Of Life, Love, and Death: Sixteen Sonnets

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1869 March
Genre: sonnet sequence


◦ Gregory., A Bibliographical and Reference Guide to DGR, II. 116-119)

◦ Robillard, “Rossetti's Willowwood Sonnets” (1962), 5-9

Scholarly Commentary


The work that would evolve under the general title The House of Life took its first form as this sequence of sixteen sonnets, and the latter began either with the visionary retrospection recorded in the Willowwood sonnets, which DGR wrote around 18 December 1868, or several months earlier, in August, when he wrote the equally crucial “Newborn Death” sonnets. Some idea for the sequence was certainly in his mind in November, as we can tell from the what we know of the dinner at the house of William Bell Scott attended by DGR and John Morley, the editor of the Fortnightly Review. WMR recorded in his diary several days after that meeting that his brother “has been looking up his poems of old days, with some floating idea of offering some of them to The Fortnightly Review” (see Fredeman, Correspondence, 68. 157 and WMR, Pre-Raphaelite Diaries and Letters, 336 ).

Whatever DGR was thinking in August and November, the composition of the Willowwood sonnets led DGR, he told his brother, to consider putting together “a little bunch in a coming number of the Fortnightly”. The group would be formed by “looking up a few old Sonnets, and writing a few new ones” (see his letter to Allingham of 23 December 1868, Fredeman, Correspondence, 68. 173 ). The group eventually became the sixteen sonnet sequence that was published in the Fortnightly Review in March 1869.

Although the work would eventually grow and mutate into many larger and diverse forms, that original core group contains the essential elements of all the subsequent forms. Most important, it is a group that pivots around the sonnet Lost Days, which was written in 1862 and which centers in the memory of Elizabeth Siddal. DGR recovered three other important early works (“Known in Vain”, “The Landmark”, and “Lost on Both Sides”, all written in 1853-54. The apparent reference of the first of these three to Jane Burden led WMR to date the sonnet (mistakenly) 1857 (see WMR, Designer and Writer, 293 ). His error shows that WMR was aware of the dramatic significance of the sonnet in the sequence at large. It is equally central to the brief sixteen-sonnet sequence.

Textual History: Composition

As his letter of 23 December 1868 to WMR shows, DGR made up his sequence from a group of old and new sonnets. The arrangement and revision of the group took place between mid-December 1868, when he wrote the “Willowwood” sonnets, and March 1869, when the initial sequence appeared. Twelve of the sonnets were new (i.e., were written 1868-1869), the others were earlier work (one dating from 1862, the other three from 1853-1854). On 24 January 1869 WMR noted in his diary that DGR had just written the last of the sixteen sonnets,“A Superscription”, and sent off the sequence of sixteen to the Fortnightly Review for publication ( Rossetti Papers 1862-1870, 380 ).

Textual History: Revision

The initial group was worked over between March and August 1869 until it became a sequence of thirty-three sonnets. This group was included in the copy he sent to the printer in August for printing in the so-called Penkill Proofs (proofs that would eventuate in the publication of the 1870 Poems.

Printing History

This sequence was printed as a group in the March 1869 issue of the Fortnightly Review, pages 266-273, but was not reprinted thereafter. The sequence was incorporated into the evolving form of the project known generally as “The House of Life”.


This brief sequence defines in miniature the autobiographical substructure of “The House of Life” project as a whole. In putting the sixteen sonnets together, DGR was careful to include works that sketched the general form of his quest for love as it involved his relations with his dead wife Elizabeth Siddal and Jane Morris. This Fortnightly Review version of the project foregrounds the retrospective dynamic of the work by opening the sequence with the four Willowwood sonnets, which in historical fact triggered the imaginative quest dramatized in the sonnets.

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