The sonnet commemorates the life of the reformist Czar of Russia, Alexander II, who was assassinated on 1 March 1881 by a bomb thrown by a radical student. Alexander's greatest social reform was the freeing of the Russian serfs, which he did shortly after his accession to the throne in 1856.
As the subtitle shows, the poem was composed in mid-March 1881. Two manuscripts survive, a corrected copy at Princeton and an
earlier corrected copy, possibly the first draft, at Harvard.
First published in the 1881 Ballads and Sonnets and collected thereafter.
The date of DGR's sonnet indicates that he wrote it shortly after the band of conspirators who plotted and carried out the assination had been arrested. They were tried late in March and executed on 3 April.