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  • Exercitive Speech Acts in the Poetry of Dante Gabriel Rossetti
  • Ernest Fontana (bio)

Elsewhere I have attempted to read Rossetti's interrogative lyrics as "schemata for dramatic vocalization,"1 to correct what Culler observes as written criticism's "innate hostility to voice," its evasion of "the vocative."2 In this essay I shall attempt to pursue this line of inquiry further by reading a group of Rossetti's more engaging poems as fictive imitations of what Austin identifies as "exercitives," speech acts in which the speaker attempts to exercise influence by, for example, "ordering, urging, advising, warning."3 I shall approach these poems as fictive speech acts that through the dramatic context they evoke and through their tone and degree of urgency implicate a matrix of meanings, not exclusively bound to static images and statements. Austin assists us to see poems not merely as reports, descriptions, and statements, as "constative" utterances (How To Do, p. 46), but as performative utterances spoken in a "non-continuous present," that is, "I warn" not "I am warning" (How To Do, p. 47).4 Rossetti's fictive "exercitives," or dramatic vocalizations of urging, advising, and warning, through their varying tones of urgency, characteristically evoke a context or world of danger, threat, mystery, and existential uncertainty. The textual pleasure experienced by the reader of such poems is to be provisionally situated in a universe where choice is required, but available options are both limited and uncertain in result. This approach foregrounds what Walter Pater had heard in Rossetti's poetry, "an accent unmistakably novel," the reality of "one man's own proper speech."5

Thus it is not surprising that Rossetti, like Eliot, was drawn to the passage in Petronius' Satyricon in which the caged, shrunken, and immortal Cumean Sibyl, instead of predicting the future through divinely inspired exercitive utterances, speaks an enfeebled wish, in response to the question of the Roman boys, "I would die."6 Rossetti's speakers, in the poems I shall consider, are not divinely inspired oracles, but speakers limited by the constraints of a human perspective. As McGann points out, Rossetti favors provisional perspectives. For him "relativity is the permanent rule of order."7 When Rossetti presents a divinely inspired perspective or understanding, he cites or quotes a third person: for example, in his citation of Swedenborg, the "Seer," in #58 of The House of Life, or the quotation of Cassandra's warning at the conclusion of the second Cassandra sonnet, or in the commanding voice of Mary to the [End Page 449] infant Jesus in his sonnet on Michelangelo's Holy Family.

Rossetti's early interest in first person exercitive speech acts can be seen in the three "Choice" sonnets, written in 1848, first published in 1870 and as sonnets #71-73 in the 1881 edition of The House of Life (Writings, p. 499). The addressee of each sonnet is warned that he shall die and then urged, respectively, to "Eat thou and drink" (I.1), "Watch thou in fear" (II.1), and "Think thou and act" (III.1), or to live for pleasure, with fear of God, or through resolute action. Rossetti's impersonation in these three sonnets of contradictory exercitive locutions suggests that the speech acts of warning and urging were attractive to him not so much for the content of their advice, but for the possibilities of dramatic vocalization these speech acts offered. Nevertheless, it is apparent that the first (Carpe Diem) and the third (Carlylean) options were for Rossetti more urgent and compelling than the second religious option, since the first and third "Choice" sonnets are the most transgressive in content of more culturally normalized moral directives.

In "The Choice I" the addressee is characterized as the speaker's female beloved whose "sultry hair" (l. 4) has fallen upon his face. Inspired by this physical intimacy, the speaker requests/urges her to loosen him from her hair that they might share a glass of "golden wine" (l. 5) and, in the sestet, might kiss rather than pursue "Vain gold, vain lore" (l. 11). In "The Choice III" the addressee is not specifically identified, though the physical site of the speech act, the sea shore, is...


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pp. 449-458
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