Body's Beauty

Alternately titled: Lady Lilith
Alternately titled: Lilith

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1866
Date: 1864-1869
Rhyme: abbaabbacdcddc
Meter: iambic pentameter
Genre: sonnet


◦ Agosta, 96-97

◦ Allen, “One Strangling Golden Hair” (June 1984), 285-294

◦ Angeli, DGR con 107 illustrazioni (1906), page 31

◦ Baum, ed., House of Life 183-186

◦ Doughty, A Victorian Romantic 346-347

◦ Edelstein, “DGR and the Sensation Novel,” (1979) 180-193

◦ Faxon, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. 201-203

◦ Fennell, Rossetti-Leyland Letters 14-1727-37

◦ Marillier, DGR: An Illustrated Memorial, 132.

◦ McGann, DGR and the Game that Must be Lost, 17-18

◦ Miller, “The Mirror's Secret” (1991), 333-349

◦ Pittman, “Rossetti and Sex” (spring 1974), 45-50

◦ Psomiades, Body's Beauty, 126-129

◦ WMR, DGR as Designer and Writer. 239-240

◦ Sharp, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 207-210

◦ Smith, “Lady Lilith and the Language of Flowers,” (February 1979), 142-145

◦ Stephens, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 66.

◦ Surtees, A Catalogue Raisonné I. 116-118

◦ A. C. Swinburne, Notes on the Royal Academy Exhibition, 1868, 47


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

Scholarly Commentary


This famous sonnet and its companion painting comprise a paradigm of DGR's involuted and polyvalent aesthetic procedures. These works, individually and composite, hold themselves open to the most radical kinds of divergent views. The differentials are perhaps epitomized in the history of the painting's production. When it was first seen and exhibited, Lilith's head was modelled on Fanny Cornforth, and that image is captured in two of the earliest and most important commentaries on the painting, by Swinburne and Stephens. Later, however, DGR painted out Fanny's head and replaced it with the head of Alexa Wilding. (These two favorite models represented for DGR real/mortal beauty, on one hand, and ideal/heavenly beauty on the other. Thus, in the end the painting internalized, as it were, the original dialectic it played out (objectively) with its paired antithesis Sibylla Palmifera, whose model was Alexa Wilding.) Elena Rossetti Angeli aptly notes that the two sonnets and their accompanying pictures constitute “a new expression of Amor Sacro e Profano of Titian” (see her Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1906), 31 ).

Despite the common view of the sonnet as a representation of the Rossettian femme fatale —which the sonnet certainly is—the poem develops various contradictory ideas out of its symbolic/allegorical images. To see this more clearly we should recall DGR's general comment on reading Dante. In a note to the Donna della Finestra passage in the Vita Nuova DGR says: “what I believe to lie at the heart of all true Dantesque commentary . . . is, the existence always of the actual events even where the allegorical superstructure has been raised by Dante himself.” The best readers of DGR have always followed exactly this approach toward Dante's greatest Victorian inheritor. In the present case, then, if we attempt to reconstruct a set of “actual events” within the “allegorical superstructure” of the sonnet, we recover an antithesis very like the one played out in the painting. In the case of the sonnet, however, the key figures are DGR's wife Elizabeth and Jane Morris

The sonnet's most apparent intertext, that is to say the sonnet in The House of Life titled “Life-in-Love”, brings the issues into sharp relief. The key figure is the “strangling golden hair.” Commentators have regularly associated this hair with Fanny Cornforth and have elaborated commentaries on that association, which is based largely on the relation of the sonnet to the original painting. But in the context of The House of Life the hair has to be associated with Elizabeth. Such an association appears at first quite paradoxical, since elsewhere DGR's dead wife stands as a figure of a certain spiritual presence, and scarcely as a sign of “Body's Beauty”.

These contradictions are to be registered, not necessarily resolved. They are complicated when DGR's own “bright web” of his poetical intertexts is further elaborated—for instance, when here we read the sonnet also in relation to the companion sonnet of “Life-in-Love”, that is, with “Death-in-Love”, a poem explicitly associated with Elizabeth.

The symbolic/allegorical figure of Lilith can help to clarify these kinds of contradictions. The legends represent Lilith not only as the witch-figure realized in “Eden Bower”, but as a threatening and haunting absent presence (see WMR, Rossetti Papers 1862 to 1870 483-486 , where a compendium of the legends is supplied). Read as a sign of DGR's dead wife, Lilith is to Eve as Elizabeth is to Jane. But of course in DGR's case all autobiographical schemas are themselves sign-systems, not ultimate explanatory references. They function in his work as the imaginative locus of the conflicted emotional relations that so typify DGR's poetry and pictures.

The sonnet of course forms a pair with “Soul's Beauty”, the two comprising an investigation of the ancient theme of sacred and profane love. See also DGR's translation of Dante's sonnet on much the same theme, “Of Beauty and Duty”.

Textual History: Composition

Only one manuscript of the sonnet survives, DGR's corrected copy in the Fitzwilliam composite “House of Life” sequence. The precise date of composition is not known, but it was almost certainly written while the painting was being executed in 1866. In any case the sonnet existed by 27 October 1866, for on that date George Boyce recorded in his diary that “Gabriel had been painting a beautiful picture he proposes calling Lady Lilith, and has written a fine sonnet under it.”

Textual History: Revision

The sestet of the first printed text of 1868 differs in notable ways from the received text. The alterations were made in the Penkill Proofs in August or September 1869. As with its companion sonnet “Soul's Beauty”, a major revision involves its respositioning in DGR's works: in the 1870 Poems the sonnet appears among the Sonnets for Pictures, but in 1881 DGR made it a part of The House of Life. The shift in placement brought a change in the 1870 title, “Lilith. (For a Picture)”, to the received title; and there was a small change in line 7 as well.

Production History

Following WMR, Surtees says it was begun in 1864 (see WMR, DGR as Designer and Writer 64 ); but it was commissioned (by Leyland) in 1866 and may not have been begun until that year; in any case, the surviving studies all date from no earlier than 1866, except for two undated notebook sketches. The finished (oil) painting is dated 1868 but it may not have been completed and sent to Leyland until 1869. In 1872 DGR secured the painting back from Leyland to make some alterations, including the removal of Fanny Cornforth's face as the model for Lilith and the substitution of Alexa Wilding's face. Accounts differ about whether Leyland asked to have this important change made, or whether it was DGR himself who wanted it.

Four surviving copies of the picture preserve Fanny Cornforth's head: the oil replica in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the crayon drawing in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the pastel drawing in the Harry Ransom Research Center, and the chalk drawing in a private collection.


The point of departure for all later responses is Swinburne's essay included as Part II of the Notes on the Royal Academy Exhibition, 1868 (pages 46-47).


DGR's comments on his “picture-sonnet” to his friend Hake are to the point here: “You ask me about Lilith—I suppose referring to the picture-sonnet. The picture is called Lady Lilith by rights (only I thought this would present a difficulty in print without paint to explain it,) and represents a Modern Lilith combing out her abundant golden hair and gazing on herself in the glass with that self-absorption by whose strange fascination such natures draw others within their own circle. The idea which you indicate (viz: of the perilous principle in the world being female from the first) is about the most essential notion of the sonnet.” (see Fredeman, Correspondence, (21 April 1870) 70. 110 ).

Printing History

First printed in May, 1868 as part of Swinburne's essay included as Part II of the Notes on the Royal Academy Exhibition, 1868 (page 47). This text is taken from the frame of the painting that DGR executed at the time, and it corresponds to the surviving fair copy that was used as printer's copy for the Penkill Proofs. Reprinted in September 1869 in the Penkill Proofs for the 1870 volume of Poems, it was eventually published in the Sonnets for Pictures, and Other Sonnets section of the volume. In 1881 DGR printed it as sonnet LXXVIII in The House of Life sequence in his Ballads and Sonnets volume.


The details in the poem reproduce those in the painting, except that DGR repeatedly alludes to the legendary and mythic materials that inspired him to paint the picture.


Allen calls attention to the contemporary relation between the figure of the femme fatale and the Women's Emancipation Movement in England. More specifically, she notes that among DGR's papers was a letter to the editor of the Athenaeum dated November 1869 in which the author, Ponsonby A. Lyons, makes the following observation: “Lilith, about whom you ask for information, was the first strong-minded woman and the original advocate of women's rights” (see WMR, Rossetti Papers 1862-1870 483 ).


The poem should be compared with DGR's translation of a passage from Goethe (Lilith—from Goethe) and of course with his major work on this subject, “Eden Bower”. At least as relevant is the earlier sonnet in The House of Life, Life-in-Love, which is plainly recalled at the conclusion of this poem. The influence of Keats's “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” is equally clear—a text, it should be recalled, famous for the ambiguous presentation of the knight at arms' witch-lady.


The autobiographical subtext of this work is radically conflicted. In one view Lilith is the figural form associated with Fanny Cornforth, but in another Lilith stands for DGR's dead wife Elizabeth. Those associations create an inertia for realizing the more oblique presence of Jane Morris in the poem, who in one view is figured as Eve (whereas in another, Eve is a sign of Elizabeth).

Electronic Archive Edition: 1
Source File: 2-1867.s205.raw.xml