The House of Life. A Sonnet Sequence

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1881
Genre: sonnet sequence


[See bibliography for the 1870 version of the sequence.]


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

Scholarly Commentary


This version of DGR's celebrated work is the one best known, as well as the one that he left in a most finished condition. But no “definitive” version of the sequence can be presented because, in fact, DGR left the work as he originally conceived and originally described it: as a project “Towards a Work to be Called ‘The House of Life’”. See the commentaries for the “Sonnets and Songs Towards a Work to be Called ‘The House of Life’” (published in 1870), for the group of verses known as “The Kelmscott Love Sonnets” (presented to Mrs. Morris as a gift in 1874), and the original sixteen sonnet version first published in March 1869 in the Fortnightly Review, “Of Life, Love, and Death: Sixteen Sonnets”.

Unlike the 1870 and 1874 states of the project, this version lacks any “Songs” as a component part of the sequence. It also differs from those two previous states in the depth to which it takes its exploration of the experience of Love, which is the work's dominant subject. Both the 1870 and the 1881 states of the work study and pursue the “difficult deeps of love” in a way that is avoided nearly altogether in the 1874 state of the work. The 1874 work is nearly altogether celebratory.

The 1881 version vastly augments the size of the sequence. The additions can be usefully organized in two groups: the sonnets he wrote to and about Mrs. Morris in the summer-autumn of 1871 (which comprise the bulk of the 1874 state of the project); and the sonnets he wrote after 1871, and mostly from 1873 and thereafter. The latter are of two general kinds: brooding, reflective works, on one hand, and on the other programmatic sonnets written particularly for “The House of Life” sequence—works designed for some particular formal and aesthetic purpose within the sequence as a whole (for example, the opening “Sonnet on the Sonnet”). In general, the sonnets he composed at Kelmscott in 1871 are placed within the first part of the sequence under the heading “Youth and Change” while the later compositions are relegated to the second part under the heading “Change and Fate”.

One other matter of general import should be noted. The ambiguous character of the work is sharply increased in the 1881 text. This happens largely because DGR gathers into this state of the work sonnets that relate to so many different times and circumstances. The sequence thereby torques individual sonnets into meanings and relations that would not otherwise have been available to them. The effect is particularly notable in the “Change and Fate” section of the sequence because that is where DGR forces together so many sonnets that come from so many diverse original contexts.

The title and shape for this 1881 version of DGR's masterwork came to him late in 1880, as we see in a letter he wrote to Hall Caine on 17 December: “The House of Life is now a Hundred Sonnets—all lyrics being removed. Besides this, I have 45 sonnets extra. As you are willing, I shall use the title I sent you —‘A Sonnet Sequence’” (see Fredeman, Correspondence, 80. 383 ). DGR had suggested to Caine that he title his planned anthology of sonnets A Sonnet Sequence. After DGR repossessed that title, Caine published his collection in 1882 under the title Sonnets of Three Centuries.

Textual History: Composition

Several manuscripts preserve materials that went into the composition process for this version of the sonnet sequence. The primary ones are the composite manuscripts at Princeton and at the Fitzwilliam, and the manuscript collection at Princeton headed “Lyrics”. Notebook 4 in the British Library has a draft fragment of DGR's prose headnote to the sequence.

Printing History

First published in the 1881 Ballads and Sonnets text. Later collections regularly print this version (rather than the 1870 version) but augment it by adding the “Nuptial Sleep” sonnet, which DGR withdrew from the 1881 version. The latter was first restored to the sequence in the 1894 American edition of the sequence published by Copeland and Day, and WMR restored it to the authoritative works in his collected edition of 1904. The Copeland and Day edition is especially interesting because it not only prints the entire complement of sonnets (i.e., it includes “Nuptial Sleep”), but it restores the set of lyric “songs” that had been part of the 1870 version of the work.

Electronic Archive Edition: 1
Source File: 22-1881.raw.xml