Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1868 December
Genre: poem group


◦ Adlard, “Willowwood”, 153-154

◦ Baum, House of Life, 136-143.

◦ Doughty, A Victorian Romantic, 384.

◦ Fontana, “Representations of the Kiss,”, 86.

◦ Gregory, Life and Works of DGR, II. 117

◦ WMR, DGR as Designer and Writer, 216-219

◦ Jarvie, “‘Willowwood’” (1977), 106-120

◦ Rees, Poetry of DGR, 82-89

◦ Riede, DGR and the Limits of Victorian Vision, 144-148.

◦ Robillard, “Rossetti's Willowwood Sonnets” (1962), 5-9

◦ Talon, DGR: “The House of Life”, 33-45

◦ Ullmann, Union College Willowwood Manuscripts

General Description of Willowwood I

Date: 1869
Rhyme: abbaabbaccdeed
Meter: iambic pentameter
Genre: sonnet

General Description of Willowwood II

Date: 1869
Rhyme: abbaabbacddccd
Meter: iambic pentameter
Genre: sonnet

General Description of Willowwood III

Date: 1869
Rhyme: ababababacacdd
Meter: iambic pentameter
Genre: sonnet

“This sonnet is bizarre to the last degree. . . . the rime-scheme is irregular and very unusual in carrying over octave rimes into the sestet” (see House of Life 141 ).

General Description of Willowwood IV

Date: 1869
Rhyme: abbaabbaccdccd
Meter: iambic pentameter
Genre: sonnet


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

Scholarly Commentary


The House of Life project grew out of the composition of these four poems in December 1868. The peculiar strength of the sonnets is that they have the arbitrary clarity of a dream sequence, but they are presented as wakeful experiences: literally, as waking dreams. Their dream-form is typical of DGR's poetry, and of The House of Life sequence in particular: everywhere we encounter texts that are highly detailed yet integral, cryptic yet full of import and deliberateness.

Differing interpretations of the sequence as a whole focus their differences in this central group. The issue is usually represented as a problem about love and the hope of its fulfillment. Formally, of course, these sonnets (like the sequence as a whole) conclude with what Ullman calls a benediction ( Ullmann, 18 ): in Willowwood this is summarized as the final aureole, in The House of Life it is the last sonnet The One Hope. But many others have (rightly) pointed out the dark ambiguities that threaten an emotional resolution to the intense desires driving the work.

My own view of the matter is that both readings are in a sense correct: that is to say, the poetic argument insists upon a benediction and a promised hope, but the poet (and the poetry) gain no emotional resolution from these committments. On the contrary, the committments exacerbate the experience of suffering. But it appears to be DGR's purpose to argue that the benediction and the pain of love are dialectically related to each other. This argument is clearly made in Parted Love and just as clearly re-made in the climactic third sonnet of the Willowwood group. Ultimately the argument recalls the thought that feeds an Imitatio Christi, which in the secular terms of courtly love becomes realized in the code of the suffering but faithful poet-lover.

The Willowwood group looks forward most immediately to Love's Last Gift, where we see how and why the traumatic space of Willowwood will not “hold [the soul] wandering”: for there is Willowwood and there is Willowwood, and Love's Last Gift is the power to give artistic expression to the most dire circumstances. That gift, however, does not redeem or transform the existential circumstances, it simply reveals the (spiritual) fact that their artistic reconstruction can be made a sign of their participation in an ideal order: a sign, as it were, that is the evidence of things not seen.

Textual History: Composition

WMR wrote in his diary for 18 December 1868 that DGR had just written the four “Willowwood” sonnets (see WMR, Rossetti Papers 1862 to 1870, 339 ). DGR at first titled them “A Dream”, as one can see from the holograph corrected copy of the four sonnets preserved in the library of Union College. The Fitzwilliam compilation of “The House of Life” has five manuscripts of this famous sequence: corrected copies for sonnet I, sonnet II, and sonnet IV, and for sonnet III a draft and a corrected copy. DGR's process of revising the sonnets for publication in 1870 can be seen in the latter documents.

Textual History: Revision

The surviving manuscripts show that DGR worked out the all-but final state of the sonnets in his manuscript revision process. Considered line by line, the final manuscript version achieved in early 1869 exhibits only some minor further changes in the printed texts. But the sonnets underwent a highly significant structural revision when DGR was preparing them for eventual publication in the 1870 Poems. At first they stood at the beginning of The House of Life sequence, as they do in the Penkill Proofs (August 1869). DGR then moved them toward the end of the sequence as he continued to augment it during the next five months. At the end of February, however, he completely overhauled the order of the sonnets and this group was placed in the (relative) position it has kept ever since.

See below, the commentaries for the individual sonnets.


When he read them just after they were composed, WMR called them “about the finest thing he has done” (see WMR, Rossetti Papers 1862 to 1870, 339 ). Swinburne was equally enthusiastic when he saw them in proof. Of early readers, only Buchanan was unimpressed.


The sonnets construct a highly detailed, as well as a highly idiosyncratic, visionary place. Baum's note is extremely apt: “Willowwood is a grove, with a pool or fountain, sacred to those who have loved and lost and cannot forget” (see Baum, Poems, Ballads, and Sonnets, 291n ). Just as the writing of these sonnets initiated The House of Life project, the iconic forms they develop will appear throughout the sequence as recurrent motifs.

Printing History

First printed as Sonnets I-IV in the initial Fortnightly Review sequence of sonnets (March 1869) of The House of Life project. The group was printed again in the Penkill Proofs in August and kept through all prepublication texts until its publication in the 1870 Poems. The sonnets are numbered XXIV-XXVII in The House of Life as published in the 1870 volume, and XLIX-LII in the sequence as published in 1881.


One can scarcely resist the association of these sonnets with the painting Water Willow, executed in 1871 when DGR was staying at Kelmscott with Jane Morris. DGR's painting, a portrait of Mrs. Morris, replicates in a transparent way Leonardo's Mona Lisa; as such, it necessarily presents a figura of supreme fulfillment. The significance of this figura becomes clear when we compare the sonnets, where Elizabeth Siddall is the controlling presence, with Water Willow, where Jane Morris dominates. In effect, Jane's image completes or culminates the erotic/Beatricean quest that DGR had imaginatively located in relation to his wife Elizabeth.


Willowwood is a local place-name in Froome-Selwood, where CR and her mother were staying in 1853 and 1854 (see Adlard, “Willowwood”, 153-154 ).


The most important literary context for these sonnets is the Narcissus story as retailed through Ovid's Metamorphoses (Book III. 401-510) and through The Romance of the Rose. In the latter the event is treated twice, once in Guillaume de Lorris' initial narrative (lines 1425-1680), and again in Jean de Meun's critical reprise on the story (lines 20335-20667). DGR is particularly reworking the medieval text, where the water source is a fountain (and hence man-made, like DGR's well) rather than a natural pool (as in Ovid), where the event comes in a dream, and where the tale clearly comprises a figural treatment of the growth of consciousness. In DGR's case, consciousness comes through the sonnets' literary precursors, and we are led to read the figure of Love in DGR's text as a trope for the texts that allow him to rethink the significance of the myth.

While DGR recurs to the Narcissus story, this central treatment distinctly recalls the first appearance of the Ovidian scene in DGR's works. It comes in Hand and Soul at the climactic moment of the speech of Chiaro's soul (see paragraph 32).

These sonnets represent Love as Dante does in the Vita Nuova XII—that is, as a humanly sympathetic figure able to share the poet's grief and weep with him (see DGR's translation).

Robillard (page 6) is acute to draw a comparison between this group of sonnets in The House of Life and section 95 in Tennyson's In Memoriam .


These sonnets appear to refer to DGR's beloved, but the text does not specify clearly whether the person is DGR's wife or whether it is Jane Morris. Most readers follow CR in imagining the beloved as Jane rather than Elizabeth: in “An Echo from Willowwood” , CR writes that “Two gazed into a pool, he gazed and she,/ Not hand in hand, yet heart in heart, I think”. (But CR may mean that DGR and Elizabeth are not “hand in hand” because they are separated by death.) WMR read the sonnets as referencing Mrs. Morris (see DGR as Designer and Writer, 216 ). The highly elaborated symbolic apparatus is such, however, that one is inclined to see her not as a person at all, but as an imaginative projection or fantasmatic creature. In this (neoplatonic) view the “literal” or autobiographical drama played out in the poem constitutes a kind of dream image.

Scholarly Commentary


“Willowwood I”: Willowwood unfolds a related series of dream-images. The first sonnet maps out a structure of sympathetic exchange comprising four key terms that operate in dynamic relation: Love, the poet/lover, poetry/song (or art in general), and the (absent) beloved. The sonnet argues that their interchanges are impersonal, as line 3 most clearly suggests. It also argues that its messages—whatever it may have “to tell”—will be delivered as image rather than as constative utterance. (So later in the third sonnet, when we receive the words that Love has “to tell”, they come in the form of a “song”, that is, as art.) The “certain secret thing” that Love will sing into existence itself turns figural, like the entirety of the overarching dream structure. All the elements of the signifying system, including the referents it may suggest, are thereby idealized as deliberated imaginative constructions. The sonnets of DGR's sequence thus become signs themselves that are incorporate with an ideal and apparently limitless signifying system.

The underlying dynamic is perpetual erotic desire, which the sonnets are composed to represent and celebrate. Because loss appears an essential feature of the dynamic itself, the sonnets develop a structure of internal contradictions. It will be a perpetual obligation of the sequence to re-experience its structure of losses. In this sonnet, loss, desire, and art all come before us as, literally, conscious ideals: images that are waking dreams.

DGR's own comment on the sonnet is notable: “The sonnet describes a dream or trance of divided love momentarily re-united by the longing fancy; and in the imagery of the dream, the face of the beloved rises through deep waters to kiss the lover” ( The Stealthy School of Criticism ).

Of the four “Willowwood” sonnets, this was the least revised from its first draft state.

Textual History: Composition

Two manuscripts survive: a corrected copy in the Union College Library, and a fair copy (cancelled) in the Fitzwilliam composite “House of Life” manuscript.


The scene picturing the sonnet's speaker and Love seated together at a well anticipates the scene DGR painted in the background of The Salutation of Beatrice. The British Museum's study for this painting defines the two figures quite clearly.

More crucially, it also recalls his watercolor done for Ruskin, Dante's Vision of Rachel and Leah. The relevance of this picture, as well as its entecedent text out of Dante (Purgatorio XXVII. 94-108), lies in the fact that it treats the complementarity of the practical and the contemplative life. DGR's sonnet (and painting) are also much concerned with the truth functions of artistic expression—as it were the visionary dimensions of its visibilities.

Scholarly Commentary


“Willowwood II”: The difficulty of grasping the sonnet in elementary prose terms is notable; it is also an index of the poem's meaning. For while a prose reconstruction will bring a certain kind of clarity, the literally deferred song (i.e., “Willowwood III”) stands here as the sign that meaning is erotically organized, that is, organized as a perpetual desire for more perfectly realized meaning.

In negotiating this sonnet, then, one wants to realize, first, that while the sonnet comes before the actual song of Love in “Willowwood III”, it represents itself as a response to that song—indeed, as a kind of interpretation of it as a difficult and mysterious utterance. (This sonnet is therefore itself a figural representation of erotic desire, for it appears an effort to explain the feeling or impression that love's song produces in the poet.) Second, this inverted temporal structure suggests that the mournful forms of this sonnet have been called up, half-resurrected as it were, by the song that Love sings. At once witness and participant in this visionary scene, the poet is therefore also the mouthpiece, if not the agent, of Love.

Some local prose explications are not out of order. Lines 1-4 introduce the image of souls suspended in a life-in-death that can be imagined either in neo-platonic terms (transmigration of souls) or in Christian Adventist terms (soul-sleep). These figures then mutate into a second set of images (lines 5-8): the song of love is not so much like death-suspended souls as like a group of lovers who are defined as “shades” by their regret for the pastness of their happy days. The “souls” (line 3) are (literally) different from the “shades” (line 8); both are in fact tropes, or textual constructions (images/phantasms), for the “certain secret” (“Willowwood I”) erotic reality that is always in pursuit. In the sestet, when those mutating images are referenced in the pronoun “They” (line 9), the instability of the otherwise highly particularized scene(s) grows acute.

Line 13 presents a very difficult problem. WMR says that the quotation should be read: “For this once only do we yield”, while Baum suggests that it might mean “Only once did we yield, i.e., the ‘one hour‘ of XL”. But these readings are not at all compelling, and other readings are clearly possible. It is not at all certain, for example, whether the quotation is to be imagined as coming from “them” or “us” (see line 9); or whether the “all” of line 12 includes both. “All” suggests that the source of the words is either “them” or “them” and “us” (but not just “us”, i.e., not just the poet in his trance-embrace with his beloved's dream-image). Moreover, the quotation may well be taken to suggest a meaning such as: “at last we have found a way to be alone together”. Finally, the repetition of the phrase “for once” introduces an evident ambiguity—indeed, an enacted contradiction— into the statement.

One wants to understand that these prosings of DGR's sonnets are not to be taken as interpretations of encrypted meanings. That is, prose translations of this kind which have been a part of DGR criticism from the beginning are best taken as technical devices for clarifying the structural relations of the verse components. They help to define the reading options, as it were, that DGR has laid down in the labyrinths of his texts. Dante's prose explanations of the parts of his poems, which he regularly sets out in the Vita Nuova, are clearly the precursors of this kind of critical exposition.

DGR's preoccupation with the doppelgänger, epitomized in his drawing How They Met Themselves, figures centrally in this sonnet.

Textual History: Composition

Two manuscripts survive: a corrected copy in the Union College Library, and another copy heavily revised in the Fitzwilliam composite “House of Life” manuscript.

Scholarly Commentary


“Willowwood III”: Baum's prose summary of the sestet is uncharacteristically mistaken: “Alas that those who are condemned to wander here cannot die” ( BaumP 292n ). In fact the meaning is almost precisely the opposite. Love laments the possibility (“if”, line 11) that the soul might never leave Willowwood: that it might sleep there forever in a kind of life-in-death (line 12), or that it might wander there forever in a kind of death-in-life (line 14). Love's song is a prayer against those possibilities, not because Love would imagine some permanent escape from Willowwood, but because Love desires a world where Willowwood is a locality (or what Blake would have called a “State”).

In DGR's argument—as the octave shows— the experience of Willowwood is a kind of dark night of the soul where deprivation is the condition and even the sign of the light that is desired. The linguistic repetitions are rhetorical figures of the presence of Eros, and signs that there will be a second coming, as it were, of the light (“again . . . again shall see”, lines 5, 8).

Textual History: Composition

Three manuscripts survive: a lightly revised copy in the Union College Library, and two copies in the Fitzwilliam composite “House of Life” manuscript, a heavily revised copy and another corrected copy that is subsequent to the former.


Of all the sonnets in the Willowwood group, this one most strongly recalls Dante's Inferno, and the situation of the souls whose greatest suffering is the pain of loss. It is important to realize, however, that Love's song here laments the souls' state of deprivation. Love's song is not a song of despair but a song of desire. In this respect Willowwood is not the hell as experienced by the damned but the hell as experienced by the pilgrim Dante.

Scholarly Commentary


“Willowwood IV”: The “unclosure” realized in the octave identifies the moment of the “song” with the moment of the “kiss”. In making this equation, the sonnet reveals “Willowwood III” as the literal emodiment, or perhaps exponent, of both.

The sestet has two especially volatile and interesting passages. The syntax of line 11 is left ambiguous because of the grammatical organization of the main clause: the primary sense of lines 9-11 inclines one to relate line 11 to the “long draught”, but the rules of grammar incline one to relate it to “the water where she sank”. The ambiguity is encouraged because each option shares a common term (“water”). A second uncertainty hovers around the phrase “both our heads” (line 14): in this case we may read the heads as eitherthe poet and Love, and/or as the poet and his beloved.

Textual History: Composition

Four manuscripts survive: a heavily revised copy in the Union College Library, and three copies in the Fitzwilliam composite “House of Life” manuscript, a heavily revised copy, a corrected copy made from that with further revisions, and another corrected copy with yet further revisions.

Electronic Archive Edition: 1
Source File: 14-1869.raw.xml