A sonnet playfully interested in the subjectivity of beauty contrasted with the certainty of love, Rossetti addresses ideas linked to the proverb ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. The artist’s studio becomes a metaphor for the mind of the devoted lover, filled with pictures of his beloved upon which he ‘feeds’. For the speaker, this muse is regarded with fondness and humour, seen in turns as a capricious child and an elegant maternal figure. This fondness is coupled with a recognition that the pictures are not a true likeness, perhaps in the penultimate line that the subject of the portraits has lost some of her youthful charm. The final line emphasizes, however, that for the ‘artist’ she remains unchanged, and he as devoted as always.
The opening lines of the sonnet see the artist’s muse filling the studio, given a vitality by the fact that all the action is hers, not the viewers’, she ‘looks out’, ‘sits or walks or leans’. Like a nymph in a pastoral comedy, she can be playfully everywhere at once, while line 3 makes her sound like a small child playing hide and seek. Her youthfulness fondly emphasized here might also contain suggestions of vanity, with line 5 seeing her as a lavishly dressed queen. The antithesis between 5 and 6 captures one of the main ideas in the poem, that love can perceive people in any way it likes, just as the artist can paint his muse in different settings and poses. The speaker conveys their endorsement of love’s subjective perception, ‘neither more nor less’ suggests a completeness and perfection in the artist’s love – the ‘one meaning’ of the portraits. The speaker points to the muse’s faults with humour and sympathy, just to show pleasure in the fact that they are invisible to the artist.
For him the woman in the portrait appears almost as a maternal figure, and he shows her something of a child’s devotion. ‘Feeds’ suggests the dependence of a newborn – the speaker’s fond amusement is applied to the ‘artist’ lover as well as his beloved. The simplicity of diction in the poem generally and especially in the monosyllables of line 10 strengthens the sincerity conveyed in ‘true kind eyes’. It is hard to tell whether we see the subject now from the speaker’s perspective or the artist’s. Primarily the latter, but ambiguity suggests to us another of the poem’s themes – that by witnessing love we are influenced and softened to a more idealized perception of that love’s object. So the muse now becomes a celestial being, likened to the moon with light suggesting divinity. She is an authority for the artist where for the speaker she was a child, yet the two viewpoints seem to blend in the latter part of the poem.
The poem offers us glimpses beyond its own discourse in lines 12 and 13. Line 12 implies what 13 explicates, that in reality this woman’s life is more complex and fraught than inferred by the paintings. It implies a larger narrative occurring over time: if the muse was ever once as she is represented, ‘waiting’ and ‘sorrow’ have now made her ‘hope’ ‘dim’. It gives the poem for a moment a beautiful elegiac note, that seems about to continue in the final line by the anaphora. Instead it is countered with an emphatic – though ambiguous – affirmation of her idealized representation and its continued presence in the artist’s mind. The operative word is ‘fills’: in present tense, it returns to the image of her omnipresence that we had in the first lines. For the artist certainly, she remains unchanged.
There is an ambivalence about how we are to view the artist’s love: as idealized and hopeful or as delusional and foolish. The issue of true likeness is played on by the mention of the mirror in line 4. It offers an authentic, honest representation of the painting, the irony being that the painting itself is not a true likeness but an idealized one. One of the themes of the poem brought out here is the difficulty or impossibility of viewing a person objectively, free from the influencing perspectives of others. It is the mirror that ‘gave back all her loveliness’, but the way the mirror circumvents the ‘screens’ to reach the painting behind seems to suggest that on some level this is the most profound, honest representation – the one hidden from the view of casual judgements. The final lines foreground the difficulty of seeing someone ‘as she is’ as opposed to in a ‘dream’, if there is a difference at all.
The overall mood of the poem is playfully fond, generously portraying both artist and subject as devoted and worthy of devotion. However the sonnet also provokes questions about the validity of love’s viewpoint and of beauty which it cannot answer.