Death's Songsters

Alternately titled: Deadly Sweetness
Alternately titled: Death's Sweetness

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1870
Rhyme: abbaaccadedeff
Meter: iambic pentameter
Genre: sonnet


◦ WMR, DGR as Designer and Writer, 247-248.

◦ Baum, House of Life, 199-200.


Editorial glosses and textual notes are available in a pop-up window. Line numbering reflects the structure of the 1870 Poems First Edition Text.

Scholarly Commentary


Though hardly one of the strongest sonnets in the sequence, it is one of the most difficult and interesting. The problem can be posed thus: what moral value does the poem assign to Ulysses' actions and, reciprocally, to death?

The text of the sestet as originally printed in the A2 Proofs shows very plainly that DGR meant his poem to represent the figure of death in a highly positive way: indeed, as the death that the sequence will culminantly define in the paired “Newborn Death” sonnets. In the received text, however, the final two lines are so grammatically involuted as to obscure the original simplicity. This important change may or may not be relevant to our reading of the poem's argument.

As both WMR and Baum show, the question at line 13 has often been read to intimate that one should (like Ulysses) resist the (siren) songs of death. But read in terms of a Christian (rather than a Homeric) mythology, the question is rhetorical, and calls for an acknowledgement that the songs of death are songs of heavenly promise. (In the A2 Proofs the latter is clearly the thought of the text.) In addition, if the pagan source is seen as Plato's Republic rather than Homer, the sirens' “songs of death” represent the Pythagorean harmony of the spheres.

The date of the poem's composition is important. All scholars to this point have followed WMR in dating the poem 1870. But this cannot be correct, because the text was first printed in the A2 Proofs, that is, in September 1869. It was written in September 1869, specifically for inclusion in the volume that DGR was preparing for the press. The draft manuscript of the sestet, in the Troxell Collection, is closely associated (in point of paper and archival placement) with the pair of “Cassandra” sonnets. This fact suggests to me that DGR wrote the sonnet with structural thoughts in mind; that is, DGR meant it to provide The House of Life with a definite connection to other poems in the volume where the matter of Troy figures prominently (the most important texts being “Troy Town” and the “Cassandra”) sonnets.

Textual History: Composition

Added to the proofs for the 1870 Poems in September 1869, the sonnet was probably written at that time. Besides the draft of the sestet in the Troxell collection, one other manuscript survives: another sestet draft (subsequent to the Troxell manuscript) in the Fitzwilliam composite “House of Life” sequence.

Textual History: Revision

DGR revised the sestet heavily in the proofs for the 1870 Poems.

Printing History

First printed in September 1869 as part of the A2 Proofs, the sonnet remained in all proof stages and was published in the 1870 Poems and thereafter. It is The House of Life Sonnet XLI in the 1870 volume, and Sonnet LXXXVII in 1881.


The sonnet builds itself around allusions to Homer's Iliad (for the episode of the Trojan horse strategem) and the Odyssey (for the incident of the Sirens). The sonnet also recollects in a general way the myths of the fall of Troy and the wanderings of Ulysses as he attempts to find his way home to Ithaca. More oblique, if no less important, is the recollection of Plato's Republic Book X and the Myth of Er, where the Sirens are represented as each a governor of a heavenly sphere, and their singing as the total harmony of the spheres.


Baum reads the poem as “an echo of Rossetti's contemplation of suicide in 1868-1869” ( House of Life, 200 ). WMR's inclination to read biographically made “The application of this sonnet . . . not entirely clear to me”; he ended by reading it as “an appeal of the Poet to his own moral conscience, [that] relates to the question of a noble or degrading tone in the poetry which he affects, as writer or reader” ( DGR as Designer and Writer, 247 ). The latter reading seems highly idiosyncratic.

Electronic Archive Edition: 1
Source File: 14-1870.raw.xml