Alternately titled: Proserpina

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1872
Date: 1871-1882
Genre: sonnet group
Model: Mrs. Jane Morris


◦ Agosta, 86-89

◦ Marillier, DGR: An Illustrated Memorial, 169-170

◦ WMR, DGR Designer and Writer, 80-81

◦ Sharp, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 234-237

◦ Stephens, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 78-81.

◦ Surtees, A Catalogue Raisonné vol. 1, 131-134 (no. 233).

Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones, and Watts, [Tate 1997] 159-160.

◦ Wildman, Visions of Love and Life, 316-317.

General Description of Proserpina [Italian verse]

Date: 1872
Rhyme: abbaaaaaaccaac
Meter: iambic hexameter
Genre: sonnet

General Description of Proserpina [English verse]

Date: 1872
Rhyme: abbaaccadeedde
Meter: iambic pentameter
Genre: sonnet


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

Scholarly Commentary


Like La Bella Mano, this is something more than a double work. DGR wrote an accompanying sonnet in Italian, and then translated the sonnet into English. That textual sequence—from Italian to English—is important to keep in mind. DGR also wrote a prose ekphrasis of the picture. DGR's interest in this subject is fairly indicated when we remember that he executed at least eight entirely different versions of the picture.

The sonnets are unique among DGR's sonnets for pictures in that they are in dramatic monologue form. Normally such texts represent some external observer's comments on the picture and situation. To appreciate the effect of that textual move we want to recall the myth on which the whole work is based. Carried off to Hades from her home in the fields of Enna, in Sicily, by an enamoured Pluto, Prosperine was subsequently doomed to remain there for half the year because (see line 5) she had eaten food in hell—in fact, the pomegranate pictured in her hand in the paintings. The sestet of the sonnets thus develops an uncanny sense that Proserpine is listening for the sounds and signs of the very poem she herself appears to be authoring/speaking, and hence that the final line is giving us DGR's words, here reported back from the underworld.

It perhaps hardly needs remarking that the Proserpine theme runs throughout DGR's work, and assumes great prominence in nearly all his signature texts and pictures, not least in (for example) The Blessed Damozel. In aesthetic terms the myth focuses DGR's sense that art's imaginative sources are located in the underworld—which is simultaneously the historical past and the personal unconscious (not necessarily to be seen as a Freudian unconscious). The function of art is to restore communication between these severed worlds.

Textual History: Composition

DGR wrote the Italian sonnet first: he sent a copy in his letter to WMR on 7 November 1872, a few days after he finished negotiating with Charles Augustus Howell about the purchase of the oil of Proserpine that he was working on at that time.

A corrected copy of the Italian text is at Princeton and a fair copy is in the Boston Public Library. A fair copy of the Italian text is in the British Library. DGR's prose ekphrasis survives in the library at Duke University. DGR also sent a fair copy of both the Italian and the English sonnets, along with a prose ekphrasis, in his letter to Stephens of ca. 10 August 1875 and Stephens used these texts and commentaries for the essay on DGR's paintings that he published several days later in The Athenaeum (see his “Pictures by Mr. Rossetti”, The Athenaeum, 219-221 ).

Another manuscript copy is extant and was sold at a Sotheby's auction on 15 July 1998 (lot 353). It was sent in an undated letter to Ford Madox Brown. It is presently untraced but was said to have “one autograph correction”.

Production History

DGR seems to have begun work on the subject in 1871 since the date of the pastel at the Ashmolean bears that date. He started serious work on the picture late in 1872 when he came to an agreement with Howell and Parsons (the painter and photographer who also worked as an art dealer) to buy the picture for 550 guineas (see DGR's letter to Howell of 1 November 1872, Fredeman, Correspondence, 72. 105 ). In this letter he comments: “I enclose extract from Lemprière copied by Dunn. You see the passage about the pomegranate. I may possibly write a sonnet and introduce it in one corner of the picture if suiting composition.” Two days later he wrote to his brother that “The Proserpine I am selling him is a second one I have begun. The first did not quite please me, but will sell as a separate thing by cutting out the head which is done. The second is very well started, and I fully expect to finish it soon and beg the tin” ( Fredeman , Correspondence, 72. 106 ). It seems this second picture was also deemed unsatisfactory by the artist, as was the third, which became the The Blanziore oil. The letter hints toward the multipying and sometimes catastrophic fortunes of what DGR called “this doomed picture” in a letter to Madox Brown of 6 January 1874, when he reported that the version he had done for Leyland (the now so-called seventh version) was smashed in railway transit. He went on to tell Brown about “the vicissitudes of this blessed picture”: “I have begun it on seven different canvases— to say nothing of drawings. Three were rejected after being brought very forward. The fourth cost me a quarrel with Parsons, & will be returned on my hands. The fifth has twice had its glass smashed & renewed, & has twice been lined to remedy accidents. The sixth has had its frame smashed twice & its glass once, was nearly rendered useless by an accident which happened while transferring it to a fresh strainer, & now has narrowly escaped total destruction” ( Fredeman , Correspondence, 74.4 ) An eighth version would come later, begun in 1881 and finished shortly before DGR's death.


In 1878 DGR gave a long description of the symbolic context of the picture to W. A. Turner, who had just bought the (so-called) sixth version: “The figure represents Proserpine as Empress of Hades. After she was conveyed by Pluto to his realm, and became his bride, her mother Ceres importuned Jupiter for her return to earth, and he was prevailed on to consent to this, provided only she had not partaken any of the fruits of Hades. It was found, however, that she had eaten one grain of a pomegranate, and this enchained her to her new empire and destiny. She is represented in a gloomy corridor of her palace, with the fatal fruit in her hand. As she passes, a gleam strikes on the wall behind her from some inlet suddenly opened, and admitting for a moment the light of the upper world; and she glances furtively toward it, immersed in thought. The incense-burner stands behind her as the attribute of a goddess. The ivy-branch in the background (a decorative appendage to the sonnet inscribed on the label) may be taken as a symbol of clinging memory” (see Sharp, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 236 ).

Printing History

The sonnets were first published together, along with the English/Italian pair of La Bella Mano sonnets, in The Athenaeum under the heading “Sonnets for Pictures” (28 August 1875). DGR then republished them with slight variations in the 1881 Ballads and Sonnets and they were collected thereafter.


It has long been observed that (in Virginia Surtees' words) “the subject of Proserpine bound to her husband except for a few short periods of escape, would seem to bear an analogy to their own two lives [i.e., Jane Morris and DGR]” (see Surtees, A Catalogue Raisonné, vol. 1. 131).

Electronic Archive Edition: 1
Source File: 1-1872.s233.raw.xml