The ballad evolved out of its refrains, which DGR wrote in the summer of 1871 for “Rose Mary” (see the commentary for that poem). He decided refrains would excessively complicate his long ballad and never used them in it. At some point before 1874, probably in late 1871, he took the refrains and constructed the ballad as received. Concealed within the latter, however, lies the original function and meaning of the refrain, which DGR said was to have carried an evolving interpretation of the long ballad, the interpretive stages being marked by the different first lines in each of the refrain couplets.
In its received state, the ballad has evident and close relations with the many poems that DGR wrote in which the several kinds of presences and absences of his dead wife Elizabeth and his Innominata Jane Morris are the simultaneous focus of his attention. Compare this poem with any of the other poems in the “Lyrics &c.” section of the 1881 Ballads and Sonnets, as well as with “The House of Life”, especially its 1881 version.
WMR dates this work to 1876, but its appearance in DGR's gift book to Jane Morris of 1874 (where it is titled “The Water Willow”) shows that it was written earlier, probably in late 1871. A second holograph copy is collected into a book of unrelated manuscript poems, most dating from the mid-1870s. Both of these books are at the Bodleian Library. A third integral holograph (at Princeton) was printer's copy for the first publication in 1881; it carries several rejected titles.
Two other partial manuscripts are extant, both dating from the summer of 1871. These are trial efforts for refrain burdens DGR was experimenting with for the ballad “Rose Mary”. One is in Note Book II (at Duke), the other in DGR's letter of 11 September 1871 to Thomas Gordon Hake.
First published in the 1881 Ballads and Sonnets and collected thereafter.
As the original title of the poem shows, the text is closely related to the famous portrait of Mrs. Morris known as
The Water Willow, which was painted at the same time as DGR was working out the text of the ballad.