The House of Life: The Choice (Sonnets 71 – 73)

Three of my favourite sonnets, and, indeed, poems, by the Pre-Raphaelite poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Choice III outshines the rest of the House of Life sonnet sequence. The first sonnet of The Choice, a trilogy of sonnets within the sonnet sequence, is found here. It describes the ‘rightness’ of earthly enjoyment over wasting one’s life in pursuit of all gold or knowledge. It holds some wonderful language, and the image painted in lines 7 and 8 is one of my favourite images in poetry:

  We’ll drown all hours: thy song, while hours are toll’d,
Shall leap, as fountains veil the changing sky.
It is a wonderful description of a pleasant time; the hours passing oh so peacefully, as her song grows higher and beautiful beneath the veil of fountains. Surely, that inspires one to go away from business and work, and instead spend time in enjoyment of life.
From here, the sonnet goes on to describe how some men waste their life seeking ‘vain gold, vain lore’ and, in the end, do not die; for their very lives were no better than death, being spent only looking for one end.
Dante_Gabriel_Rossetti_-_La_viuda_romana_(Dîs_Manibus)The Roman Widow, by Rossetti
The second sonnet, my least favourite of the three, is, however, also quite good. The sonnet is a warning against those who would spend their lives revelling in pleasure or pride, and, reminding one of an Old Testament prophet, describes how God shall come again, and when no one knows, and the end for those who merely describe the greatness of humanity and live lives of immorality. The start is, to me, the most striking part, as I’ve always loved
Watch thou and fear; to-morrow thou shalt die.
  Or art thou sure thou shalt have time for death?
As I said, it is my least favourite, but that does not mean it is a bad poem. I still quite enjoy it.
The last poem, however, is the masterpiece of The House of Life, perhaps even, in my opinion, of Rossetti’s poetry, though Jenny rivals it. It is so good, that, to encourage my dear readers to, well, read it, I am forced to reprint it, instead of merely linking it:
Think thou and act; to-morrow thou shalt die
         Outstretch’d in the sun’s warmth upon the shore,
         Thou say’st: “Man’s measur’d path is all gone o’er:
Up all his years, steeply, with strain and sigh,
Man clomb until he touch’d the truth; and I,
         Even I, am he whom it was destin’d for.”
         How should this be? Art thou then so much more
Than they who sow’d, that thou shouldst reap thereby?
Nay, come up hither. From this wave-wash’d mound
         Unto the furthest flood-brim look with me;
Then reach on with thy thought till it be drown’d.
         Miles and miles distant though the last line be,
And though thy soul sail leagues and leagues beyond,—
         Still, leagues beyond those leagues, there is more sea.
The House of Life, Sonnet 73: The Choice III, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
As I said, the best of The Choice. I don’t know the temperament of the reader, but I am always bothered when one speaks about how humanity stands so far above all humanity that came before, whether the generation prior or two thousand years ago, ‘Art thou then so much more/ Than they who sow’d, that thou shouldst reap thereby?’ And the final six lines of the sonnet inspire one to do so much more: to push and travel the leagues of sea that humanity still can stretch across.
The three sonnets are usually taken to be three different, though apparently equal, views of living, described by Dante’s brother as ‘physical enjoyment, religious asceticism, and [a critique of the Victortian ideal of] self-development.’ I, personally, take the three to be together – although I am probably wrong, as I’m not Rossetti’s brother and thus not privy to the poet’s own understanding of the sonnets. For me, the sonnets are grouped together and meant to be read together, hence my treatment of all three: the first sonnet reminds one of the beauty and pleasure of life, and how one should enjoy life rather than waste it, seeking money or studying always or, to me the most horrendous, giving up simple enjoyments for some mythical goal of ‘perfect health.’ The second sonnet, though, tempers the first, reminding one not to take too much pride in the ways and greatness of humanity, nor to throw all away in pursuit of enjoyment, else one ends up little better than they who spend their lives in pursuit of gold. Lastly, the third sonnet ties it all together – although one may have achieved much, and society may have reached heights beyond those who were before, there is still far to go. Always, one must seek to improve oneself, and to seek a life better than what there is.
That’s my two cents worth, anyhow.

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