Sonnet LXXVII or “Soul’s Beauty” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti is a variation on a Petrarchan sonnet or Italian sonnet composed of an octave (two groups of four lines), rhyming ABBAABBA, and a sestet (two groups of three lines), rhyming CDCDCD. Unlike a Shakespearean sonnet, the Italian sonnet does not close with a couplet, but the second half of the poem gives a resolution to the first. This particular sonnet, rather than giving an answer, resolves with a spiritual commitment to aestheticism as a religious obsession.
The poem begins with the speaker coming upon the embodiment of Beauty. She is surrounded and protected by “Terror…mystery” as well as “love and death.” These elements of like are all a part of Beauty and she sits, enthroned under “the arch of Life.”
It is immediately clear that the speaker revers Beauty in all “her” forms and has a kind of religious fervor related to the manifestations of her. She, the speaker says, controls all those around her. Controlling and watching, like a God. Those that follow her bend to her every whim, and will do whatever it takes to find her. They trail behind her, with the beating of their footsteps and hearts right on her heels.
Analysis of Sonnet LXXVII
Under the arch of Life, where love and death,
Terror and mystery, guard her shrine, I saw
Beauty enthroned; and though her gaze struck awe,
I drew it in as simply as my breath.
Rossetti begins “Sonnet LXXVII” by painting a picture of a scene containing the embodiment of Life and Beauty. His speaker describes a time in which he came upon, “the arch of Life.”
The reader might imagine that Rossetti’s speaker was out walking, perhaps in the woods (as if often the case in poetry), and is considering the foliage above him. The arching treetops form essential, an arch of Life.
Under this arch is all manner of creatures, living and dead. Additionally, one can find “Terror and mystery” who guard the shrine on which “Beauty” is “enthroned.”
Rossetti is laying out the contrasts of life. One cannot have a life without death, and the companions, terror, and mystery go hand in hand. These facts of life are all united by one common force, Beauty. It is evident that Rossetti holds both life and death to be beautiful, as well as the terrors and mysteries of life. It is important to note that Beauty is said to be enshrined as if this part of life is more important than all others. This fact is essential to understanding the sonnet as well as Rossetti’s writings and paintings.
After stumbling upon this place and gazing with “awe” at what he has seen, the reader might assume that Rossetti’s speaker is star struck. Unable to comprehend what he has seen— it is exactly the opposite. He takes in beauty, breathes in the sight of her as if it is just another breath.
She is already a part of his life. He experiences beauty every day, she is not a shock to his mind.
Hers are the eyes which, over and beneath,
The sky and sea bend on thee,—which can draw,
By sea or sky or woman, to one law,
The allotted bondman of her palm and wreath.
Rossetti uses the next lines of “Sonnet LXXVII” to give the reader further detailing concerning who Beauty is and what she’s capable of. She is, as the speaker will describe, almost God-like. Her eyes, as God’s eyes, see everything. They are the ones which “bend on thee” no matter where one goes. She can seek out anyone, “over” the sky, or “beneath” the sea.
Additionally, she controls all desires. In this case, Rossetti may be referring more restrictively to all male desire. All those who are drawn by, or attracted to the “sky or see or [a] woman” are already under her sway. She brings all together under “one law,” her own.
This section of lines concludes by saying that through these things, the sky, sea, and women, a man who is drawn to her becomes “her bondsman.” He will do her bidding— he is completely mesmerized.
This is that Lady Beauty, in whose praise
Thy voice and hand shake still,—long known to thee
By flying hair and fluttering hem,—the beat
Following her daily of thy heart and feet,
How passionately and irretrievably,
In what fond flight, how many ways and days!
“Sonnet LXXVII” concludes with Rossetti’s speaker addressing Beauty. He says, “This” is that lady of whom [I] have been speaking. It is she who causes “Thy” voice and hands to shake. He is describing an observer of Beauty who, overwhelmed by “praise” from her, or perhaps better described as the fulfillment of this desires, trembles.
It is “Lady Beauty” who has long been “known to thee” and recognizable in “flying hair and fluttering hem. She is a force, again similar to God, that is a piece and part of everything that one touches. Beauty could be called this speaker’s religion as it dominates his life in the same omniscient manner.
The speaker then turns to speak of “the beat” that can always be heard trailing after her. This “beat” is that of following footsteps and racing heartbeats. Those that follow after her are said to be fondly in “flight,” and “passionately and irretrievably” obsessed with her. They will follow, no matter the obstacle, in every “way” and on every “day.”
Once more this is a reference to aesthetics as a form of religion. Rossetti’s speaker is following, obsessed by, and in a state of continual worship. He recognizes Beauty in everything he sees.
About Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Dante Gabriel Rossetti was born in 1828 in London, England to Italian parents. When he was young, Rossetti hoped to become a painter and was, along with his siblings, a very talented child. After school Rossetti apprenticed to the painter Ford Madox Brown, as well as independently extending his knowledge and love for literature.
Rossetti is most well-known for his founding of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848, along with a number of other painters. These men shared an interest in poetry and distaste for conventions of Fine Art. Another, and perhaps the best known, member of the group, was John Everett Millais who would become the president of the Royal Academy in London. In the late 1840s, while starting to exhibit his paintings, Rossetti met an Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal who would work as one of his models, and eventually become his wife. She committed suicide in 1862 after losing a child. Rossetti buried the only finished manuscript of his poems along with her body.
Rossetti never completely recovered from “Lizzie’s” death, but his reputation was growing. After her death, Rossetti moved to Chelsea where he began a “more aesthetic and sensuous approach to art.” He no longer painted the themes from the literature he’d loved as a child, but now focused on painting his mistresses. He had published a book of translations, The Early Italian Poets, in 1860 and during this time turned once more to poetry and decided to exhume his manuscript from Elizabeth Siddal’s grave. These poems were published in 1870 under the title, Poems. In 1872 his health began to fail and he spent his time as an invalid in his home in Chelsea. Rossetti died in 1882 after his health took a turn for the worse.