Poems (1870)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1870


◦ Doughty, A Victorian Romantic, 439-504.

◦ Fredeman, Pre-Raphaelitism, 17-19.

◦ Gregory, Life and Works of DGR, Part B, 87-90, 133-137.

◦ Wise, The Ashley Library, IV. 124-135.

◦ Troxell, “The Trial Books”, 177-192.

◦ Fraser, “The Rossetti Collection of Janet Camp Troxell”, 146-175.

◦ Keane, “D. G. Rossetti's ‘Poems 1870’”, 193-209.

◦ Lewis, “Thomas J. Wise and the Trial Books”, 73-87.

◦ Riede, D.G.R. and the Limits of Victorian Vision, 77-104.

◦ Riede, “DGR Revisited, chapter 4.

◦ Ghose, DGR and Contemporary Criticism, 107-164.

◦ Decker, The Victorian Conscience, 63-77.

◦ Buckley, The Victorian Temper, 161-184.

◦ Buchanan, Fleshly School and Other Phenomena.

◦ Cassidy, “Buchanan and the Fleshly Controversy”, 65-93.

◦ McGann, “DGR and the Betrayal of Truth”, in Victorian Poetry 26 (1988) 339-361.

Scholarly Commentary


The idea for this celebrated book began to form in DGR's mind in the fall of 1868 when he stopped painting because of a medical problem with his eyes. He accepted an invitation from Alice Boyd to spend some time at her home, Penkill Castle, in Scotland, where he arrived in late September. His month's stay with William Bell Scott, a close friend of Alice Boyd, turned his mind to his poetical work, and Scott encouraged him to think that “the value of his paintings lay in their poetry, that he was a poet by birth-right, not a painter”. According to Scott, “when we left for London at the end of September he had begun to write out many of his lost poems, his memory being so good. Many loose poems he also had by him in manuscript, and by and by he began to send them to the printer” ( Scott II. 109-110 ). Scott's influence on DGR's project continued: he introduced DGR to John Morley, editor of the Fortnightly Review, in November 1868 in order to help DGR to publish some of his poetry, and he went back with DGR on yet another visit to Penkill Castle in the summer/fall of 1869, where DGR worked diligently on the proofs for his book, again with Scott's assistance.

This book is DGR's most important literary work, and was as well perhaps the most influential book of poetry published in the second half of the nineteenth-century in England. Its impact was enormous, not only for its innovative style—which is what Pater devotedly explicated—but for its revelation of the possibilities of expressive book design. Pater's essay “Dante Gabriel Rossetti” is in large measure a series of meditations upon the explicit and implicit features of this one book.

Although he had published a good deal of his verse in magazines, the 1870 Poems was DGR's first book of original poetry. As such, he labored over its production, which extended from the summer of 1869 to April 1870, when the book was published. The edition was released only after a series of “trial books” and proof printings between July, 1869 and April, 1870. These prepublication printings involved complex changes in the texts of the works collected in this volume: local changes in the poems as well as scalar changes to the volume, including changes in the order and selection of poems. The surviving materials documenting these alterations are quite extensive.

The volume represents the achievement of an intention that DGR had set in motion eight years before, when he planned to publish a book of verse to be titled Dante at Verona, and Other Poems as a companion to his great book of translations published in 1861, The Early Italian Poets. The latter was published, but the death of DGR's wife caused him to cancel his plans to publish the other book. Instead, he gathered the manuscripts of the poems that were to appear in the book and buried them with his wife.

Although DGR wrote a good deal in the summer of 1869 and put his verse into type, the impulse actually to publish a book was supplied by a favorable review of his poetry by H. Buxton Forman in Tinsley's Magazine (September 1869). The review responded to the recent publication of sixteen of DGR's House of Life sonnets in the Fortnightly Review (March 1869). DGR was so pleased with the review (see Fredeman, Correspondence 69. 140 , letter to Shields 27 August 1869) that he began to make plans to recover his buried poems, which was accomplished for him by friends early in October.

The preparations for this book's appearance were meticuluous, not to say obsessive. DGR wrote many new poems and revised repeatedly through a complex series of prepublication printings. He designed every aspect of the book himself, including the cover and endpapers, and he did everything in his power to ensure a favorable reception by reviewers (many of whom were friends or persons he knew would be friendly to him).

Widely and for the most part positively reviewed, the book established DGR as one of the most significant poets writing in England. But it also ignited the famous “Fleshly School” controversy. The center of this was the extremely hostile review of the book published pseudonymously by Robert Buchanan in The Contemporary Review (1871).

This controversy throws into relief the salient fact that the book is DGR's most important literary work. Indeed, it is arguably (this follows Pater's view) the single most important volume of English poetry to be published between Browning's Dramatic Romances and Lyrics (1845) and Yeats's The Wild Swans at Coole (1919)—though Swinburne's astonishing 1866 volume, Poems and Ballads , would vie for this pride of place. Consciously imagined as a kind of Collected Poems, it put on display the full range of DGR's poetical work, both in its formal diversity and in its historical development (from the late 1840s to the very month of its publication). The scope, coherence, and originality of the work is extraordinary. Equally important is its evident and deliberate relation to painting, his own painting in particular, and hence to DGR's invention of what scholars have come to call the “double work of art.” Although this aspect of the book appears explicitly in the section headed Sonnets for Pictures, it pervades the whole of the volume in various ways.

DGR's masterwork, The House of Life, made its first substantial appearance in this book as a set of fifty sonnets plus eleven songs. It was presented in the book as a work-in-progress. He would later alter the sequence considerably, augmenting the sonnets and removing the songs. After the book's publication he also constructed a special group of new sonnets for Jane Morris, who inspired so much of his work.

The House of Life contains most of the poetry that was first written after 1862. It embodies a Dantescan project that would construct and explain the vicissitudes of an artistic life in terms of a myth of love and love's fatalities. As in the case of Dante, the myth is grounded in the poet's personal history. The key person here is certainly DGR's wife, Elizabeth Siddal Rossetti. Almost as important is Jane Morris, the wife of his friend William Morris. Much of DGR's “new poetry” was inspired by his love for Jane Morris—a love that forced him to undertake a root and branch rethinking of the place and meaning of love in his life, including the “loves” of his life.

Textual History: Composition

DGR was composing new poems for the book even as it was passing through its production and proof stages. He was also revising all the poems in the same process, and experimenting with the design and order of the poems. The construction of this book illustrates very clearly the intimate relation, in DGR's case, between composition and revision.

While the poems in this volume were written over many years—from the late 1840s until the month of publication (April 1870)—the book itself was constructed between July 1869 and April 1870. During this period DGR gathered up poems he had written earlier, wrote many new poems, had the texts set up in type in an elaborate series of proofs and so-called Trial Books, revised and re-arranged the materials again and again, and designed the physical features of the book that was to embody his writings.

The process began in July shortly before DGR and W. B. Scott went to visit Alice Boyd at Penkill Castle, Scotland, where DGR received and corrected two sets of the so-called Penkill proofs around 20 August. DGR sent one set back to the printer on 2 September. Two copies of a new set of Proofs (the so-called A Proofs) were delivered to WMR and DGR on the 12th and 13th of September respectively. DGR returned to London with his corrected set, which the printer used to generate (around 20 September) the A2 Proofs. These DGR corrected and returned to the printer, who introduced DGR's further alterations into the next set of preliminary printed texts, the so-called First Trial Book. This was ready around 3 October. Multiple copies of all these materials were printed off at DGR's request and given to his brother or various friends who were being consulted about the poems and revisions.

Although scholars have sometimes deplored the term and the conception of Trial Book, which was first introduced by T. J. Wise, it remains important and useful. The First Trial Book represents an integral work, though not a finished work. It is the work DGR had evolved through the process of writing and re-writing he undertook in the late summer of 1869, before he had finally determined to publish a volume of his original verse. Its exploratory character is clear from his letter of 30 Aug. 1869 to Jane Morris, where he describes the materials he is working with and through. He is already clearly anticipating the possibility of a book publication, but his uncertainties about the work and his ability to bring it to a form he can be happy with are equally clear (see Fredeman, Correspondence 69. 143 ). It is also a book that contains none of the material recovered from his wife's coffin on 5 October. Its integrity is demonstrated by the letter he sent on 8 October to Alicia Losh, which accompanied a copy of the First Trial Book: “I have got the proofs now in a state to which I shall not be adding for at any rate some weeks to come, and so I send them you with this book by post. You will see that Eden Bower, which I began at Ravenside, is among them. . . . I am only giving away three copies (yours, one to Miss Boyd, and another [to Jane Morris]), and have now so made up my mind to publish a volume next spring, that I shall not, as I at first intended, be having any more copies printed for private circulation. . . .”. In fact, DGR had two other copies printed off, one for himself to accommodate the corrections he was making for the next printing, and one for his brother, who continued to help DGR with his work on the texts.

After being given the volume of poetry that he placed in his wife's grave in 1862, DGR began recopying and revising the works he wanted to include in the volume he now meant to publish. Late in October these poems were printed off in a separate set of so-called Exhumation Proofs. At this point DGR made a crucial decision to try to enlist Swinburne as an aide with the evolving book. They exchanged letters at the end of October, and after DGR had once again worked over all of his materials, old as well as new, he sent a set to Swinburne on 26 November. For the next four months the dialogue between DGR and Swinburne had a major effect on determining the character of the 1870 Poems.

DGR did not call for any new proofs until the end of February, although it seems likely that he must have had revises of various things printed off from time to time. On 23 February he wrote WMR that he was sending “my proofs for correction and resetting (as I mean to have only 24 lines in a page instead of 29) and have told them to send a set when done to you at once. . . ” (see Fredeman, Correspondence 70. 33 ). These Proofs for the First Edition were ready early in March. They underwent yet another process of complex correction and revision which did not terminate until shortly before the completed book was published on 26 April.

Roger Lewis enumerates “sixteen distinct proof states of Rossetti's Poems” preceding the publication of the first edition (see Lewis, “T.J. Wise and the Trial Books”, 85-87 ). Along with the various manuscripts, these materials embody the core of the surviving record of DGR s astonishing work on this great volume. Of only slightly less importance in this record is the correspondence DGR carried on with his family (especially WMR), various friends, his printers and his publisher during the year from the spring of 1869 through the spring of the next year.

One other important feature of the book must be mentioned: its physical appearance. DGR designed the book cover-to-cover: page and type design, endpapers, binding. The famous binding design had a great influence on later book design, particularly in the late nineteenth-century. He also sketched an ornament for the title page but this never found its way into the published book.

Textual History: Revision

The process of revision is in this case inseparable from the process of composition (see the commentary for the latter). Elaborate as this process was, one change in the pre-publication text deserves particular notice. When DGR's book of manuscript poems was recovered from Elizabeth's grave, he decided to remove Hand and Soul from the evolving work, and include only verse. This was in certain respects an unfortunate decision, not merely because the tale is such excellent work, but perhaps even more because its conceptual relation to the poetry in the book is so close.

After the publication of the first edition, DGR's book went through six more printings (called editions in the scholarly literature, although only one—the Tauchnitz edition—can properly be called a new edition; the others are reprintings of the first edition with corrections and small changes). Roberts Brothers in the United States took first edition sheets from DGR's publisher and released the book with an American title page.


DGR's prepublication work on this famous book was meticulous not only as regards the poems themselves and the physical appearance of the volume, but on the reception venues—the reviews—that the book was to receive. He did everything in his power to see that it would be widely reviewed, and that as many of these reviews as possible would be authored by friends or friendly critics. His letters beginning in February 1870 show very clearly DGR's intense involvement in the reviewing process. In this effort he was largely successful.

So the 1870 Poems was for the most part positively reviewed, and the book established DGR as one of the most significant poets writing in England.

But not all the reviews were favorable, and the most hostile one ignited the famous “Fleshly School” controversy. The center of this was the review of the book published by Robert Buchanan in The Contemporary Review (1871). Buchanan's critique sparked a series of public exchanges for a number of years, the most important being DGR's own reply “The Stealthy School of Criticism” (The Athenaeum 16 Dec. 1871).

The fame of this book underwent a profound eclipse with the coming of the Modernist Movement, which made the authority of DGR, Pre-Raphaelitism, and the Aesthetic aftermath regular points of critique and attack. Not until the emergence of the counter-critique of Postmodernism were effective means restored for comprehending the importance of this volume of verse, and for the kind of art and poetry it epitomizes.

Printing History

For the complex pre-publication set of printings see the commentary for the work's composition and revision. DGR was able to carry out these elaborate alterations because of the arrangement he had made with his printer (Strangeways & Walden). As he wrote to Jane Morris (30 August 1869), he intended “to have the type of [the] sheets kept up and pay a rent for it. I find from the printer that this would not be very expensive”.

Type for the 1870 Poems was therefore left standing through the printing of all of the pre-publication printed states of the text—that is, through all the proofs and trial books. When the book came to be printed, stereotype plates were made for that event. The bibliographical evidence—in particular, various examples of battered type—strongly suggest that two sets of stereo plates were made, and that the first set was discarded after the first four editions were printed, with the second set being used for the final two editions. According to Ellis, 2000 copies of the book were printed off at once with 500 titles. Ellis told Norman Colbeck that these 2000 copies made up the first four editions and that statement fits with the surviving physical evidence. Ellis also told Colbeck that each subsequent edition appeared with 500 new title pages being printed for each new edition.

The first edition was published on 26 April 1870: there were 26 large paper copies printed on hand-made paper and bound in plain cloth, and 1000 trade copies (price: 12s.), of which 250 were sent as sheets for publication in Boston by Roberts Brothers. DGR himself did not want large-paper copies to be made, as he told Ellis in a letter of 13 April 1870: “It strikes me that if any special copies of my book are got ready (and I should like two myself) they had better perhaps not be larger-sized, as the harmony of the binding is [of] more consequence than the size, and as you say, this would be put all wrong by extra size.” He went on to complain about the inadequacy of the endpapers: “The woodcut looks raw on the white paper. If a second edition is ever wanted, this should be on a light - very light - greenish paper, of the tint I do my chalk drawings on. I think the woodcut had better have been left out of the plain-bound copies, as it looks quaint and provoking without the binding” (see Fredeman, Correspondence, 70. 97 ). The comment explains why a small number of copies were bound and sold with white (rather than pale blue) endpapers on which the dark blue design was printed.

The first edition sold well so that the second 1000 copies were issued in May as the next two editions of 500 copies each. For the second edition DGR introduced many changes, and these were all carried over through the third and fourth editions. The most notable alteration to the first edition was perhaps not textual, however. DGR was upset by the lettering for the spine and insisted that it be recut, and it was for the second and all subsequent Ellis editions (see Fredeman, Correspondence, 70. 147 : letter to Ellis, 7 May 1870). The fourth edition was printed toward the end of July or early in August (again 500 copies), but with no authorial changes (see letter to Ellis, 23 July 1870, Fredeman, Correspondence, 70. 196 ). So to that point a total of 2000 copies had been printed. Later that August and in September DGR sent further, more substantial revisions to Ellis and these were incorporated in the fifth printing, which was issued early in 1871 (as the date on the title page indicates). A few more corrections appeared in the sixth and final edition (published in 1872). This last printing sold out in 1879, and was probably 500 copies.

An important fact about the blue floral endpapers is pointed out by WMR in a note he added at the end of the Troxell Collection's second (partial) copy of the A Proofs: “The flowered paper used in the binding appears to have been brought by my father in 1824 from Malta—perhaps from Naples.” The endpapers thus encode (semi-privately) an important personal feature of the book, and are further evidence of the kind of deliberate attitude DGR took in marrying the physique of the book to its conceptual and linguistic materials. In this case, the endpapers connect directly to the important poems in the volume that deal with DGR's father.

One other early edition of the 1870 Poems was published (Leipzig, 1874) —the so-called Tauchnitz edition, with a critical preface by Franz Hueffer. For this edition DGR further corrected and revised his texts, using as copy text the sixth edition of the Ellis print run. A heavily corrected copy of the Tauchnitz volume, now in the Yale library, contains many of the further revisions that eventually made their way into DGR's two volumes of 1881.


The book's final sequence, Sonnets for Pictures, and Other Sonnets, underscores the fact that the 1870 Poems is very much a book about the relation of poetry to painting and vice versa. The book opens, after all, with the text of DGR's most famous “double work of art”, and all three sections of the volume are deeply and explicitly engaged with pictorial subject matter. There are sonnets written for nine of DGR's pictures and for five pictures by other artists. In addition, however, pictorial materials are directly and indirectly invoked throughout the volume.


For a book so deeply preoccupied with art, one can be surprised to realize how topical—even political—it often is. Poems like Jenny and The Burden of Nineveh call attention to the historicality of the book's subject matter. But the political significance is perhaps even stronger in the slightly displaced narrative Dante at Verona. The latter can scarcely not be read in contemporary terms since DGR's book regularly insists that a parallel should be seen between Dante Alighieri and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. This parallel, along with its political significance, is clearly presented toward the end of the book in the triptych of sonnets On Refusal of Aid Between Nations, On the Vita Nuova of Dante, and Dantis Tenebrae. The fact is that DGR, like the other Pre-Raphaelites, regarded art as a social function. For DGR in particular, the practise of art in the Victorian Age of getting and spending was effectively to raise up before society a spiritual model and ideal that, in his view, it sorely needed.


The most important literary presence in the volume is of course Dante and, through him, Italian Renaissance poetry up through Petrarch. Only slightly less important is the literature and mythology of the bible. Ballad tradition figures prominently as well, including the traditions that maintain both the matter of Arthur and the matter of Troy. But the book is massively literary, as even a cursory reading of almost any poem in the book will show.

The literary storm that broke out over the book is one of the most notorious in the annals of English letters. It centered in Robert Buchanan's pseudonymous review (by “Thomas Maitland”) in The Contemporary Review for October, 1871 titled “The Fleshly School of Poetry—D. G. Rossetti” . The title of Buchanan's essay aptly characterizes the focus of his attack. DGR was enraged when he learned that Buchanan was the reviewer, and he shortly responded (in the Athenaeum) with his essay “The Stealthy School of Criticism”. Buchanan's review, which arose from his antipathy to Swinburne and the Pre-Raphaelite circle in general, sparked a session of the critics in which various people took sides on the issues. Of the many pieces written, Swinburne's “Under the Microscope” is probably the most important, as it is certainly the most devastating. Buchanan himself produced a number of subsequent pieces on the issues, and eventually—after DGR's death—he more or less completely recanted his original charges. Despite his defense of the propriety of his work in the volume, DGR was moved to make a signal change in his text when he came to print The House of Life again in the 1881 Ballads and Sonnets: he removed the sonnet “Nuptial Sleep” from the sequence.


Although DGR is as celebrated as a translator as he is as a writer and artist, the 1870 volume offers only a few instances of the importance DGR attached to this kind of work. Nor do these texts relate to the central preoccuption of his translation work: the writing, and especially the poetry, of Dante and his Circle. The translation work had appeared eight years earlier in a separate volume, The Early Italian Poets, and doubtless DGR saw no reason to excerpt from that work into this one. Nonetheless, in 1874 he re-issued the first edition of the translations as a companion volume to the 1870 Poems. In doing so he fulfilled the plan he had in 1861, of issuing two volumes of his work more or less concurrently—a volume of translations (which did appear), and a volume of original work that was to have been called Dante at Verona, and other Poems. The death of DGR's wife induced him to cancel the publication of the latter book, which he (famously) placed in the grave with the body of his wife.


The 1870 volume came into existence when DGR once again began writing poetry at the end of the 1860s. The work involved a critical rethinking of his whole poetic and artistic career, and led him to have his earlier poems exhumed so that he could put together the new volume, and carry out the rethinking process his new writing had initiated.

The historicality of the 1870 Poems has a personal and autobiographical dimension that no reader has ever failed to register. This face of the book is most apparent in The House of Life sequence, but it is by no means confined to that crucial set of texts. The book as a whole pivots around a key date—1862—the year DGR's wife died and the year he had intended to publish what would have been his first book of original poetry, Dante at Verona and Other Poems. This book was to have been the companion to the book he did publish at that time, The Early Italian Poets (1861). The death of Elizabeth caused DGR to cancel the companion volume and to bury its poems in the grave with his wife.

DGR's work has always been read according to autobiographical protocols. In certain respects this critical inertia runs counter to the most apparent features of DGR's work: he wrote imitation ballads, dramatic monologues, narratives, pastiche works of various kinds, and lyrical poems of such a decorative and oblique character that one often has to work hard simply to elucidate surface meanings. Besides, of the central part of the volume, The House of Life section, the poet famously said that it ought to be read allegorically rather than personally. Few critics have followed DGR's lead in this, however, and the obscure not to say secretive character of the work (in particular of The House of Life) has only encouraged the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the critics.

Nor is this line of critical explication misguided. The book's physical appearance immediately identifies it with DGR (whose designs for other contemporary books were well known and much admired), and the Sonnets for Pictures also explicitly reference DGR's paintings and drawings (or, in one case, the painting of a friend). Other poems (e.g., “Dantis Tenebrae”) declare a clear personal involvement: in this case the relation is a double one, to his immediate family and father, on one hand, and on the other to his spiritual father and the “family” of poets and artists that Dante represents for DGR. All these features of the book encourage criticism toward biographical readings. The more abstract and recondite poems (e.g., “Love's Nocturn”, “The Stream's Secret,” or “The House of Life”) appear to solicit personal readings as vehicles of elucidation. In such a context every particular of the book seems pregnant with possible if concealed significance. When one realizes, for example, that the book's lovely blue and cream endpapers reproduce the design of a wallpaper that DGR's father had brought with him from Italy to England, no feature of the volume seems to stand beyond the author's deliberated and artful purposes. The consequence is that the book helps to generate a kind of autobiographical mythos that it looks to its readers to extend and develop. In this respect DGR's work resembles Byron's (but in scarcely any other).

DGR's preoccupation with the idea of fate, and with its presence in his own life, turns even the most objective of the volume's texts—works like “Troy Town” and “Sister Helen”—into autobiographical directions. And the same is true of Christian pastiche works like “Ave” and other early poems that were written in the context of his late 40s Pre-Raphaelite project Songs for the Art Catholic.

On the commercial side, DGR was paid £150 for each 1000 copies of the book that were sold. This means that he probably realized £750 from the English sales of the book. What he received for the Tauchnitz edition is not known.

Scholarly Commentary


The section headed Poems formed the initial structural unit of the book. Breaking out three distinct sections came about only after DGR had an initial printing of his texts made in the Penkill Proofs. The Poems section underwent a series of structural transformations as the proofing process moved from the A Proofs—where the three sections were initially defined—until the final proofs, where the order of the poems was finally established.

Scholarly Commentary


The Sonnets for Pictures and other Sonnets Section closed the book and followed the second part of the book, the “Sonnets and Songs, towards a work to be called ‘The House of Life’”. Although it did not undergo nearly such volatile changes as the other two sections, this third part was also worked over and augmented, and its ordering changed, during the passage of the book from the A Proofs through the final proofs for the first edition.

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