Sharp, DGR. A Record and a Study, 402-403.
Though clearly a political poem in which DGR means to draw a parallel between contemporary England and Rome during the year following the assassination of Caesar (44-43 b.c.), the precise import of DGR's sonnet is by no means transparent. Originally titled “Cleopatra's Needle”, the sonnet appears an ironical meditation on British imperialism's false values. A connection with “The Burden of Nineveh” is impossible to resist, but the elliptical form of the sonnet scarcely allows DGR to develop his thinking. The historical allusions (see commentary below) drawn out of Plutarch and Cassius Dio do not clarify what he was aiming at, beyond—what seems apparent, if less than apt—drawing a parallel between the violation of the murdered Cicero's corpse and the English neglect of some of DGR's favorite poets. Most puzzling is the connection DGR draws between the needles that Fulvia, Antony's wife, used to pierce Cicero's corpse's tongue, and the Egyptian monument known as “Cleopatra's Needle” that was erected on the Thames Embankment in 1879.
The poem was written on 18 January 1881 and sent to DGR's sister the next day, enclosed in a letter where he makes his famous comment: “With me sonnets mean insomnia”
Fredeman, Correspondence, 81. 28
). Two integral manuscripts survive: a corrected fair copy in the Fitzwilliam Museum's library and a later corrected fair copy at Princeton.
First published in the 1881 Ballads and Sonnets and collected thereafter.
The details here come from Plutarch's
Life of Cicero, secs. 47-49
and Cassius Dio's
Roman History, 47.8
. It may be that DGR is expressing an oblique lament that public funds should be lavished on monuments to imperial power, while a nation's “unacknowledged legislators”—non-imperial poets like Keats, Chatterton, and Coleridge—receive the scantest of public recognition.