Transfigured Life

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1880 November
Rhyme: abbaabbacdcddc
Meter: iambic pentameter
Genre: sonnet


◦ WMR, DGR Designer and Writer, 224-225

◦ Baum, ed., House of Life 157-158


Editorial glosses and textual notes are available in a pop-up window. Line numbering reflects the structure of the 1881 Ballads and Sonnets first edition text.

Scholarly Commentary


An important if not a brilliant sonnet, the poem is working off the Romantic idea (see Shelley) that “most wretched men/ Are cradled into poetry by wrong/ They learn in suffering what they teach in song”. This idea is itself a translation of Horace's classic apothegm about the source of poetry (“si vis me flere”), and DGR's next sonnet in the 1881 “House of Life” sequence, “The Song-Throe”, makes the Horatian reference quite explicit. The argument here is not simply that “real life events” get “transfigured” (in the full religious import of that word) through poetic translation; more than that, DGR is explaining how and why he reworks and re-uses poems that were originally written years earlier and with other purposes and thoughts in mind. The sonnet's argument thus applies to DGR's general method of work as well as to a method he saw in Dante. Both poets write, rewrite, and re-use their work in different and new contexts for different and new purposes and revelations. The procedure follows from the belief, shared by both poets, that temporal events (including personal events) are ruled by fatalities and riven with secret meanings that only get revealed as time unfolds.

The sonnet of course picks up the running “ child theme” (see “Stillborn Love” especially), which is here explicitly worked into DGR's purely aesthetic argument, as it had been earlier worked into the argument about the evolution of DGR's life in love. The trauma of the stillborn child born to DGR's wife in May 1861 is the point of reference for all of this material. DGR pursues the “ child theme“ to explore that painful event for a secret gratulence concealed within it.

Textual History: Composition

WMR misled earlier scholars about the date of this sonnet, which he put at 1872 or 1873. In fact it was composed in 1880 (he sent a fair copy in a letter of 17 November to Jane Morris: see Bryson, DGR and Jane Morris Correspondence, 165 ). Five other integral manuscripts survive. The earliest is probably the corrected copy in the Fitzwilliam composite “House of Life” sequence (where a fair copy by DGR is also located). There are also fair copies in the Troxell composite “House of Life” sequence; in the Library of Congress (in a letter of January 1881 to Philip Bourke Marston); and in the Rosenbach Library. DGR drafted a prose synopsis in a notebook (Duke Library, Notebook IV) (another prose synopsis is in a notebook scrap in the Princeton/Troxell materials).

Printing History

First published in the 1881 Ballads and Sonnets and collected thereafter.

Electronic Archive Edition: 1
Source File: 2-1873.raw.xml