"Teach The Unforgetful To Forget"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: Rossetti had a great feeling for the sonnet as an art form; he called it, in a sonnet prefixed to The House of Life and entitled simply "The Sonnet," a "moment's monument–/ Memorial from the Soul's eternity/ To one dead deathless hour." The poems in this sequence were written for Elizabeth Siddall who became his wife and, just as important, became a symbol in her beauty for Rossetti and the other members of the famous Victorian group of artists, defended by Ruskin, who called themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Indeed, at her death Rossetti buried with his wife a bundle of his manuscripts, including a portion of The House of Life, which years later was exhumed from its resting place with the corpse. In this particular sonnet, in which the quotation occurs, the reader finds two qualities typical of the entire sequence: one is the difficulty of being sure of the poet's precise meaning, and the other is the sense of conflict in life which the poet achieves:

When vain desire at last and vain regret
Go hand in hand to death, and all is vain,
What shall assuage the unforgotten pain
And teach the unforgetful to forget?
Shall Peace be still a sunk stream long unmet,–
Or may the soul at once in a green plain
Stoop through the spray of some sweet life-fountain
And cull the dew-drenched flowering amulet?
Ah! when the wan soul in that golden air
Between the sculptured petals softly blown
Peers breathless for the gift of grace unknown,–
Ah! let none other written spell soe'er
But only the one Hope's one name be there,–
Not less nor more, but even that word alone.