The Sonnet and the Sequence

Elizabeth Helsinger

Rossetti's “Sonnet on the Sonnet” served not only as a gift for his mother's birthday and a reflection on a favorite poetic form.  Placed at the head of The House of Life, a sonnet sequence on which Rossetti had been working for more than a dozen years, it also introduced the best known and most complete version of that work when it was published in 1881.  (Earlier versions, under different titles, include “Of Life, Love, and Death: Sixteen Sonnets,” published in the Fortnightly Review of March, 1869; “Sonnets and Songs Towards a Work to be Called 'The House of Life',” published as part of Poems (1870); and the group known as “The Kelmscott Love Sonnets” presented as a gift to Jane Burden Morris in 1874. For a full account of the various published and unpublished versions of the longer poem, which remained a work in progress cut short by the poet's death in early 1882, see The Rossetti Archive.

The sequence, like the sonnets of which it is composed, is divided into two unequal parts (“Youth and Change” and “Change and Fate”),  roughly proportional to the two unequal parts of a sonnet. The Sonnet foreshadows the sequence not only structurally but thematically, for the longer poem's separate sonnets memorialize significant moments in a soul's history from a modern and secular perspective. Rossetti described it as “a complete 'dramatis personae' of the soul” in which major emotions are personified, visualized, and seen in action as forces in the drama of an individual but representative modern life (Fredeman, 70.110). The longer poem was strongly influenced by Dante's Vita Nuova, which Rossetti first translated as a young man.  Rossetti's House of Life, like Dante's The New Life, was put together retrospectively after the loss of a beloved, an event that re-orders the incidents it records into a longer history of the soul's life journey. Individual sonnets in the first part of Rossetti's sequence are placed under the protective aegis of Love, at least in their octaves, but they are often shadowed with intimations of future loss in their sestets.  Song, or poetry, is “Love's Last Gift,” as the sonnet of that title announces, concluding the first part of the sequence.  The second part of the sequence looks both back (at hours past) and darkly forward, anticipating the end of life. The title of the last sonnet of the sequence, “The One Hope,” may indeed be a wan hope, mortality forbidding reunion with lost loves or the recovery of the lost hours of a life. But against that fate the poem sets itself to be a “House of Life.”

The title has often puzzled readers. Rossetti's brother William suggested that it was prompted by the poet's fascination with astrology, where the zodiac or heavens are divided into twelve segments called houses, each ruled by a different sign. More recently Jerome McGann, in his on-line commentary in The Rossetti Archive, has pointed out that Rossetti may have been thinking of his poem as a response to William Blake's drawing “The House of Death,” an illustration to Milton's Paradise Lost, Book XI, that Rossetti knew.  The drawing shows a grim Old-Testament God imprisoning a suffering humanity in a cave of mortality. But Rossetti may also have been thinking of his House as a gallery, “Where Heaven shows pictures of some life spent well” and other pictures “stamped, a memory all in vain,/Upon the sight of lidless eyes in Hell” (Sonnet 63, “Inclusiveness”).

For this poet who was also a painter, sonnets, as “The Sonnet” insists, should appeal to the visual imagination. The octave views them under the figure of carefully crafted, highly elaborated works of a material art; the sestet, under another visual figure of old coins with their stamped or sculpted faces.  A few of the sonnets in the longer poem are indeed ekphrastic – verbal representations of visual representations (Heffernan 3) – or verbal partners in double works of art. The House of Life includes several such poems composed for Rossetti's paintings: “Body's Beauty” for Lady Lilith, 1868; “Soul's Beauty” for Sibylla Palmifera, 1866-70; and “The Portrait,” less exactly, to three different pictures: Beata Beatrix, 1864-70 (with his wife Elizabeth Siddall as the model), a chalk drawing of Jane Morris from 1868,  and an oil portrait, Mrs. William Morris, also from 1868.  Many more sonnets – probably the majority – might be described as notional ekphrases, verbal representations of visual representations that are fictive, pictures in the mind (the term is John Hollander's).

The presiding powers that “The Sonnet” and the sonnets repeatedly invoke – Time and its individual Hours, Love, Life, Death, the Soul – are allegorical figures imagined in particularized visual detail. Their images identify the subject (the “Power”) inspiring a particular sonnet (stamped or carved on its surfaces, or faces, according to “The Sonnet”'s figures). Together these sonnets, with their visualized images of presiding powers, form a gallery of picture-sonnets in which a life lived well or ill can be re-viewed. (The house gallery was certainly familiar to Rossetti; he arranged such rooms in the private houses of his patrons and in his own studio-house in Chelsea, where he displayed the paintings and objets d'art he made or collected, including many drawings, paintings, and photographs of his own great loves, Elizabeth Siddall and Jane Burden Morris.)   Rossetti's picture-sonnets can be sources of delight, memorializing memories after the moment has passed, but they can also be sources of torment, deceptive or mocking images of what has been lost, haunting an amnesiac's long nights: “O lonely night! Art thou not known to me,/A thicket hung with masks of mockery” (Sonnet XXXIX: “Sleepless Dreams”).  “The Sonnet”'s imperatives (“carve it . . . and let Time see”) instruct us too, as readers, warning us that the poems it introduces may be ambiguous instruments “for lustral rite or dire portent.”  Rossetti's House of Life offers a ritual of purification through the power of love. It also presents readers with dark anticipations of our own mortality.

Works Cited

Fredeman, William E., ed. The Correspondence of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Volume 4: The Chelsea Years, 1863-1872 (Cambridge, U.K.: D. S. Brewer, 2004).

Heffernan, James A. Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashbery (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

Hollander, John. “The Poetics of Ekphrasis,” Word & Image: A Journal of Verbal/Visual Enquiry, vol. 4 (1988): 209-19.

McGann, Jerome J., ed.  The Complete Writings and Pictures of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. (The Rossetti Archive).