Bentley, “Political Themes” (1979), 164-166
Editorial glosses and textual notes are available in a pop-up window. Line numbering reflects the structure of the 1881 Poems First Edition text.
The fact that DGR recovered this 1849 sonnet for his 1870 Poems shows that he felt its argument remained valid—indeed,
that the argument was strengthened by the historical record of the
intervening years. In the context of the 1870 volume, the sonnet connects
directly with other works with an explicit contemporary reference, and with
that group it carries forward the (Blakean) argument that immediate history
recapitulates both ancient and mythological history.
Baum says of this sonnet, quite justly, that “It is a good illustration of his interest in public
affairs during his earlier years; and it will bear comparison with
Wordsworth's political sonnets, and even some of
Poems, Ballads, and Sonnets,
). In DGR's case, however, and as the sestet of the sonnet
most clearly shows, the politics is imagined in highly personal terms: the
image of selfish behavior as a general cultural malaise is powerfully realized.
It is interesting to recall that the printer's copy manuscript for the Penkill Proofs originally contained
“After the French Liberation of Italy”, but DGR removed it just before sending it to the printer (see
, letter to WMR of 21 August 1869).
Composed 26 August 1849 (see
The P.R.B. Journal,
). DGR's early fair copy of the poem is in the library of the State Historical Society of Iowa.
The manuscript in the
Fitzwilliam Museum is a copy made from the Iowa manuscript in the spring-summer of 1869; the title in
this later text is “Moribund Men”. Another copy is among the Stephens Papers in the Bodleian (MS.don.e. 75, ff. 1-3) where it is titled “For the things of these years and more particularly for the general oppression of the better by the worse cause in the Autumn of 1849”. The latter title indicates that the sonnet was originally intended for publication in The Germ (see commentary on “For the Things of these Days”).
DGR revised the poem substantially in making the 1869 manuscript. Except for the change in title, only minor revisions were made during the
proof process toward the 1870 Poems text, and one further revision was made for the 1881 Poems. A New Edition.
The sonnet was first published in the 1870 Poems; it was first printed in August 1869 in the Penkill Proofs,
and kept thereafter.
This sonnet refers to the apathy with which other countries
witnessed the national struggles of Italy and Hungary against
Austria in 1848-49 (see
). In recovering the sonnet from its original historical
context for printing in 1870, DGR asked WMR if he thought it might better be
titled “On the Refusal of Aid to Hungary 1849,
to Poland 1861, to Crete 1867”. WMR replied that the
original title was better (see
, letter to WMR of 26 August 1869) and Peattie,
Letters of William Michael Rossetti
The sonnet's placement in the 1870 Poems extends its political significance: it closes the group that
includes “Cassandra”, “Venus”, and “Pandora”. Although the literal content of the latter is mythic, DGR read the
Matter of Troy, like Tennyson before him, as a prophetic allegory with
ominous contemporary political meanings.
Notable in the poem is the contrast between the biblical style of the octave
and the stil novisti style of the sestet.
Indeed, it is tempting to think that DGR was well aware of how aptly the
sonnet connects the previous “Cassandra” group to the pair of Dantean sonnets that follow this one in the