D. G. Rossetti's The House of Life is a two-part sequence of sonnets that passes through the intricacies of love and life. Each sonnet is titled with one of the many complexities of love. He writes with literary, historical, mythical, and religious influences, using the vast range of symbols and allegory necessary to elucidate an understanding of Love. Rossetti's musings are certainly extensions of his own experiences. He had a number of female subjects with whom he engaged in love affairs: his wife Elizabeth Siddal, Fanny Cornworth, and Jane Morris (the wife of his contemporary William Morris). These women served as inspiration for Rossetti to explore the depths of Love and beauty. These affairs are paralleled by his poetry on Love and in his portraits of them.
The House of Life opens with a sonnet entitled Love Enthroned that provides a rough framework to understand the "Powers" that control the human heart: Truth, Hope, Fame, Oblivion, Youth, Life, and Death.
I marked all kindred Powers the heart finds fair:--
Truth, with awed lips; and Hope, with eyes upcast;
And Fame, whose loud wings fan the ashen Past
To signal-fires, Oblivion's flight to scare;
And Youth, with still some single golden hair
Unto his shoulder clinging, since the last
Embrace wherein two sweet arms held him fast;
And Life, still wreathing flowers for Death to wear.
Then, at the ninth line, the sonnet turns to a characterization of Love omnipotent, far beyond the powers controlling the human condition.
Love's throne was not with these; but far above
All passionate wind of welcome and farewell
He sat in breathless bowers they dream not of.
In the last three lines, Rossetti turns again. "However high Love's throne is elevated", it is inextricably tied to these monosyllabic powers.
Though Truth foreknow Love's heart, and Hope foretell,
And Fame be for Love's sake desirable,
And Youth be dear, and Life be sweet to Love.
Although love may be heralded as unknowable, it is defined by the human characteristics that live it.
In "Love's Throne," Rossetti evokes images reminiscent of his paintings, but these words are not attached to any painting of his. He gives the image of Youth with a single golden hair still clinging to his shoulder from the last embrace with his lover. He gives the image of Life wreathing flowers for Death to wear. Love sits in breathless bowers undreamt of, luxurious and heavenly indeed. Which are more powerful, these mentally conjured images from poetry or images that Rossetti paints himself?
Rossetti's poetry in The House of Life provides a background to analyze his portraits of women (with or without complimentary poetry), perhaps even more so than the poems he chose to accompany them. It enables us to understand, beyond the subject or story he depicts, the very beauty that Rossetti saw in women and Love. Three paintings and drawings that stand out to me in this way are Proserpine, Beata Beatrix, and Lady Lilith. Which do you feel gives the most insight into Love? Why?
When it comes to portrayals of Love, the "powers" Rossetti writes of have strong presence, because of their relatively objective truths and Rossetti's belief in them. How are these powers evident in some of the other PRB paintings we've looked at?
Although Rossetti somewhat apotheosizes love, this sonnet diverges from religion and brings the focus to human relationship. How does this fit in with Rossetti's development since the founding of the PRB?
Last modified 20 February 2008