Baum, ed., The House of Life, 116-118
WMR, DGR as Designer and Writer, 207
Editorial glosses and textual notes are available in a pop-up window. Line numbering reflects the structure of the Poems First Edition text.
Baum says that the argument of the sestet “must be admired
rather for its ingenuity or even ingenuousness, than for its cogency”
The House of Life
). This judgment seems less informed than it ought to be. There can be little doubt, I think, that DGR is recalling
(and reworking) Dante's Vita
Nuova once again here, as he did in “Life-in-Love”; and in this case the relevant text is the one immediately
antecedent Dante text. According to Dante, his encounter with the “donna della finestra” only serves to bring him more strongly
back to an awareness of the supremacy of Beatrice. In DGR this Dantean thought
mutates into an argument about a path to Love laid down through a series of
“culminant changes” (i.e., different specific lovers). DGR's “ingenuity” turns Beloved and Innominata into different figurae—what Blake would call States—of
Dante's Beatrice. Furthermore, it turns DGR's doubled love into a dialectical scene
whose function is to maintain the poet in a state of erotic tension (his reciprocating
committments to Old and New Love). The basic form of this dialectic is Platonic, and
is classically expressed in the Symposium; here DGR refashions that set of ideas (via Dante) into a psycho-domestic
myth. Briefly stated, it casts the Beloved/Elizabeth into the Platonic role of Memory,
and the Innominata/Jane Morris into the Platonic role of Desire.
“Before mid-Autumn 1869” (see Peattie,
The Letters of William Michael Rossetti
); but it would have been written before August 1869, for it is printed
in the Penkill Proofs for the
1870 volume. Elsewhere WMR speculates
on an 1868 date (WMR, DGR as Designer and Writer). The only surviving manuscript is the corrected fair copy in the Fitzwilliam composite “House of Life” manuscript.
The text as first set in type in the Penkill Proofs for the 1870 volume does not change thereafter.
As in the closely related, previous sonnet
here DGR may be observing not a memory image and a present love, but
two (or more) pictures of his two beloveds—two or more paintings or drawings
that he made of them. In the octave, the words
“bowered” and “spray”
suggest the ornamental floral work that figures so prominently in DGR's
erotic portraits of the 1860s. In this frame of reference the sonnet connects
to sonnets like “Love's Baubles”
in The House of Life sequence.
First printed in mid-August 1869 as part of the
Penkill Proofs, the sonnet
remained in all proof stages and was published in the 1870 Poems and thereafter. It is
The House of Life Sonnet XVII in the 1870
volume, and Sonnet XXXVII in 1881.
As with the sonnets that precede and follow this one in
The House of Life sequence, DGR here glances back at the theme of multiple loves as
it is handled in stil novisti verse. Relevant here
are the poems of Cavalcanti, for example, his sonnet to Dante
quello que d'amor fu degno”
(“If I were still that man worthy to love”), and the sonnet
“O tu che porti
negli occhi sovente” (“O thou that often hast within thine
But Dante's Vita Nuova handles the same theme in the donna
della finestra passage, which is directly alluded to in DGR's previous sonnet
in the sequence, Life-in-Love. And while the form of DGR's poem—a dialogue with the god of love—
recalls the troubador and stil novisti manner in
general, DGR is almost certainly recalling the sonnet in the “donna della finestra” passage that takes the form of a dialogue between
“Heart, that is, appetite [and] Soul, that is, reason”: “Gentil pensiero che parla di vui” (“A gentle
thought there is will often start”).
As in the previous sonnet “Life-in-Love”, this one clearly represents DGR's two great attachments,
to his dead wife Elizabeth and to his innominate beloved Jane Morris.
The arresting word “euphrasy” in line 7 calls
attention to an autobiographical subtext of some importance to this sonnet and
to the sequence as a whole. In 1867 DGR's eyes began to fail, and the
problem kept recurring until in 1868 he was forced to stop painting and urged
to a country rest cure. The advice of his friends and his doctors led him
to accept the invitation to sojourn at Alice Boyd's estate in Ayrshire,
Penkill Castle, with William Bell Scott. During the visit there in the
summer of 1868, Scott told DGR that his true genius lay in poetry, not
painting, and the whole project of the 1870 Poems began to develop from that time. These events are relevant
because “euphrasy” is the common medicine for the eyes, eyebright
(Euphrasis officinalis). The
poem's argument—that the Innominata's eyes allow the poet to see in and
through them the figure of his lost, dead love (“buried troth”)—
becomes a second order figure for DGR's poetical work, which is taken up after
his failing sight removes him from his work as an artist.