Dante Gabriel Rossetti's ‘Superscription’ comments on precisely the precariousness, discussed in the previous chapter, of the search for a moment of painterly atemporality in poetic form. Invoking in its title the physical relationship between poem and painting, the poem meditates on artistic mode. This poem was written in 1869 and published in a sequence of sixteen sonnets in the Fortnightly Review (March 1869), before being included in the ‘sonnets and songs’ of ‘House of Life’ in the Poems of 1870. The octave starts by invoking a portrait: ‘look in my face’. This figure seems to represent time or death: ‘might-have-been’, ‘no-more’, ‘too-late’, ‘Farewell’. The ‘dead-sea shell’ and mirror held by the figure give intimations of mortality and of ‘life's form’ reduced to ‘shaken shadow intolerable’. The sestet mirrors the opening with the command to look at the figure (‘mark me’), but this time the figure seems to represent the stillness and calm of the Mona Lisa (‘still’, ‘lulls’, ‘peace’), rather than the temporal movement of the octave. The shift between octave and sestet suggests that, however much the painting depicts the ravages of time and death, a picture is ultimately a still moment, governed by spatial organisation and not temporal movement. By implication, however much the text tries to take on the qualities of the painting, it is still ultimately governed by temporal movement. The lyric cannot transcend time, even through ekphrasis. This message is in the metre as the iambic pentameter figures the relentless swell of the sea, and the poem itself becomes the sea-shell held to the reader's ear to give the sound of time passing, of mortality. ‘Life's foam-fretted feet’, cast up between the shell and ear, are the toes that feel the fret, or lap, of the continual advance of the foam-tipped waves as a constant reminder of mortality; but they are also the metrical feet, themselves undulating in iambic waves to convey to the ear the irrepressible momentum of time. However much the painting embodies stillness, the poem's metrical structure marches on in time, marking the creep of mortality with every foot.
The poem might be seen to highlight, then, the impossibility that Lessing saw as inherent in the ekphrastic project, but in doing so it highlights the nineteenth-century lyric's own impossible struggle with being both in time and out of time.