Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s The House of Life reflects a wide variety of interrelated themes. The enigmatic title of this collection of sonnets contains its thematic nucleus. Supposedly, Rossetti conceived of his work as a type of a Zodiac with ever-changing “houses.” A gallery of images and ideas unfolds before us as we read his magnum opus and see these ideas pass through the “house of life.” Beauty, Love, and Time are captured in the “house of life.” As this is happening, we also see the author progress from a sensual to a spiritual perception of Beauty, from one love to another, and from a struggle with the fleeting nature of time to a final reconciliation with it.
The Metamorphoses of Beauty and Love
The order of the sonnets in the collection does not necessarily reflect the chronological order of their composition, yet through the sonnets, we see a certain progression in Rossetti’s perception of Beauty. The first part of the collection reveals that the speaker’s soul is overflowing with love and passion. One notable example is in Sonnet XXI, Love-Sweetness, in its celebration of the physical beauty of his beloved:
Sweet dimness of her loosened hair’s downfallAbout thy face; her sweet hands round thy headIn gracious fostering union garlanded;Her tremulous smiles; her glances’ sweet recallOf love; her murmuring sighs memorial;Her mouth’s culled sweetness by thy kisses shedOn cheeks and neck and eyelids, and so ledBack to her mouth, which answers there for all.
The recurring images of the beloved’s bodily perfections gradually give way to a more sublime vision in which the poet compares his loved one with deities such as Juno, Pallas, and Venus:
Could Juno’s self more sovereign presence wearThan thou, ’mid other ladies throned in grace? –Or Pallas, when thou bend’st with soul-stilled faceO’er poet’s page gold-shadowed in thy hair?Dost thou than Venus seem less heavenly fairWhen o’er the sea of love’s tumultuous tranceHovers thy smile, and mingles with thy glanceThat sweet voice like the last wave murmuring there?
The second part of the collection bears an imprint of the author’s meditations on more abstract and metaphysical notions, such as the meaning of art, the artist’s calling, and eternity. The metamorphoses of Beauty in the sonnets correlates with the change in the poet’s life. He has lost his beloved (his wife) but has now found a new love. Tension exists between the dear and poignant memories of his former love and this new, present feeling. At the same time, the poet is concerned that his new love, too, may fall victim to impending death. Sonnet XXXVII reflects the core of the conflict between the old love and the new:
When that dead face, bowered in the furthest years,Which once was all the life years held for thee,Can now scarce bide the tides of memoryCast on thy soul a little spray of tears,—How canst thou gaze into these eyes of hersWhom now thy heart delights in, and not seeWithin each orb Love’s philtred euphrasyMake them of buried troth remembrancers?Nay, pitiful Love, nay, loving Pity! WellThou knowest that in these twain I have confess’dTwo very voices of thy summoning bell.Nay, Master, shall not Death make manifestIn these the culminant changes which approveThe love-moon that must light my soul to Love?
A Struggle Against Time
As the poet struggles with these two conflicting emotions, he comes to realize that time is a reality that cannot be retrieved. At the beginning, he wants,...
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through his sonnets, to build “a moment’s monument” and capture something deeply significant from the fleeting continuum of time. In the middle of the collection, however, we see the hour of love personified as a stillborn baby—totally disentangled from the fabric of time:
The hour which might have been yet might not be,Which man’s and woman’s heart conceived and boreYet whereof life was barren, – on what shoreBides it the breaking of Time’s weary sea?
By the end of the collection, having discerned the impossibility of retaining anything of value, the poet loses himself in a futile struggle against the flow of time. He accepts death as the ultimate outcome of life. The metamorphoses of Beauty, the ecstasy and anguish of Love, and the memories of former aesthetic and spiritual raptures are all engulfed by this sole, enduring reality. In the last sonnet, the poet references hope, yet he does not specify the source or the substance of this hope. It remains only an idea, a name:
But only the one Hope's one name be there,Not less nor more, but even that word alone.