Ballads and Sonnets

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1881


◦ Fredeman, “The Shadow of Dante: Rossetti in the Final Years (Extracts from W. M. Rossetti's Unpublished Diaries, 1876-1882)” , Victorian Poetry (1982) 217-245

◦ Lewis, “The Making of Rossetti's Ballads and Sonnets and Poems (1881)” , Victorian Poetry (1982) 199-216

Scholarly Commentary


The idea for this book began slowly during 1879, the year after the last copies of DGR's 1870 Poems were sold out. From January of 1879 DGR began asking around about how he might obtain some copies of the 1873 Tauchnitz edition, which had readings that superceded the readings in the 1870 editions of his Poems. A decisive moment comes in December 1879, when DGR is finally able to obtain copies of the Tauchnitz edition (see DGR's letter to Edmund Bates of 22 December 1879, Fredeman, Correspondence 79.209). DGR would cut up a copy of this book into the equivalent of proof pages and use those texts, with his new corrections, as his copy text for the preparation of both the Ballads and Sonnets and its companion volume, the Poems. A New Edition (see the copy of the Tauchnitz edition at Yale, which carries DGR's initial set of corrections and revisions for the books that would be published in 1881).

In that month DGR was working to finish “Soothsay” and he wrote William Davies about what he said was his first sonnet in eight years, “Ardour and Memory” , enclosing a copy for him (see Fredeman, Correspondence 79.224). It should be noted that both of these poems, as well as many other sonnets that would appear in the 1881 volumes, have draft and fragment presences in the notebooks that DGR used throughout the 1870s.

DGR initiated practical publication plans early in February 1880, when he contacted his publisher F. S. Ellis about a new book of poetry (see Fredeman, Correspondence 80.32). (For a detailed discussion of the publication of the book see the commentary for the first edition. See also the commentaries for the 1881 companion volume, the Poems. A New Edition, for the 1873 Tauchnitz edition), and the proofs for the 1881 Ballads and Sonnets.)

Originally DGR intended to publish only one book of his works in 1881, a revised and augmented edition of his 1870 Poems. In working over his materials, however, he soon realized that he had more poems than could be accommodated to a single volume, so he devised the scheme that eventuated in the publication of this book and its companion, “A New Edition” (so identified on the title page) of Poems. As a consequence of this move, the latter became much less personal than the 1870 volume it superceded. The change comes not simply because DGR moved “The House of Life” sonnets into this Ballads and Sonnets volume, though that is clearly decisive. Almost equally important is the difference between the pair of corresponding “Lyrics” sections printed in the two books. The “Lyrics” section in the 1881 Poems gathers together as a unit the “Songs” that in 1870 were part of the “Sonnets and Songs, towards a work to be called ‘The House of Life’”. In the latter work, these poems served to underscore the transpersonal symbology of the 1870 “House of Life” project. In their 1881 setting the transpersonal character of the poems is even more strongly apparent.

By contrast, the poems gathered into the “Lyrics” section of this book have a singularly personal cast. Even a philosophical poem like “Soothsay” comprises what is clearly a set of very personal reflections, and the “Lost Love” theme dominates nearly all of the other poems in this group. Notable in this respect is the fact that the poems leave it ambiguous whether we should read the “Lost Love” in relation to Elizabeth or to Mrs. Morris (or to both)—that is to say, if we are to read the work biographically at all.

Printing History

Four “editions” of this book were issued although the text was reset only in the (1882) fourth, so called. The other three were all issued in 1881, one being an American edition issued by Roberts Brothers (printed from sheets provided to that publisher by Ellis, from the second printing run). For further details see the commentaries for this book's first edition and fourth edition.

The printer chosen for this volume was Charles Whittingham's Chiswick Press, which Morris introduced to the Pre-Raphaelite circle in the 1850s. DGR deliberately sought to move away from Strangeways and Walden, who had printed his 1870 volume (see his letter to his publisher Ellis of 3 February 1880, Fredeman, Correspondence 80.32). As it turned out, DGR would become even more frustrated with Whittingham's pace with the proofs for the book (see the commentaries for the book's proofs and for the first edition).

Electronic Archive Edition: 1
Source File: 2-1881.raw.xml