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...
(The entire section is 1660 words.)