The House of Life: 72. The Choice, II

Original Text: 
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Ballads and Sonnets (London: Ellis and White, 1881). PR 5244 B2 1881 ROBA end R677 B355 1881 Fisher Rare Book Library (Toronto).
2      Or art thou sure thou shalt have time for death?
3      Is not the day which God's word promiseth
4To come man knows not when? In yonder sky
5Now while we speak, the sun speeds forth: can I
6      Or thou assure him of his goal? God's breath
7      Even at this moment haply quickeneth
8The air to a flame; till spirits, always nigh
9Though screen'd and hid, shall walk the daylight here.
10      And dost thou prate of all that man shall do?
11           Canst thou, who hast but plagues, presume to be
12           Glad in his gladness that comes after thee?
13      Will his strength slay thy worm in Hell? Go to:
14Cover thy countenance, and watch, and fear.


1] The sonnets that make up The House of Life were composed between 1847 and 1881, spanning Rossetti's poetic career. In March 1869, he published sixteen of them in the Fortnightly Review with the significant title "Of Life, Love and Death." In his volume Poems, 1870, fifty sonnets (including the one from the Fortnightly Review) and eleven lyrics were grouped together under the general title "Sonnets and Songs towards a work to be called The House of Life." Six other sonnets from the 1870 volume, but not there included in the House of Life group, were later incorporated into the sequence. The House of Life in its final form was published in Ballads and Sonnets, 1881, with 101 sonnets, in addition to the introductory one. The sequence is there divided into two parts, the first part (sonnets I to LIX) bearing the sub-title "Youth and Change," the second part (sonnets LX to CI) the sub-title "Change and Fate." The songs that had formed part of his projected work in 1870 were excluded from this final version. The title, according to William Michael Rossetti, derives from astrology, which divides the heavens by meridian lines into twelve "houses" or "spheres of influence." The first of these is frequently termed "the house of life." Rossetti may very well have become acquainted with the expression from a projected painting of that title by his friend G. F. Watts--a panoramic and partially symbolic vision of creation, the universe, and the moral and intellectual development of man. Rossetti denied any autobiographical significance in his sonnet sequence, saying: "The 'life' recorded is neither my life nor your life, but life purely and simply as tripled with love and death," and associated with auxiliary themes of "aspiration and foreboding, ... ideal art and beauty." Despite Rossetti's denial, it is now generally recognized that his sonnets are deeply personal, inspired in part by love and regret for his wife, Elizabeth Siddal, who died in 1862, and in much greater part, especially after 1868, by his love for Jane Morris, the wife of William Morris.
The three sonnets named "The Choice" were written when Rossetti was nineteen or twenty. He was doubtful about including them in The House of Life, feeling there was a basic lack of harmony between them and the rest of the sequence. His brother's advice seems to have been the deciding factor in their inclusion. Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
RPO poem Editors: 
Margaret Frances (Sister St. Francis) Nims
RPO Edition: 
3RP 3.282.