Rossetti's fascination with time led him continually to look for ways to organize his poems to create such temporal centers. In the dramatic monologues, these centers take the form of moments of revelation related to those in drama; in his lyrics they tend to take the form of a captured moment that in some way preserves the eternal, the timeless. "For a Venetian Pastoral" (1849), one of his most famous sonnets, attempts to present one of these centers to time when the eternal brushes up against the temporal. Just as in his sonnet "For an Annunciation, Early German" (1849), he makes use of his ability to create a poetry of sensation and experience, a poetry that can capture the sensuous edge of things, their sound, their look. For a long time critics assumed that Rossetti always wrote a visually oriented poetry characterized by sharp visual impressions and carefully composed scenes — analogues, as it were, to Ruskin's word-painting and to hard-edge Pre-Raphaelitism. In fact, a large portion of Rossetti's poetry, like his sister's, takes the form of meditations that are conceived nonvisually and that make major use of conceits and other nonvisual devices. But in reading Giorgione's painting as a moment of secular and sensual illumination, he re-creates that moment by detailing the things whose touch and sound make it so perfect.

The sonnet begins with a yearning for water, which can ease the thirst of summer's longest day, and then we hear the water flow so quietly into the jar the woman holds. He directs this nude woman sitting at the fountain or well, "dip the vessel slowly, — nay, — but lean/ And hark how at its verge the wave sighs in/ Reluctant." We are then turned from the quiet sound of the water filling the vessel to greater quiet, greater absence of motion: "Hush! Beyond all depth away/ The heat lies silent at the brink of day." Now the musicians, "sad with the whole of pleasure," cease singing, and they are sad, we soon realize, because all things, all beings, all moments must pass. Rossetti closes the poem by returning our gaze to the woman and asking us — or those in the painting — not to break the spell in which she finds herself enclosed, nor to recall or categorize it:

Say nothing now unto her lest she weep,
Nor name this ever. Be it as it was, —
Life touching lips with immortality.

According to Rossetti, then, the woman experiences one of those perfect moments, one of those centers to time, that offer a pattern and order to our lives. Here it is the sensory perfection of the moment that raises it above the flux of ordinary minutes and hours — and the fact that a great painter chose to immortalize it in color and form. Nonetheless, however powerful the experience, however intense the illumination, it passes all too quickly, and hence the major tone of the sonnet, like so much of Rossetti's work, is elegaic as we are left with a sense of piercing loss, of transience at recognizing the passing of things, of ourselves.

Last modified 2000