The White Ship (Henry I. of England.—25 November 1120)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1880
Meter: iambic
Genre: ballad
The poem is in four stress rhyming couplets and tercets, and framed with a sexain of three rhyming couplets.


◦ Baum, Analytical List of Manuscripts in the Duke University Library pages 43-44

◦ Baum, Paull F., “Rossetti's ‘The White Ship’”, Library Notes (Duke U. Library) 20 (1948) pages 2-6

◦ Fredeman, W. E. ed., “A Shadow of Dante (Extracts from WMR's Unpublished Diaries)”, Victorian Poetry 20 (1982) pages 217-245

◦ Keane,DGR: The Poet as Craftsman, 171-179

◦ Rees, Poetry of DGR pages 71-74


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

Scholarly Commentary


The ballad retells the story of the death of Henry I's son and heir, when his ship went down with all aboard on 25 November 1120 as it was sailing from France to England. It is quite successful, sophisticating the traditional ballad in ways that preserve the aura of the latter. DGR manages this by the spare and simple narrative, on one hand, and by the regulated irregularities in the meter and linear rhythms. Thus the poem's rhetorical impact depends greatly on DGR's management of the text's abstract forms. The figures that come before us—Berold, “the fair boy dressed in black”, the king, his son, Fitz- Stephen, etc.—all are cast as in a tableau. This procedure torques the ballad into a symbolistic poem whose import—whose contemporary or even personal meaning—hovers about the ballad in elusive and suggestive ways.

Textual History: Composition

The poem was completed around 26 April 1880, but it was undoubtedly begun much earlier, perhaps as early as 1873, certainly by 1878. Fragments for the ballad appear in note books that date from those years. On 12 April he showed WMR some of his preliminary work on the ballad and told him he was “inclined to take it up again”. Three integral manuscripts of the poem survive: the draft manuscript in the Duke University Library; a first fair copy in Yale's Beinecke Library; and a second fair copy, printer's copy, in the British Library. DGR of course made revisions as he progressed through these three texts, and further revisions came when the poem was passing through its proofing.

Fragments of the poem can be found in various surviving pieces of DGR's notebooks. The most substantial of these form part of Note Book IV (so-called) in the Duke University Library. This manuscript has the refrain (lines 1-6) plus lines 161-164, 176-181, 262-265, 269-273, 279, 92-95, 116-118.

Printing History

DGR initially thought of publishing the ballad separately in the Nineteenth Century (see his letter to Watts, 23 August 1880, Fredeman, Correspondence, 80. 284 ). He abandoned this plan and the ballad was first published in the 1881 Ballads and Sonnets, and collected thereafter.


DGR took most of his materials from Ordericus Vitalis (1075-1143), Ecclesiastical History (Book XII, chaps. 25-26), but some were drawn from Henry, Archdeacon of Huntingdon (1084-1155), History of the English People and William of Malmesbury (d. 1143), Chronicle of the Kings of England. The ship actually sailed from Barfleur, not Harfleur.


Three comparisons force themselves on one's attention: perhaps first of all, the very different treatment of a similar event by Gerard Manley Hopkins in “The Wreck of the Deutschland”; second, Coleridge's “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”; and finally, Hardy's “The Convergence of the Twain”. Unlike Hopkins, DGR organizes his poem as an oblique commentary on the contemporary social and political scene. This point of reference emerges from the plebeian butcher Berold, who is DGR's poetic spokesperson and alter-ego. The Coleridge connection is particularly interesting because the new sadness and wisdom that comes through DGR's ballad is much darker than Coleridge's precisely because the issues are made social rather than psychological. Because Coleridge's tale is a psychomachia of sin and redemption, readers are left to work out a solution to the poem inwardly and personally. In DGR, by contrast, Berold's experience is privileged but not, as for the Ancient Mariner, redemptive. In Coleridge, the sea and the events that transpire upon it are all part of a testing, ultimately redemptive economy. In DGR, however, the equivalent machineries are the functions of an inscrutable Fate. As such, DGR's poem distinctly anticipates Hardy's.

The behavior of the prince can hardly not recall George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss.

Electronic Archive Edition: 1
Source File: 1-1878.raw.xml