Down Stream

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1871
Rhyme: a4b3c4b3d4e3d4e3
Meter: iambic
Genre: ballad


◦ Fontana, “Pre-Raphaelite Suicides”, 38-28.

◦ Gregory, Life and Works of DGR II. 138.

◦ Rees, Poetry of DGR 93.


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


Written while DGR was punting on the Thames near Kelmscott in late July 1871, the verses are (he told William Bell Scott) “a little ballad or song or something made in a punt on the river—not a very poetic style of locomotion. It's rather out of my usual way—made aiming at the sort of popular view that Tennyson perhaps alone succeeds in taking”. But the poem is as much an experiment with the ballad form as anything else, a fact underscored in his remarks to his mother when he sent her a copy of the poem in a letter of 11 August (see Fredeman, Correspondence, 71. 107 and 120 ): “you will note in the [poem] the intention to make the first half of each verse, expressing the landscape, tally with the second expressing the emotion, even to repetition of phrases”.

In commenting on an illustration for the poem that was done by Ford Madox Brown for the poem's first printing, DGR pointed to an interesting conceptual feature of the work: “At first sight the two people in the boat look like rustics, but I suppose this may be otherwise when one considers the costumes. I mean my unheroic hero for an Oxford swell, though you may say certainly that the internal evidence is rather less perspicuous” (letter to Madox Brown, 1 October 1871, Fredeman, Correspondence, 71. 158 ).

Textual History: Composition

DGR must have written the poem fairly quickly. He sent a copy (titled “The River's Record”) to William Bell Scott on 26 July 1871 and discussed the text in a subsequent letter (2 August). This is the fair copy now in the Lilly Library, Indiana University. Copies also went to Thomas Gordon Hake and to his mother on 7 and 11 August, respectively (see Fredeman, Correspondence, 71. 117 and 120 ). The poem kept its first title until 2 September, when DGR told Hake in another letter that he was changing it to “Down Stream” “as the other title seemed dubious” (see Fredeman, Correspondence, 71. 135 ). A fair copy is included in the section of miscellaneous poems gathered at the back of the notebook of verse that he gave to Mrs. Morris in 1874.

Textual History: Revision

The only substantive alterations DGR made to the original text was in the title and line 37, which changes in the copies he sent to Hake and his mother. He also briefly considered the title “May and June”, as he wrote in his letter to Scott of 2 August.

Printing History

First printed, with two engravings by Ford Madox Brown, in October 1871 in The Dark Blue 2 no. 8, 210-212 . It was later collected in the 1881 Poems. DGR sent the poem to the magazine at Brown's request, and he changed the title when he sent it in late August (see his letter to Scott of 25 August 1871, Fredeman, Correspondence, 71. 129 ).


Initially Ford Madox Brown contracted to do one drawing to illustrate the poem as printed in The Dark Blue; this is the drawing of the lovers embracing in the punt. At the last moment Brown added a second drawing—the picture of the drowned girl. As DGR's letters to Brown of September and October 1871 show, he was very pleased with the two illustrations: “it is like a tenderer kind of Hogarth and seems to me much the most successful of your book illustrations. . . . The little one is very pretty too” (see Fredeman, Correspondence, 71. 158 ).


Though quite sophisticated in its technique, the poem is fundamentally a ballad on “the old familiar story of seduction, desertion and suicide” (see Rees, Poetry of DGR, 93 ).


DGR wrote the poem shortly after he began his stay at Kelmscott Manor with Jane Morris and her children in July 1871. William was away at the time on a trip to Iceland.

Electronic Archive Edition: 1
Source File: 31-1871.raw.xml