The Stream's Secret

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1869-1870
Rhyme: a3b4b5a 4a5b3
Meter: iambic
Genre: lyric


◦ John B. Gregory.,Life and Works of DGR, II. 137.

◦ Roger C.Lewis, The Trial Book Fallacy, 125-128, 189-191<.

◦ Robert N. Keane, “D. G. Rossetti's Poems 1870: A Study in Craftsmanship”, 206-207.

◦ John Masefield, Thanks Before Going, 15-17

◦ David Riede, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Limits of Victorian Vision, 136-142.

◦ Howard, The Dark Glass, 126-137

◦ Hobbs, “Love and Time in Rossetti's The Stream's Secret”, (1971), 395-404.

◦ Stuart, “Bitter Fantasy: Narcissus in Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Lyrics” (1973), 27-40.

◦ Cervo, “Petrarch's Cervo and Cerva: The Secret of D. G. Rossetti's ‘The Stream's Secret’” (1990), 158-163.


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

Scholarly Commentary


Among the most recondite of DGR's poems, “The Stream's Secret” is also one of the most hauntingly beautiful as well. Much of its force follows from its complex metrical structure, where alternating line-lengths play off a rhyme scheme suggestive of a sonnet quatrain. The highly alliterative stylistic treatment adds a further element of aesthetic subtlety. These surface features do not merely suggest the motion of a stream, as has been (aptly) said; they signify and even enact the poem's theme of secret messages: that their perceptible forms reveal and conceal simultaneously.

The obscurity may be partly mitigated if we bear in mind the import of stanzas five and six, both their questions and their commands. The stanzas dramatize DGR (or “the speaker”) in the act of seeming to hear the stream speak of “the dead hours”. He tells the stream that he wants to hear no more of that, but only of an hour that has not been born and has not died. He goes on to assert (stanza 6) that he is not looking for a response that would constitute, as it were, an “answer” (as to a problem or question). Such would be what he calls a “vain behest”. He is not seeking either “rest” or an end to the conflictions of Love (the hours that wound and hours that save) because he knows both are “sisters in Love's ken” (ll. 71-72). In that context of concern, therefore, the poem's own self-unfolding becomes an emblem of the stream's secret message. The poem is the literal echo of the message being sought. As such, the poem instantiates or figures an “hour” that exhibits neither a coming-to-be nor a ceasing-to-be but only its immediate perdurance. The poetic action recalls, on the one hand, the way Asia's questions to Demogorgon are “answered” in Shelley's Prometheus Unbound (“Each to himself must be the oracle”, Asia concludes); and, on the other, the action and import of Wallace Stevens's “The Idea of Order at Key West”.

Although composed (or at least begun and partly composed) in a natural setting—over several days as he was lying in a cave overlooking the Penwhapple, on the estate of Penkill Castle in Scotland—, the poem is highly artificial, as William Sharp pointed out in his early commentary ( DGR: A Record and a study, 333-335 ). To the degree that the work renders close natural detail, which in fact DGR was desirous of, the rendering is executed in the manner of a painter or draughtsman.

Baum (see Ballads and Sonnets, 69 ) usefully notes that the poem falls into three broad sections: the address to the stream (1-72); the narrative of the love vision (73-138); concluding address to the stream (139-234).

That the poem is in some important sense a meditation on DGR's love for Jane Morris seems clear on two objective counts: DGR's letter to her of 30 August 1869 (see Fredeman, Correspondence, 69. 143 ); and the proof sheets of the poem that he sent to her in March 1870 (they are the earliest of several sets of proofs for the poem, and are now located among the Morris Papers in the British Library, Add. MSS 45353).

Textual History: Composition

The poem was begun in September 1869 when DGR was staying at Penkill Castle in Ayrshire. At that time he wrote only a few opening stanzas and left the work hanging fire. This initial state must correspond to the fragmentary Fitzwilliam manuscript of the poem and its imbedded pencil draft (which are the only extant manuscripts). Later, as he was finishing the proof corrections for his 1870 volume of poems during a visit to Barbara Bodichon's house in Sussex (Scalands), he returned to the poem in early March 1870 and completed it around 15 March (see his letters of 9 and 22 March 1870, Fredeman, Correspondence, 70. 63, 64, 65 ).

Textual History: Revision

After completing the poem in mid-March 1870, DGR immediately sent copy to the printer to have proof copies struck off for corrections. These proofs he had by 17 March, and on 25 March he told WMR that the poem was finished and comprised twelve pages of printed text (see his letter to WMR of 25 March 1870, Fredeman, Correspondence, 70. 71 ). After the first edition, DGR made a few small but interesting textual revisions.

DGR's comments on the poem to Swinburne after he had completed his revisions are interesting: “I hope you like it. It might be ranked in some degree with [Love's Nocturn]. . . . However, while that has perhaps more play of metre and fancy, this is, I hope, a more passionate and weightier thing” (see DGR's letter of 22 March 1870, Fredeman, Correspondence, 70. 64 ).

Printing History

The poem was first set into type as part of an extra set of proofs for the first edition of the 1870 Poems, in March 1870. The earliest state of these proofs is the set he sent to Jane Morris at that time. He saw three more sets of these proofs, which included as well proofs for the sonnets “The Love-Letter”, “For ‘The Wine of Circle’”, “The Monochord”, and “Barren Spring”. “The Stream's Secret” was first published in the 1870 volume and reprinted thereafter.

Lewis (see The Trial Book Fallacy, 125-128 ) has an extremely useful discussion of the proof texts and the early printing history of the poem. He says there were “at least three” revises of these proofs. In fact there were four.


As William Bell Scott pointed out (see Autobiographical Notes, II. 115-116 ), DGR appropriated the title of the poem from one of Scott's sonnets in The Old Scotch House . To the extent that one reads the poem in terms of DGR's dead wife, it recalls Tennyson's In Memoriam as well as a number of DGR's own works, not least of all “The Blessed Damozel” and The House of Life (in particular Severed Selves, Through Death to Love, and the Willowwood sequence).

Byron's “To the Po” also seems a haunting presence, particularly in stanzas 2, 3, and 7 of DGR's poem.

Cervo (VP [1990]) argues that the poem demonstrates DGR's debt to his father's gnostic ideas as set forth in Gabriele Rossetti's Il mistero dell' amor platonico del medio evo (1840).


The poem is manifestly grounded in DGR's personal life. It can (and should) be seen to record his haunted memories of his dead wife Elizabeth, but it seems also to have been written with Jane Morris in mind. This psychologically catastrophic ambiguity is of course entirely like the manner of DGR's House of Life, which stands so close in spirit to this poem.

The autobiographical aspect of the work is underscored by the specific locus of the meditation. The poem's stream “is the brown-pooled, birch-banked Penwhapple, in Ayrshire, that gurgles and lapses from slope to slope till it reaches Girvan Water, when it speedily finds its goal in the sea that sweeps the sandy coast-line without a break save for wave-washed Ailsa Crag; and in a little cavern closely overlooking the “whispering water” as it flows through the grounds of Penkill Castle (the residence of one of his chief friends, Miss A. Boyd) Rossetti composed the greater portion” of the poem ( Sharp 333 ). The cave is called Bennan's Cave, as William Bell Scott noted when he described DGR's fondness for working there: “Almost every day he would seclude himself in the glen. Here I used to find him face to the wall lying in a shallow cave that went by the name of a seventeenth-century Covenanter, Bennan's Cave” ( Scott 114 ). Scott's text reproduces a drawing he made at the time of DGR writing in the cave.

Jane Morris's connection with this cave (or rather with DGR's affective relation to the cave) is apparent from his letter to her of 30 August 1869, which he wrote shortly after arriving at Penkill and discovering the cave, and in which he is trying to persuade her to come to Penkill for a convalescence: “There are many enchanting spots . . . and particularly a little cave in a concealed position overhanging the bed of the stream—the very place for Topsy to spin endless poetry in, and for you to sit in and listen to the curious urgent whisper of the stream. . . . All this you know is perfectly private. . . . How nice it would be to see you here, at ease and liberty, and with an air likely to do you good.” (see Fredeman, Correspondence, 69. 143 ).

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