Introductory Sonnet ("A Sonnet is a moment's monument")

Alternately titled: The Sonnet
Alternately titled: Sonnet on the Sonnet

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1880
Rhyme: abbaabbacdcdee
Meter: iambic pentameter
Genre: sonnet


◦ WMR, DGR Designer and Writer, 184

◦ Baum, ed., House of Life, 59-62

◦ Sharp, DGR: A Record and a Study, frontispiece.

◦ Surtees, A Catalogue Raisonné vol. 1, 153 (no. 258).


Editorial glosses and textual notes are available in a pop-up window. Line numbering reflects the structure of the 1881 Ballads and Sonnets (first edition) text.

Scholarly Commentary


This important sonnet introduces The House of Life sequence in its final authorized versions of 1881 and the later collected editions (see 1911). It amounts to a classic statement of DGR's aestheticism, as the octave's running distinction between flowers in and out of nature makes very clear. Line 8 is especially strong in enforcing this distinction, which generates a whole set of explicit and implicit paradoxes. The most striking of these is perhaps the first, which represents a sonnet (any sonnet!) as a “memorial” sent from eternity to time and to commemorate a certain important moment in time (the word “to” in line 3 is worked for both meanings). The implication is that the writer of a sonnet is only a kind of amanuensis and that the work itself is, as Blake also imagined, a dictation from eternity. The initial significations inflect the sestet with a sense of benevolent fatality, as if the sonnet were a gift from eternity that might serve human beings, perhaps especially the sonnet's nominal author, in the central affairs of existence (“Life”, “Love”, “Death”).

Textual History: Composition

The initial texts for the sonnet are fragmentary lines DGR jotted into two of the small notebooks he carried about with him in his waistcoat and painting smock. Phrases from the sonnet appear in Notebook 2, Notebook 3, and again in Notebook 3. Another notebook text is preserved in the Princeton/Troxell materials. These texts date from late 1879, perhaps even a bit earlier. DGR completed drafting his sonnet around 6 February 1880, as he remarked in a letter of that date to Watts-Dunton (see Fredeman, Correspondence 80. 40 ).

The earliest complete texts that we have are the two manuscripts now in the Rosenbach library: a first complete draft and a revised copy clearly made shortly thereafter. Later revised versions include the manuscript in the Ashley Library, a fair copy manuscript in Bodleian Notebook II (a gift to Jane Morris), and the manuscripts in the composite House of Life manuscripts at Princeton and in the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge. One of the most interesting of the known manuscripts is the copy DGR gave to Hall Caine, which we know only from a slide reproduction.

Another manuscript, the illuminated drawing that DGR made for his mother's eightieth birthday, was done later and subsequently engraved to make the frontispiece of William Sharp's DGR: A Record and a Study. A number of proof copies of the engraving survive, the most important being the one he gave as a gift to Constantine Ionides, and the one that he gave to Sharp. The latter was included by DGR in a copy of the 1873 Tauchnitz Edition which he gave to William Sharp in 1880. This book carries a manuscript addition copied by DGR into the printed text. We know that DGR also gave a manuscript of the poem to Hall Caine (see Fredeman, Correspondence, 80. 383 ), but the text of the sonnet that Caine prints in his Recollections of Rossetti (page 30) is not the manuscript text he had from DGR but the 1881 text. The location of this manuscript is not known, but a transparency survives (with Caine's note) that was made from it.


In a letter to his mother (27 April 1880) DGR explicated the details of the design in this way: “The Soul is instituting the ‘memorial to one dead deathless hour’; a ceremony easily effected by placing a winged hour-glass in a rose-bush, at the same time that she touches the fourteen-stringed harp of the sonnet, hanging round her neck. On the rose-branches trailing over in the opposite corner is seen hanging the Coin, which is the second symbol used for the sonnet. Its ‘face” bears the soul, ex-pressed in the butterfly; its ‘converse’ the Serpent of Eternity enclosing the Alpha and Omega” (see Fredeman, Correspondence, 80. 142 and WMR's note in his edition of 1911).

Printing History

First published in the 1881 Ballads and Sonnets and collected thereafter.


Three of DGR's sketches and designs for the illuminated text survive. The best-known version of the sonnet's pictorial incarnation is the drawing DGR made for his mother's 80th birthday and that was then engraved for inclusion as a frontispiece in Sharp's 1882 study of DGR.

Electronic Archive Edition: 1
Source File: 1-1880.s258.raw.xml