The Vase of Life

Alternately titled: Run and Won

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

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


◦ Austin, “Mastering the Ineffable” VP (2007) , 159-173

◦ Baum, ed., The House of Life, 211-214

◦ WMR, DGR as Designer and Writer, 254-255

◦ Stein, The Ritual of Interpretation, 188-189


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


Stein's excellent comments on the shifting and decorative character of the sonnet deserve the most careful consideration. He is certainly correct to say that a central subject of the sonnet is the problem of interpreting aesthetic works, and to argue that the problem emerges through the decorative approach DGR takes to his materials, including the various meanings that are suggested by the sonnet's sets of figurations. In this last respect the sonnet should be compared to the pair of Mary's Girlhood sonnets, where meanings are represented at the same level as pictorial details.

The sestet, as so often in DGR's sonnets, pivots the whole into a self-reflexive condition: “this vase” signals this sonnet. But the identity of the “you” (line 1) and the “He” (lines 2, 9)—standard markers for constructing an interpretation according to a grammar of subjective or romantic expression—remains indeterminate throughout. The distinctly impersonal cast that develops as a consequence supplies the sestet with its impressive and dark power. The vase's master—the artist, the individual person—would have destroyed the vase, so dreadful are its histories, had he not come to see the vase in such an impersonal way. According to the sonnet, the vase has been fated to serve—in the words of the sequence's opening sonnet—as a “Memorial from the Soul's Eternity”. The master of the vase is in the end its subject (in several senses).

Textual History: Composition

WMR calls it “a comparatively early performance” in one instance, and in another dates it 1869 (see WMR, DGR as Designer and Writer, 254 and 1911 ). All commentators have accepted the 1869 dating. Neither the Fitzwilliam manuscript (printer's copy) nor the Princeton manuscript illuminate the question of the date of composition.

Textual History: Revision

Except for the title,the substantive text is stable from the printer's copy manuscript through all subsequent printings.

Printing History

First printed (under the title Run and Won) as Sonnet VII in the sequence of sonnets initially printed in the Fortnightly Review (March 1869). The group was printed again in the Penkill Proofs in August and kept through all prepublication texts until its publication in the 1870 Poems, where it is titled “The Vase of Life”. The sonnet is numbered XLV in The House of Life as published in the 1870 volume, and XCV in the sequence as published in 1881.


The octave recalls Keats's “Ode on a Grecian Urn”.


WMR suggested that the “He” of the sonnet was meant to signify Millais; Frederick Page suggested Keats, while Baum thought it referred to DGR himself (see WMR, DGR as Designer and Witer, 254 and Baum, Poems, Ballads, Sonnets, 321n ).

Electronic Archive Edition: 1
Source File: 19-1869.raw.xml