Thursday, December 29, 2011
(Illuminated text in pen and ink for A Sonnet, by Dante
Gabriel Rossetti, 1828-1882, English poet, painter, and
illustrator; Rossetti created the illustration for his mother
on her birthday in 1880)
The sonnet below is one of a sequence of poems, The House of Life, that concern themselves with the fragility of time. We cannot hold on, Rossetti writes, to those fleeting instances of beauty or happiness. Poetry, including the sonnet, is only “a moment’s monument,” memorializing a memory even as it takes note of its passing.
A Sonnet is a moment’s monument —
Memorial from the Soul’s eternity
To one dead deathless hour. Look that it be,
Whether for lustral¹ rite or dire portent,
Of its own intricate fullness reverent:
Carve it in ivory or in ebony,
As Day or Night may rule; and let Time see
Its flowering crest impearled and orient.
A Sonnet is a coin²: 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’s³ palm it pay the toll to Death.
¹ lustral – connected with ceremonial purification
² coin – the ancient Greeks buried their dead with coins over their eyes or mouth to pay for the crossing to the Underworld
³ Charon – in Greek mythology, the ferryman who carried the recently deceased across the rivers from the world of the living to the world of the dead