He and I

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

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


◦ Baum, House of Life, 218-219.

◦ Bristow, “He and I” , (2001) 365-388.

◦ Granger, “The Critique of the Mirror” (1984).

◦ Lewis, Trial Book Fallacy, 129-131.

◦ McGann, “DGR and the Betrayal of Truth”.

◦ WMR, DGR as Designer and Writer, 258.

◦ Wagner, A Moment's Monument, (1996) 138-139.


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


Following the (auto)biographical inflection customary in his readings of “The House of Life ” sonnets (and first laid down by WMR), Baum sees the poem as DGR's present (first person) commentary on his past (third person) self (Baum, House of Life, 218-219). But the pronouns are more aquarian than that kind of reading allows. Indeed, the play on the word “feet” in line 1 underscores the complexity of the poem and its strange, self-reflexive literality.

If we pose the question “whose feet?” we expose the sonnet's nuanced aesthetic references. The feet involve a parodic retelling of the scene in Genesis immediately after the fall, when the Lord God walks around paradise looking for Adam and Eve, who are hiding, ashamed of their sin. The feet are also the feet of Eros, the god of Love, who often appears walking up and down the gardens and rooms—the stanzas—of “The House of Life”. The feet of Eros are also regularly metrical feet throughout Rossetti's sonnet sequence. The feet are as well the feet of Orpheus, another of Rossetti's familiar spirits. They are the feet of Dante too, as we know from the clear reference that the phrase “this new Self” makes to the Dantean New Life. And so forth. That characteristically aquarian pronoun “He” summons them all to this sonnet moaning round with its many voices.

And what of that other aquarian pronoun “I”. The poem sets it in a state of such pure Borgesian uncertainty that we wonder if this is not a drama of psychic dismemberment. Of course it is, but that is the least of the matter. For the pronominal ambiguities emblemize not secrets deeply concealed and buried, but secrets flaunted, known, lived, exposed. Because there is no central Romantic self here, Romantic melancholy—Wordsworth's or Byron's—is both absent and beside the point. The tone is flat. Present instead are emblems of sorrow, a whole array of aesthetic objects that appear at once self-conscious and dreamlike.

Written specifically for The House of Life sequence, the sonnet may be read as marking a crisis of consciousness. In one sense it records the literal dismemberment of the speaker's identity, and as such it defines the nadir of the work's psychic drama. But since DGR has all along been following the logic of a via negativa, the sonnet may also be taken to represent that ultimate condition of emptiness required by his spiritual quest. The fact that this sonnet is followed by the “Newborn Death” sonnets emphasizes its place in the logic of the sequence as DGR was trying to imagine it.

The title may also signal a poetic imagining of the intercourse of writer and reader in the “field” of these sonnets. In this perspective we observe DGR invoking a Horatian si vis me flere in a novel way at the conclusion of the sonnet. The alter-ego's sympathetic weeping turns to a figure with whom the “I” identifies. (The sestet's trope of weeping moves dialectically against the octave's representation of a “drear” and “lifeless” scene.)

Textual History: Composition

The poem was one of the last two written for and added to the 1870 Poems, as his letter to his publisher Ellis of 26 March 1870 indicates ( Fredeman, Correspondence, 70. 72 ). The sonnet was apparently written at that time.

The only manuscript is the fair copy made by Charles Fairfax Murray in the Fitzwilliam composite “House of Life” sequence.

Textual History: Revision

The text of the sonnet does not vary in its several printings.

Printing History

First printed in a revise proof sheet (along with “Love-Sweetness”) for the March 1870 Proofs for the first edition of the 1870 Poems (Lewis's state 15 of the 1869-1870 pre-publication documents). A copy of the revise is preserved in the Huntington Library. The sonnet is The House of Life Sonnet XLVII in the 1870 volume, and Sonnet XCVIII in 1881.


Lines 5-8 may be read as a reflexive comment on the progress of The House of Life itself. The phrase “one continual year”, difficult to understand precisely, gets clarified if read in a biographical framework: for “He and I” was a last addition made in late March to the 1870 sequence—exactly one year after DGR had published the first sixteen sonnets Of Life, Love, and Death.

Electronic Archive Edition: 1
Source File: 15-1870.raw.xml