Beauty and the Bird

Alternately titled: Bella's Bulfinch

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1855
Date: 1858 June 25
Rhyme: abbaaccadedede
Meter: iambic pentameter
Genre: sonnet
Model: Ruth Herbert


◦ Doughty, A Victorian Romantic, 153, 249-250.

◦ Shefer, “Deverell, Rossetti, Siddal”.

◦ Surtees, “Beauty and the Bird”.


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

Scholarly Commentary


This sonnet secretly codes in its innocuous appearance some of DGR's strongest imaginative desires and fears. The fact that it is a (concealed) double work of art is very much to the point, for the companion drawing literalizes the subject in a way that the sonnet keeps unapparent. In the drawing, Ruth Herbert is kissing a tame bullfinch, a bird DGR associated with his wife, who owned one. The meaning of this figural composition is obliquely but unmistakably realized in the sonnet's text. The allusion to Catullus in the octave (inexplicit), coupled with the (explicit) allusion to Chaucer in the sestet, recapitulates the urgent Rossettian theme of the reconciliation of sacred and profane love.

Pressing as this ideal was when DGR made the double work in 1858, it grew even more insistent after the death of DGR's wife in 1862. By the time he was putting together the materials for his 1870 volume of Poems it became perhaps the dominant preoccupation of his work. In this (later) context, both sonnet and drawing come to define a clear intentional structure in the 1870 volume: to build a conclusion that enforces “The One Hope” projected at the end of “The House of Life”.“Beauty and the Bird” is yet another expression of this One Hope

Textual History: Composition

Although WMR dates the poem 1855, it almost certainly dates from the period of the drawing (June 1858). WMR's endorsement note on the Huntington manuscript of the poem says that that manuscript was written around 1858, but he adds that the sonnet itself might have been composed earlier. He also suggests that the manuscript might be a leaf torn from the book that DGR put in his wife's grave in 1862. The Fitzwilliam manuscript dates from 1869.

Textual History: Revision

The original title of the poem was “The Bullfinch”, and it was first printed as such in the Penkill Proofs in August 1869. DGR altered the title to its received form in those proofs, and made a number of other small corrections as well. The latter came out of critical suggestions from DGR's brother (see Peattie, Letters of William Michael Rossetti 221 ).

Production History

The date and inscription on the drawing seem definitive (“In Memoriam 25 June 1858”, though we can't be certain when the inscription was made. It seems likely that it was made subsequent to the execution of the drawing (which it dates)—probably at the time that DGR gave the drawing (later) to the singer Georgina Treherne (Mrs. Weldon).


The image of the drawing has a concealed iconographic significance: the harmony of sacred and profane love.

Printing History

First printed in the Penkill Proofs in August 1869, it was kept through all the subsequent proofs for the 1870 Poems, where it was published. DGR was quite hesitant about publishing the poem in his volume (see letter to WMR, 21 August 1869, Fredeman, Correspondence, 69. 130 ), but in the end he retained it, at least partly at the urging of his brother (see Peattie, Letters of William Michael Rossetti, 221 ) and kept it as well in the 1881 New Edition.


DGR's poem distinctly recalls Catullus' notorious lyrics on Lesbia's sparrow (see nos. 2 and 3). But DGR's treatment of the similar theme is considerably chastened, as the reference to Chaucer in the sestet emphasizes.


The poem and drawing are alike highly personal. Two women are involved: Ruth Herbert, the actress whom DGR first saw at the theatre in 1856 and whose beauty captivated him; and Elizabeth Siddall, DGR's future wife, who had a pet bullfinch. The date of the drawing (25 June 1858) probably locates the approximate date of the sonnet as well, although the significance of the “In Memoriam” inscription is unclear, as is the date when the inscription was placed on the picture.

In any case, both sonnet and picture deliberately join together two of DGR's great passions in a figural relation that imagines a harmony in the order of his varied loves. That this was more an imaginative desire than a reality hardly needs to be said.

It may also be that an incident from the summer of 1869 affected DGR's decision to recover (and rename) this poem for the 1870 volume. It is recorded in William Bell Scott's Autobiographical Notes, II. 113-114 . One day while out walking DGR and Scott came upon a chaffinch which did not fly at their approach, and when DGR picked it up he said to Scott that “it is my wife, the spirit of my wife, the soul of her has taken this shape; something is going to happen to me”. Scott records the incident as an example of the “subversion of [DGR's] reason” at this time.

Electronic Archive Edition: 1
Source File: 2-1855.sa55.raw.xml