The Portrait

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1847; 1869 (text); 1862 (begun before); 1870 (picture, completed)
Rhyme: ababccddc
Meter: iambic tetrameter
Genre: dramatic monologue


◦ Baum, Manuscripts in the Duke University Library 26-33.

◦ Boos, The Poetry of DGR: 215-226

◦ Gregory, The Life and Works of DGR II. 135-137

◦ Howard, The Dark Glass, 12-19

◦ Keane, “D. G. Rossetti's Poems 1870”, 204

◦ Masefield, Thanks Before Going, 50-51

◦ Rees, Poetry of DGR, 25-33

◦ Riede, DGR and the Limits of Victorian Vision, 247-249

◦ Riede, DGR Revisited, 111-113

◦ Surtees, A Catalogue Raisonné I. 93-97


Editorial glosses and textual notes are available in a pop-up window. Line numbering reflects the structure of the 1881 Poems First Edition text.

Scholarly Commentary


This poem is an independent creation made in 1869 from DGR's reworking of his 1847 dramatic monologue On Mary's Portrait Which I Painted Six Years Ago. The latter was to have been a part of the unfinished story St. Agnes of Intercession. As this poem's conscious evocation of the myth of Beatrice and the “new life” shows, all of these works illustrate DGR's programmatic treatment of art as a kind of sacramental action. But for DGR, art's sacramentalism in the “latter days” of the 19th century operates outside the formal structures of institutional religion (in contrast to its condition in pre-reformation England and Europe). This is why, for all its religious trappings, DGR's work is not finally “Christian” in any doctrinal sense. His method is strictly historical. He emphasizes the centrality of Christian art because the Christian religion is Europe's most fully realized set of spiritual forms.

The poem hangs just on the edge of being a double work. Stanza 3 (which formed part of the first state of the exhumed text) strongly suggests that DGR associated the poem with two of his own pictures: the earliest painted version of Beata Beatrix, which DGR had been working on well before his wife's death in 1862; and How They Met Themselves, DGR's “bogie” picture which so preoccupied him around 1861 (see Surtees, A Catalogue Raisonneé I.74 ). The variant text in the Fitwilliam draft manuscript (received stanza 3) makes the connection to the “bogie” picture very clear.

Textual History: Composition

The earliest texts of this poem are the draft and the fair copy manuscripts in the Fitzwilliam Museum, both made in October 1869. These texts led directly into the first printed text in the Exhumation Proofs, which were printed around 30 October 1869. In this state the poem has already been completely recast from its 1847 form. We know that the poem was part of the manuscript book that had been buried with DGR's wife in 1862 and exhumed in early October 1869, and that DGR received the exhumed volume on 20 October. Since DGR was reading the recovered poems to his family and friends by 26 October, and since they were printed out by 30 October, it seems likely that “The Portrait” was already in some recast form when DGR received it on 20 October. The surviving manuscripts support this view, but not conclusively. It is possible that the poem he had on 20 October was the 1847 precursor text— i.e., the poem we now know as “On Mary's Portrait Which I Painted Six Years Ago”, and that DGR rewrote it completely in late October for the Exhumation Proofs.

Textual History: Revision

DGR revised the poem in local ways on the Exhumation Proofs in early November, and when the text was set in type for the Second Trial Book (26 November) he made major revisions, including the addition of five new stanzas (received stanzas 2, 6-9). The Ashmolean MS, a corrected copy of stanzas 6-9, represents DGR's further revisions, which he completed when he was correcting proof for the Second Trial Book.


See Commentary (Reception History) for the 1870 Poems.

Printing History

First printed in the Exhumation Proofs (30 October 1869); reprinted and revised in the Second Trial Book (26 November 1869), and first published in the 1870 Poems, and collected thereafter.


Besides Browning's “My Last Duchess” invoked at the outset, the poem is much in debt to Poe's many representations of beautiful dead women. This influence becomes apparent when the poem is read in relation to DGR's illustrations for “The Raven” (see e.g., Angel Footfalls). The network of subtle relationships is also usefully explicated when we remember that this poem traces its origins back to the Poe-influenced story St. Agnes of Intercession. The image in lines 100-101—particularly in the Fitzwilliam draft manuscript version—directly recalls DGR's illustrations for Poe's “The Raven” (see the Victoria and Albert drawing in particular).

Like the sonnet of the same title, this poem recollects Fazio Degli Uberti's great Canzone. His Portrait of His Lady, Angiola of Verona, which DGR translated. Uberti's poem, once regularly attributed to Dante, was a seminal work for DGR. And of course Dante's vision of Beatrice is a foundational presence in this poem.

Several other of DGR's translations from the early Italian poets are also related to this poem—for example Jacopo da Lentino's “Canzonetta. Of his Lady, and of her portrait” and his “Sonnet. Of his Lady's Face”; and Giacomino Pugliesi's “ Canzone. Of his Dead Lady”.


Since DGR always regarded Beata Beatrix as a kind of memorial to his dead wife (she was the model for the painting), and since—contrary to what was believed by many earlier scholars and students—DGR had in fact done considerable work on that painting before his wife's death, the autobiographical features of this poem get underscored because of its strong relationship with the painting. The very fact that this crucial painting had not been completed before Elizabeth's death invested it for DGR with a grave import.

We should also remember that this was one of the poems buried with his wife. That fact emphasizes the poem's (as it were) subsurface biographical aspects. Of course the poem carefully disguises these matters, and forces only an oblique awareness of them; but the same obliquity is pursued throughout The House of Life, where the autobiographical aspects of the work are never in doubt.

Electronic Archive Edition: 1
Source File: 50-1869.raw.xml