Nuptial Sleep

Alternately titled: Placata Venere

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1869?
Rhyme: abbaabbacdcdcd
Meter: iambic pentameter
Genre: sonnet


◦ Baum, ed., The House of Life, 73-75

◦ Mégroz, Painter Poet of Heaven and Earth, 196-201

◦ Riede, DGR Revisited, 123-126

◦ Sharp, DGR: A Record and a Study, 412-414


Editorial glosses and textual notes are available in a pop-up window. Line numbering reflects the structure of the 1870 Poems First Edition text.

Scholarly Commentary


The Fleshly School controversy centered in this poem, which was singled out for special abuse by Robert Buchanan in “The Fleshly School of Poetry” review of DGR's 1870 Poems. DGR (among others) defended the propriety of the sonnet, but he did not reprint it in The House of Life sequence in 1881 because he decided that it employed “an unpleasant excess of realism of a kind not suitable for an indiscriminate audience” (see Sharp, DGR: A Record and a Study, 413 ). That judgment recalls DGR's original hesitation to print the poem at all. In August 1869, as the proof process for the 1870 volume was beginning, DGR asked his brother whether the sonnet should be included in the sequence. WMR replied (on 23 August): “Put in “Placata Venere” [its original title] by all means—at any rate so long as the collection remains private. I must re-read the poem before expressing a distinct opinion as to publication”. He voted to keep the poem and publish it in the volume (see Peattie, Letters of William Michael Rossetti 218, 221 ). That original title, “Placata Venere”, is interesting. It is an ablative absolute and stands to the text of the poem as a kind of loose first line; so that the meaning (literally rendered) runs something like: “Venus having been satisfied, At length their long kiss...”.

The post-coital inanition described in the poem is employed as a figure of the lovers (as it were) “laid asleep in body” and become souls living in a world beyond “the tide of dreams”. (The poem's sestet defines three distinct places inhabitable by the lovers: the real world available to the conscious soul; the world of dreams, where the dreaming soul possesses a kind of consciousness; and a world of transcendence, “below” both of the other two.) The drama of the sestet does not focus on the latter, however, but on the apparent gift that comes from an encounter with that order of transcendence: for the greatest wonder comes when the poet, consciousness regained, is aware of the full material reality of his beloved. That awareness in effect turns her real presence into an emblem of the absolute.

No more blessed moment comes in the entire sequence of The House of Life. Indeed, the gloom that gathers about the sequence involves the poet's inability to regain the simple wonder of that kind of real presence of the object of love and desire.

Textual History: Composition

The exact date of composition is not known, but DGR probably wrote it in the summer of 1869, perhaps as late as August. It could have been written much earlier, in 1861 or even 1858, as Jan Marsh suggests. Neither the British Library manuscript nor the (later) Fitzwilliam manuscript settle the question of the poem's date of composition.

Textual History: Revision

Several passages in the sonnet were labored over in the 1869-1870 proofs, in particular line 8. On 2 September he wrote to his brother: “I have changed the title of ‘Placatâ Venere’ to ‘Nuptial Sleep’ which I think will help it to stand fire, and have improved some lines in it. However when you see it, I want you to say if you think one can say ‘their long kiss severed’ and ‘their bosoms sundered’ or whether ‘was severed’ and ‘were sundered’ are necessary. I should think either would do.” He returned to the matter on 14 September: “About ‘Nuptial Sleep.’ I enclose the proof before the last to ask you about the MS. alteration at the bottom, which is now in print. Above and below it I have written a further variation underlined. Do you think this or the present printed one best? I incline to the printed one. Then as to ‘chirped at each other.’ This is expressive of the lips kissing at each other as they lie apart. But is it clear, or if clear is it pleasant? Would it be better ‘kissed at each other’ or more likely ‘moaned to each other’? Or does any other phrase occur to you? Or do you like it as it stands?” Finally, on 3 October, he settled the problem of line 8: “I think I have hit the mark now in that line of ‘Nuptial Sleep’: ‘Fawned on each other where they lay apart.’ (see Fredeman, Correspondence, 69. 146, 154, 168 ).


This is the most notorious sonnet in The House of Life sequence, and was particularly set apart by Buchanan in “The Fleshly School of Poetry” as an emblem of the indecency of DGR's work. DGR's reply to Buchanan's attack on the poem appeared in his essay “The Stealthy School of Criticism”.

Printing History

Although it does not appear in the extant copies of the Penkill Proofs (printed in mid-August), the sonnet was in fact printed in those proofs (on page 137), but was removed by DGR, who was well aware of the difficulty it might present for some readers: “I think I must include the Sonnet ‘Placatâ Venere’ as it is one of my best, but if you are showing the things en famille you had better remove it (it is torn out as you will see) and replace it at the end of the first section of Sonnets—not as paged. However of this I may perhaps write further.” (see his letter to WMR of 21 August 1869, Fredeman, Correspondence, 69. 130 ). In sending the proofs to WMR he asked his brother if he thought the sonnet should be included, and the latter replied that it should (see Peattie, Letters of WMR, 218, 230 ).

It was kept through the subsequent pre-publication texts and published in the 1870 Poems as Sonnet V in The House of Life. Baum asserts that “it was withdrawn in the seventh edition, 1872” of this volume ( Baum, The House of Life, 74n ), but there was no seventh edition; and the poem appears in all six of the Ellis editions, as well as the 1874 Tauchnitz edition. It was, however, removed from the sequence published in the 1881 Ballads and Sonnets volume and did not appear in any of the collected editions until it was restored in WMR's two-volume edition of 1904 (I. 98), where it is numbered VIb. (But in 1894 the American edition of The House of Life published by Copeland and Day printed the sonnet as part of the sequence.) It is now regularly printed as Sonnet VIa in the sequence.

Electronic Archive Edition: 1
Source File: 5-1869.raw.xml