Academic journal article Style

Pre-Facing Simile Vehicles in Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Sonnets

Academic journal article Style

Pre-Facing Simile Vehicles in Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Sonnets

Article excerpt

1

Of late the distinction between metaphor and simile has been blurred. Janet Soskice writes: "... the presence of a 'like' is an aspect of superficial grammar, and in no way impedes meaning. In such cases metaphor and simile, while textually different are functionally the same" (59). The key distinction is not between metaphor and simile, Soskice argues, but between "illustrative simile, and modeling simile or metaphor." It is the latter that presents "a subject that is reasonably well known" to explain "a state of affairs beyond our grasp," whereas the former "compares point to point, two known entities" (60). Thus, what Soskice refers to as the "epistemic distance" (60) between vehicle and topic is greater in a modeling than in an illustrative simile. The most effective and original modeling similes, as Eva Kittay explains, are those that "involve a comparison across distinct and incongruent domains or semantic fields" (191)--for example, Donne's well known comparison of two spatially separated but spiritually joined lovers to the two feet of a geometric compass at the conclusion of "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning." Lovers and compasses occupy two distinct semantic fields and are, therefore, "domain incongruent" (Kittay 191) and are characterized by "a lack of shared, salient predicates" (Ortony 351). In this essay I identify and analyze a signature stylistic and epistemic move in Dante Gabriel Rossetti's sonnets. In ten of them he opens the sonnet with an as clause that constitutes the vehicle of a domain incongruent simile. In eight instances the necessary so clause, the topic half of the simile, is deferred to the ninth line or sestet of an Italian sonnet. (1)

To begin poems with an epistemically distant simile vehicle is itself unusual, though an as/so binarism fits neatly into the binary structure of the sonnet. Shakespeare uses it twice in his sonnets: in sonnet 23, "As an unperfect actor on the stage," and in sonnet 37, "As a decrepit father takes delight." But in these two instances the so clause is not deferred until the ninth line (in 23 to the fifth, in 37 to the third), and, since actors and fathers are used to illustrate the speaking I and since Shakespeare himself was both an actor and father, the vehicle and topic of these similes are not markedly domain incongruent as is the case in Rossetti's as/so sonnets. In Hopkins's "The Caged Skylark," the first line, "As a dare-gale skylark scanted in a dull cage," is immediately followed by the implied so clause in the second line, "Man's mounting spirit in his bone-house, mean-house, dwells." For Hopkins all things--"There lives the dearest freshness deep down things"(2) share a divine "instress" and, therefore, in his world there are no domain incongruent entities. All being is congruent; hence the catalogue of analogies in his sonnet "As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Dragonflies Draw Flame." Significantly, Tennyson removed in subsequent editions the radically domain divergent simile vehicle that opens the 1832 version, in Poems, of "A Dream of Fair Women." The first two stanzas (eight lines) develop the vehicle of a man sailing in a balloon--"As when a man that sails in a balloon / Downlooking sees the solid shining ground"--that is employed to figure the topic of a poet "at his will" gazing upon "the great world" and its "secret splendours." Nevertheless, it is Tennyson's sonnet "As When We Muse and Brood," also first published in the 1832 Poems, and republished as Juvenalia in 1872, that may have been a model for the as/so sonnets of Rossetti. As in eight of Rossetti's sonnets, it begins with an extended simile vehicle of eight lines that treats a moment of perceptual intensity and strangeness. The generalized perception of deja vu in the octet is employed by the speaker to explain his specific perception of deja vu in the company of his friend: "So friend, when first I looked upon your face / ... Methought I had often met with you." Here deja vu is the domain of both the prefacing simile vehicle and the subsequent simile topic, which, as we shall see, is contrary to Rossetti's practice. …

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