If the sonnet is, as Dante Gabriel Rossetti claimed, “a moment’s monument”, then The House of Life is the record of a lifetime. In this continually growing and changing sequence of poems, Rossetti recorded the subtlest shifts in a life torn between two great doomed passions: his love for his wife, Elizabeth Siddal, whom he married in 1860 but who died only two years later; and his love for his mistress, Jane Morris, who was married to his friend, colleague, and business partner William Morris.
Sixteen sonnets were first published, not in book form, in 1869. In 1870, Rossetti published his first book of poetry, entitled simply Poems. The longest section of the volume was a collection of fifty sonnets and ten songs “Towards a work to be called ’The House of Life’”. Rossetti continued to write poetry throughout the next decade. The bulk of his literary composition occurred in 1870-1872 and in 1879-1881; in 1881 Rossetti published his last book of poetry, entitled Ballads and Sonnets. The longest section of that volume, too, was The House of Life, which grew to 102 sonnets. The cumulative effect of adding, rearranging, and, in one case, deleting verses was to change radically the reading experience of The House of Life; therefore, a full analysis must cover both the 1870 and the 1881 versions of the sonnet sequence.