The Blessed Damozel

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1847-1870
Date: 1871-1881
Subject: The foundational Rossettian subject of the emparadised woman is in this case imagined as dreaming downward, as it were, to her lover who remains alive in the world. This imagination of the damozel is here structured as the “dream-vision” of the lover himself.
Rhyme: a4b3c4b3d4b3
Meter: sestet, iambic; alternating trimeter and tetrameter
Genre: ballad


There is a vast amount of scholarship devoted to this work. Key documents are:

◦ Baum, “The Blessed Damozel”.

◦ Bentley,“A Young Man's Fantasy”.

◦ Faxon, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 207-209.

◦ Fredeman, “Rossetti's ‘The Blessed Damozel’”.

◦ Gregory, “Life and Works of DGR” vol. 2, 105-107, 113, 119-120.

◦ Howard, The Dark Glass, 40-49.

◦ Mahoney,“Work, Lack, and Longing: Rossetti's 'The Blessed Damozel' and the Working Man's College”.

◦ Marillier, DGR: An Illustrated Memorial, 175, 188-190.

◦ Mégroz, Painter Poet of Heaven in Earth, 167-169.

◦ Olivero,“Il Petrarca e Dante Gabriele Rossetti”.

◦ Rees, Poetry of DGR, 63-65.

◦ Riede, DGR and the Limits of Victorian Vision, 82-85.

◦ Sharp, DGR: A Record and a Study, 335-339.

◦ Stephens, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 84-88.

◦ Stein, Ritual of Interpretation, 147-153.

◦ Surtees, A Catalogue Raisonné vol. 1, 141-145.

◦ Vogel, DGR's Versecraft, 91-111.


Editorial glosses and textual notes are available in a pop-up window. Line numbering reflects the structure of the 1881 Edition text.

Scholarly Commentary


The Blessed Damozel is DGR's single most important literary work. It constitutes DGR's most important (and evolving) interpretation of his Dantean inheritance. He was involved with it for nearly the whole of his working life: in 1847 he produced the first textual state of the work, a poem that went through a great many subsequent revisions and changes. Then in 1871 he began work on the pictorial rendering of the subject, and he continued to work on studies and different versions of this picture for the next ten years. As a “double work of art” it is unusual in DGR's corpus because the poems preceded the pictorial treatments.

The poem operates at three levels, or from three points of vantage: the damozel's (from heaven), the lover's (from his dream-vision), and the lover's (from his conscious reflection). The last of these is signalled in the text by parentheses, which enclose the lover's thoughts on the vision of his desire.

The pictures of course have their own integral meanings, but they should also be seen as “readings” of their precursive texts. The composite body of texts and images makes up a closely integrated network of materials; it is a network, moreover, that stands as an index of DGR's essential artistic ideals and practises.

Textual History: Composition

DGR seems to have written the poem (in its first version) in 1846-47—the exact date is uncertain but we judge it was prior to September 1847 partly from what DGR himself told his mother in May 1873 (see Family Letters vol. 2, 293 ) and partly from WMR's various comments on the work (see both Works [1911] page 673 and DGR as Designer and Writer page 126 ). That early text appears not to have survived (but see below, Printing History) but it formed part of the group of poems DGR called Songs of the Art Catholic , according to William Bell Scott (Autobiographical Notes vol. 1, 245).

The Pierpont Morgan MS text may be a memorial reconstruction of the original 1846-47 text that DGR subsequently revised in 1850. The Morgan MS text was copied by DGR and given to the Brownings as a gift, in 1855.

Textual History: Revision

After its initial composition in 1846-47, the poem was revised and augmented in January 1850 as it was being prepared for publication in The Germ : on 25 January WMR notes in his PRB diary that “Gabriel finished up his Blessed Damosel, to which he added two stanzas”. On the 26th and the 28th he added yet two more stanzas (Fredeman, The P.R.B. Journal, 47-48).

The poem was further revised through its various textual states between its publication in no. 2 of The Germ and its printing in the 1870 Poems . The only record of revisions that survives, however, is what can be traced through the 1870 prepublication states of the poem. The proof for the first edition of the 1870 Poems —which is the last of the prepublication states of that book—shows major revisions. This proof was pulled around 1 March 1870 and it reflects a late discussion of the poem by DGR and Swinburne, who agreed on various revisions—notably the removal of the italics that were marking the poet's moments of reflection in the poem (see Doughty and Wahl, Letters vol. 2, 798 ; and Gosse and Wise, Letters of Swinburne vol. 2, 99 ). At that point the revision process largely ended, though a few changes do appear in later texts. The most notable of these is the new stanza 7 that DGR revised for the sixth edition of the 1870 volume. The printer's copy manuscript for this correction is in the Troxell Collection at Princeton.

Production History

The Fogg painting was“[c]ommissioned by William Graham in Feb. 1871 and finished in 1877. On 31 Dec. 1877 Graham asked for the predella to be added, which was executed in five or six weeks” ( Surtees, A Catalogue Raisonné vol. 1, 142 ). Early in 1878 DGR retouched areas of the picture and put the two sections in the frame. The Leyland replica (Lady Lever Art Gallery) was “begun at about the same time as the Fogg version. The artist was still working on it in April 1879, and it remained in his hands until the beginning of 1881, when Leyland bought it. . . . The heads of three child-angels are substituted for the lovers embracing in the background; the child below the Damozel has now been omitted” ( Surtees, 144 ).

Several finished drawings and studies for details in the picture are important in their own right. Most significant are the Tate's Sancta Lilias (done in 1874) and the Fogg's drawing of the embracing lovers (from 1876).


This is one of DGR's signature works and it was recognized as such very early. The numerous early printings of the poem testify to its importance and its recognition, as does the Morgan manuscript , which shows the kind of interest the poem already had attracted by 1855. The critical and scholarly literature on the poem is extensive.


DGR's picture is an erotic variation on a distinctively Venetian style of representing the enthroned Virgin Mary, i.e., at half-length. In the traditional pictures, the Virgin usually holds the Christ child, and is surrounded by attendant angels and saints. Here the child is absent, although his surrogate in DGR's painting is clearly the damozel's lover, pictured in the predella. The saints and angels of tradition are refigured as the group of embracing lovers (or as the child-angels put in the Leyland replica). The lover in DGR's predella also recalls the votive figures that appear in any number of public or domestic votive Madonnas, where the picture is made an offering for some public or private mercy. The votaries typically appear at the feet of the Madonna (if it is full length), or in some corner or lowly place that suggests the votary's humility. DGR's picture, while clearly personal in its votive aspect, necessarily also carries a public and even political significance: for in the context of DGR's programmatric Pre-Raphaelite ideals, the damozel (like Dante's Beatrice) is a guiding personal and social emblem. Important precursors of DGR's version of this widely dispersed treatment of the Madonna would be Simone Martini's Maestà fresco (1315), Dürer's various woodcuts, and Cimabue's celebrated Trinita Madonna (ca. 1270) in the Uffizi, which has come to stand as an index of the change from a Byzantine style of treatment to a more human and sympathetic style.

Printing History

The text of the poem underwent a continuous process of alteration up to the final (1881) text published in DGR's lifetime. DGR originally intended to have it printed (in 1846 or 1847) in the family magazine Hodgepodge , as he recollected in a letter to his mother in May 1873. That event did not come about, however, for the private periodical—initiated in 1843—was not revived in those years. So the poem was first published in The Germ no. 2 (Feb. 1850); again in The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine (1856). William Heeley invited DGR to contribute to theOxford and Cambridge Magazine, probably in the late summer or fall of 1855. (See Grylls, Portrait of Rossetti, 61 .) The poem also appears in the 1869 proofs and trial books for the 1870 edition of Poems , in different positions; first collected in a published edition in the Poems of 1870 and thereafter. Also, the 1870 text of the first four stanzas appears on the frame (designed by Rossetti) of Rossetti's oil painting of The Blessed Damozel. Two interesting minor (variant) texts were published (in the United States) between 1856 and 1870: The Crayon (May 1858), 124-25 and The New Path (Dec. 1863), 103-4 . Both derive from the 1856 printing.

Thus four basic versions of the poem survive, with the (lost) 1846-47 original text comprising a possible fifth. To summarize the complex structural differences we assign stanza numbers from the received (1881) version, whose sequence was established in the 1870 edition of the Poems . The four versions are 1. the Germ text (1850), 25 stanzas (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 6.1, 7, 8, 9, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 16.1, 16.2, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 22.1, 23, 24); 2. the Pierpont Morgan manuscript text (1855), 20 stanzas (sts. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 9, 18, 19, 21, 22, 23, 24); 3. the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine text (1856), 23 stanzas (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 11, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24); 4. the 1870 Poems text, 24 stanzas (1-24). DGR made numerous local revisions, including important revisions while the 1870 text was in press and after its first edition appeared.

An untraced manuscript containing 13 of the received 24 stanzas was sold at Sotheby's on 1 May 1914. The manuscript (“containing many alterations from the printed version”) consisted of stanzas 1-5, 12-13, 18-23. This manuscript sequence might represent the now lost 1846-1847 original text of the poem.


The most important pictorial connection is of course DGR's own painting after the ballad, done in the 1870s. The poem generally recalls various paintings of the Assumption and more especially the Coronation of the Virgin. Rossetti's eroticism radically transforms such materials, however. Faxon (209) compares the work to Botticelli's Mystic Nativity .


The poem scatters all kinds of Catholic, and in particular medieval, trappings—especially religious trappings. In all this it picks up on the contemporary enthusiasm for the Gothic, on one hand, and for the revivial of interest in Marian lore and mythology, which appears throughout DGR's work. The poem's presentation of an imagined passage through levels of heaven (lines 73-132) distinctly recalls various forms of the so-called ladder of perfection. The idea of a heavenly hierarchy of intercessors for the grace of God—with the Blessed Virgin as “the Mediatrix of All Grace”—is deeply medieval. As with so much of Rossetti's work, in particular at this early period, Dante's La Vita Nuova is a key point of departure, along with the other stil novisti writings that DGR was translating in the late 1840s and that he eventually gathered in his book The Early Italian Poets (1861).


The principal source is generally Dantean, and especially the material that centers in the Vita Nuova . The most revealing passage is probably the famous canzone “Donne ch'avete intelletto d'amore” which comes in section XIX. The canzone treats the position that Beatrice, the emparadised beloved, has in relation both to mortal creatures, including Dante, and the beings of heaven, including God.

Rossetti's approach is strongly eroticized in both the poetical and pictorial treatments of his subjects. This difference from Dante seems to explain DGR's comment of 1848 in a letter to his aunt Charlotte Polidori:“Where Hunt, in his kind letter [to DGR, 31 March 1848] speaks of my ‘Dantesque heavens’ he refers to one or two of the poems the scene of which is laid in the celestial regions, and which are written in a kind of Gothic manner which I suppose he is pleased to think belongs to the school of Dante” ( Doughty and Wahl, Letters vol. 1, 39 ). DGR seems to be distinguishing “the school of Dante”, where love is radically sublimated, from those other “Gothic” poets of love who preserve the “fleshly” character of the relation. For the poem is pervaded by many features of various stil novisti poets, including Cavalcanti, Jacopo da Lentino, Cino da Pistoia, and Ciullo d'Alcamo, all translated by Rossetti. See for example d'Alcamo's “Dialogue. Lover and Lady” , which probably gave DGR the model for his poem's metrical scheme; and see also Lentino's “Sonnet. Of his Lady in Heaven” and Cino's “Canzone. To Dante Alighieri” for more secular imaginations of emparadised lovers. Finally, Petrarch's influence is apparent in a general way; particularly apposite are Rime sparse nos. CCLXXIX, CCLXXXV, CCLXXXVI, and CCCII.

Other important sources include the book of Revelation; Philip James Bailey'sFestus , which Rossetti was reading repeatedly when he was composing his poem, and which features the separation of the title character from his beloved and emparadised Angela; and E. A. Poe's “The Raven” , which Rossetti told Hall Caine (in 1881) had inspired the poem: “I saw that Poe had done the utmost it was possible to do with the grief of the lover on earth, and so I determined to reverse the conditions, and give utterance to the yearning of the loved one in heaven”(Caine, Recollections, 284 ). The poem may owe just as much to Poe's “To One in Paradise” , however, which also deals with “the grief of the lover on earth”. DGR's fascination with Poe and in particular “The Raven” appears very clearly in the drawings he made for Poe's poem.

DGR may have borrowed the stanzaic form from Elizabeth Barrett Browning's “Poet's Vow” .


Begun as a stil novist exercise, the poem later assumed a distinct autobiographical dimension as the figure of the damozel opened itself to parallels with Elizabeth Siddal whom he met in 1849 and married in 1860. Her death in February 1862 translated her to the heaven figured in Rossetti's poem. Devoted as he was to her, or at any rate to his image of her, Rossetti became haunted by her ghostly presence—a haunting all the more powerful because of Rossetti's remorse over his infidelities to Siddal before and during their marriage.

Electronic Archive Edition: 1
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