Alternately titled: Commandments

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1871-1881
Rhyme: aabbcca
Meter: iambic tetrameter
Genre: lyric


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

Scholarly Commentary


Pater much admired this philosophical work, which is closely related to “The Cloud Confines”, another reflective and philosophical poem written in the same period when this poem was begun.

The poem has to be read in the context of the publication and subsequent reception of DGR's 1870 Poems. This volume was widely reviewed and praised, an initial laudatory reception in no small part managed by DGR himself. DGR was quite set up by this general response and when he decided in the summer of 1871 to spend some time at Kelmscott, he was planning to devote his working hours to writing verse. This he did from August to mid-October, as his letters of those months reveal, and a poem like this one reveals the kind of authoritative voice and style DGR was aspiring toward. See, for example, his comments about “Down Stream ”, one of the first of the poems he undertook during his Kelmscott sojourn— and its Tennysonian public style of address. When Buchanan's attack appeared and the anonymous author discovered, DGR's new program of verse-writing came to an abrupt halt.

Textual History: Composition

This snake of a poem began in August 1871 at Kelmscott, where it “came into my head during a walk,” as he told William Bell Scott, “ and I think of carrying it further probably” (see his letter to Scott of 25 August 1871 Fredeman, Correspondence, 71. 129 ). At that point DGR titled it “Commandments”. He sent this initial three-stanza piece to Scott in a letter of 13 August 1871 (see his letter to Scott of that date, Fredeman, Correspondence, 71. 123 ). That manuscript has been separated from the 13 August letter and its associated materials in the library at Princeton University, but it is preserved elsewhere in the collection. Shortly afterwards DGR sent the same three stanzas to Thomas Gordon Hake in a letter 2 September (see Fredeman, Correspondence 71. 135 ). His concern about the text appears again in his letter to his brother of 10 September 1871, where he asks about the appropriateness of a stanza that particularly troubled him (and that he would subsequently remove).

DGR continued to work at the poem for a number of years—particularly in 1879-80, when he began assembling its scattered pieces and augmented it for publication in 1881. That process is exposed in the extensive draft of the poem preserved in the Ashley Library. This manuscript contains many more stanzas than DGR would eventually allow to appear in the poem he finally published in 1881. An integral fair copy of three stanzas (titled “Commandments”) is included among the miscellaneous poems DGR gathered at the back of the gift book of verses he gave to Mrs. Morris in 1874. This text is substantively identical to the three-stanza version that DGR sent to Scott in August 1871.

Unincorporated stanzas and fragments that DGR at times considered including in the poem are found throughout his notebooks. WMR published a number of these pieces in his editions of DGR's works (see the several septets printed by WMR as part of his “Versicles and Fragments” and the “Scraps” sections of his 1911 collection; see also the “Pro hoste hostem” fragment printed by WMR in the section of his 1911 edition titled “Foreign (With Some English Translations)”). Many of the passages of miscellaneous prose scattered through DGR's notebooks of the 1870s show that this poem and DGR's preoccupation with Buchanan were closely related in his mind. See DGR's 1871 epigram on Buchanan as well as the notebooks.

Printing History

The poem was first published in the 1881 Ballads and Sonnets volume and collected thereafter.


It is difficult to believe that DGR's poem was not influenced by two works published in 1871: Swinburne's “Hertha” and Edwin Arnold's The Light of Asia (in particular Book 8, lines 94ff.)

Electronic Archive Edition: 1
Source File: 34-1871.raw.xml