Dante Gabriel Rossetti's sonnet sequence The House of Life revolves around a relatively small number of major themes, often deploying variations on the same style, devices and ideas to explore the works' central themes. Two lovers — one male, one female — are present in many of the sonnets, but their position and relationship to the speaker shifts from one sonnet to the next. Sometimes the male character is the speaker, while other times the speaker is an anonymous third party referring to the characters in second or third person pronouns. The 36th sonnet, "Life-in-Love," exemplifies a second-person address aimed either at the reader or at an implied male character:
But in this lady's lips and hands and eyes;
Through these she yields thee life that vivifies
What else were sorrow's servant and death's thrall.
Look on thyself without her, and recall
The waste remembrance and forlorn surmise
That lived but in a dead-drawn breath of sighs
O'er vanished hours and hours eventual.
Even so much life hath the poor tress of hair
Which, stored apart, is all love hath to show
For heart-beats and for fire-heats long ago;
Even so much life endures unknown, even where,
'Mid change the changeless night environeth,
Lies all that golden hair undimmed in death.
The relation between the male and female characters throughout The House of Life is constantly shifting, but it is not devoid of common threads. The fragmentation of the woman's body — usually into eyes, ears, lips, hands, throat, breasts and sometimes hair — is fairly consistent throughout and raises issues of female subjectivity and objectification. In "Life-in-Love," the fragmented elements of the female form are empowered as keepers of the male character's life and vitality. The final line about the woman's "golden hair undimmed in death" suggests a disconnect between the woman herself and the pieces of her physical being, because the power of her physical form becomes decoupled from her living, breathing self.
1. Who does his sonnet address — the reader or an implied specific male character?
2. Do the various body parts referred to by the speaker signify certain abstract ideas (e.g. do hands represent agency here, as they do in other canonical works?)?
3. Does Rossetti mean to argue that love is the only means through which one can find love?
4. Love and life are found in the physical being of the female character, and that radiance lives on apart from death. Is that to say that love decays with the physical decay of death, or is there a possibility of eternal love even after any trace of either lover has completely vanished?
Last modified 25 February 2009