Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 477
Written at different periods during his life and included in several publications, The House of Life was first collected in 1870 as “sonnets and songs toward” a work with that title. The last published version of this set of sonnets, numbering more than one hundred, appeared in 1881 within Ballads and Sonnets. While most are inspired by his love for muse and wife, Elizabeth Siddal, who died young, others apparently indicate his struggle with his other great love for Jane Morris, wife of his friend and fellow poet William Morris. The poet’s passage through different stages of life and reflections on his art as well as his heart form the substance of many of the individual works.
In several poems the speaker, along with praising the beauty and perfection of their lover, comments on their ability to do justice to those qualities. In Sonnet 9, “The Portrait,” the speaker positions himself as a painter rather than a writer. He asks for divine help in preserving his impression of her various lovely attributes, such as her “sweet smile” and “shadowed eyes,” which will enable people in the future to look into her “soul.”
O Lord of all compassionate control,
O Love! let this my lady's picture glow
Under my hand to praise her name, and show
Even of her inner self the perfect whole….
Some poems that reflect on the early glow of love, likely invoking the time when he and Siddal became lovers, already envision its decline. Notable among these is Sonnet 15, “Winged Hours,” in which he uses bird and flight images as metaphors for time’s passage. In the two stanzas, the speaker contrasts the times when they are together to the imagined, future times when they will be apart. Finally, the bird image is tainted with the mention of blood.
Each hour until we meet is as a bird
That wings from far his gradual way along
The rustling covert of my soul….
What of that hour at last, when for her sake
No wing may fly to me nor song may flow;
When, wandering round my life unleaved, I know
The bloodied feathers scattered in the brake….
After her death, in mourning for his beloved, the poet envisions a desolate, pale woods, which he calls “Willowwood,” composed of four sonnets (25–27). In them, a group of dim apparitions tells the speaker of his lover’s fate. The mute members of this “mournful throng” are “shades” of him and his lover in their days together. Love personified, the speaker’s companion, tells him of the hard days to come as a widower.
“O ye, all ye that walk in Willowwood,
That walk with hollow faces burning white;
What fathom-depth of soul-struck widowhood….”
The speaker himself, as yet unable to feel any hope, bemoans that his lover is trapped in Willowwood.
“Better all life forget her than this thing,
That Willowwood should hold her wandering!”