[first posted on MyT]
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882) was a poet, painter and founder member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. An Englishman of Italian extraction, he was a colourful character – handsome, passionate, impulsive, eccentric, and immensely likeable. Those who knew him were devoted to him, yet he was plagued by self-doubt – his first book of his own poems wasn’t published till he was almost 42 years old, and, in contrast to his effortlessly brilliant companion John Everett Millais, he struggled to master the paintbrush to his satisfaction.
Rossetti’s love life centred on two women: Lizzie Siddal, whom he eventually married, and Jane – the wife of William Morris – whom he saw as the love of his life but could not have for himself. Lizzie died after an overdose of laudanum in 1862; Rossetti doused his disappointment with alcohol and drugs, triggering a downward spiral that led to his death at the age of 53.
I love this sonnet by Rossetti, called ‘Lost Days’. He wrote it after Siddal’s death, and 20 years later said that it ‘might be … a favourite with me if I did not remember in what but too opportune juncture it was wrung out of me’.
The lost days of my life until today
What were they, could I see them on the street
Lie as they fall? Would they be ears of wheat
Sown once for food but trodden into clay?
Or golden coins squandered and still to pay?
Or drops of blood dabbling the guilty feet?
Or such spilt water as in dreams must cheat
The throats of men in Hell, who thirst alway?
I do not see them here, but after death
God knows I know the faces I shall see,
Each one a murdered self, with low last breath.
‘I am thyself – what hast thou done to me?’
‘And I – and I – thyself’ (lo! each one saith)
‘And thou thyself to all eternity!’