Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1870 February
Rhyme: abbaabbacddcee
Meter: iambic pentameter
Genre: sonnet


◦ Baum, The House of Life, 114-116

◦ McGann, DGR and the Game that Must be Lost, 46-51passim

◦ WMR, DGR as Designer and Writer, 206-207


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


The key to the sonnet's peculiar force lies in the loose suggestiveness DGR gives to the pronouns in the first five lines. The principal reference of “thy” and “thee” and “thyself” in lines 1, 3, and 5 is the poet, just as the principal reference of “this lady” and “she in lines 2-3 is the Innominata. Evoking as it does the presence of the dead beloved, however, these pronouns begin to slip, opening themselves to various other references. The process happens as it were in reverse, and a key moment comes in line 5: here the pronoun “her” ought to specify the Innominata, but the subject of dead and absent love is so dominant in the poem that one can scarcely avoid reading it equally as referring to the dead beloved (i.e., biographically, to the poet's wife). When this slippage begins to function in the poem, all the pronominal references undergo transformational pressures.

Furthermore, we cannot be certain that the octave isn't referring to pictures—paintings and drawings—of the loved persons. Line 5's “Look on thyself” recalls line 14 of The Portrait, and line 7 employs one of the sequence's characteristic wordplays in “dead-drawn”. It is entirely to the point of The House of Life that a “life that vivifies” (line 3) is grounded in an interchange between acts of art and acts of love.

The Dantean presence that hovers over all of The House of Life urges one to read this sonnet in relation to Dante's encounter with the “Donna della finestra” in the Vita Nuova. Dante's self-critique there necessarily works back through DGR's text to complicate the latter's meditation on his relation to love and the subjects of his love. Indeed, it may well be that DGR added this sonnet to the sequence precisely in order to underline the Dantean relation: in the next sonnet in the sequence, “The Love-Moon”, the problem raised by Dante in the Vita Nuova is explicitly raised by DGR.

The autobiographical elements in the sonnet are strong and unevadable. Considered from an aesthetic point of view, they serve to bring the erotic drama of the sequence into sharp focus for the reader. Indeed, that is the principal aesthetic function of all the autobiographical materials in the sequence.

The sonnet is clearly written to pair with the sonnet “Death-in-Love”, which was written a year before and which was part of the sonnet sequence from a very early stage of its construction—certainly in the summer of 1869. It also stands in the closest kind of relation to the two succeeding sonnets, since all three are consciously written in an awareness of Dante and other key stil novisti texts. Finally, the treatment of the “golden hair” in the sestet defines the sonnet's close intertextual relation with “Body's Beauty”.

Textual History: Composition

“Before April 1870“ (see Peatti, Letters of William Michael Rossetti 6 ); but the sonnet was probably written in February, or perhaps January, 1870. It is one of the late additions to the proofs for the first edition, printed at the beginning of March.

Textual History: Revision

The text as first set in type in the last proofs for the 1870 volume does not change thereafter. But the important pronouns in the first two lines came into the poem as revisions to the first draft, i.e., to the Troxell manuscript. (One other manuscript survives, a fair copy in the Fitzwilliam composite “House of Life” manuscript.)

The revisions in the Troxell MS are mostly in pencil and these were made sometime after the draft was first composed. But two are in ink (in lines 7 and 12) and these were made when the draft was produced. All of this work must have been done before the beginning of March 1870.

Printing History

First printed around 1 March 1870 in the final proofs for the first edition of the 1870 Poems. This is one of the “three new sonnets in the last set of proofs” that he mentions in his letter to Alice Boyd of 22 March 1870 (see Fredeman, Correspondence, 70. 63 ). It is The House of Life Sonnet XVI in the 1870 volume, and Sonnet XXXVI in 1881.


In the context of The House of Life as a dramatic sequence, this sonnet inevitably recalls the “Donna della finestra” episode in Dante's Vita Nuova (see DGR's translation of this famous episode). Dante's sorrow (over the death of Beatrice), being observed by the lady of the window, calls out her pity for him, and her sympathy leads him “often” to seek her out, to ease his sorrow. After writing two sonnets to her, however, Dante reflects critically on his behavior: “At length, by the constant sight of this lady, mine eyes began to be gladdened overmuch with her company; through which thing many times I had much unrest, and rebuked myself as a base person.” These reflections lead him to write another sonnet (“L'amaro lagrimar che voi faceste”: in DGR's translation, “The very bitter weeping that ye made”). This sonnet argues that the relationship between Dante and the “donna della finestra” “must not any way” function except to “recall each ancient sign/Of grief, and her for whom your tears were shed“ (lines 7-8). This famous moment in the Dantean myth cannot fail to complicate the way we read DGR's sonnet.


Baum says of this sonnet that “Here we meet for the first time unmistakably in the sequence the New Beloved. In the previous sonnets the Lady might be assumed to be Elizabeth Siddal Rossetti, though I doubt if the assumption is always warranted” (see Baum, The House of Life 115 ). DGR told Alice Boyd that the sonnet “refers to an actual love with a reminiscence of a former one” ( Fredeman, Correspondence, 70. 70 ).

The sestet of the sonnet is recalling the exhumation of DGR's wife's body in October 1869; DGR wanted to recover the manuscript volume of his poems from the grave, as those were the only texts for a number of the poems he was planning to publish in the 1870 volume. Baum's note is to the point here: “Rossetti was not present at the disinterring of the manuscript in his wife's coffin, but it was reported to him that the hair remained unchanged after the seven years' burial” (Baum, The House of Life, 115n ).

DGR has a note to the Vita Nuova passage that is being recollected in his sonnet. The note speculates that the lady of the window is Gemma Donati, the poet's wife. In DGR's poetic sequence, of course, the figures of Beatrice and the “donna della finestra” are open to a completely reversed autobiographical reading. Equally to the point is DGR's general comment on interpretative method: “what I believe to lie at the heart of all true Dantesque commentary . . . is, the existence always of the actual events even where the allegorical superstructure has been raised by Dante himself”. That observation must always be taken into consideration when we read DGR's sonnet sequence as well, and not least of all in the case of this sonnet.

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