‘Sudden Light’ by Dante Gabriel Rossetti was written in the early 1850s. It was not published until Rossetti’s volume, Poems: An Offering to Lancashire was released. Rossetti chose to separate the text into three stanzas of five lines, or quintains. He has also structured them with a consistent rhyme scheme that follows a pattern of ababa cdcdc efefe. This looping pattern ties in directly with the theme of repetition which is present in the text.
A reader should also take note of the use of indention. The line indention corresponds with the end rhymes. For example, all the “-ell” end rhyme lines of the first stanza are moved inward. This choice helps to emphasize the sing-song like sound pattern.
Rossetti also makes use of repetition in the phrases he uses. For instance, the first line of each of the three stanzas utilizes the word “before.” They all speak on the remembering of a certain experience which seems to be happening again.
Summary of Sudden Light
The poem begins with the speaker stating that he knows he has “been here before.” By the end of the first stanza, it is clear that “here” is in a house near the ocean. There are no further details provided as to the precise location. More importantly, the scene is who he is with.
The sights, sounds, and smells of the scene reminded of something he can’t quite place. He comes to the conclusion that he has lived this moment before alongside the intended listener of ‘Sudden Light’.
In the second stanza, he describes two moments that happen simultaneously. These are the flight of a swallow and the turning of his listener’s neck. They confirm to him that yes, he has seen these sights and felt these same feelings before.
In the final lines, he turns to his listener and asks, mostly rhetorically, if it is possible for their love to overcome death. He feels the two have a connection that could last beyond day and night, or life and death.
Analysis of Sudden Light
I have been here before,
But when or how I cannot tell:
I know the grass beyond the door,
The sweet keen smell,
The sighing sound, the lights around the shore.
In the first stanza of ‘Sudden Light’, the speaker begins by describing a moment of deja vu. He knows with a degree of certainty that he has “been here before.” The following lines will provide the reader with some of the details of the setting, but one will never know for sure where exactly he is.
Although he is sure he has been “here before” he is unable to recall “when or how” that could be the case. He “cannot tell” under what circumstances he could’ve found himself “here” previously.
There are certain elements of the scene that trigger his memories. The first is a smell. Somewhere in the distance, “beyond the door” he can detect the smell of “grass.” So far the scene is a pleasant one. This is furthered by the following lines that describe the grass as having a “sweet keen smell.” It is one he wants to reach out to, and experience more of.
The final line of the first stanza adds other elements to his experience. There is the “sighing sound” of the water and the sight of the “lights around the shore.” He has now gone through smell, sound, and sight. His senses are being triggered by all manner of stimuli. Additionally, the reader is now able to place him within a building of some kind near the ocean.
You have been mine before,—
How long ago I may not know:
But just when at that swallow’s soar
Your neck turned so,
Some veil did fall,—I knew it all of yore.
In the second stanza, the speaker directs his words to his intended listener. This person is the one who is making the moment as special as it is. He begins with another recollection. That the listener has been here “before.” He feels as if the two of them have been in this place, belonging to one another, for more moments than he initially thought.
Once again he is unsure of the exact details, or how this could be possible. All the same, he is able to pick out elements of the scene that remind him of a past experience. There is the movement of the “swallow” as it “soar[s]” through the air. He sees this at the same time as he sees the listener turn their “neck…so.” These memories he has are coming together through the simplest of actions. While the movement of his listener’s neck might seem like an unimportant action, he is deeply moved by it.
The stanza concludes with the speaker describing how when he saw these two actions happening at the same time, something changed. There was a “veil” over the scene that fell away. He can now see everything clearly and know that it all happened before.
Has this been thus before?
And shall not thus time’s eddying flight
Still with our lives our love restore
In death’s despite,
And day and night yield one delight once more?
In the final stanza, he goes on to ask the listener for their opinion of what is happening. He asks if things have happened before as they do now. It is clear he wants to be validated in his new understanding of their time together. It is important for the listener to share at the moment.
In the final four lines of this piece, the speaker asks a long and somewhat complicated question. He is concerned with the further progression of time. This new connection between the two of them makes him think that they are going to be able to overcome time. Perhaps, he poses, death will not be able to destroy their love. He hopes that no matter if it is night or day, life or death, the two will still remain together.
The moments of deja vu and otherworldly connections give him faith that their love can last much longer than any others.