The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 3. The House of Life
If the greatest function of poetry is its power to interpret the permanent yet ever new phases of human thought and emotion, Rossetti was too enchained by material beauty to be in constant touch with the highest objects of verse. But, in the sonnets of The House of Life, the record of the spiritual experience which transfigured his whole career from 1850 to his death, the exquisite craftsmanship that wrought music out of earthly form and colour was applied to a more abstract use. The sequence is a sequence only in name, for no connected story, such as ingenious historians endeavour to weave into Elizabethan sonnet-books, can be made out of it: each sonnet is, in Rossetti’s phrase, a “moment’s monument,” numbering high tides of rapture and regret, whose sum is the impelling force of the poet’s inner life. The rhythm and phraseology are moulded, to a great extent, by Rossetti’s early practice in the translation of Italian sonnets and canzoni, which imparted an occasional archaism and mannered diction to all his work; nor could any English sonneteer whose theme was the passion of love be free from some debt to Shakespeare and the Elizabethans generally. But Rossetti’s familiarity with Italian models brings The House of Life into competition with his sixteenth- and seventeenth-century precursors. His imagery and personifications of abstract qualities are not borrowed at second-hand, but come direct from the fountain-head of sonnet-poetry. The sequence has the further virtue that its theme is spontaneous and personal. The variations upon it are meditated and elaborate, but they are not embroideries upon an artificial groundwork or masterly simulations of passion, like those which were a second nature to poets during the vogue of the sonnet. It was characteristic of Rossetti that concrete manifestations of love should play a large part in his thought, and his warmth of expression in certain passages now removed from the collection was the chief object of the notorious attack by Robert Buchanan, writing under a pseudonym, to which Swinburne returned a scathing answer. But the keynote of his love-poetry, which is heard again in the dactylic measures of The Song of the Bower, is the union of the body and the soul, in which the impulses of the one are the outward symbol of the hidden emotions of the other. Throughout the series, Rossetti’s mystical view of life asserts itself more exclusively than in any of his other poems, and the second part of it is a dreamland of thought through which the story of his loss is but vaguely implied. The visions which, for a time, are concentrated in one bodily shape retain their power after that shape has yielded to change and fate, and death itself at last is hailed with clamness as the child of life, surviving love and song and art and bringing ultimate consolation.
The work of Rossetti as a translator is hardly less remarkable than his original poetry. It is not confined to one language, and perhaps the most striking example of his power of transmuting the melody of one tongue into another is his version of Villon’s Ballade des Dames du temps jadis. Italian, however, was as much his native language as English. His father had won distinction as a commentator on Dante, and one of his sisters, Maria Francesca, wrote a popular exposition of Dante which is still justly valued. His appreciation of the subtleties of English melody enabled him to present the more ductile cadences of Italian poetry in an approximately literal English form, full of softness and grace. It is curious that his English poem Dante at Verona, though it has a dignity which befits its subject, is frigid when compared with his other original compositions of equal importance. Dealing directly with Dante’s own work, he translated his sonnets with the warmest sympathy and turned La Vita Nuova, the most intimate expression of the emotions of one of the greatest of poets, into English which gives pleasure for its own sake. The work of translating the lyrics of Dante’s predecessors was achieved with equal skill and gave Rossetti excellent practice in metrical agility. These poems suffer from monotony of subject, and the devotion of the gentil cuore to the lady for whom alone it beats is at once an advantage and a drawback to Rossetti’s translations—an advantage, because most readers will be content to take them on their own merits, without comparing them with the original; a drawback, because the most sympathetic student, with full appreciation of their beauty of phrase and variety of metre, is cloyed with the uniform sweetness of their prolonged descant upon one theme. The contemporaries of Dante are more interesting. Guido Cavalcanti had more than one string to his lyre, and, if it is difficult to take a lively interest in Cino da Pistoia and the elusive Selvaggia, the graceless Cecco Angiolieri is more of a human being and his Becchina is not a mere abstraction.