he most important example of Rossetti's concern with time occurs in The House of Life (1870-1881), the complex gathering of sonnets that is his poetic masterpiece. It ends with his acceptance of time and death; but before arriving at that conclusion, the poet makes many attempts to conquer or evade the temporal and its painful destructions. Throughout the first portion of The House of Life, he tries to find or create centers to time, something that can provide a core and a meaning to his existence as man, lover, and poet. In section 27, for instance, he replaces Christ with his beloved, whom he describes "as the meaning of all things that are." His tendency to treat either love or his beloved as spiritual saviour appears most strikingly in some of the sonnets written earliest for The House of Life. For example, in its earliest version, section 3, "Love's Testament," was entitled "Love's Redemption," and it employed explicit imagery of the sacrament of communion, which Rossetti later removed, and sonnet 34 presents the unnamed beloved as a point at which the eternal enters human life, acting analogously to Christ's presence in history.
More commonly in The House of Life Rossetti makes not the loved one nor even love itself but some perfect moment serve as the yearned-for center to time. His attempts to create such moments of epiphany provide the burden of some of his other poems, including "For a Venetian Pastoral" (1849), "The Woodspurge" (1856), and "Sudden Light" (1854). The House of Life has several superb examples of such frozen or stopped time, which characteristically are achieved by means of Rossetti's visual, rather than his abstract, style. Sonnet 19, "Silent Noon," begins with a word-painting that sets the beloved's hand "in the long fresh grass" and then proceeds to draw from it a moral about the lovers's temporal existence. Fully aware of the destruction of time, the speaker pleads that they hold on to this perfect moment:
Oh! clasp we to our hearts, for deathless dower,
This close-companioned inarticulate hour
When twofold silence was the song of love.
Even in lines that apparently capture a moment of joy, Rossetti finds himself driven first to reflect upon it self-consciously and then to yearn desperately, almost hopelessly, to still the onrush of hours and days. In fact his use of was, rather than is, in the closing line thrusts him (and the reader) forward into the future when this moment will have long disappeared.
In sonnet 30, "Last Fire," he tells his beloved once again that they have, together, lived through a day of happiness. Now the consolation must be not that they can retain time in any way but that it once existed at all. This sonnet, like "Silent Noon" and "Love's Spring-Tribute," embody Rossetti's notion of the sonnet as "a moment's monument." But monuments both preserve a memory and mourn a passing, and the speaker, whom we may take to be Rossetti himself, increasingly realizes that he cannot hold onto these moments. The confidence that he can capture the passing instance found in "The Portrait" and "Last Fire" become replaced by the recognition of transience, and the poet's attempts to retain his joys become increasingly desperate. For example, in sonnet 43, "Love and Hope," recognition of inevitable change and loss makes the speaker place a more desperate emphasis upon the kind of perfect moment he had earlier hopefully presented. Similarly, "Stillborn Love," sonnet 55, makes an even more desperate claim that capturing such a perfect hour is still possible, for now the it can only be found after death. Describing the failure to realize their potential perfection in love in "the hour which might have been yet might not be," the poem portrays the lovers themselves as parents of that "little outcast hour" that treads some unknown shore against which breaks "Time's weary sea." The lovers displace God as the center and creator of their scheme of salvation, revelation, and culmination, but by now in the sonnet sequence the speaker is presenting a poetry, not of belief, but of hypothesis that serves primarily to communicate the intensity of his desire.
By sonnet 83, "Barren Spring," only the awareness of transience and loss remains. At this point in The House of Life, imagery of natural fertility can no longer represent the poet's mood, and instead he perceives, like that last great Victorian poet Eliot, that April is the cruelest month for one who has no capacity for joy and new life within him. "A Superscription," sonnet 97, one of the closing sections, again emphasizes the impossibility of retaining anything of value. Here we have an address by "Might-have-been/ I am also called No-more, Too-late, Farewell" — all denied potential — who tells the lover that his longed-for center to life and time, his Tennysonian and Browingesque moment of culmination, will not come to pass. Even when one recalls moments of joy, "Might-have-been" transforms them into a "shaken shadow intolerable." Moments are not enough.
"He and I," the next sonnet in the sequence, shows that he has lost more than his beloved — he has lost his old self. Discontinuity of the self is the final result of living within this meaningless, eroding time; for just as Rossetti finds he cannot hold on to love, so, too, he finds he cannot hold on to his memories and experiences, and so at last he becomes a different person, a stranger, to his earlier being. Rossetti's attempt to recapture things past ends, unlike those of Ruskin and Proust, with resignation and not the triumphant resurrection of an earlier self. The final two sonnets accept death as the inevitable creation of life, as Rossetti's version of In Memoriam becomes an anti-In Memoriam. He enforces his acceptance of death-as-the-end-of-life with "Newborn Death," sonnet 99, in which he creates a parody of a nativity or adoration scene: the "worn mother Life" places Death upon his knee "to grow my friend and play with me." Nonetheless, the final sonnet ends on a note of hope, though one for which Rossetti can provide no reason except desire.
Last modified 2000