Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1848 (first version); 1869 (last version), with intermediate versions
Rhyme: tetrameter couplets
Meter: iambic
Genre: dramatic monologue


◦ Baum, “The Bancroft Manuscripts’, 48-52.

◦ Bullen, The Pre-Raphaelite Body (1998), 64-75

◦ Christie, “A Pre-Raphaelite Dispute” (1978), 40-48

◦ Gordon, “A Portrait of Jenny”, (1969), 89-106

◦ Gregory, “Life and Works of DGR” vol. 2, 135

◦ Harris, “D. G. Rossetti's ‘Jenny’” (1984), 197-215

◦ Hersey, “Rossetti's ‘Jenny’” (1979), 17-32

◦ Howarth, “On Rossetti's Jenny”, (1937), 20-21

◦ Keane, “Rossetti's ‘Jenny”, (1973), 271-280

◦ Marshik, “The Case of ‘Jenny”, (2005), 557-584

◦ Masefield, Thanks Before Going, 14-15

◦ Kingsland, “Rossetti's ‘Jenny’” (1895), 1-6

◦ McGann, DGR and the Game that Must be Lost, 102-103

◦ Psomiades, Body's Beauty, 38-49, 78-81

◦ Riede, DGR Revisited, 103-111

◦ Rivers, Jenny's Cage-Bird (2005), 75-77

◦ Rivers, The “Fiery Serpent” (2006), 5-13

◦ Rodgers, “The Book and the Flower” (1980), 159-169

◦ Schrimpton, “Rossetti's Pornography” (1979), 323-340

◦ Sheets, “Pornography and Art” (1988), 315-334


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

Scholarly Commentary


DGR worked and reworked this poem over many years, from his first composition (ca. 1847-1848) when the poem was not a dramatic monologue, through major changes he undertook in 1860 in preparation for the (aborted) publication of a volume of his original poems he was planning (this was to be called Dante at Verona and Other Poems ). In 1869-70 he recast and revised the poem again for publication in the 1870 Poems volume.

The copy of the poem now in the Delaware Art Museum (here referred to as the Bancroft notebook MS of the poem) is the first revised version he made in 1860. He expanded this version of the poem when he was copying out a notebook of his verse in mid-1860—the notebook that would eventually be inhumed in the coffin of his wife (see below).

DGR thought this latter text “the most serious thing I have written”, but Ruskin's critique of the work caused him to ask William Allingham “whether there is any objection you see in the treatment, or any side of the subject left untouched which ought to be included” (see Fredeman, Correspondence, 60. 54 : letter of 29 November 1860 ). The poem remained an important one for the poet, who told Ford Madox Brown in October 1869 that it “was the thing I most wanted” to recover from the book of poems he had buried in his wife's coffin in 1862 (see Fredeman, Correspondence, 69. 182 ).

The poet's comments on the poem in The Stealthy School of Criticism (1871) are significant, especially when he explains why he rejected a “treatment from without” (which is to say, as in the early narrativized version, or as in a non-fiction prose treatment) in favor of the dramatic monologue (or what he names, recalling an early note he appended to a text of Ave , “an inner standing point”). The latter device subjects the speaker, DGR's “young and thoughtful man of the world”, to the reader's judgment (both critical and sympathetic).

The central Rossettian theme of the dialectic of Sacred and Profane love—Soul's Beauty and Body's Beauty—is here powerfully treated in a contemporary context. One notes in particular lines 250-275, an addition made to the poem in October or November 1869: the passage seems a kind of oblique meditation on DGR's own book of poems and its many hidden (erotic) texts. These texts, by traditional moral measures, are “Puddled with shameful knowledge” (line 265) of various kinds. But it is as if DGR were imagining the figure of Jenny as an index of his own work and its effort to have its “erring heart unerringly” (line 251) exposed. The exposure would entail a reimagination of the relation of the dominions of the Sacred and the Profane.

Textual History: Composition

According to DGR's brother, a reflective and non-dramatic version of the poem was first written around 1848-1850, perhaps even earlier — the surviving Delaware MS is dated at the end 1847-48. This date on the MS — like the date on the Morgan MS of The Blessed Damozel — signifies not the date of the MS's scripting but of the poem's early composition. The Delaware MS was probably produced in late 1859 or early 1860.

The Delaware MS, a fair copy with some corrections made at uncertain dates, must represent DGR's effort to revise the earliest text (no documents of the latter appear to survive). In The Stealthy School of Criticism (1871), DGR said he wrote the poem 13 years before — obviously a reference to the work represented by the Delaware MS. The remark suggests as well that the latter involved a root and branch recasting of the early version.

The Delaware MS of the poem is copied on four pages torn from one of DGR's characteristic small lined notebooks. DGR clearly revised the poem and copied it in “a vol. of MS. verses bound in rough calf with red edges” (see Fredeman, Correspondence, 60. 23 ). This is the book of verses he gave to Ruskin sometime before July 1860 (see DGR's letter to Allingham, 31 July 1860: Fredeman, Correspondence, 60. 24 ) and upon which Ruskin made his criticisms of “Jenny” and other poems in the book ( Ruskin Rossetti Pre-Raphaelitism, 233-235 ). Ruskin's letter to Rossetti in which he criticizes the poems is dated conjecturally 1859 by WMR (see Ruskin. Rossetti. Pre-Raphaelitism, 233 ) but it almost certainly dates from October 1860, after Ruskin returned from his trip to the continent.

It is clear from his letters to Allingham between June-December 1860 that DGR was copying poems into this calf-bound book, building up a composite volume of original poetry that he intended to publish as a companion work to The Early Italian Poets . This manuscript volume, completed sometime in 1861, was the book that DGR placed in his wife's coffin after her death early in 1862.

When DGR came to exhume the volume in 1869, he recovered the text of “Jenny” that had been recast from the Delaware notebook MS. As the Fitzwilliam holograph manuscripts and the Exhumation Proofs for the 1870 Poems show, the copy of the poem placed in DGR's wife's grave represented yet a further revision from the state the poem had reached in the Delaware notebook MS.

That early draft at Delaware has a couple of interesting allusions that disappeared when the text changed in its drastic revision process. Lines 71-72 in the MS allude to Byron's “So We'll Go No More A Roving”, 5 and to Matthew 27: 51.

Textual History: Revision

Two important sets of manuscript materials survive. First is the earliest extant text (dating from 1860), the Delaware Manuscript. Second is a set of materials gathered and bound together in a leather notebook once the property of Fairfax Murray. The latter comprises: (A) the non-autograph manuscript copy that stands closest to the text exhumed from DGR's wife's grave; (B) a typescript of the first three manuscript pages (lines 1-146) of the Delaware Manuscript of the poem; (C) a composite holograph working draft produced with a view toward the printings of the poem executed in 1869-1870, and ultimately to the publication of the 1870 Poems .

The Delaware MS is in a sense the initial “revision” of the poem. It served as the basis for producing the MS book text that was buried with the body of DGR's wife in 1862 and that comes down to us through its immediately descendant texts: the non-autograph manuscript copy in the Fitzwilliam and the Exhumation Proofs made from the (not-extant autograph) text of which that manuscript is a copy. (The poem was set in type in October 1869 for eventual publication in the 1870 Poems ). The version DGR buried in his wife's coffin represents a further revision from the Delaware MS text.

DGR made extensive revisions to the text as the poem was passing through its various prepublication states in 1869-1870. The several editions of the 1870 Poems brought one further textual revision, and when Jenny was reprinted in the 1881 New Edition of the Poems there were still further changes.


Ruskin's early critique of “Jenny” (see Ruskin Rossetti Pre-Raphaelitism, 233-235 )—that it would not be understood by most, and that it would offend those who could understand it—stands as an emblem of the problems this poem has always created for readers. Buchanan's attack on DGR in “The Fleshly School of Poetry” used “Jenny” as one of its prime negative examples.

Others have taken very different views—Swinburne, for example, considered it one of the “four master poems” in the 1870 volume (see Doughty and Wahl, Letters, II. 96 ; see also 66-67, 73 ).

Printing History

First printed at the end of October 1869 in the Exhumation Proofs (Lewis's proof states 8 and 9: see The Trial Book Fallacy, 187 ), it was published in April 1870 in DGR's Poems , and was collected thereafter.

DGR had tried to get the first version of “Jenny” published in the Cornhill magazine in 1860 through Ruskin's sponsorship, but the latter was more than a little troubled by the poem and would not recommend it (see Fredeman, Correspondence, 60. 36A and 36 and Ruskin Rossetti Pre-Raphaelitism, 233-235 ). The poet then planned to publish the revised version of the poem (the dramatic monologue text) in his Dante at Verona and Other Poems in 1862, but when his wife died he cancelled his plans for that volume, which never appeared.


The poem is very much a painter's poem, and recalls in particular any number of Victorian and Pre-Raphaelite genre paintings that deal with contemporary social subjects and issues, like Hunt's The Awakening Conscience . DGR's own famous unfinished Found , begun in 1854, is specifically recalled in the text (lines 125ff.), and one thinks as well of Hesterna Rosa . G. L. Hersey goes so far as to call the poem “A Realist Altar-Piece”.


The poem deals forthrightly, not to say startlingly, with the question of prostitution in contemporary England. Buchanan and other critics of DGR attacked him for handling this kind of subject from the “inner standing point” that he took. DGR himself underlined this aspect of the poem when he told Hall Caine that “it is a sermon, nothing less. . .and on a great world, to most men unknown, though few consider themselves ignorant of it” ( Caine, 226 ).

As with Ruskin, DGR's self-consciousness about the social issues centering in prostitution was strong — his sister Christina worked at London's St. Mary Magdalen Home for Fallen Women. To the degree that the poem is indeed a sermon it resembles the critical approach of “The Burden of Nineveh” , where English society is mordantly examined as well.


One of the original epigraphs to the poem is from Shelley's translation “Scenes from Goethe's Faust” (lines 351-353), the same text (and virtually the same passage) that hovered in DGR's mind when he wrote his various texts on the Lilith theme. That the figure of Jenny is a contemporary version of Lilith in DGR's mind is important to realize.

“Jenny” may owe some debt to The Memoirs of Harriette Wilson (1825), as R. G. Howarth argues. It is certainly conscious of William Bell Scott's “Rosabell” , to which it may indeed be a critical rejoinder. DGR is also perhaps recalling Goldsmith's The Deserted Village, lines 325-336, though the latter text is an even more apt gloss for DGR's sonnet “Found”.

The language of the poem is often quite biblical, even when specific texts are not being quoted or echoed.


DGR is well-known for his nighttime walks through the streets of London, where he encountered the persons and the world evoked in his poem. Like many of his friends and acquaintances, he was much interested in “the fallen woman” as at once a social and an artistic figure, and he became intimate with two former prostitutes, Annie Miller and Fanny Cornforth, both of whom served him as models. The latter became his housekeeper and companion at Cheyne Walk. Jan Marsh points out that DGR visited the notorious Argyll Rooms in Picadilly ( Jan Marsh, The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood (1985), 142-146 ).

The Delaware MS stands closest to the first version of the poem, which probably would seem to us now a strongly auobiographical work. Certainly this manuscript has passages that may be read as expressions of personal attitudes.

Electronic Archive Edition: 1
Source File: 3-1848.raw.xml