Astarte Syriaca (for a Picture)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1877 January-1877 February
Date: 1875-1877
Rhyme: abbaabbacddccd
Meter: iambic pentameter
Genre: sonnet
Model: Jane Morris (principal figure)
Model: May Morris (left attendant figure)


◦ Agosta, 93-96

◦ Golden, “DGR's Two-Sided Art”.

◦ Sharp, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 244-246

◦ Stephens, “Mr. Rossetti's New Pictures”.

◦ Surtees, A Catalogue Raisonné vol. 1, 146-149.

Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones, and Watts, [Tate 1997] 157-159.


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

Scholarly Commentary


The poem is not one of DGR's great sonnets, and it pales before the majestic painting it was written to accompany. Nevertheless, it is quite an interesting and important text. Both sonnet and painting deliver one of DGR's most strenuous statements about his artistic purposes.

The sonnet opens with an allusion to the Book of Revelation 17:5. As Clarence Fry (who purchased the painting) observed in a letter to DGR, this reference could easily scandalize a traditional Christian, for it refers to “Babylon the Great, Mother of harlots and abominations of the earth” (see Doughty and Wahl, Letters IV. 1481 : Fry's letter to DGR of 10 March 1877). In DGR's syncretistic, Blakean reading of Revelation, however, this figure is the double of the “woman clothed with the sun” of Revelation 12:1. So the first line announces DGR's revisionary revelation that identifies otherwise demonic and divine orders. The argument is the same as DGR's famous “Thy soul I know not from thy body, nor/ Thee from myself, neither our love from God” (see “Heart's Hope”).

The close of the octave touches on another key idea: that the Pythagorean music of the spheres becomes realized in one's encounter with Astarte. Notable here is DGR's startling use (or invention) of the expression “wean ... to”. That verb is regularly used with the preposition “from”; “to” here all but reverses the idea of deprivation that lies at the heart of the word's meaning. The suggestion is thus developed that desire (as a state of longing and deprivation) constitutes as well a condition for realizing an encounter with ideal orders.

Finally, the sestet develops a remarkable series of ideas and images that take a performative view of art and the visions it calls into being. The double meaning in the syntax of lines 9-11 argues that Astarte's “ministers”, figured in the picture, are any act of artistic creation that operates with a performative or revelatory purpose. In this respect they carry out an action analogous to Astarte's primary agency. The latter are emblemized in line 13: “Amulet, talisman, and oracle” are not simply decorative terms for “symbol”, they are three distinctive pieces of cultic machinery with literal—that is to say, with magical— functions. They name instrumentalities.

It needs scarcely to be said that the sonnet references, simultaneously, DGR's painting as well as the ideal forms envisioned through the painting. Their ideality consists exactly in their incarnate and performative status.

Textual History: Composition

DGR finished the painting on 31 January 1877. Since he was having the sestet of the sonnet inscribed on the frame of the picture, he would have written it probably in January or February, when the completion of the frame was being carried out. Three manuscript copies of the sonnet are known: a fair copy in the Tinker Collection at Yale; another fair copy in the Research Center at University of Texas; and an earlier fair copy with interesting variants in the Ashley Library at the British Library. The latter is clearly taken from a letter that DGR wrote to someone—probably to either Jane Morris or to DGR's brother—asking for a judgment about some alternate possible readings. DGR also wrote a brief prose ekphrasis of the poem for Frederick Stephens.

Production History

Work on the painting stretched from mid-1875 until the end of January 1877.

Printing History

The sonnet was first printed as part of F. G. Stephens' notice of the painting in The Athenaeum (“Mr. Rossetti's New Pictures”, 14 April 1877 ). DGR collected it in his Ballads and Sonnets volume in 1881.


A letter from May Morris to T. J. Wise included in the British Library bound volume of the manuscript states that the sonnet was written to her mother. This comment need not be taken too literally, however, but rather as an acknowledgment that Jane Morris posed for the painting that doubles the sonnet.

Electronic Archive Edition: 1
Source File: 1-1877.s249.raw.xml