Who Should Read this Poem/Proem?

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?

The poem makes for an excellent test case for The COVE’s approach to scholarship because scholars have had to contend with similar questions. 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.

That system is now broken,[i] a fact that has led to the establishment of COVE as an alternative publication venue, one that is open access, open copyright (Creative Commons), open source and not for profit. COVE insists on certain scholarly values (intellectual rigor through peer review and copy-editing) while seeking to engage more directly with our students and the general public. Unfortunately, a result of hiding our scholarship in university libraries and behind press pay walls is that our influence on the general public has been dramatically curtailed. The public can be forgiven for turning instead to genius.com to help make sense of literature since annotations are easily accessible there. Indeed, one can find there a competing annotated edition of “A Sonnet is a moment’s monument” (as one can of much literature):


Beyond the fact that this set of annotations at Genius was not created with the intention of building an edition that meets the standards of traditional publication (no peer review, no copy-editing, though the poem’s small amount of commentary is more astute than usual for Genius since the author of the annotations, Stu Watson, is a PhD candidate in English at CUNY’s graduate center), one is struck by the pecuniary nature of the platform, which makes its money through advertising, with various advertisements loaded each time you go to the page. During several visits to this web page on 28 October 2018, for example, I was served up the following advertisements: Purina, Loews Hotels, Amazon, WordPress, Beats Studio, Shein, Athleta, Sling Television and Knott’s Berry Farm, a list influenced by my own past purchases at Amazon and my Internet browsing history. The site was able to target me with that last ad, for example, even though I was only temporarily living in California since I had recently conducted a search for Knott’s Berry Farm, a theme park in Buena Park, California. (My older son is a lover and aficionado of roller coasters.)

Can we not imagine a better alternative, one that is open access while being at once rigorous and sustainable, one that does not make us subservient to the algorithms that target us when we surf the Web? The COVE is one effort to make it so in a way that reclaims the values of scholarship against an Internet that is increasingly oriented towards widespread popularity (because of the profit that can be achieved through advertising dollars) rather than the traditional values of the academy: accuracy, quality, intellectual difficulty, creative discovery, active debate, and the exploration of the arcane, the unpopular, the overlooked, and the marginalized. Scholars are often skeptical about Internet alternatives to print for their scholarship. Do we not thus lose the authoritative imprimatur of the published book? How can we be sure the work will persist? Can we trust the general public to make sense of our interpretations?

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.

Can we say the same about our scholarly apparatus to the poem as well as our edition’s introductory proems? Is it not time to disentomb our work from the so-called “Deep Web” so that it can again respond to the august appeals of life? This edition of DGR’s poem seeks to do that while providing background on many aspects of DGR’s life and work. The edition makes use of four interconnected tools at COVE in order to create what we are terming an “omnibus edition,” including not only our annotated text but also a timeline of significant events, a geospatial map and a gallery of images discussed in our introductory essays. The objects created with our tools are designed to be constructed collaboratively, as is our set of annotations. They are also designed to be shared rather than locked behind a pay wall. Future users of the COVE tool set will be able, if they wish, to draw on any of our individual timeline, map or gallery elements to build new custom timelines, maps and galleries in minutes.

Though not-for-profit, The COVE does not eschew questions of monetary exchange. As a sustainability mechanism, students pay a modest amount for use of our toolset even if objects created with those tools can be made open access; however, our goal, like DGR’s in gifting his illustrated poem to his mother, is to return to a gift economy albeit one where our gifts are shared with all and in such a way that anyone can quickly build new custom digital products by drawing on the past work of humanist scholars. The approach also ensures that our work remain visible to and viable for an audience beyond just the university—so long as men can breathe or eyes can see.

[i] See Dino Franco Felluga and David Rettenmaier, “Can Victorian Studies Reclaim the Means of Production? Saving the (Digital) Humanities,” forthcoming in The Journal of Victorian Culture.

Works Cited

Felluga, Dino Franco and David Rettenmaier. "Can Victorian Studies Reclaim the Means of Production? Saving the (Digital) Humanities.” Forthcoming in Journal of Victorian Culture.

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