A Sea-Spell (for a Picture)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1870
Date: 1877
Rhyme: abbaaccadeedff
Meter: iambic pentameter
Genre: sonnet


◦ Agosta, 82-83

◦ Marillier, DGR: An Ilustrated Memorial, 193-194

◦ WMR, DGR Designer and Writer, 95

◦ Sharp, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 246-248

◦ Stephens, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 92.

◦ Surtees, A Catalogue Raisonné vol. 1, 145-146.

Scholarly Commentary


The pictorial double of this sonnet is an oil painting that DGR only executed in 1877. DGR's brother described the picture thus: “The idea is that of a Siren, or Sea-Fairy, whose lute summons a sea-bird to listen, and whose song will soon prove fatal to some fascinated mariner” (see WMR, 1911). The work has much in common with “The Orchard Pit”, and of course connects to DGR's many images of fatal ladies. The sonnet recalls as well Swinburne's “To a Seamew”, which also identifies the poet/artist with a sea bird.

Published in the 1881 volume, and associated with the 1877 painting, the sonnet acquires more explicit meanings that were only latent in 1870 (when the sonnet was written). Most important in this respect is the emphasis DGR places on the music of the Sirens, the sound of their spells. In the 1881 Ballads and Sonnets, DGR virtually identifies poetry's deepest powers with its musical resources. That argument is established and pursued in the “Lyrics&c.” section of the volume.

In later years DGR tended to regard his painter's work as marked with the corruptions of commercial dealings, whereas his poetry seemed relatively unstained. In this double work (and other late double works as well, like “Astarte Syriaca”), that distinction is laid under an increasingly severe critical scrutiny. The musical resources of verse are resources of truth-telling, not redemptive insight or liberation. It is all but impossible not to see the figure of the mariner here as the self-exposed poet whose ultimate goal is to attain this severe clarity about himself and his work.

Textual History: Composition

The fair copy in the British Library is signed and dated by DGR “August 1870”. This seems to settle the date of composition, especially since, if the poem had been composed in 1869, as WMR suggested, it would probably have found a place in DGR's 1870 volume. Nonetheless, it is possible that DGR may have written a draft of the poem in 1869, given the close relation it bears to “The Orchard Pit”.

A second (undated) fair copy manuscript survives > in the Getty Library.

Printing History

First published in the 1881 Ballads and Sonnets and collected thereafter.

Electronic Archive Edition: 1