Soul's Beauty

Alternately titled: Sibylla Palmifera

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1866
Date: 1864-1870
Rhyme: abbaabbacdeedc
Meter: iambic pentamenter
Genre: sonnet


◦ Cooper, Lost on Both Sides 153-154

◦ Doughty, A Victorian Romantic, 346-347, 685

◦ Faxon, Dante Gabriel Rossetti 162-165

◦ Marillier, DGR: An Illustrated Memorial 242-243

◦ Mégroz, Painter Poet of Heaven and Earth. 285-286

◦ Psomiades, Body's Beauty, 119-123

◦ WMR and Swinburne, Notes on the Royal Academy Exhibition, 47-48

◦ WMR, DGR as Designer and Writer, 51-52, 55-56, 90-91, 238-239

◦ Riede, DGR and the Limits of Victorian Vision. 220-221

◦ Sharp DGR: A Record and a Study. 201-203

◦ Stephens, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. 64-65

◦ Surtees, A Catalogue Raisonné I. 111-112(Virginia Surtees. )


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

Scholarly Commentary


Written as a commentary on the painting Sibylla Palmifera (commissioned in 1866), the sonnet represents one of DGR's most important statements of his artistic ideals. But the two works do not integrate well, and while DGR regularly exploited disjunctions between the elements of his various double works of art, in this case the differentials are not especially effective. The problem perhaps lies not so much in the conception as in the execution of the picture, which seems far less successful as an integral work than the sonnet.

The sonnet generates two distinct (if closely related) self-presentations. These correspond to the two main versions of the sonnet: the 1870 text (titled “Sibylla Pamifera (For a Picture)”), and the 1881 text (titled “Soul's Beauty”).

The 1870 sonnet develops a reflection on the specific painting, which (according to the sonnet: lines 4-14) DGR executed as a consequence of the vision he had of “Beauty enthroned” (line 3). The 1881 sonnet, by contrast, offers itself as a general comment on the relation of the artist to the idea of the Beautiful.

The sonnet pivots around two allusions: first, to Dante's Paradiso (line 10); second, to Botticelli (line 11). Dante supplies DGR with a key text for rethinking the relation between imaginative vision and artistic execution; and he suggests, via the Botticelli allusion, that this relation has to be imagined as a continual pursuit: that its achievement comes in and as the pursuit, which is the perpetual execution of one's ideal attachments. Furthermore, by placing Dante and Botticelli in such close textual proximity, DGR effectively recalls their artistic/historical relation—specifically, the relation between Dante's epic poem and the famous series of illustrations that Botticelli produced for it.

In the sonnet, the Dante/Botticelli relation serves as a figural analogue for DGR's own “double work of art”, which is of course being exemplified in this very instance of DGR's work. Here it would be fair to say that the textual work more fully illustrates DGR's ideal of the “double work of art”: for it is the textual work that so brilliantly doubles itself as at once a textual and a pictorial event. The doubling centers in the play DGR makes with the words “drew” and “draw” (lines 4, 6). The most important of DGR's many wordplays (appearing in various texts), it enacts the fusion of a textual act and a pictorial one. That fusion then turns to an emblem off all the equations DGR is committed to: the harmonic unity of Love, Life, Death, Art, Poetry.

Finally, one wants to remember that this sonnet forms a pair with “Lilith (For a Picture)” titled in 1881 “Body's Beauty”. Elena Rossetti Angeli aptly notes that the two sonnets and their accompanying pictures constitute “a new expression of Amor Sacro e Profano of Titian” (see Angeli, DGR con 107 illustrazioni (1906) page 31 . See also DGR's translation of Dante's sonnet on much the same theme, “Of Beauty and Duty”.

Textual History: Composition

DGR wrote the sonnet around May 1866 (see Doughty, A Victorian Romantic 685 ). The Fitzwilliam manuscript is a fair copy made for the 1869-1870 printings; the Delaware manuscript is probably a slightly earlier copy. DGR's pencil note on folio 9 of the Fitzwilliam manuscript reads: “Palmifera and Lilith to be called Soul's Beauty and Body's Beauty”.

Textual History: Revision

Once printed (in 1868), the text remained substantively unchanged thereafter. Its major revision involves its respositioning in DGR's works: in the 1870 Poems the sonnet appears among the “Sonnets for Pictures”, but in 1881 DGR made it a part of The House of Life.

Production History

DGR did several studies for this picture as early as 1864 (see Surtees, A Catalogue Raisonné, I. 112 ), but he did not commence the painting until he received the commission for it in 1866 from George Rae. DGR finished the work in December 1870.

For detailed commentary on the production history see the commentary for the finished oil.


The point of departure for all later responses is Swinburne's essay included as Part II of the Notes on the Royal Academy Exhibition, 1868 (pages 47-48).


The sonnet organizes itself around images of “the principle of Beauty” conceived in the form of idealized woman. More particularly, the octave's “Beauty enthroned” not only references DGR's painting “Sibylla Palmifera”, for which this sonnet was written; it recalls any number of traditional Madonna paintings. The sestet (see line 11) evokes the ideal erotic female figures of Botticelli.

Printing History

First printed in May, 1868 as part of Swinburne's essay included as Part II of the Notes on the Royal Academy Exhibition, 1868, Part II (page 48). Reprinted in September 1869 in the Penkill Proofs for the 1870 volume of Poems, it was eventually published in the Sonnets for Pictures, and Other Sonnets section of the volume. In 1881 DGR printed it as sonnet LXXVII in The House of Life sequence in his Ballads and Sonnets volume.


The sonnet gives a general rendering of the painting which inspired it, Sibylla Palmifera (i.e., the palm-bearing sibyl, a figure of peace and benevolence). The sonnet is thus an interpretation of “the Principle of Beauty”, which DGR called the “conception” of the painting. This principle, he told WMR, “draws all high-toned men to itself, whether with the aim of embodying it in art or only of attaining its enjoyment in life” (see WMR, DGR as Designer and Writer, 56 ).


The phrase “Thy voice and hand shake still” distinctly recalls Dante's Paradiso XIII. 78, which contains the discourse of St. Thomas Acquinas on the material instantiations of perfection. The Dante allusion is important since the passage involves one of his central statements about artistic practise and its relation to the divine sources of vision. The most pertinent section runs from lines 31-87. DGR imagines the relation of Nature to his Beatricean figure (lines 5-8) by reworking Dante's discussion of the heavenly spheres' relation to materialized forms. In effect, DGR interposes the figure of “Lady Beauty” as the presiding heavenly presence. In doing so—it is of course a move he repeatedly makes (most famously in The Blessed Damozel)—DGR once again draws upon his reading of this passage in Dante (lines 79-87), which argues for the perfection of two material human beings: Jesus and his mother, the Blessed Virgin.

Electronic Archive Edition: 1
Source File: 1-1867.s193.raw.xml