My Sister's Sleep

Alternately titled: Songs of One Household No. 1

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1848
Rhyme: abba
Meter: iambic tetrameter
Genre: ballad


◦ Bentley, “My Sister's Sleep” (1974), 321-334

◦ Gregory, “Life and Works of DGR” vol. 2, 103-104, 123

◦ Holberg, “Rossetti and the Trance” (1970), 299-314

◦ Peters, “Rossetti's Midnight Mass” (1979), 265-268

◦ Sussman, “Rossetti's Changing Style” (1972), 6-8


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

Scholarly Commentary


The hyper-realistic treatment of circumstantial detail makes this a paradigm example of a poem done in an early Pre-Raphaelite style, on a contemporary subject.

The poem is a kind of theoretical work, or poetical experiment. When DGR wrote it in 1847 he consciously strove to depart from the “hot” style that William Holman Hunt had reproached: “I quite agree with you in what you say of the ‘hotness’ of my verses, if you mean (as I suppose) a certain want of repose and straining after original modes of expression. Of these aspects I am endeavouring to rid myself, and hoped in some degree to have cast them off in “My Sister's Sleep” , which is one of the last things I have written, and which, I confess, seems to me simpler and more like nature than I have shown you” (see Fredeman, Correspondence, 48. 7 ). But of course the simplicity itself became a type of poetical selfconsciousness and “original mode of expression”, as Coventry Patmore noted when he commented on the poem in December 1849 (see Fredeman, The P.R.B. Journal, 31 ).

Textual History: Composition

As his letter to Holman Hunt of 23 July 1848 shows, DGR seems to have written the poem sometime shortly before the date of the letter.

The only manuscript of the poem that appears to survive is a copy of lines 33-46 (with two cancelled stanzas) made by CGR. This is an 1869 copy made from the text in the first number of The Germ, 22 (July 1850). The corrections in this manuscript, which is located at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, U. of Texas, are DGR's. We know that Madox Brown also had a copy of the poem, whether autograph or not is unclear. This manuscript has not appeared.

Textual History: Revision

DGR revised the poem when he decided to print it in the The Germ, where it appeared under the title “Songs of One Household. No. 1”. He was working at the revisions in November 1849 (see Fredeman, The P.R.B. Journal, 25). He made more extensive revisions in 1869-70 as the poem passed through its prepublication states toward its printing in the 1870 Poems. At that time he did not originally intend to include the poem in the works he was setting up in type, but the Forman review of DGR in Tinsley's Magazine for September 1869 (pages 142-151) so praised the poem that the poet felt obliged to put a new and corrected version of the text into print “because such commencement of publicity would be likely to lead to its getting reprinted somehow some day” (letter to Ford Madox Ford, 26 August 1869, Fredeman, Correspondence, 69. 136 ) and Peattie, Letters of William Michael Rossetti, 223 ). His comment to his brother in a letter of 31 August is revealing: “I got Christina's copy of ‘Sister's Sleep,’ which I return tattooed to you for consultation. The thing is very distasteful to me as it stands and I have quite determined on all changes made in pen-and-ink. In pencil I indicate a very radical change in the ommission of two more stanzas which would eliminate the religious element altogether. Scott thinks the poem in this most rarified form is simplest and best, and I incline to that view myself. However I feel by no means quite sure, and have annotated the MS. explaining my conflicting views. Will you give them your best attention and let me know your views on all the points. I should not care to reprint this thing at all, were it not for the likelihood of its reappearing some day otherwise without even the changes absolutely necessary.” ( Fredeman, Correspondence, 69. 144 ).

The poem is first printed as part of the A2 Proofs in mid-September 1869.

Reception History

DGR first saw Forman's review in late August. The review spurred DGR to the project he had set in motion earlier in the summer, to put some of his poems into print. See also Commentary (Reception History) for the 1870 Poems.

Printing History

The poem was first printed in volume 29 of The New Monthly Belle Assemblée (September 1848), interspersed with commentary by Elizabeth Youatt. This initial publication was brought about through the efforts of DGR's friend Calder Campbell (see WMR, Memoir, 110-111 . The poem was printed again in The Germ no. 1 (January 1850), where it came under the general heading “Songs of One Household No. 1”. It was then gathered into DGR's 1870 Poems and collected thereafter. DGR was, however, quite hesitant about including the poem in his 1870 volume, and nearly withdrew it at the last moment, but was dissuaded by Swinburne (see Lang, Swinburne's Letters, II. 798 ).

All three of the distinct texts vary from each other, but the poem was much shortened when it was published in 1870.


Although written before the advent of Pre-Raphaelitism as such, the poem's appearance in the first number of The Germ emphasizes its programmatic relation to the goals of the early PRB. According to the prospectus for The Germ, the movement aimed to produce Art and Poetry that was conceived in the spirit, or with the intent, of exhibiting a pure and unaffected style.


The poem's use of the so-called “In Memoriam stanza” has often been noted, as has the fact that DGR's poem antedates the publication of Tennyson's. DGR was mildly concerned about the correspondence between his poem and Tennyson's, which is what led him to append his note to the poem (see his letter to WMR of 31 August 1869, Fredeman, Correspondence, 69. 144 ).

Electronic Archive Edition: 1
Source File: 3-1847.raw.xml