Although entitled "Pride of Youth," Sonnet XXIV of Dante Rossetti's The House of Life might well share the title of the very collection of which it is part. In the poem we encounter the great changes that time inflicts upon youth and its false notions of permanence. We see "the last cowslip in the fields" sharing "the same day with the first corn-poppy." We see a New Love soaring like some glee-entranced Icarus, unmindful of the torment that the Old Love behind him must endure. And among these images we might construct that of some house of life, wherein children play jacks, and think not of the sickbeds and death-tremors they will one day inherit from their grandfolks upstairs. The changes from youth to age, from proud to broken love, run as constant as a metronome, setting time to that great human symphony of hope and of loss.

Yet Rossetti does not write this poem to enumerate all the tragedies of our race; rather, he highlights a very particular one. In fact, the reference to life and death seems to serve only as a point of comparison for the larger theme of lost or jaded love, whereby the severity of the latter may manifest itself. Love, it seems, weighs as heavily in the human drama as life itself.

Even as a child, of sorrow that we give
The dead, but little in his heart can find,
Since without need of thought to his clear mind
Their turn it is to die and his to live: —
Even so the winged New Love smiles to receive
Along his eddying plumes the auroral wind,
Nor, forward glorying, casts one look behind
Where night-rack shrouds the Old Love fugitive.

There is a change in every hour's recall,
And the last cowslip in the fields we see
On the same day with the first corn-poppy.
Alas for hourly change! Alas for all
The loves that from his hand proud Youth lets fall,
Even as the beads of a told rosary!"

That all young loves must age and wither distresses the narrator, but even more greatly does the proud indifference with which youth treats its fleeting luxuries. Youth does not adequately value its youthfulness, its larks, its loves, because it does not pay heed to the ordeals of those who came before, whose pain Youth too will shortly know. And yet Rossetti's narrator seems to do what no other can — he is the voice both of prophecy and of memory, speaking both for Youth and for its woeful successor. In this case one must wonder how great is the tragedy of this narrator, whose are the only eyes that perceive.

Questions

1. The image of the Old Love is an ambiguous one, offering little explanation as to how it reached its current state. What might Rossetti see as the forces that undo a young love, and what features might characterize an old one?

2. We find a certain pessimism in this poem, but is it directed toward Love, or only toward Youth (as the title might suggest)? How might the attitude here compare to that of other sonnets, where Rossetti conveys a clear faith in the possibilities of Love?

3. What sort of a shift, if any, doe we find between the octave and the subsequent sestet?

4. Does the final comparison function only in terms of how one physically handles a rosary, or should we derive some religious or spiritual connection to Love from this very particular reference?

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Last modified 28 February 2009