Hand and Soul

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1849
Genre: short story


◦ Bentley, “Rossetti's ‘Hand and Soul’”

◦ Forsythe, “The Temper of Pre-Raphaelitism”

◦ Giles, “‘The House of Life’,” 101-108

◦ Gordon, “The Imaginary Portrait”

◦ Gregory, Life and Works of DGR II. 165

◦ Gurney, “A Painter's Day Dream”

◦ Lasner, “A Bibliographical Essay

◦ Lewis, The Trial Book Fallacy, 120-124

◦ Morse, “Autobiographical Elements in Hand and Soul”

◦ Pfordresher, “Rossetti's Hand and Soul”

◦ Sharp, DGR: A Record and a Study, 285-301

◦ Wise, Ashley Library IV. 122


Editorial glosses and textual notes are available in a pop-up window. Line numbering reflects the structure of the 1869 Privately Issued Pamphlet.

Scholarly Commentary


This story is one of the most important Rossettian and Pre-Raphaelite documents treating ideas of art and aesthetics. DGR was well aware of the work's programmatic—or as he called it, “metaphysical”—character (see Fredeman, Correspondence, 54. 63 and 57. 36 ). The date of the work's composition (1849) and the character of its fictional materials (mid- to late thirteenth-century) define it as a manifesto of early Pre-Raphaelitism. But DGR had no difficulty revising it twenty years later so that it could function in a similar way under very different circumstances, at least with respect to his own work. As Bentley and Riede have clearly shown, when DGR revised early materials (like this story) at a later point, and in particular in the crucial years 1869-1870, his revisions were in part designed to ensure that his works would not be read in a narrow, institutionally religious point of view. This kind of reading of his work was (and still is) an available option precisely because Pre-Raphaelitism developed in the same context that produced the Tractarian Movement and the (Anglo-)Catholic revival.

But DGR was never inclined to institutional religion, however much his work is rightly seen as fueled by his sympathies with religious ideas, and especially with mystical religious ideas. Furthermore, his fascination with medieval religious culture and its institutions must not be taken as evidence of a fideist inclination. On the contrary, it is—as it was with Ruskin and Morris—an index of an historicist imagination. DGR's historicism, however, is distinct, even idiosyncratic. “Hand and Soul” is the work that most clearly defines Rossetti's way of constellating his committments to art, religious devotion, and a thoroughly secular historicism.

First of all one wants to note the self-conscious use of style in the prose. The narrator is as much an historicist construction as is Chiaro, and both are clear surrogates for DGR—the one a contemporary surrogate, the other his thirteenth-century precursor. In drawing the two into a sympathetic relation, the story literally enacts, at the narrative level, the historicist argument it is proposing. This argument, however, is crucially modified by the religious and specifically devotional character of both men. The story's prologue and epilogue show that the narrator's primary interest in Chiaro's art is defined by the art's religious commitments. The story makes its own committment not simply to a humanist “art for art's sake”, but to “painters . . . who feared God and loved the art”. This ideal explains the epilogue's satiric treatment of the continental students, who take a secular and rationalist approach to art. Worse still, so far as the story represents the matter, is their smug humanist self-assurance that they know how to look at and judge works of art.

DGR's historicism, however, works against the humanist grain that is its customary accompaniment. It is, in this respect, much closer to the historicism of a Walter Benjamin than of a Georg Hegel. The principal aim of “Hand and Soul” is to show how “individual artists might learn to bring their work into line with the ‘purpose of fortune’” postulated in the story.

The climactic speech of Chiaro's soul defines the artistic program. It argues that the artist must practise a devotional art, and that the object of this devotion must be “God”, that is to say, something beyond what DGR's contemporary related poem, “St. Luke the Painter”, calls “soulless self-reflections of man's skill”. This God is a deus absconditus, however, which is why DGR's program, like his work, is shot through with mystical elements. Chiaro's soul makes its case—and appears on the scene—at the nadir of Chiaro's spiritual desolation. That dark moment is the key to the whole story, as to its program. It is the moment when Chiaro realizes, through his own self-examination, that one “May . . . be a devil and not know it”. At this moment the core of every humanist faith is being overthrown: in effect, Chiaro has discovered that self-knowledge is not a light to display and dispel ideology and superstition, it is itself a deep—perhaps the deepest—superstition. One recalls the profound Byronic insight that came to dominate so much of European thought, especially the thought of Baudelaire, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche: “The tree of knowledge is not that of life” ( Manfred I.i.12).

But “Hand and Soul” does not ground itself in that kind of heroic self-criticism. When Chiaro's soul tells him that he must “Set thine hand to serve man with God”, he is being enjoined to a worldly art that is executed in a spirit of humility and devotion. Italian primitive art is notable to DGR and his narrator for its devotional attitude toward its materials, i.e., its religious subjects. The latter are among the most “worldly” subjects to those primitive painters simply because the most quotidian features of their world were religious. The contemporary application would be to strive for a “faithful” (in both senses) representation of the world, including the immediate historical world, not as it should or might be, but as it is or appears to one's unmonitored consciousness. The Pre-Raphaelite term for this attitude was often “truth to Nature”, where “Nature” stood for an unvarnished (in several senses) pictorial representation.

But there is another, resolutely idealistic side to this matter that appears in the climax of the soul's speech to Chiaro. The soul's argument to Chiaro is that he will “serve man”—that is to say, perform a useful social function with his art—only if that art is wholly devotional and committed to the revelation of spiritual realities. The soul's argument is that Chiaro must humble himself and make his art at once a figure and a source of humility. “By making thyself his [i.e., man's] equal [man will] learn to hold communion with thee, and at last own thee above him”. In this dialectic the pre-eminence of a supernatural order in Chiaro's work grounds the eminence of the artist's work in relation to others.

Textual History: Composition

Although WMR wrote that this story “was written in December 1849, almost entirely in one night (or rather earliest morning)” ( 1911, 679n ), that statement is not correct. In fact DGR began the work sometime before 24 September 1849, and he clearly did so with the object of including it in the first number of the projected Germ (see his letter to WMR of 24 September 1849, Fredeman, Correspondence, 49. 13 ). DGR left for his trip to France and Belgium at the end of September and almost certainly did no work on the story until he returned to London at the beginning of November.

WMR's contemporary notes show that the story was “resumed” on 17 December 1849. Whether DGR had done any work on the piece during the previous six weeks is unclear, but we do know that from the 17th the composition process was continuous and took something over five days. On the 22nd he had “finished the epilogue to “Hand and Soul” (Fredeman, The P.R.B. Journal, 33-35 ). The crucial day was apparently 21 December, when DGR “had been all day at his tale, and sat up all night with it as well, without going to bed. By this means he was able to finish the narrative”. Hall Caine was the first to circulate the story of the single night of composition (see Caine, Recollections, 134 ).

No manuscript of the story appears extant.

Textual History: Revision

DGR began correcting the story right after finishing its composition. He seems to have received some proofs on 24 December and was making “certain corrections and alterations” on the 25th. On the 27th he had to call for a second proof for correcting since the first was “full of blunders” (Fredeman, The P.R.B. Journal 36-37 ). All these corrections were prepared for the first publication of the story in no. 1 of the Germ . The story was reprinted from the Germ text in the American art journal The Crayon in vol. 5 (October 1858), pages 273-278 .

DGR published the story later in the Fortnightly Review from the text that he had printed in 1869 in the early pre-publication proofs and trial books for his 1870 Poems . Before, during, and after the first of these 1869 printings—the Penkill Proofs— DGR went through the story and made various alterations. The September and October changes were sometimes made at the suggestion of his brother, as their correspondence with each other during August and September 1869 shows (see Fredeman, Correspondence, 69. 130 to 69. 144 ) and Peattie, Letters of WMR, 221-226 ). In general, WMR suggested changes that would correct anachronisms and errors, as in the opening paragraph where he told DGR to remove the “crucifixes and addolorate” because they were “not characteristic of the time.”

DGR made a few hand corrections to some of the pamphlet copies of the work that his publisher Ellis, at DGR's request, had printed off in late 1869 for private distribution (see textual notes below for paragraphs 29 and 32).

Production History

Morse dismisses Ford Madox Hueffer's claim (see Hueffer, The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (1902), 47 ) that an early drawing by DGR was the “figura mistica” of the story. This watercolor, thought to be done in mid-1848 “represents an auburn-haired young woman standing with joined hands in the posture described by Rossetti” in his story (see Morse, “Autobiographical Elements in ‘Hand and Soul’”, 336 ). Morse sees the model as Christina Rossetti but this suggestion is not persuasive. Morse does maintain that the drawing runs in the line of inspiration and idea that culminated in the story.

WMR points out (see Family Letters, I. 155 ) that DGR made a drawing for an engraving that was intended to illustrate the tale in a later number of the Germ. The drawing was made in March 1850, but when DGR saw the engraving “he was so displeased with the result that . . . he tore up the impression and scratched the plate over.” The picture represented Chiaro “in the act of painting his Soul.”


From The Crayon reprinting and WMR's comments on the work in Family Letters, it is clear that the story established a reputation for itself very early. That reputation is reflected in DGR's decision to have the tale set in type, and then published, in 1869; and it is very likely that the successful American reprint must have reaffirmed DGR's own committment to the work. The central position it holds in DGR's oeuvre, both pictorial and literary, is now firmly established.

Printing History

The story was first published on 1 January in the Germ no. 1 (pages 23-33), and this text was reprinted in 1858 in the American periodical The Crayon . The reprinted text has several significant substantive alterations plus a number of small word and phrase changes. In addition, the editors put in American spellings for various words and they translated the foreign language words in DGR's tale.

In 1869 DGR had the work set in type with a body of his poems in the Penkill Proofs, the first of the pre-publication textual states that would eventuate in the publication of the 1870 Poems. The text of the story here derives from The Germ text, a copy of which DGR used to mark up with his initial corrections and revisions in August 1869. This copy is in the Houghton Library. Various further changes to the text were made during the next few months (August - November 1869) as the tale passed through DGR's successive proof states for his 1870 Poems.

When the manuscript book of DGR's poems that had been buried in his wife's grave was exhumed in October 1869, DGR began the process of incorporating these works into the pre-publication texts, and in doing so he decided to remove the prose story. “Hand and Soul” was printed with the First Trial Book early in October, but when the Second Trial Book was printed it was not present (around 25 November). DGR detached the pages of the First Trial Book containing the story ([178]-199) and had them printed and distributed privately as a small pamphlet paginated [1]-22. At the same time he arranged to have it published in The Fortnightly Review, where it appeared in the December issue (n.s. 7, pages 692-702 ).

Copies of the privately printed pamphlet have some hand corrections of a few errors, and one copy (the copy at Texas, originally owned by William Sharp) carries a substantive change by DGR, the last that he made.

Mark Samuel Lasner's bibliographical essay on the private printing of “Hand and Soul” is an invaluable guide for anyone trying to get a clear view of DGR's general publishing intentions at this crucial period in late 1869.


“Hand and Soul” clearly establishes the socio-historical locus of its imaginary events. Bentley is perhaps not correct when he says that “Chiaro is the fictional equivalent of Orcagna, Gozzoli, and the other artists whose ‘wall paintings’ had come to Rossetti's attention in 1848 through Lasinio's engravings after the Pittura al Fresco del Campo Santo di Pisa (1812).” The period of DGR's story is earlier, as the epigraph from Bonaggiunta Urbiciana suggests, and as the reference to Giunta Pisano makes certain; specifically, it is the mid- to late thirteenth-century when Italian art is on the brink of the Renaissance. Giotto has not yet appeared, indeed (according to the story), even Cimabue is only just coming into public prominence. The point of all this is to encourage the reader to make a mental act of art historical recovery: that is, not only to try to imagine this primitive cultural scene, but to realize it in Vasarian terms. For DGR's tale, in the end, is an effort to rethink art history outside of the humanist paradigm that Vasari's Lives had laid down as the truth of the history of Italian art, and hence as the standard of measuring the truth and value of European art in general. The story of Chiaro is the story of an artist who refused to take the Renaissance road. As such, it is a story with a profound contemporary (mid-Victorian) message. It is a message that in certain respects anticipates a similar refusal made by programmatic Modernist artists.


Although Pfordresher, following Wendell V. Harris, argues that DGR's story is the fons et origo of the “modern short story” (see Pfordresher, 103-104 ), the real source is E. A. Poe, just as Poe's tales — in particular his hoax tales like “Von Kempelen and His Discovery” — was the inspiration for DGR's extraordinary tale. Indeed, the innovative bibliographical format of early nineteenth-century periodicals like Blackwood's should probably be the credited source for all this kind of work, for it was that textual environment which encouraged the kind of fiction Poe and DGR created. That is to say, by throwing together in the same periodical a miscellany of materials, both fiction and reportage, Blackwood's and other periodicals created the conditions for Poe's hoaxes as well as DGR's less ironical derivative works like “Hand and Soul” and “St. Agnes of Intercession”, as well as the flood of brilliant works that descend from those things.

The fact that the story was taken for historical truth by many during DGR's lifetime (see Sharp, DGR: A Record and a Study, 285-286 ; and Peattie, Letters of William Michael Rossetti, 101n ) is relevant to its literary character. It is, like so many Pre-Raphaelite ballads and other works, written in a pastiche style. The latter is no mere rhetorical affectation. It represents a fundamental moral and aesthetic feature of the Pre-Raphaelite program, which attempted a kind of resurrection of certain cultural and spiritual values it associated with late Medieval art and society. The act of pastiche was for DGR, and probably for Morris as well, a sign that a contemporary work was aspiring to carry out, in a secular age, a transcendentalizing spiritual act equivalent to the devotional acts they saw executed in primitive European art and poetry.

Bentley has usefully noted a number of other important literary influences on “Hand and Soul”: T. G. Hake's Vates; or The Philosophy of Madness (1840), Charles Wells 's Stories after Nature (1822 ), and of course Browning (especially “Pippa Passes”) and Sordello), Dante's Vita Nuova , and Vasari's Lives of the Painters (1550, 1568). The Sordello influence is especially important since DGR's tale is virtually a re-writing of its central ideas (a congruence less easy to see because of Browning's convoluted management of the events of his poetic tale).

Finally, DGR's story ultimately derives from a text in Dante, Purgatorio, IX. 94-99 , which DGR translated.


Although formally a work of fiction, the story has always (and rightly) been taken as DGR's artistic manifesto. In this respect the work's autobiographical character must be acknowledged, with Chiaro being DGR's alter ego in the tale. Morse argues that Giunta Pisano is Ford Madox Brown, and that the “figura mistica” painting of the tale is a watercolor DGR executed between March and August 1848, before he wrote his story. The latter two identifications are perhaps unwontedly specific; nonetheless, they correctly signal the intensely personal character of DGR's story.

Electronic Archive Edition: 1