Sonnets and Songs, towards a work to be called The House of Life

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1847 - 1870
Genre: poem sequence


◦ Baker, “The Poet's Progress” (1970), 1-14

◦ Baum, ed. House of Life (1928).

◦ Bentley, “Hypnerotomachia Poliphili” (1977), 279-283

◦ Boos, Poetry of DGR, (1976) 18-101

◦ Bowra, The Romantic Imagination (1949) 197-220

◦ Doughty, A Victorian Romantic. 2nd. edition (1960) 379-91

◦ Fredeman, “Rossetti's ‘In Memoriam’ (1965), 298-341

◦ Giles, “The House of Life” (May 1982), 100-119

◦ Howard, The Dark Glass, (1972) 164-174

◦ Hume, “Inorganic Structure” (1969), 282-295

◦ Lewis ed., The House of Life. (2007)

◦ Mitchell, “DGR's The House of Life” (1985),76-87

◦ Oliviero, Il Petrarcha e Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1933)

◦ Riede, DGR Revisited, (1992) 118-142

◦ Robillard, “Rossetti's Willowwood Sonnets” (1962), 5-9

◦ Sharp, DGR: A Record and a Study, (1882) 406-432

◦ Talon, DGR: The House of Life (1966)

◦ Tisdel, “Rossetti's ‘House of Life’” (1917), 257-276

◦ Wagner, “A Moment's Monument.”JPRS NS 4 (1995): 74-84.

◦ Wallerstein, “Personal Experience” (1927), 492-504

◦ Weliver, “Silent Song of The House of Life” (2005), 194-212

◦ WMR, DGR as Designer and Writer, 179-262


Editorial glosses and textual notes are available in a pop-up window. Line numbering reflects the structure of the 1870 Poems First Edition text.

Scholarly Commentary


This version of “The House of Life” is an integral work exactly because of its provisional and exploratory character. Initially conceived out of the writing of the Willowwood sonnets in December 1868, it evolved through many formations and transformations in 1869-1870, until it finally appeared in print as the second section of the 1870 Poems.

Each of those forms and transforms is a more or less distinctive textual construct in its own right, as the initial sixteen-sonnet sequence suggests. Titled Of Life, Love, and Death: Sixteen Sonnets, and published in the Fortnightly Review (March 1869), it represents a core group (and sequence) which would focus (if not govern) all the later organizations of the material. The Willowwood group was written at the start of the work's conceptual development and appears at the head of the first two organized forms of the work, but as the sequence evolved DGR began to develop a dramatic context for the memorial vision recorded in those four sonnets. In general, the sixteen-sonnet version forms the basis of the “conclusion” of the work: that is, of its second part, where the work's hopes and forebodings are darkly gathered.

After the publication of the sixteen-sonnet sequence Of Life, Love, and Death DGR was clearly bent upon two poetical projects: first, gathering together a body of his poetry that would be representative of his work and purposes as a writer; and second, making the center of that collection the sequence of texts, mostly sonnets, that would eventually be known as “The House of Life”. Working out the organization of the latter, therefore, became a major task of the months between the summer of 1869 and March 1870. The first reorganization of “The House of Life” materials after the Fortnightly Review sequence appeared in the Penkill Proofs in mid-August 1869, where it is already clear that DGR is seeing the work as a work-in-progress: these proofs print the title as it appears in the 1870 Poems and delete the Fortnightly Review title as a half-title to the work.

A dark and foreboding work in all but one of its forms (the exception being the twenty-five sonnet group he composed for Jane Morris), it centers in a visionary act of retrospection recorded in the Willowwood sonnets. But the work is psychological only in a special sense, as DGR's comments to his friend Hake about his poetry in general suggest: “I should wish to deal in poetry chiefly with personified emotions; and in carrying out my scheme of the House of Life (if ever I do so) shall try to put in action a complete ‘dramatis personae’ of the soul” (see letter to Hake, 21 April 1870, Fredeman, Correspondence, 70. 110 ). The extremely elaborated and ornamental surface of the work creates and recreates a network of functional ambiguities which are the hallmark of the work as a whole. The impulse of commentators like WMR and Baum to supply prose paraphrases of the individual sonnets, as well as of the narrative structure of the sequence in general, testifies to DGR's success in creating his poetic labyrinth. Everyone agrees, however, that the ambiguities all pivot around DGR's complex love-commitments, and especially his commitments to his wife Elizabeth, on one hand, who died in early 1862, and his friend's wife Jane Morris, on the other. DGR was in love with Jane Morris, probably as early as the late 1850s when he was already committed to Elizabeth. Biographical details thus provide a convenient framework for negotiating “the difficult deeps” of the sequence in general. However or even whether one uses them in reading the work, one can see that below the richly elaborated surface lies a relatively simple story: it narrates the onset of love in a young man (a poet and artist) followed by the loss of the beloved. An Innominata figure enters the field of his love devotions, and the loss of the beloved recorded and deplored in the sequence may be taken to refer to the initial love or to the Innominata, or to both. In any case, the loss triggers a series of meditations and reflections that center in various fearful recollections about the possibility of the recovery of love and an ultimate unity with the lost beloved.

The evolution of the 1870 version of this sequential work signals its distinctive constructedness. DGR's note at the head of this version is important: “The first twenty-eight sonnets and the seven first songs treat of love. These and the others would belong to separate sections of the projected work”. As it turned out, the later 1881 version of The House of Life would in fact divide itself into two sonnet sections that do break roughly where DGR indicates. On the other hand, in 1881 DGR removed all the Songs from the sequence. It is nonetheless useful to realize that DGR associated the first seven Songs with Part I (Youth and Change) of the 1881 sequence, and the last four with Part II (Change and Fate).

DGR went about writing and building the work as a kind of exploratory process towards some obscure but desired finality. The imagination of such a possibility—of a “Work to be called The House of Life” —was structured as a kind of retrospective quest. It seems clear that the evolution of Dante's autobiography, which DGR brilliantly translated, must have supplied him with a model for his own imaginative pursuit. In Dante's “autopsychological” work (which is DGR's term for the Vita Nuova: see The Early Italian Poets), poems written with no specific reference to Beatrice were eventually placed in the Vita Nuova as part of the sequence, as if Dante had become aware after the fact of the relevance of apparently extraneous materials to the visionary tale he was creating around Beatrice. The same approach seems clearly to have governed DGR's way of handling his early poetry: by incorporating sonnets from 1853-1854 (and even much earlier) in the emerging sequence, he was implicitly defining them in prophetic and prefigurative terms. Consequently, an essential text for understanding this famous sonnet sequence is DGR's translation of Dante's autobiography, his New Life. The general shape of Dante's narrated tale receives a strange and shadowed recovery in the events of DGR's life as he reconstructs it in this famous sequence.

A special topic of critical controversy has been the title of the sequence. As WMR was the first to point out, DGR did not explain the title. But WMR added the following explanation, which has dominated all subsequent commentary: “He was fond of anything related to astrology or horoscopy—not indeed that he ever paid the least detailed or practical attention to these obsolete speculations; and I understand him to use the term ‘The House of Life’ as a zodiacal adept uses the term ‘the house of Leo.’ As the sun is said to be ‘in the house of Leo,’ so (as I construe it) Rossetti indicates ‘Love, Change, and Fate,’ as being ‘in the House of Life’; or, in other words, a Human Life is ruled and pervaded by the triple influence of Love, Change, and Fate.”

While this explication probably remains relevant, another seems equally pertinent. ‘The House of Life’ seems to reference, by contrast, Blake's drawing ‘The House of Death’. Blake's picture illustrates Milton's Paradise Lost, XI. 465ff. DGR's title seems to set up an implicit argument that the sonnet sequence will be exploring how to reverse the effects of the fall from paradise.

Textual History: Composition

These sonnets and songs were written individually between 1847 and 1870 (when the work was published in the 1870 Poems). Most of the sonnets were written between 1868-1870, while most of the songs belong to much earlier dates. The conception of a loosely related sequence of lyric pieces first grew upon his mind, apparently, in early 1869, when he decided to publish sixteen of the sonnets together in the Fortnightly Review in March 1869 under the title Of Life, Love, and Death: Sixteen Sonnets.

DGR's comment to William Bell Scott on his composition habits, in particular for sonnets, is important: “I hardly ever do produce a sonnet except on some basis of special momentary emotion; but I think there is another class admissable also—and that is the only other I practise, viz. the class depending on a line or two clearly given you, you know not whence, and calling up a sequence of ideas. This also is a just raison d'etre for a sonnet, and such are all mine when they do not in some sense belong to the ‘occasional’ class” (see letter of 25 August 1871, Fredeman, Correspondence, 71. 129 ).

Textual History: Revision

The work of both revising the individual pieces of the sequence, and re-arranging or reorganizing their order, was largely carried out in the elaborate process DGR followed from the summer of 1869 until April 1870, as he prepared to publish his 1870 volume of Poems. Some revisions to early individual works were of course executed, and DGR clearly reworked with care the sixteen poems he published in the Fortnightly Review in March 1869. The latter process took place between mid-December 1868, when he wrote the Willowwood sonnets, and March 1869, when the initial sequence appeared.

Between March and August 1869 DGR worked out a new sequence of thirty-three sonnets (for the Penkill Proofs), and in this new form he began redistributing the Fortnightly sonnets into a new order. With the exception of Willowwood, which remains at the head of the thirty-three sonnet sequence, this is the order, substantially if not exactly, that they will have through all the many subsequent transformations of the work as a whole.

By the time the A Proofs are pulled less than a month after the Penkill Proofs, the sequence has undergone a drastic change and augmentation. There are now forty-five poems comprising the sequence, and the order is in three distinct parts: twelve sonnets (which would make up the core of the second part of the received sequence); fourteen songs and short poems (reflecting the group that would evolve into the Songs section of the 1870's “Sonnets and Songs Towards a Work to be Called The House of Life”); and nineteen sonnets (substantially equivalent to what would eventually evolve into the first part of the sonnet sequence). The A2 Proofs, pulled a few days later, follow the general order of the A Proofs, but six new sonnets are added to the sequence; and the same process is followed in the First and Second Trial Books, the first printed in early October, the second through late November.

Between the Second Trial Book and the proofs for the first edition—that is, in December, January, and February of 1869-70—the materials for The House of Life sequence underwent a further drastic reworking, and in fact achieved in substantial part the form that they took in the 1870 volume: the Songs were grouped at the end of the sonnets, and the two groups of the latter were reversed with respect to each other from the general order followed in the earlier proof states. This final, crucial restructuring came around 26 February 1870, just before the proofs for the first edition were set on 1 March, as DGR's letter to Swinburne shows (see letter of 26 February 1870, Fredeman, Correspondence, 70. 35 ).


When DGR showed his brother the Willowwood sonnets on 18 December 1868, just after he had composed them, WMR saw immediately that they were “about the finest thing that he has done”; and when the group of sixteen sonnets appeared in the Fortnightly Review in March 1869, Browning sent a fulsome letter to DGR about his “precious. precious jewels” of poetry (see WMR, Rossetti Papers 1862 to 1870, 339, 430 ). These two early reactions define the terms of enthusiastic response that DGR's House of Life project would receive from the beginning, and for many years afterwards. Like the 1870 Poems, in which the sequence was centrally placed, the work provoked strong hostile criticism as well, a set of reactions epitomized in Robert Buchanan's famous attack The Fleshly School of Poetry (Contemporary Review, October 1871).


Because this poetic sequence formed such an integral (indeed, such a central) place in the 1870 Poems, its iconographical characteristics are always insistent. This situation develops because so much of the 1870 volume is conceived in terms of DGR's double work of art, on one hand, and because his poetry is so pictorial in its methods on the other. Certain texts in the sequence bring the iconographical issues into special prominence, such as The Portrait, St. Luke the Painter, The Vase of Life, and A Superscription. But the entire approach is fundamentally imagistic and pictorial.

Printing History

Although one sonnet from the 1870 sequence was separately published (Lost Days, in 1863), the first appearance in print of any part of the larger work was in March 1869, when DGR published Of Life, Love, and Death: Sixteen Sonnets in the Fortnightly Review. This sequence included twelve new sonnets (written between mid-December 1868 and March 1869) and four earlier ones (written in 1853, 1854, and 1862). Around this core of sonnets DGR gradually constructed the sequence that appeared in the 1870 Poems. The form of the latter was only realized after DGR worked and reworked his materials in the proof texts he had printed between the late summer of 1869 and April 1870.

After the appearance of this 1870 text of his most famous literary work DGR continued to write sonnets on related themes. He composed a large group of these in 1871 and gathered them, along with a few he had written earlier, into an integral sequence that he presented to Jane Morris. These are the so-called Kelmscott Love Sonnets copied into the manuscript book now in the Bodleian Library (but not printed as such until the twentieth-century). In 1880-1881 DGR recast the whole corpus of this work into a new form, the text of The House of Life that appeared in the Ballads and Sonnets.


The most important literary work standing behind DGR's project is unquestionably Dante's Vita Nuova; but the entirety of the stil novisti movement, which DGR sought to define in his great work of translation The Early Italian Poets (1862), is central to what DGR is concerned with: the relation of poetry and art to ideal love. Petrarch's Rime, which explores this relation in more aesthetic terms, is also an important precursor. But Dante and Dante's Beatrice are central, not least because DGR (unlike Petrarch) insists upon the mortal reality of his love ideal (whereas Petrarch's extreme wit regularly turns the reading and interpretation of his texts into more aesthetic directions). In DGR's terms, of course, the insistence on Beatrice's historicality takes a distinctive and non-Dantean form because DGR's love-ideal is always conceived in erotic terms.

But Petrarch's influence on the sequence is no less decisive, if sometimes it is less obvious. DGR underplayed the influence, but it is Petrarch (and Cavalcanti) who foreground the aesthetic and erotic stakes involved. The 1881 division of the sonnets into two parts clearly reflects the similar division of the Rime sparse into two parts. “The House of Life” of 1870 does not have such a clearly demarcated division of the sonnets; on the other hand, it also falls into two parts, the first consisting of the sonnets, the second of the related songs. The Petrarchan character of DGR's work in this instance is doubly apparent, for of course the Rime sparse consists of various metrical forms. In Petrarch, however, they are mixed together. Finally, if DGR's work revises the idealizing dynamic of Dante's work, he nonetheless imagines his quest as following in Dante's path. His relation to Petrarch is much more critical. Petrarch's Rime is structured as a penetential process through which he frees himself from his enslavement to love. This passage he represents as a movement from an aesthetic involvement with beauty—his life as an artist—to a philosophic involvement with moral truth. In a sense, DGR's work functions as a foundational rejection of Petrarch's artistic posture. “The House of Life” aspires to an artistic practise in which erotic and ideal love are given equal value. More than that, it aspires to demonstrate that this goal can only be imaginatively—that is to say, artistically—achieved.

Certain motifs in DGR's sonnet sequence betray Petrarch's particular influence—most notably the running treatment of the grove and its related imagery. See Petrarch's Rime nos. CXLII and CLXXXI in particular (but also XXIII, LX, LXXI, and CVII). The motif in DGR's sequence is introduced early, in the opening sonnet of the 1870 sequence, “Bridal Birth”.

English sonnet sequences that derive from Dante's work, from Petrarch, and from the whole tradition of Courtly Love— Sidney's, Spenser's, and Shakespeare's in particular—are also clear influences on DGR's project.

Also important to realize is the elegiac character of DGR's approach to his work. Tennyson's In Memoriam has been aptly seen as an influence on DGR's work for this reason. One wants only to add that the loose structure of Tennyson's elegiac sequence—its organization by lyric units and small groups of such units—has much in common with the formal procedures that operate in DGR's work.


Although DGR tried to prevent autobiographical readings of this work, and while various critics have (rightly) emphasized the need to approach it in more formal and aesthetic ways, the work is grounded from the start in deeply personal experiences. In succint terms: the work is an exploration and meditation on DGR's life as an artist whose central preoccupation, in his own view, has been the pursuit of love as an erotic and mortal ideal. This pursuit, according to the work's own representation of the matter, involved various apparitions of ideal love, two in particular: Elizabeth Siddal, the poet's wife (who died in 1862), and Jane Morris, the wife of his friend William Morris. At the heart of the poem are two losses: the death of his wife, and the unaccomplished (and perhaps even unconsummated) love of DGR for Jane Morris, a passion which grew upon him only after he had committed himself to Elizabeth. Hall Caine gives a succinct summary of the relationships (but without names) in My Story (New York, 1909), 195-197 .

The biographical focus of the work was established very early. The sixteen sonnets published as a group in 1868 are crucially involved with four early sonnets DGR recovered in order to supply his new sonnets with a structural focus. Indeed, the sequence pivots around the sonnet Lost Days, which was written in 1862 and which centers in the memory of Elizabeth Siddal. DGR recovered three other important early works (Known in Vain, The Landmark, and Lost on Both Sides. These three were written in 1853-54, but the apparent reference of the first of the three to Jane Burden led WMR to date the sonnet (mistakenly) 1857 (see WMR, DGR as Designer and Writer, 293 ). His error betrays his awareness of the dramatic significance of the sonnet in the sequence at large.

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