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Last Updated on September 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 388

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s central work is a collection of sonnets called The House of Life . However, this work was not conceived by the author as a collection. The dates of composition of the texts that form it are very diverse. The earliest sonnet is dated 1847, while the latest...

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Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s central work is a collection of sonnets called The House of Life. However, this work was not conceived by the author as a collection. The dates of composition of the texts that form it are very diverse. The earliest sonnet is dated 1847, while the latest is dated 1881. Although Rossetti was working on The House of Life for thirty-four years, its parts are organically interrelated. It can be even said that The House of Life is one long poem consisting of 103 elements. Interestingly, the unity of the collection does not depend on any development of the plot.

The final version of the collection (1881) is prefaced by A Sonnet Sequence in which Rossetti reflects on the sonnet as genre, calling itа moment’s monument” that imparts immortality to corruptible human life.

The first part of The House of Life is entitled Youth and Change, and it comprises fifty-nine sonnets, the overwhelming majority of which are devoted to Love, with Love assiduously depicted as having human attributes. In addition to Love, the protagonists of these sonnets are a young man and two women he is in love with. One of them lives only in his memories, imbuing his blossoming romance with feelings of remorse and bitterness as he ponders whether his new love, too, may be unable to overcome death. On the other hand, several of the sonnets are optimistic and reflect the happiness of lovers living in the world that Love created especially for them, protecting them from adverse and cruel forces. Toward the end of the first part of the collection, the dramatic tension grows, and the theme of death reaches its climax in the famous cycle of the four sonnets known as Willowwood.

The second part of the collection is entitled Change and Fate. It includes forty-two sonnets, and although it is somewhat shorter, it is more varied thematically. While Youth and Change reveals diverse states of the loving soul, the second part contains reflections on the fate of the artist, the meaning of art, and the transient character of human life. It is an attempt to penetrate the hidden arrangement of the universe. In the second part of the collection, there are sonnets that are full of despair, sorrow, remorse about the past, and regrets about the wasted time that cannot be retrieved.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1660

If the sonnet is, as Dante Gabriel Rossetti claimed, “a moment’s monument,” then The House of Life is the record of a lifetime. In this continually growing and changing sequence of poems, Rossetti recorded the subtlest shifts in a life torn between two great doomed passions: his love for his wife, Elizabeth Siddal, whom he married in 1860 but who died only two years later; and his love for his mistress, Jane Morris, who was married to his friend, colleague, and business partner William Morris.

Sixteen sonnets were first published, not in book form, in 1869. In 1870, Rossetti published his first book of poetry, entitled simply Poems. The longest section of the volume was a collection of fifty sonnets and ten songs “Towards a work to be called ’The House of Life.’” Rossetti continued to write poetry throughout the next decade. The bulk of his literary composition occurred in 1870-1872 and in 1879-1881; in 1881 Rossetti published his last book of poetry, entitled Ballads and Sonnets. The longest section of that volume, too, was The House of Life, which grew to 102 sonnets. The cumulative effect of adding, rearranging, and, in one case, deleting verses was to change radically the reading experience of The House of Life; therefore, a full analysis must cover both the 1870 and the 1881 versions of the sonnet sequence.

The 1870 House of Life is a set of poems tracing the emotional effects of a brief, but intense, relationship that is predominantly sexual in nature. It arises directly out of Rossetti’s relationship with Elizabeth Siddal. It begins with the birth of Love, which the poet adores in near-sacrilegious fashion: “Unto my lips . . . present/ The body and blood of Love in sacrament” (Sonnet 2). The lovers meet, kiss, marry, and reach the “Supreme Surrender” in the space of four sonnets, and spend day after day with each other: “The hours of Love fill full the echoing space” (Sonnet 12). These hours are doomed to be short; in sonnet 15, Rossetti already foresees the passing of their “Winged Hours,” and by the next sonnet he has seen his beloved’s “golden hair undimmed in death.”

The poet falls into tearful grief; symbolically, the images in his verses change from birds and flowers to fire, tempests, and, most memorably, the terrible “Willowwood” (Sonnets 24 to 27). The rhyme words in these four sonnets encompass the full range of despair: “drouth,” “sterility,” “abyss,” “widowhood,” and, of course, “death.” At the end of the “Willowwood” sequence, new rhyme words appear: “soul . . . face . . . grace . . . aureole” (Sonnet 27). It is the turning point of the 1870 House of Life, signaling Rossetti’s acceptance of his fate and his departure on a journey toward hope. His grief gives way to a meditation on death itself, rather than on the death of his beloved; successive sonnets focus on couples, on parents and children, even on those who have never met (“Known in Vain”). That is not to say that there are not moments of despair; for example, when spring returns, it “earns/ No answering smile from me” (Sonnet 34). Yet, as the succeeding sequence entitled “The Choice” reveals, such emotions are held within a frame of faith in “God’s word” and “God’s breath.” Thoughts of lost opportunities haunt him still, like “virgins, whom death’s timely knell/ Might once have sainted” but who have been left “half entered in the book of Life” (Sonnet 39). He proclaims, “Retro Me, Sathana!”—“Get thee behind me, Satan”—and resumes his passage along the “narrow ways” of single life (Sonnet 42). He recognizes that the “Vase of Life” is empty for him now: “My name is Might-have-been” (Sonnet 46). He also recognizes that he can smile again, that a new self has been created to mourn in the poet’s place; thus he can reduce death to the status of “an infant child”—the only child of his marriage. It is not joy, but through the “written spell” of his sonnets he comes to a sense of hope, with which he can bring The House of Life (1870) to a close.

Between 1870 and 1881, much happened to Rossetti, which profoundly influences The House of Life. He managed to spend much of 1870 and 1871 at his mistress Jane Morris’s home, and he composed as many as thirty additional sonnets during those happy months. Then came the events that dramatically changed Rossetti’s life. Late in 1871, a journalist, Robert Buchanan, attacked the sexuality of Rossetti’s verses in an article, “The Fleshly School of Poetry.” Although Rossetti fought back, Buchanan’s mudslinging fatally injured the poet’s reputation; in 1872, Rossetti attempted suicide. Then, after two relatively quiet years, William Morris finally broke off most relations with Rossetti; never again would the poet’s relationship with Jane Morris reach the absolute peace he described in “Silent Noon” (Sonnet 19, 1881).

The 1881 version of The House of Life, therefore, follows a dramatically different course than the 1870 version. Part 1, “Youth and Change,” traces a relationship that is both less abrupt and less explicit in its passion. Reflecting Rossetti’s fear that renewed charges of fleshliness might be brought against this new volume, the poet’s beloved now does not yield until the seventh sonnet, and one of the most physical verses of the 1870 sequence, “Nuptial Sleep,” is deleted. From there, passion quickly gives way to fulfilled pleasure; as the relationship develops, he learns to appreciate his beloved’s beauty and love in various settings (Sonnets 19 and 20 move from “Noon” to “Moonlight”). Not until Sonnet 24 does the first note of warning intrude; the poet here distinguishes himself from the youth who loves blindly, not seeing that change rules every relationship. In Sonnet 30 he notes that Summer gives way to Winter, but then concludes with an affirmation of love’s “imperishable core.” Thus the poet does not have to face the reality of separation until Sonnet 45. Although he feels the separation to be deathlike and is plunged into the depths of despair in “Willowwood,” he wins through to acceptance by the end of the section.

In part 2, “Change and Fate,” the poet is unable to maintain his hard-won hope. He seeks grace, imagined as a soul-nourishing rain. Although he creates a “song-cloud,” his spirit remains dry; the only water that appears is the infinite sea, which in Sonnet 62 threatens the poet with drowning and in Sonnet 73 appears to drown even the hopes of men and women. Looking back at the course of his love, he knows the relationship has ended its course. He can even, as the sonnet entitled “The Landmark” makes plain, recognize the point where his love affair started to fracture; he yearns to retrace his steps, but his more rational part knows that such a course leads only to the grave. In what is perhaps the darkest moment of the sequence, he envisions his beloved as Lilith, who “subtly of herself contemplative,/ Draws men [in] . . . Till heart and body and life are in [her] hold” (Sonnet 78). This sonnet, originally written to accompany a picture, Rossetti imports into The House of Life specifically to create a low point. In the next sonnet, these two strains, of deadly love and of frightful sea, are brought together in an achieved moment of stasis Rossetti calls “The Monochord,” which brings to the poet a sense of “regenerate rapture.”

This is the turning point of the 1881 The House of Life. Although he may never again feel the fever of youthful love, with its short-lived but infinite pleasures matched only by its long-lived and equally infinite pains, he has gained the ability to “see life steadily and see it whole,” in the motto for Rossetti proclaimed by his contemporary Matthew Arnold. Rossetti loses the material form of his beloved, but he succeeds in transferring his love to a series of material substitutes: “Old and New Art” in Sonnets 74-76, “Memorial Thresholds” in Sonnet 81, “Hero’s Lamp” in Sonnet 88, a “Vase of Life” in Sonnet 95. All of these are images of that aesthetic impulse that led Rossetti to compose his 102 sonnets in the first place. Through the process of aesthetic composition, Rossetti has created a persona to grieve for him and has thus restored himself to life in Sonnet 96: “So Life herself, thy spirit’s friend and love,/ Even still as Spring’s authentic harbinger/ Glows with fresh hours for hope to glorify.” The water that the grieving youth desperately longs for is found, in the “tears unseal’d” of a “new Self”—the self created by the poet in his expanded sonnet sequence. With his destructive grief contained safely within the persona of the poem, Rossetti envisions “the spray of some sweet life-fountain” (Sonnet 101) one day sacramentally bathing his spirit in its life-bearing dew. That will truly be a baptism to a new life, bringing Rossetti full circle to the Vita Nuova of Dante Alighieri, the fourteenth century Italian poet, which Rossetti had translated for his first publication, The Early Italian Poets, in 1861.

Rossetti’s sonnet sequence The House of Life stakes a claim to greatness on three grounds: It is the finest example of technical mastery over the sonnet form in Victorian literature; its complex variations in rhyme scheme and meter anticipate the outright shattering of poetic constraints in the twentieth century; it is a stunning addition to that essential Victorian form, the extended verse consolation, that includes such disparate examples as Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam (1850) and George Meredith’s Modern Love and Poems of the English Roadside (1862). Rossetti manages to fuse Tennyson’s success at presenting the long agony of recovering from the death of a beloved with Meredith’s success at capturing in sensuous form those far more subtle emotions that are experienced during the collapse of a relationship. Finally, The House of Life stands as the poetic autobiography of one of Victorian England’s most tormented souls, a man for whom happiness was an ideal to be pursued but never an emotion to be achieved—one who went through his life carrying only “the bliss of being sad” (Sonnet 84, 1881).

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