The Pre-Raphaelites are known for their romantic, introspective women. The female figure in Dante Gabriel Rossetti's The House of Life is no exception. The lush, idealized woman in these poems could have stepped out of any pre-Raphaelite canvas. However, Rossetti occasionally calls attention to the fiction of this woman, especially in poems where she can speak in her own voice, as in Sonnet XXXII: Equal Troth:

Not by one measure mayst thou mete our love;
For how should I be loved as I love thee? —
I, graceless, joyless, lacking absolutely
All gifts that with thy queenship best behove; —
Thou, throned in every heart's elect alcove,
And crowned with garlands culled from every tree,
Which for no head but thine, by Love's decree,
All beauties and all mysteries interwove.

But here thine eyes and lips yield soft rebuke: —
"Then only" (say'st thou) "could I love thee less,
When thou couldst doubt my love's equality."
Peace, sweet! If not to sum but worth we look, —
Thy heart's transcendence, not my heart's excess, —
Then more a thousandfold thou lov'st then I.

Her "soft rebuke" get straight to the point: when he sets up this queen/lowly subject paradigm for their relationship, he's actually insulting her. She points out that he's saying his love is greater than hers; moreover, he's also setting her up on so high a pedestal (elsewhere he calls her a goddess) that he takes her out of the realm of the human, ending all chance for equality between them. The flip side of this reasoning is the "Adam's rib" school of misogyny. More abstractly, by elevating her he claims the power to do so, to imbue her with value and, by inference, to cast her down as well. But she is not an object nor a goddess; she is a person with whom he interacts, one smart enough to recognize the problems in his romantic philosophy.

He, however, does not seem to recognize those problems, because he pays no heed to her "rebuke." He continues to maintain that his love is greater, though he claims that her way of loving, her "heart's transcendence" (not an active loving, but a passive one) is better. So in the end he denies her both passion and equality — not a very satisfying basis for a relationship.

Questions

Are the speaker in the sonnets and Rossetti the same person? How does Rossetti handle the tension between the pre-Raphaelite idealized, fictitious conception of the feminine and reality?

Are the sonnets all about the same couple? Is there a story or character arc within them or do they stand alone?

In many of the poems, one could, with relatively little effort, analogize the relationship of the lovers to the relation of the human with the divine. Is this an intentional subtext in the poems? Does it affect the reading of the romantic relationship?


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Last modified 28 October 2003