General Introduction

Dino Franco Felluga

Dante Gabriel Rossetti's poem, "The Sonnet," is a testament to the ideals of the aesthetic movement; wedding form and content, it makes a statement about the idealizing purposes of art while illustrating the best way to achieve that purpose in the very stylistic features of a poem. The poem also betrays a number of concerns about the relation of a given aesthetic production to its reader. Is this poem a personal gift (pro Matre fecit) made for the occasion of DGR’s mother’s eightieth birthday?  Is it a coin in the treasury of a timeless canon, as suggested by its original placement in that gift to DGR’s mother, David Main’s A Treasury of English Sonnets? Or is it tainted by the coin that any reader might exchange for a copy of the poem in its eventual published forms? 

This edition seeks to explicate some of these aspects of the poem and provides a careful, scholarly reading. It attempts to be of use to novices while also providing more extended interpretations that will be of interest to more advanced scholars. Our edition is also what The COVE dubs an “omnibus edition” since it includes accompanying paratextual material to help readers understand various aspects of DGR’s life and works, including an exhibit of interpreted images; a timeline of significant events; and a geospatial map. This material will be available to future users of the COVE toolset for re-purposing in new galleries, timelines and maps. In fact, Jerome McGann’s examination of “Beate Beatrix in our gallery is a “remixing” of content published in an earlier completed COVE edition of “In an Artist’s Studio.”

The opening introductions are designed to set the poem in context. Jerome McGann reprints here a scholarly essay originally published at The Rossetti Archive that explains the logic of a Pre-Raphaelite double work, which DGR’s “A Sonnet” happens to be. Elizabeth Helsinger’s introduction places the poem in DGR’s larger sonnet sequence, The House of Life, where it appeared as the first sonnet. Lorraine Janzen Kooistra discusses the occasion of the sonnet, Frances Rossetti’s birthday, the significance of which is also explicated in our accompanying timeline. 

DGR’s “Sonnet” could be said to be an apt test case for The COVE’s approach to critical editing because scholars have recently had to contend with questions that are not so dissimilar from those that kept DGR from disseminating his work. What is the goal of literary criticism? This question strikes us with new insistence today because of one particular threat (among many) to the humanities: reduction in funding to both university presses and university libraries has meant that published scholarship is being increasingly influenced by market concerns (what can sell to undergraduate classrooms, for example) rather than the value of research for research’s sake. DGR struggled with aestheticism’s call of “art for art’s sake” at a time when Victorian literature was increasingly orienting itself to mass-market forms like the novel. The ascendance of the modern university gave aestheticism a material place to pursue its call separate from the market, to the point that scholars began to question whether popularity could even be reconciled with great art, a trajectory that can be traced from John Stuart Mill—“A poet may write poetry with the intention of publishing it,” he writes in 1833, “he may write it even for the express purpose of being paid for it; that it should be poetry, being written under any such influences, is far less probable” (12-13)—all the way to Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s attack on the “culture industry” in the 1944 Dialectic of Enlightenment. Our ways of analyzing poetry were greatly influenced by a methodology of the 1940s and 50s, New Criticism, that asked us to analyze lyric poetry separate from such concerns as history or biography. This approach, as much as the critical theory that increasingly questioned that stance, were supported by a university press system that allowed scholars to pursue these questions without concern for the market. Since that system is now under threat, scholars increasingly will need to contend with the new reality and consider new mechanisms for disseminating our scholarship.[1]   

Of course, it is hard not to hear similar concerns behind DGR’s own sonnet. The very suggestion of an addressee in the injunction, “Look,” for example raises the question of audience (who is he addressing with that command?) at a time when poetry was becoming increasingly marginalized; also, the mention of the poem's printed materiality ("Carve it in ivory or in ebony"), even while imagining the poem "carved" in the more permanent form of ivory or ebony, reminds the reader of the black and white of the printed, stamped text. The sestet brings these concerns even more to the fore by suggesting that "A Sonnet is a coin." How can one read this line, at a time when poetry was being eclipsed by the interests of a mass market, and not read into it the pressures facing Rossetti's very generic form? Once again, Rossetti moves from the intimation of mass-market concerns to the eternal nature of the form: "A Sonnet is a coin; its face reveals/ The soul"; however, in the sestet, Rossetti does seem to contest the self-sufficiency of poetry suggested in the octet. Indeed, in the movement from octet to sestet, we seem to be presented with the very flipping of the coin represented in the poem, for, although the octet dealt with the "Soul's eternity," the sestet is more concerned with "its converse, to what Power 'tis due—". The sestet, that is, concerns itself not with self-sufficiency but with the "Power" to which the sonnet owes its "due." Indeed, the first "Power" could be read precisely as the "appeals" of a public that demanded that poetry, like the novel, serve the concerns of politics, reform, and quotidian life generally. The word "tribute" therefore gains especial significance here: "A tax or impost paid by one prince or state to another in acknowledgement of submission or as the price of peace, security, and protection; rent or homage paid in money or an equivalent by a subject to his sovereign or a vassal to his lord" (OED; my italics). Does not Rossetti here acknowledge a certain subordinate status for the genre of poetry before the "august appeals/ Of Life"? Poetry is presented as subordinate in describing the next two powers as well. Indeed the enjambment into line 13 underlines this point: "or dower in Love's high retinue/ It serve." The final "Power" has the poem actually serve as monetary exchange, which once again recalls the very market Rossetti so spurned, but here transformed into something transcendent: the paying of "the toll to Death."

"The Sonnet" is a fascinating statement of Rossetti's aesthetic ideals but, arguably, with a persistent anxiety about the very market that Rossetti is establishing his ideal against. Perhaps these contradictions can help to explain why Rossetti presented the sonnet's original design to his mother as a personal gift and chose not to disseminate the image to the market. Perhaps the contradictions also help to explain what drove Rossetti to bury original manuscripts of his poetry, some of which ended up in his House of Life, with Elizabeth Siddal. Rossetti is famous for his antipathy to the mass public, refusing in later life to exhibit his artwork in major galleries and continually postponing the publication of his poetry. In presenting his design to his mother alone or in burying his sonnets with Elizabeth Siddal, Rossetti sought to re-capture the lost aura of the work of art. The design seeks to turn the mass-produced text, first of all, into something that is not easily reproducible. The very words of the poem in the illustration are drawn by hand—an act of defiance, one could say, against the machine-produced textuality of the mass-produced text. That is, the words are "carved" rather than merely stamped, produced instead of copied. A personal relation is also established, even a familial one—mother and son—as opposed to the market dissemination to the faceless, numberless audience sought by the mass-produced text. The poem, in other words, is made for some onepro Matre fecit. Also, no coin is exchanged; the poem thus resists the commodification of poetry in a mass market and returns instead to an earlier gift economy, just as the personalized design returns to the craft of the artisan versus the commodified labor of the proletariat in a mass-market economy. The contradictions in the poem arise from the fact that, to be known, to be recognized, indeed for the poem to exist eternally, the sonnet needs to be published and reproduced. The address to the audience in the octet points up this problem: the author, in fact, does need that addressee in order to ensure the poem's immortality, a fact earlier underlined by William Shakespeare in a similar rhetorical move: "So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,/ so long lives this, and this gives life to thee" ("Sonnet 18"). Burying sonnet manuscripts with Elizabeth Siddal illustrates Rossetti's wish that his poetry exist only in its eternal, transcendent ideal—as the coin one pays to Charon for "the toll to Death," but the fact is that the exchange of actual coins on a mass market is the only thing that can ensure we continue to read Rossetti's poems today. The first Power, "the august appeals/ Of Life," asserts itself in the end, and in the most dramatic of ways: the crypt, the monument, the memorial must be desecrated in the interest, precisely, of coin.


[1] On this point, see Dino Franco Felluga and David Rettenmaier, “Can Victorian Studies Reclaim the Means of Production?  Saving the (Digital) Humanities,” The Journal of Victorian Culture 24.3 (July 2019): 331-43.

Works Cited

Felluga, Dino Franco and David Rettenmaier. “Can Victorian Studies Reclaim the Means of Production?  Saving the (Digital) Humanities.” The Journal of Victorian Culture 24.3 (July 2019): 331-43.

Mill, John Stuart. Essays on Poetry. Ed. F. Parvin Sharpless. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1976.