchanged in all later printings.

Printing History

First printed in the A2 Proofs on 20 August 1869 and kept through the rest of the proofs; it is published first in the 1870 Poems. The sonnet is number XXVIII inThe House of Life as published in the 1870 volume, and number LV in the sequence as published in 1881.


Baum notes that the sonnet “though clearly referring to the Other Beloved [i.e., Jane Morris], might also seem to refer to Rossetti's wife” (Baum, The House of Life, 148 ). The double option is certainly present, but one should note that it is present in many more cases than Baum would allow.

It is of course impossible not to register the force that the dominant image would have had for DGR, whose daughter was stillborn to Elizabeth in May 1861. This reference connects the sonnet directly to “Death in Love”. Handling this real-life event in such a symbolical way is thoroughly Dantean; it also anticipates some of the most basic functional ideas of surrealism

Electronic Archive Edition: 1
Source File: 10-1870.raw.xml