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  • D. G. Rossetti and Christina Rossetti as Sonnet Writers
  • Isobel Armstrong (bio)

Sonnets and Sun Pictures

Both Rossettis, despite the deep differences John Holmes has pointed out, were audacious writers of sonnets.1 I am writing about two sonnets where the neediness of seeing is paramount, Dante Gabriel Rossetti's first Willowwood sonnet from The House of Life, published in Poems (1870) and the sixth sonnet from Christina Rossetti's Later Life sequence, published in A Pageant and Other Poems (1881), the year her brother's sequence was finalized in Ballads and Sonnets.2

The eye and its scopic intensity seems always to have had an affinity for the sonnet form—witness Shakespeare's "When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see."3 It may be that an insistent attention to seeing arises from the tightly intricate, formal patterning of the sonnet, which appeals specially to the optical sense. One can visibly pack a thought into a restricted space of print. But in the Rossettis' case the act of seeing structures the sonnet down to its minutiae: visuality becomes verbal; every syllable and particle intensifies the visual field and calls up visual meaning as we see what we hear and hear what we see. This happens not only at the level of the represented images in the sonnet but also to the visual field created by the sonnet's scanty plot of ground on the page, where visual "field" and scanty "ground" are one.

This discussion shifts these familiar metaphors from horticulture to visual, specifically photographic, culture, paying attention to the visual field and the ground of figure or image. Dante Gabriel Rossetti called the sonnet "a moment's monument" in the prologue sonnet to The House of Life. This could equally well be an account of the photograph, which monumentalizes a moment. By the time both Rossettis were writing, the light sensitivity of silver compounds, enabling the fixing and printing of the "shadows" of objects and their reversal into prints, was widely known.4 Though a photograph could encompass a discrete "moment" it was never instantaneous, as there were many phases to the making of a "sun picture." The emergence of the virtual image, the process of exposure, and the fixing of the image, all of which could be a lengthy process, meant that the temporality of image-making and the [End Page 461] idea of the print became important concerns, particularly for poets, such as the Pre-Raphaelites, whose aesthetic was pre-eminently visual. The presence of the camera and its technology is not, of course, a literal presence but it is an ontological one. The suggestiveness of these new technologies created an imaginative and aesthetic charge that released new meanings into the culture—of the image, of time, of light and shadow.

The eye dominates the sensoria in premodernist (nineteenth-century) and modernist culture—it was a spectatorial era.5 The mid-nineteenth-century's understanding of seeing saw a move from conceptualizing vision as picture to vision in terms of the sign. Sight is no longer located at the "picture" on the retina, passively received by the eye. Rather, the rods and cones in the black lining of the eye respond to light: the nerve ends respond to infinite stimuli, and this data is interpreted by the brain. The analogy is no longer with the retina as a photographic plate that captures a picture mimetically in its entirety, but moves to a different location with the same photographic metaphor—a light sensitive medium that responds differentially to the chemical action of gradations of light on its surface. The analogy has shifted from glass plate to the chemically treated photographic paper that responds to light with a series of marks and traces. These come into meaning, develop, over time. The marks and traces begin to figure and take form as the moment of the photograph, the particular segment of space and time that it greets, achieves definition. And this coming into being of definition happens twice over as the plate is first exposed and subsequently the print saturated in developing fluid. The act of producing or figuring a photograph is as much a human act...


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