Pencil, approximately 19 x 16 inches. Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham, England.
Rossetti told his friend Frederick Stephens in a letter that this drawing is based on "Shakespeare's great line To be or not to be, that is the question" (Gizzi 17). The idea of the dying young man seems also to have been inspired by the death of Oliver Madox Brown, the son of Rossetti's good friend Ford Madox Brown, in 1874; "Nolly" was only nineteen when he died. In another place in a letter to Stephens, Rossetti says that the youth in the drawing shadows forth "the mystery of early death, one of the hardest of all impenetrable dooms" (Gizzi 18). His son's death was devastating for Brown, and he wrote to Rossetti, "It is over and the poor boy is at rest again--I shall have much to tell you some day . . . His agony was like a poem throughout . . . he seemed to weave up his sufferings and the anguish of his relatives into a beautiful romance. One of the last things he uttered was 'Courage, father, you'll need it tomorrow'" (Newman 171). Rossetti's expression of sympathy for Brown was a sonnet that begins "O broken promises that showed so fair!"
The link between this picture and the play may be tenuous, but the figures in the drawing, like Hamlet, find no answer to the great question, "To be or not to be." Like Hamlet, too, Rossetti suggests that "The rest is silence." In a letter to Jane Morris in March, 1875, Rossetti explicates the meaning of his "design":
I have been finishing the Sphinx design I spoke of, and shall enjoy showing it to you. The idea is that of Man questioning the Unknown, and I shall call it either 'The Question' or 'The Sphinx and her Questioner', but I think on the whole the shorter title is the better. In the design, a youth, a mature man, and an old man, have made their way up a rocky ascent to a platform embowered in laurels which is the shrine of the Sphinx. The youth has fallen in death before he can question the oracle,--the man peers into her eyes with his question, but they have no answer, staring at the unseen sky beyond the horizon of the picture--a creek of sea hemmed in with sharp rocks and having only the image of the moon reflected in its centre. Meanwhile the old man still toils up towards the Sphinx, eager to the last for her secret. (Bryson 37)
Rossetti wrote two sonnets (dated 1882) to accompany the drawing. He had in mind a plan to publish a volume of poetry entitled The Question, with the design as a frontispiece. The poems were printed privately, but otherwise unpublished.
(For a design)
This sea, deep furrowed as the face of Time,
Mirrors the ghost of the removed moon;
The peaks stand bristling round the waste lagune;
While up the difficult summit steeply climb
Youth, Manhood, Age, one triple labouring mime;
And to the measure of some mystic rune
Hark how the restless waters importune
These echoing steeps with chime and counter-chime.
What seek they? Lo, upreared against the rock
The Sphinx, Time's visible silence, frontleted
With Psyche wings, with eagle plumes arched o'er.
Ah, when those everlasting lips unlock
And the old riddle of the world is read,
What shall man find? or seeks he evermore?
Lo the three seekers! Youth has sprung the first
To question the Unknown: but see! he sinks
Prone to the earth--becomes himself a sphinx,--
A riddle of early death no love may burst.
Sorely anhungered, heavily athirst
For knowledge, Manhood next to reach the Truth
Peers in those eyes; till haggard and uncouth
Weak Eld renews that question long rehearsed.
Oh! and what answer? From the sad sea brim
The eyes o' the Sphinx stare through the midnight spell,
Unwavering,--man's eternal quest to quell:
While round the rock-steps of her throne doth swim
Through the wind-serried wave the moon's faint rim,
Sole answer from the heaven invisible.
(Rossetti, Letters, 4:1952-53)
This is another description of the drawing from a letter to F. G. Stephens; it adds a few details that are not in the letter to Jane Morris. The design shows three Greek pilgrims, and
in the distance, between sharp rocks on either side, in a difficult creek of the sea, is seen the ship which has brought them from afar to the nearest navigable point, & thence they have clambered over the crags to the elevated rocky platform on which the sphinx is enthroned in motionless mystery, her bosom jutting out between the gaunt limbs of a rifted laurel-tree, & her lion-claws planted against them. The youth about to put his question, falls in sudden swoon from the toils of the journey & the over-mastering emotion; the man leans forward over his falling body and peers into the eyes of the sphinx to read her answer; but those eyes are turned upward and fixed without response on the unseen sky which is out of the picture & only shows in the locked bay of quivering sea a cold reflection of the Moon. Meanwhile the old man is seen still labouring upwards and about in his turn to set foot on the platform, eager to the last for that secret which is never to be known. (Gizzi 17)