Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

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


◦ Baum, The House of Life, 69-70.

◦ Fontana, “Representations of the Kiss”, 80-88.

◦ Talon, DGR: The House of Life 1966), 14-25.

◦ WMR, DGR as Designer and Writer, 187.


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


This is an important sonnet for understanding several of the most essential features of The House of Life project. First, one wants to recognize that the Dante allusion in the first quatrain signals the pervasive presence of Dante and the entire stil novisti tradition (recovered by DGR in his translations in The Early Italian Poets). As always with his use of medieval materials, however, DGR's method is to adopt a decorative and pictorial approach. That is to say, he “thinks” through what this sonnet calls “shadow[s]” and “image[s]”. Ideas like the medieval “spirits of mine eyes” are recognized rather than cogitated—as it were assented to, though not as an ideologue would assent, but rather as an historian or an ethnographer. In this way DGR's Neo-Platonism assumes a radical and almost materialist character, for his approach collapses the distinction between mind and matter.

Second, the sonnet constructs a startlingly paradoxical argument in the sestet. The general form of the argument is important, its “if/then” structure: if I were no longer to see love's images and shadows on earth, then how would I be able to hear the sounds of the dying year? Baum speaks for many readers when he reads this as a question that “introduce[s] the motif of Despair ” into the sequence (see Baum, Poems, Ballads, and Sonnets, 262 ). But the form of the proposition sets up an expectation of a thought such as: if I can no longer see the images of love in the world, then what hope can I have for the future? But the form of the proposition urges one to expect a very different thought: if I can no longer see the images of love in the world, then what unhope would be available to me any longer? The strong allusion to Shelley argues that DGR is no more expressing a thought of despair in this sonnet than Shelley is in Prometheus Unbound or the “Ode to the West Wind”.

Knowledge-through-images and shadows is a knowledge that shifts and changes its forms, and that operates in a dialectic of firm uncertainties, as it were. So the sonnet concludes by staring at words like Hope and Death in the realization that their affective value—which is to say, for DGR, their love-value—must shift and change in perpetuum.

Textual History: Composition

Tisdel dates the poem ?1853-62, which Baum follows, but it was almost certainly written between March and August 1869, which is the date assigned to it by WMR and Fredeman (see Peattie, Letters of WIlliam Michael Rossetti ; and Fredeman, “Rossetti's ‘In Memoriam’” 65 )

The only manuscript seems to be the corrected copy gathered into the Fitzwilliam composite “House of Life” manuscript.

Textual History: Revision

DGR made some slight changes to the poem when he first printed it in August 1869 in the Penkill Proofs; it did not change except accidentally thereafter.

Printing History

First printed in mid-August 1869 as part of the Penkill Proofs, the sonnet remained in all proof stages and was published in the 1870 Poems and thereafter. It is The House of Life Sonnet III in the 1870 volume, and Sonnet IV in the 1881 Ballads and Sonnets.


The Dante allusion in the octave operates not so much cognitively as apparitionally—which seems appropriate enough in the context of a work that argues by images. In the sestet DGR finishes his sonnet with a clear general allusion to Shelley: the most relevant text is of course the “Ode to the West Wind”, but DGR is recalling as well Prometheus Unbound (Act II scene 1), and the hyacinth leaves which draw Asia to “pursue the sound” to “the world unknown”.

Electronic Archive Edition: 1
Source File: 3-1869.raw.xml