Aspecta Medusa

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1865 October
Date: 1865-1868
Rhyme: pentameter couplets
Meter: iambic
Genre: lyric
Model: Alexa Wilding (Miss Wilding is the model for the head of Andromeda in the most finished of the drawings, i.e., [drawing 1] and [drawing 2].)


◦ Marillier, DGR: An Illustrated Memorial 109-110.

◦ McGann, “The Beauty of the Medusa” (1971), 3-25.

◦ Patterson, “A Terrible Beauty” (1972) 111-120.

◦ Riede, DGR and the Limits of Victorian Vision 101-102.

◦ Roussillon, “The Many Faces of Medusa”, JPRS N.S. 11 (2002), 5-18.

◦ WMR, DGR as Designer and Writer 58.

◦ Surtees, A Catalogue Raisonné I. 106-107.


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

Scholarly Commentary


The work is clearly an allegorical treatment of the subject of art's relation to the world. The message is ominous since DGR leaves only ominous alternatives: either a revelation that would bring destruction, or a dangerous (because illusory) concealment.

The lines were written “as an inscription” to the painting of the same name that was commissioned by C. P. Mathews in July 1867. The oil painting was rejected by Mathews, who disliked the severed head, but several pencil versions survive.

For further commentary see the editorial matter for the pictorial materials.

Textual History: Composition

Until recently it was thought the poem was written in July 1867, just after DGR received the commission for the painting. He sent a copy of the poem in a letter to his mother on 25 July 1867 (see Fredeman, Correspondence, 67. 103 ). But another manuscript is extant in the Wormsley Library's bound volume of letters, poems, and other documents and this is copied on the verso of a page torn from one of DGR's notebooks. The notebook entries on the page date from October 1865.

Production History

The earliest sketch for this picture dates from 1865. Several more finished states were made as drawings for the oil composition, but the latter was never executed because Mathews, who commissioned the work, was unhappy with DGR's conception of the picture (see DGR's letters to Mathews from late 1867 and early 1868, Fredeman, Correspondence, 67. 160 ).

Printing History

The poem was first printed as part of the prepublication texts that DGR put together in 1869, as a prelude to the publication of the 1870 Poems. It was printed in August in the Penkill Proofs, where it formed part of the section of The House of Life poems. DGR moved the poem to the opening Poems section as the prepublication text of the 1870 volume moved into the proofs for the first edition in early March. The poem was first published in the first edition of the 1870 volume.


The version of the story used by DGR (see lines 4-5), in which Perseus overcame the monster by using the Medusa's head, is uncommon, but he probably found his authority for it in Lemprière's Classical Dictionary. “The idea. . .that Andromeda hankered to see the head is apparently his own invention” (see Baum, Poems, Ballads, and Sonnets, 123n ).

Riede (see DGR and the Limits of Victorian Vision (102)) aptly cites Shelley's preface to Alastor and the sonnet “Lift not the painted veil” as precursors of this poem. At least as relevant is Dante, Inferno Canto IX. 52-63.

Electronic Archive Edition: 1
Source File: 1-1865.s183.raw.xml