The King's Tragedy (James I of Scots - 20 February 1437)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1881
Rhyme: >a4b3c4b3
Meter: iambic
Genre: ballad
Model: (DGR varies the meter with quintains and sexains; in these the initial line is left unrhymed. The quintains then rhyme as the regular quatrains and the sexains alternate tetrameter and trimeters rhyming abcbcb.)


◦ Culler, “Sources of ‘The King's Tragedy’” (1944), 427-441

◦ Fredeman ed., “A Shadow of Dante (Extracts from WMR's Unpublished Diaries)” (1982), 217-245

◦ Keane, DGR: The Poet as Craftsman, 179-193


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

Scholarly Commentary


The poem's moral center comes at lines 281-385, where the king's friend, the poet Sir Hugh, sings his song about the power of love and of fate. The passage implicitly argues the moral and social relevance of love poetry. As such, it clearly reflects upon DGR's own verse, where love is such a dominant thematic focus. The passage relates back to lines 26-43, where the imprisoned king learned wisdom from the song of a nightingale. That detail in the poem, as well as some others, is drawn directly from James I's celebrated poem The Kingis Quair, portions of which DGR transliterated and worked into his ballad.

The poem's aesthetic center lies elsewhere, however: that is to say, in the strong passages that pivot on the theme of fate and revenge. Three sections are especially notable: the old woman's prophecy of the king's death (lines 147ff.); the scene of the conspirator's revenge-murder (especially from lines 706-741); and the scene where the queen cherishes her revenge on her husband's killers (lines 777-809). The second of these passages ends with four lines that link back to lines 368-374 and the image of a pit of destruction lying below the turning wheel of fate. That image in turn inevitably connects to the controlling figure in DGR's “The Orchard Pit”.

Textual History: Composition

On July 26, 1880, Rossetti wrote to William Bell Scott, to whom he had sent a copy of the “White Ship” not long before, indicating that he now planned to write “something in the same vein. The Death of James the First of Scotland, told by Catherine Douglas, will be my next essay.” But Rossetti does not appear to have made much progress on this project until later that winter. Eager to finish the ballad in order to fill out the length of his planned new edition of poems, Rossetti wrote to Jane Morris on December 17, “I must get one long ballad done—that on the death of James of Scotland.” By February, Rossetti was at work on the ballad, with the help of the Maitland edition of the Dethe of the Kynge of Scotis. WMR records in his diary that DGR took up the work in earnest around 16 February 1881 and that the work was half finished a week later. The ballad was finished on 3 March (see Fredeman, Correspondence, 80. 260, 386 and 81. 79, 99 ).

DGR's draft manuscript is in the Fitzwilliam Museum Library; his fair printer's copy with various additions and corrections is in the Huntington. The draft manuscript is an especially interesting document since it carries materials—for instance, elaborate prose summaries of the ballad's key poetic events—that throw into sharp relief DGR's compositional methods for poems of this kind.

Early fragments of the poem appear in Note Book II (lines 165-170) and Note Book IV (lines 1-17 and lines 149-152, 568-572) in the British Library. Note Book III in the Duke University library also has a copy of lines 165-170, 149-152, and 1-17.

Textual History: Revision

DGR originally intended to title the poem “Kate Barlass”, after his chosen narrator. In a mid-March 1881 exchange of letters he discussed with his brother various possible titles such as “Catherine Douglas,” “Catherine's Record,” “Queen Jane's Poet,” and “The Queen's Poet-King”. He settled on “The King's Tragedy” in late March.


To this day opinions about the quality of the poem differ greatly, though certain passages—for instance, those treating the prophecy of the old woman—have always been admired. The most frequent charge against the ballad, diffuseness, no doubt emerges because of the economy that is such a signal feature of DGR's ballads. The slow-motion narratives of “Rose Mary” and “The Bride's Prelude” do not submit to such a charge because neither are built around a realist narrative structure.

Printing History

First published in the 1881 Ballads and Sonnets and collected thereafter.


Born in 1394, James I became heir to the throne of Scotland after the murder of his older brother at the hands of a rival political faction. Fearing that James might suffer the same fate, his father, Robert III, attempted to send the prince to France in secret. But James was intercepted by the army of Henry Bolingbroke (Henry IV), which spirited him off to England where he remained in captivity (alternating between stints at court, in the Tower, and in military service) until 1424. While he was thus immured, James wrote The Kingis Quair, which speaks of his love for Joan Beaufort, whom he married shortly before his return to Scotland. After James's return to Scotland, he attempted to implement a number of sweeping reforms that served to strengthen his own central authority through the often violent suppression of an unruly and rebellious feudal nobility. The strong opposition to these efforts eventually led to James's murder by rebel lords in late February 1437, six months after the failed campaign at Roxburgh.


DGR's main sources for his ballad include George Gilfillan's Specimens with Memoirs of the Less-Known British Poets , the Kingis Quair , and Sir Walter Scott's Tales of a Grandfather (1828: first series). However, his most important source was a fifteenth century prose chronicle The Dethe of the Kynge of Scotis , translated by John Shirley around 1440. Ellis provided DGR with an edition of this work, published by the Maitland Club in 1837 as The Life and Death of King James the First of Scotland . It became the source of episodes such as James's conversation with the King of Love and Robert Græme's defiant outburst at the meeting of parliament. DGR's use of this chronicle also offers a glimpse at his methods of working with his sources: “It would show him omitting freely whatever he found dull, but always expanding and expanding, even to the very skirts of dullness, whatever he decided to use” (Culler, 437). The most striking of these augmentations is Rossetti's transformation of the chronicle's brief reference to “a woman of Yreland, that clepid herselfe a suthesayer” who warns the king “ye pase this water, ye shall never turne ayane on lyve“ (quoted in Culler, 435). into one of the most dramatic and haunting moments in his ballad (see lines 165ff.).

Elsewhere DGR abbreviates significant plot details while expanding the story's psychological dimensions and their consequences. Whereas the chronicle offers extensive and gruesome details of the regicides's tortures and executions, DGR compresses his own version of the brutal events into one splendidly wicked line spoken in a whisper by Queen Jane (line 809).

DGR infuses the ballad with the Christological mythos. The king presides at a kind of Last Supper with Robert Stuart as Judas and the Voidee-cup as Christ's chalice. It perhaps hardly needs remark that DGR's treatment is radically secularized.

As we see from the early fragment (lines 165-170) in the small Note Book II (British Library, the material was originally associated in his mind with his “Michael Scott's Wooing” project.


That the ballad had strong personal meanings for DGR is certain. DGR's inclination to identify with James I may have begun in 1868 and 1869, when he stayed and wrote at Penkill Castle, where the main spiral staircase contained frescoes depicting scenes from James I's poem. One can hardly fail to see the personal relation of lines 26-43 to DGR's own life: see especially “Beauty and the Bird”. In addition, the whole treatment of the relation between the King and the Queen recalls DGR's way of thinking about Jane Morris, epitomized in the late (uncompleted) project of Perlascura: Tweleve Coins for One Queen.

Electronic Archive Edition: 1
Source File: 5-1881.raw.xml