The House of Life: 97. A Superscription

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      I am also call'd No-more, Too-late, Farewell;
3      Unto thine ear I hold the dead-sea shell
4Cast up thy Life's foam-fretted feet between;
5Unto thine eyes the glass where that is seen
6      Which had Life's form and Love's, but by my spell
7      Is now a shaken shadow intolerable,
8Of ultimate things unutter'd the frail screen.
9Mark me, how still I am! But should there dart
10      One moment through thy soul the soft surprise
11      Of that wing'd Peace which lulls the breath of sighs,--
12Then shalt thou see me smile, and turn apart
13Thy visage to mine ambush at thy heart
14      Sleepless with cold commemorative eyes.


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.
Rossetti expresses in this sonnet a characteristic sense of failure and remorse. In the second quatrain, feelings of loss and guilt are associated especially with the painful memory of the poet's wife. Pain is latent until moments when the soul is surprised into a hope of peace, then memory of the past renews its relentless attack. Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
RPO poem Editors: 
Margaret Frances (Sister St. Francis) Nims
RPO Edition: 
3RP 3.283.