A Superscription

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1869 January 24
Rhyme: abbaabbacddccd
Meter: iambic pentameter
Genre: sonnet


◦ Baum, ed., The House of Life, 215-218

◦ McGann, DGR and the Game that Must be Lost, 136-137

◦ Rees, The Poetry of DGR, 116-117

◦ Riede, DGR and the Limits of Victorian Vision, 143-144

◦ WMR, DGR as Designer and Writer, 257-258

◦ Wagner, A Moment's Monument, 141-142


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 sonnet is remarkable and has always been admired. Its title supplies the initial suggestion that is borne out in the unfolding text: that the object of our attention is a thing to be simultaneously looked at and read, as if it were a text superscribed over some sort of picture. In this respect the sonnet comes as a textual translation of the Rossettian double work of art. The allegorical names in the first two lines operate figurally rather than semantically—they correspond exactly to the moral attributes raised up as iconic forms in the Mary's Girlhood sonnets.

The sonnet is equally a paradigm of the way DGR manipulates pronouns throughout The House of Life sequence. Almost invariably the personal pronouns lie open to several available referents: the key ones are the poet, the Beloved, the Innominata, the sonnets themselves, and the reader, but local circumstances continually bring forward other options. In this case the first person pronoun is primarily identified with the sonnet and/or the picture that the sonnet figurally constructs and/or the (allegorical) figure in that picture who holds the shell and the mirror.

The ornamental presentation of ideas and an extreme instability of reference: these conditions, typical of The House of Life sonnets and of this sonnet especially, tend to short-circuit traditional modes of interpretive comment. The sonnets resist explication in terms of organized meanings (meanings proliferate as the sonnets tease us into thoughts about them), and also in terms of thematic and/or biographical reference (different narratives can always be applied at any juncture). This last situation is nicely illustrated in the sonnet's concluding lines, which center in the enigmatic Mona Lisa image. Ambushed by the recollection of unfulfilled desire, the soul may be imagined to be erotically transfixed. DGR's own comment is interesting and pertinent: “I am well aware that the greater proportion of my poetry is suited only to distinctly poetic readers. To this class belong what I think perhaps the most of myself —that is, the Sonnets; and none more than the one you mention, called ‘A Superscription.’ This is decidedly (painful as it is) a favorite of my own. Nothing I ever wrote was more the result of strong feeling, as you may perhaps think traceable in it” (see letter to Alicia Losh, 19 October 1869: Fredeman, Correspondence, 69. 186 ).

Textual History: Composition

On 24 January 1869 WMR noted in his diary that DGR had just written this sonnet and sent off the sequence of sixteen to the Fortnightly Review for publication ( Rossetti Papers, 380 ). So it appears this was the last of that group to be written. Two manuscripts are preserved in the composite Fitzwilliam manuscript of The House of Life sonnets, one a heavily revised holograph, the other a fair copy by Charles Fairfax Murray.

Textual History: Revision

The substantive character of all the printed texts is identical.


The controlling trope is iconographical: as if a text of some kind were being imagined as an allegorical painting or an allegorical figure in a painting. The figure holds a shell and a mirror, which are themselves allegorical devices for art.

Printing History

First printed as Sonnet VIII in the sequence of sonnets published in the Fortnightly Review (March 1869) as the first instantiation of The House of Life project. These sixteen sonnets were printed again in the Penkill Proofs in August and kept through all prepublication texts until its publication in the 1870 Poems. The sonnet is numbered XLVI in The House of Life as published in the1870 volume, and XCVII in thesequence as published in 1881.


Many readers have read the sonnet as a cryptic representation of DGR's persistent sense of guilt and regret, partly for what he imagined as his own responsibility in his wife's suicide, and partly for the unfulfilled state of his love for Jane Morris.

Electronic Archive Edition: 1
Source File: 2-1868.raw.xml