The Monochord

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

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


◦ Caine, Recollections, 133

◦ Baum, ed. The House of Life, 187-190

◦ Doughty, A Victorian Romantic, , 436-437, 691-692

◦ Powell,“Object, Symbol, and Metaphor” (1993), 16-29

◦ Rees, The Poetry of DGR, 74-76

◦ WMR, DGR as Designer and Writer., 240-242

◦ Stein, The Ritual of Interpretation, 200-201


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

Scholarly Commentary


Commenting on WMR's proofs for his study of DGR, DGR as Designer and Writer , CR shrewdly called attention to the neoplatonic idea that governs the sonnet's argument: “don't you think the point may be the common essence (so to say) of all these outward and inward matters?—as if one thread (the musical ‘monochord’, but not in the sense of any weight or measure) ran through all, vibrated through all? Thus we should get the sort of truth which the blind man so neatly conveyed who likened scarlet to the sound of the trumpet” (see WMR, Family Letters of Christina Rossetti 173 ). (Her comment led WMR to expand his gloss—specifically, to add the first paragraph.) What CR registers is the sonnet's effort to define the ideal or abstract “ground” (line 8) that DGR is imagining for all art. In this case, he uses a Pythagorean understanding of perfect harmony (at once a musical and a mathematical idea; hence the figure of the monochord). The musical and Pythagorean motifs connect to the rest of the sequence at various points (see especially “Death's Songsters” as well as the sonnets that evoke musical instruments of various kinds).

The whole sonnet depends upon a few crucial wordplays where the relation between visual, musical, physical, and ideal orders are fused into an essential relation within the textual order of the sonnet: these are “draws” (lines 2, 12), “notes” (line 7), and “ground” (line 8). We are to understand, as WMR suggested, that the landscape conjured in the text from the first line is purely imaginative, a function of the perception or experience of the monochord that “vibrate[s] through all”. To the extent that the monochord is an instrument rather than an harmonic ideal, it is this sonnet itself, through which the ground harmony is measured and exposed. A note by DGR on the revise proof text shows the deliberateness of his decision to place this poem “last in the book”.

Textual History: Composition

This was among the last of the pieces added to the 1870 Poems. It first appears as part of the revise proofs pulled in mid-March 1870 at the end of the extra proof pulled for DGR's recently completed poems, including “The Stream's Secret”, “The Love-Letter”, “For ‘The Wine of Circle’”, and “Barren Spring”, and this sonnet. Its composition was likely to have been at the same time, i.e., in early March 1870.

Textual History: Revision

The 1870 text was revised in 1881 to accommodate the sonnet to The House of Life, where it was placed. In 1870 the sonnet was positioned as the concluding piece of the volume (with the subtitle “Written during Music”). The only holograph manuscript of the sonnet is titled “During Music”; Charles Fairfax Murray fair copied the sonnet in the Fitzwilliam composite “House of Life” sequence.

Printing History

First printed as a separate sonnet, the last in the volume, in Poems 1870. Printed again as Sonnet LXXIX in The House of Life in the 1881 Ballads and Sonnets volume and collected as such thereafter.


According to WMR and Theodore Watts-Dunton, the sonnet was written “on an occasion when [DGR] was listening to music” (see WMR, DGR as Designer and Writer, 240 ). This idea may come from the original subhead of the poem, however, and not from any first-hand knowledge. Whatever the actuality of such an occasion, conjuring it in the poem establishes at least an autobiographical mythos that DGR experienced a Pythagorean understanding of the harmony of art (in general), and of his own artistic practise in particular. This sonnet thereby becomes DGR's specifically poetical representation of the ideal harmony embodied in artistic practise.

Electronic Archive Edition: 1
Source File: 11-1870.raw.xml