WMR, DGR as Designer and Writer, 247-248.◦
Baum, House of Life, 199-200.
Editorial glosses and textual notes are available in a pop-up window. Line numbering reflects the structure of the 1870 Poems First Edition Text.
Though hardly one of the strongest sonnets in the
sequence, it is one of the most difficult and interesting. The problem
can be posed thus: what moral value does the poem assign to Ulysses'
actions and, reciprocally, to death?
The text of the sestet as originally printed in
the A2 Proofs shows
very plainly that DGR meant his poem to represent
the figure of death in a highly positive way: indeed, as the death
that the sequence will culminantly define in the paired
sonnets. In the received text, however,
the final two lines are so grammatically involuted as to obscure the
original simplicity. This important change may or may not be relevant
to our reading of the poem's argument.
As both WMR and Baum show, the question at line 13 has
often been read to intimate that one should (like Ulysses) resist the
(siren) songs of death. But read in terms of a Christian (rather than a Homeric)
mythology, the question is rhetorical, and calls for an acknowledgement
that the songs of death are songs of heavenly promise.
(In the A2 Proofs
the latter is clearly the thought of the text.) In addition, if the pagan
source is seen as Plato's Republic rather than Homer, the sirens' “songs of death” represent the Pythagorean
harmony of the spheres.
The date of the poem's composition is important. All scholars
to this point have followed WMR in dating the poem 1870. But this cannot be correct, because
the text was first printed in the
A2 Proofs, that is, in September
1869. It was written in September 1869, specifically for inclusion in the
volume that DGR was preparing for the press. The draft manuscript of the sestet,
in the Troxell Collection, is closely associated (in point of paper and archival
placement) with the pair of
“Cassandra” sonnets. This
fact suggests to me that DGR wrote the sonnet with structural thoughts in mind;
DGR meant it to provide The House
of Life with a
definite connection to other poems in the volume where the matter of
Troy figures prominently (the most important texts being
“Troy Town” and the
Added to the proofs for the 1870 Poems in
September 1869, the sonnet was probably written at that time. Besides the draft of the sestet in the Troxell collection, one other manuscript survives: another sestet draft (subsequent to the Troxell manuscript) in the Fitzwilliam composite “House of Life” sequence.
DGR revised the sestet heavily in the proofs for the
First printed in September 1869 as part of the
A2 Proofs, the sonnet
remained in all proof stages and was published
in the 1870 Poems and thereafter. It is
House of Life Sonnet XLI in the
1870 volume, and Sonnet
LXXXVII in 1881.
The sonnet builds itself around allusions to Homer's
Iliad (for the episode
of the Trojan horse strategem) and
the Odyssey (for the
incident of the Sirens). The sonnet also
recollects in a general way the myths of the fall of Troy
and the wanderings of Ulysses as he attempts to find his way home
to Ithaca. More oblique, if no less important, is the recollection
of Plato's Republic Book X
and the Myth of Er, where the Sirens are represented as each a governor of a
heavenly sphere, and their singing as the total harmony of the spheres.
Baum reads the poem as “an echo of Rossetti's
contemplation of suicide in 1868-1869” (
House of Life,
). WMR's inclination
to read biographically made “The application of this sonnet . . . not
entirely clear to me”; he ended by reading it as “an appeal
of the Poet to his own moral conscience, [that] relates to the
question of a noble or degrading tone in the poetry which he affects,
as writer or reader” (
DGR as Designer and Writer, 247
The latter reading seems highly idiosyncratic.