Pandora (For a Picture)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1869
Date: 1868-1871
Rhyme: abbaabbaccdeed
Meter: iambic pentameter
Genre: sonnet
Model: Jane Morris (the head)


◦ Agosta, 89-90

◦ Doughty, A Victorian Romantic, 390-391

◦ Marillier, DGR: An Ilustrated Memorial, 163-164

◦ WMR, DGR Designer and Writer, 79

◦ Sharp, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 211-212

◦ Stephens, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 74-75.

◦ Surtees, A Catalogue Raisonné, I. 125-126

The Pre–Raphaelites , Tate 1984, 305-309


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

Scholarly Commentary


In one obvious respect the sonnet (and painting) both pick up the ideas explored in Cassandra and Venus Verticordia (and the two sonnets relating to the latter works immediately preceded “Pandora” in the 1870 Poems). DGR emphasizes in all three works the ambiguous power of art as an instrument of knowledge and prophecy, and the related ambiguity of the forms of artistic beauty. But this work (both sonnet and picture) are so dominated by personal references that the tone is considerably darkened, the danger more ominous and intensely felt.

Textual History: Composition

WMR's diary for 18 March 1869 records that “Gabriel has done two new sonnets—Pandora (for his picture now in progress) and Vain Virtues” (see Rossetti Papers 1862 to 1870, 386 ). The only known extant manuscript is the corrected copy in the Fitzwilliam composite manuscript of “The House of Life”.

Textual History: Revision

The text of the sonnet underwent only one verbal change between its printing in the Penkill Proofs (August 1869) and its publication in the 1881 Poems. A New Edition. The change altered a reading of the 1870 Poems text.

Production History

DGR began a study for the picture in December 1868 and worked at different versions through 1869. The three-quarter oil portrait, begun in the summer of 1869, was not completed until January-February 1871 (see Rossetti Papers 1862 to 1870, 337, 384, 391 , and Fredeman, Correspondence, 71. 8 ). The sonnet was inscribed in the frame of the finished oil in 1871.

A very different, and much more threatening version of the picture was done between 1874-1878: “Menace and frenzied movement have replaced the lethargic gloom of the earlier version” ( Grieve, The Pre–Raphaelites , Tate 1984, 309 ).


Swinburne's early enthusiasm for the painting replicates DGR's obsession with the subject (see Swinburne, Essays and Studies [1875], 90 ).


The melancholy expression on Pandora's face is characteristic of the mythic female portraits he began to paint with Venus Verticordia.

The smoke that issues from the box, enveloping Pandora, has been erotically interpreted by DGR, as Swinburne saw when he spoke of it as “the smoke and fiery vapour of winged and fleshless passions”. This smoke forms itself into a series of “potent spirits. . .escaping from the box” (Surtees, A Catalogue Raisonné I. 125 ); these spirit figures are more plainly visible in the later (1878) version DGR executed for Watts Dunton.

Printing History

The sonnet was first published in the 1870 Poems; it was first printed in August 1869 in the Penkill Proofs, and kept thereafter in DGR's works.


The various versions of this painting testify to DGR's deep interest in the subject, and his desire to explore the ambiguous possibilities of both the Pandoran idea and its embodiment in the figure of Jane Morris—that is to say, in DGR's imaginative understanding/interpretation of Mrs. Morris (which distinctly anticipates Yeats's imagination of Maude Gonne).


The sonnet's placement in the 1870 Poems emphasizes its political significance: it forms a group with “Venus” (i.e., “Venus Verticordia”), “Cassandra”, and “On Refusal of Aid Between Nations”.


Pandora's name is Greek for “all gifted”, and the relevance of her mythological history for DGR's work is plain from Lemprière 's account of her: “She was made from clay by Vulcan, at the request of Jupiter, who wished to punish the impiety and artifice of Prometheus by giving him a wife. When this woman of clay had been made by the artist . . . all the gods vied in making her presents. . . . Jupiter, after this, gave her a beautiful box which she was ordered to present to the man who married her; and by the commission of the god, Mercury conducted her to Prometheus. The artful mortal was sensible of the deceit and . . . he sent away Pandora. . . . His brother Epimetheus . . . married Pandora, and when he opened the box which she presented to him, there issued from it a multitude of evils and distempers which dispersed themselves all over the world. . . . Hope was the only one who remained at the bottom of the box, and it is she alone who has the wonderful power of easing the labours of man, and of rendering his troubles and sorrows less painful in life”.


Doughty reads the sonnet as strongly biographical: “an invocation to the woman [Jane Morris] who had freed his spirit from its despondent lethargy and preserved Hope” (see Doughty, A Victorian Romantic 390 ). And indeed it is difficult to resist a biographical approach, so strongly does the figure of Jane Morris dominate the picture. Lemprière's entry on Pandora, DGR's source for mythological lore, underscores the biographical connections of this work (with DGR standing for Prometheus and Morris for his brother Epimetheus).

Electronic Archive Edition: 1