A Reading of D. G. Rossetti's "The Sonnet"

by D. F. Felluga

 Click here for a copy of the image Rossetti had accompany "The Sonnet" in the version presented to his mother on her 80th birthday

D. G. Rossetti

A Sonnet is a moment's monument,--
Memorial from the Soul's eternity
To one dead deathless hour. Look that it be,
Whether for lustral rite or dire portent,
Of its own intricate fulness reverent:
Carve it in ivory or in ebony,
As Day or Night prevail; and let Time see
Its flowering crest impearled and orient.

A Sonnet is a coin: its face reveals
The soul,--its converse, to what Power 'tis due:--
Whether for tribute to the august appeals
Of Life, or dower in Love's high retinue
It serve; or, 'mid the dark wharf's cavernous breath,
In Charon's palm it pay the toll to Death.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti's poem, "The Sonnet," is a testament to the ideals of the aesthetic movement; wedding form and content, it makes a statement about the purposes of art while illustrating the best way to achieve that purpose in the very stylistic features of a poem. Indeed, if one considers the now-lost version that Rossetti presented to his mother on her eightieth birthday, one can see in this individually-crafted, irreproducible original poem a commentary on the status of poetry in a Victorian market geared to mass consumption.

The first three lines are a perfect example of the wedding of form and content, since the very sounds and rhythm of the poem enact the slowing of time into one, eternal moment that the poem describes. The sequence of 'm's and 'n's in "moment's monument--/Memorial from," for example, forces the reader to slow down in the recitation of the poem and gives the lines themselves a sense of monumentality. One could even say that the combination "moments monument" is both orally and orthographically a represention of the monumentalization of the moment, since "m-o-m-e-n-t" is itself here drawn out into "m-o-n-u-m-e-n-t," as if the latter word actually included within itself the "moment." Indeed, "monument" does include each of the letters of the former word, as if "monument" were actively seeking to remember the "moment" that came before it, which then helps to explain the emphasis on memory in the next word, "Memorial." Having the first line be end-stopped yet further imitates the sentiment of the line: the poem will be its own closed memorial, apparently separate from the mundane concerns of the world. Indeed, perhaps one reason Rossetti chose the Petrarchan form is so that the entire first octet, which concerns itself with the memorialization of time in art, also remain self-enclosed, an allusion perhaps to the etymological meaning of "stanza," that is a room (in this case, of course, the room of a monument). The sequence of 'm's and 'n's also forces us to take special notice of the prominent 's' that precedes and follows this sequence, suggesting (once again both orally and orthagraphically) a special connection between "Sonnet" and "Soul," an alignment even further underlined by capitalizing both of these words. The same effect of slowing down the line occurs in the spondee "dead deathless." We thus move from the speed of the tri-syllabic "eternity" to the forced lugubriousness of "To one dead deathless hour." The poem thus mimics the contrast being imagined between the lightness of the soul's eternity (a lightness further emphasized by the floating Anima in Rossetti's illustration) and the heaviness of each quotidian hour. The oxymoron of "dead deathless" underlines the incredible feat being accomplished by the poem in being able to turn the dead moment into something eternal. In addition, since "dead" finishes with a 'd', the word effectively blead's into "deathless." In speaking the line, one naturally allows the very pronuciation of the final 'd' of "dead" to be extended into the next word, "deathless," thus enacting the very meaning of the line: the dead hour will be drawn into the deathlessness of the eternal sonnet. (In linguistics, this effect could be termed trans-segmental drift.)

The caesura at this point in line three appears to serve the purpose of imitating the very transience of the dead hour, which comes to a close before its time, just as the line here comes to a close at the caesura before the fifth stress of the iambic pentameter line. The response to this premature close is a command, "Look," which is the first time the poet suggests that the sonnet may in fact need the help of an outside party. One cannot help but ask: who is Rossetti speaking to--his mother, other poets, the mass market? Does the fact that Rossetti needs to implore some addressee perhaps raise a doubt about the Sonnet's self-sufficiency? And yet what Rossetti asks of the addressee is to make sure that the sonnet be "Of its own arduous fullness reverent"; that is, that the sonnet be precisely self-sufficient. Regardless of its purpose--"Whether for lustral rite or dire portent"--the sonnet need only refer to, indeed "revere," its own fullness. Although line 3 appears to end with an enjambement, we come to realize that it could have, in fact, stopped right there, since line 5 says little more than "Look that it be," look that the sonnet simply exist--without external predicates. The purpose in the outside world matters not, hence the mixing of opposites throughout the octet (purification/ portent, ivory/ ebony, Day/ Night). The sonnet provides us, that is, with a system of differences (approaching the self-sufficiency of poetic form explored by Michael Riffaterre in various of his books and articles). What we have, then, is a statement suggesting that literature should exist only for literature's sake, which ties the poem to the beliefs of the aesthetic (or art-for-art's-sake) movement. The poem goes so far as to suggest the replacement of art for religion, which Thomas Carlyle first called for in his essay, "Characteristics. That is, the sonnet need only revere itself. Indeed, the suggestion is made that the sonnet could serve the purposes normally saved for religion: "lustral rite or dire portent."

Despite this statement of the sonnet's self-sufficient "fullness," the octet finishes with two more commands, "Carve" and "let," which again raises the question of addressee, even though we end, as we did in line five, with an image of the sonnet as an eternal, quasi-religious aesthetic object: "let Time see/ Its flowering crest impearled and orient." The opposition of flowering and impearled repeats the earlier oxymoron that forced together transcience ("dead"; here, the flower) and permanence ("deathless"; here, "impearled"). "Orient" in this context means "Brilliant, lustrous, shining, glowing, radiant, resplendent.... Shining like the dawn, bright red" (OED), coming as the term does from the rising of the sun in the East. Thus, we are presented with another hidden oxymoron of sorts in the opposition of "Time," in its eternity, and the singular sunrise suggested by "orient." All of this suggests that the sonnet is capable of resolving the contradictions of the transient phenomenal world by creating a permanent object to be revered in and of itself. The very trope of personification enacts this move, taking the everyday referents, "sonnet," "day," "night," "time" and turning them into allegorical figures that represent these terms in their ideality.

And yet, can we not also begin to hear some of the concerns that are in fact driving Rossetti's aesthetic ideals? The mention of an addressee raises the very question of audience at a time when poetry was becoming increasingly marginalized; also, the mention of the poem's printed materiality ("Carve it in ivory or in ebony"), even while imagining the poem "carved" in the more permanent form of ivory or ebony, reminds the reader of the black and white of the printed, mass-produced text. The second sestet brings these concerns even more to the fore by suggesting that "A Sonnet is a coin." How can one read this line, at a time when poetry was being eclipsed by the interests of a mass market, and not read into it the pressures facing Rossetti's very generic form? Once again, Rossetti moves from the intimation of mass-market concerns to the eternal nature of the form: "A Sonnet is a coin; its face reveals/ The soul"; however, in the sestet, Rossetti does seem to contest the self-sufficiency of poetry suggested in the octet. Indeed, in the movement from octet to sestet, we seem to be presented with the very flipping of the coin represented in the poem, for, although the octet dealt with the "Soul's eternity," the sestet is more concerned with "its converse, to what Power 'tis due--". The sestet, that is, concerns itself not with self-suffiency but with the "Power" to which the sonnet owes its "due." Indeed, the first "Power" could be read precisely as the "appeals" of a public that demanded that poetry, like the novel, serve the concerns of politics, reform, and quotidian life generally. The word "tribute" therefore gains especial significance here: "A tax or impost paid by one prince or state to another in acknowledgement of submission or as the price of peace, security, and protection; rent or homage paid in money or an equivalent by a subject to his sovereign or a vassal to his lord" (OED; my italics). Does not Rossetti here acknowledge a certain subordinate status for the genre of poetry before the "august appeals/ Of Life"? Poetry is presented as subordinate in describing the next two powers as well. Indeed the enjambement into line 13 underlines this point: "or dower in Love's high retinue/ It serve." The final "Power" has the poem actually serve as monetary exchange, which once again recalls the very market Rossetti so spurned, but here transformed into something transcendent: the paying of "the toll to Death."

"The Sonnet" is a fascinating statement of Rossetti's aesthetic ideals but, as we have seen, with a clear and persistent anxiety about the very market that Rossetti is establishing his ideal against. Indeed, one could argue that Rossetti even acknowledges a certain subordination of poetry before the "august appeals/ Of Life," even while attempting to transcend that life in the eternal memorialization after death that, according to the poem, only poetry can ensure. Perhaps these contradictions can help to explain why Rossetti presented the sonnet's original design to his mother as a personal gift and chose not to disseminate the image to the market. Indeed, for this reason, the original version is lost, leaving only the lesser copy of David Main's A Treasury of English Sonnets. Perhaps the contradictions also help to explain what drove Rossetti to bury the original manuscript of the House of Life with Elizabeth Siddal. Rossetti is famous for his antipathy to the mass public, refusing in later life to exhibit his art work in major galleries and continually postponing the publication of his poetry. In presenting his design to his mother alone or in burying his sonnet sequence with Elizabeth Siddal, Rossetti sought to re-capture the lost aura of the work of art. The design seeks to turn the mass-produced text, first of all, into something that is not easily reproducible (in the end, literally, since the original is now lost). The very words of the poem are drawn by hand--an act of defiance, one could say, against the machine-produced textuality of the mass-produced text. That is, the words are "carved" rather than merely stamped, produced instead of copied. A personal relation is also established, even a familial one--mother and son--as opposed to the market dissemination to the faceless, numberless audience sought by the mass-produced text. The poem, in other words, is made for some one--pro Matre fecit. Also, no coin is exchanged; the poem thus resists the commodification of poetry in a mass market and returns instead to an earlier gift economy, just as the personalized design returns to the craft of the artisan versus the commodified labor of the proletariat in a mass-market economy. The contradictions in the poem arise from the fact that, to be known, to be recognized, indeed for the poem to exist eternally, the sonnet needs to be published and reproduced. The address to the audience in the octet points up this problem: the author, in fact, does need that addressee in order to ensure the poems's immortality, a fact earlier underlined by Shakespeare in a similar rhetorical move: "So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,/ so long lives this, and this gives life to thee" ("Sonnet 18"). Burying the House of Life with Elizabeth Siddal illustrates Rossetti's wish that his poetry exist only in its eternal, transcendent ideal--as the coin one pays to Charon for "the toll to Death," but the fact is that the exchange of actual coins on a mass market is the only thing that can ensure we continue to read Rossetti's poems today. The first Power, "the august appeals/ Of Life," asserts itself in the end, and in the most dramatic of ways: the crypt, the monument, the memorial must be desecrated in the interest, precisely, of coin.

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