Wednesday, April 22, 2015

A sonnet pays the toll of Death - D. G. Rossetti's impearled sonnets

A sonnet is a moment’s monument, –
    Memorial from the Soul’s eternity
    To one dead deathless hour.  Look that it be,
Whether for lustral rite or dire portent,
Of its own arduous fulness reverent:
    Carve it in ivory or in ebony,
    As Day or Night may rule; and let Time see
Its flowering crest impearled and orient.

I’m going to do a poetry roundup, whatever I have been reading for the last whenever.  This will go on for days.  Fictionists, see you in a couple of weeks.  I read many sonnets.  The above is the beginning of the sonnet that introduces a sequence of a hundred and one more of them titled “The House of Life” found in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Ballads and Sonnets (1881), his last book before his death, and only his second books of original poetry.  It is not nearly as good as the 1870 Poems.  Back then, the “House of Life” sequence only included fifty poems, not a hundred and two, meaning that for this reason alone the 1870 book is more than twice as good as the 1881 book.

As Rossetti says in Sonnet LXXIV, Art has “turned in vain / To soulless self-reflections of man’s skill.”  The book demonstrates too much empty virtuosity, a kind of surfeit of beauty.  What moment is a poem catching if it has to be “impearled”?  And how much impearling is possible before the poem is in bad taste?  Rossetti has thickened rhetorically and thinned substantially.

So I break the poems into lines and images, and scrounge around for something more beautiful than pearls.  The hearts of two lovers lean on the heart of Love – is that over-elaborate -

As the cloud-foaming firmamental blue
    Rests on the blue line of a foamless sea.  (“The Lover’s Walk,” Sonnet XII)

After “Sleepless Dreams” (Sonnet XXXIX in 1881), the night is “A thicket hung with masks of mockery / and watered with the wasteful warmth of tears.”

I do not even have to know what Rossetti means – this from “The Cloud Confines,” not a sonnet, but a mood piece:

The sky leans dumb on the sea,
    Aweary with all its wings;
    And oh! the song the sea sings
Is dark everlastingly.

The edition of the book that I read is an 1887 reissue that includes a number of unpublished poems.  A group from a trip to France suggest what happens when the pearls are stripped away:

In France (to baffle thieves and murderers)
A journey takes two days of passport work
At least. The plan 's sometimes a tedious one,
But bears its fruit. Because, the other day
In passing by the Morgue we saw a man
(The thing is common, and we never should
Have known of it, only we passed that way)
Who had been stabbed and tumbled in the Seine,
Where he had stayed some days. The face was black,
And, like a negro's, swollen; all the flesh
Had furred, and broken into a green mould.  (“The Paris Railway-Station”)

First, I have added to my collection of literary visits to the Paris Morgue; second, even if this is not great poetry as it stands, it suggests a way to end the crisis of beauty.

I will let Rossetti finish the introductory sonnet:

A Sonnet is a coin: its face reveals
    The soul, – its converse, to what Power ‘tis due:–
Whether for tribute to the august appeals
    Of Life, or dower in Love’s high retinue,
It serve; or, ‘mid the dark wharf’s cavernous breath,
In Charon’s palm it pay the toll to Death.

All right, this conceit, especially in the last two lines, is terrific.

Please click here for a painting depicting “Rossetti reading proofs of Ballads and Sonnets at 16 Cheyne Walk” – I have never before seen a painting on the subject of the reading of proofs. 


  1. What's being impearled in that first sonnet? Does the flowering crest belong to the ebony-ivory sonnet, or to Time? In either case, being both flowering and impearled is either overdecoration or a mixed metaphor. The coin conceit is a good one, although after the beginning, I imagine Charon gazing in bewilderment at the carved, feathered, impearled thing dropped into his hand. Those metaphors are tricky.

  2. I take "it" as the sonnet due to the repetition of "it"s, but the grammar is ambiguous. The metaphor is so strained, although I do love the idea of giving Charon a poem. Death loves poems, you know.

    I say "crisis" above, and although I have not explained the idea, I think it was true in this period, in English poetry. Not in French. The French poets were solving the problems.

  3. I have corrected the proofs:
    "And let Sense see
    Its flowering crest imperiled and disorient."

  4. That's what Rossetti is doing in the painting, waving at his pal - "No, impearled, I said impearled."

    I like your version pretty well.