An analysis of ‘Sudden Light’, a poem by Pre-Raphaelite poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti
‘Sudden Light’ was written by Pre-Raphaelite poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) in the early 1850s, and published in the 1863 volume Poems: An Offering to Lancashire. (It’s the only time poems have been offered to Lancashire in this way, at least that we can recall.) However, the poem as it is usually reprinted is a slightly later version, with a different final stanza. The poem cited below is the later version of ‘Sudden Light’, which appeared in the 1881 volume Poems: A New Edition. What follows, then, is the poem, followed by our analysis of its meaning and language.
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.
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.
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?
The poem begins in a state of déjà vu: the poet thinks he has been here before, or at least so it seems (‘But when or how I cannot tell’). Things appear familiar, yet they are new. This ‘knowledge’ comes to the speaker all of a sudden: the ‘veil did fall’ suddenly, and it all stood plain as day – they have known each other before, he and his lover (‘You have been mine before’). Perhaps in a past life? ‘I knew it all of yore.’ What might seem slightly odd (like a stranger coming up to you in a bar and saying they feel such a connection to you) is transformed into something more striking and profound, especially as the strange familiarity of the speaker’s feelings about his lover turns to outright doubt in the third and final stanza.
The meaning of ‘Sudden Light’ becomes clearer when the poem is placed in the broader context of The House of Life, a sequence of poems concerned with death (despite the title) which Rossetti worked on for a number of years. The final stanza of ‘Sudden Light’, then, is about seeing the image of a dead lover in the face of a new love – this is how ‘day and night’ might ‘yield one delight’, because the ‘day’ of the living woman merges with the memory or ghost of the dead lover (the ‘night’). Some readers might find this a little creepy. Indeed, it’s oddly like Jocelyn Pierston’s search for the elusive ‘well-beloved’ in Thomas Hardy’s novel of that name.
Indeed, the whole poem is a curious blend of certainty (‘I have been here before’) and uncertainty (‘Has this been thus before?’). There is something phantasmal or dreamlike about the scene being described. Here Rossetti’s use of the word ‘light’ is intriguing – enlightening, we might say. The word ‘light’, announced in the title of the poem, appears in ‘lights’ in the first stanza but then doesn’t appear again, though it threatens to reappear – like a shaft of sunlight through the curtains – at several points in the poem’s final stanza: ‘flight‘, ‘lives’, and ‘delight‘ (‘delight’ wringing the spite out of ‘despite’ in the previous line). But there is no more light; there is only a growing darkness.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Portrait of Dante Gabriel Rossetti at 22 years of age, by William Holman Hunt; Wikimedia Commons.