Mary's Girlhood (For a Picture)

Alternately titled: The Girlhood of Mary Virgin

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1848 (sonnet I), 1849 (sonnet II)
Date: 1848-1849
Subject: The Blessed Virgin in the house of her parents.
Rhyme: abbaabbacdecde
Meter: iambic pentameter
Genre: sonnet
The pair of sonnets have the same rhyme scheme, although in the octave of the second lines 6-7 are distinctly off-rhymes with lines 2-3.
Model: Christina Rossetti (Mary Virgin)
Model: Mrs. Gabriele Rossetti (St. Anne)
Model: Old Williams (A family dependent. He sat for St. Joachim.)
Repainting: Summer, 1848
Repainting the head of the angel.
Repainting: December, 1864
Retouching and reframing.


◦ Beegel, “Mary's Girlhood” (May 1982), 1-6

◦ Bentley, “Rossetti's ‘Ave’” (1977), 21-35

◦ Demoor, “Art-Catholic Revisited” (2005) , 5-13

◦ Gregory, The Life and Work of DGR, II. 102-103

◦ Grieve, Art of DGR: The Pre-Raphaelite Period

◦ Sharp, DGR: A Record and a Study, 126-132

◦ Heffner, “Symbolism in Rossetti's ‘The Girlhood of Mary Virgin’” (1985), 68-80

◦ McGann, “Medieval versus Victorian versus Modern”, 97-112

◦ Surtees, A Catalogue Raisonné I. 9-11.

◦ Swafford, “Early Marian Poems” (1982), 78-91


Editorial glosses and textual notes are available in a pop-up window. Line numbering reflects the structure of the 1911.

Scholarly Commentary


The sonnets that accompany and comment upon DGR's first painting are, like the painting itself, selfconsciously programmatic works designed to promote certain ideas of artistic practise. Like the painting, both sonnets use a style of meticulous detail, and they seek to re-present a medieval awareness or interpretation of the pictorial features. That interpretation is itself treated in a painterly and historicized way, for one of the principal objects of the treatment is to confront the contemporary Victorian world with a way of thinking and feeling that offers a shocking contrast to the dominant culture and its values. The difference is to be registered as both a cultural/moral one and a poetic/aesthetic one.

Most important for DGR is the stance artists (and poets) should take toward their work. From the outset and throughout his career, DGR promoted an ideal of imaginative practise that he constructed from his reading of Dante. The example of Christianity and, most especially, a medieval approach to the Christian ethos was therefore used by DGR as a model for a secular world and, even more particularly, for an aesthetic procedure. The object was not at all to reinvigorate the cult or ideas of Christianity, but to learn from that example the fundamental need for a devotional approach to artistic and poetic work.

In such a project, imitation and pastiche become stylistic devices for establishing a sympathetic relation to the reader and viewer. The argument of this style is that the audience must find a way to engage the work on its own terms, as it were, even as one realizes that those terms no longer organize the aesthetic or ethical values that dominate contemporary society.

The point of departure for reading the first sonnet—as well as its companion sonnet—is an historicized awareness of its stylistic features. The poems, like the painting to which they refer, are consciously designed to suggest anachronism. The rhetorical impulse behind these texts is pastiche, and the intellectual point of the pastiche is to dramatize the historical differential separating the contemporary Victorian world from the medieval ethos evoked through the poem.

Like Hand and Soul, this sonnet and its companion stand at the center of DGR's early programmatic ideas and plans for a renovation of poetical and artistic practise. The program is most succinctly defined in the first of the Old and New Art sonnets written in 1848-1849 but not published until 1870 (and 1881), i.e., sonnets 74-76 of the 1881 House of Life. All such work emerges from an acute sense of the belated and excessively personal/commercial character of current art and poetry. DGR turns to medieval and primitive models as an artistic rather than a religious move. The example of such work means to promote an alternative to the “soulless self-reflections of man's skill” (St. Luke the Painter, line 11) that characterize the traditions of Renaissance-inspired art descending to the present of DGR's period.

Iconography as such is the subject of the second sonnet. The text is thus not an interpretation of the Christian iconography deployed in the painting, but a pastiche of what such an interpretation might have looked like, if the painting were a primitive work.

See WMR's note on the sonnets and picture in the 1911 Works where he has pertinent remarks on this double work and quotes DGR's retrospective (and favorable) view of his picture.

Textual History: Composition

The first sonnet was written on 21 November 1848, while DGR was executing the painting that both sonnets attend upon (see Fredeman , Correspondence 48.13 and the early fair copy manuscript of the poem that DGR enclosed in his letter to WMR of 22 November 1848). The second sonnet was written somewhat later, perhaps not until DGR had completed the painting (in March 1849); WMR's comments on the dating of the latter sonnet, while indefinite, nevertheless firmly date it 1849 (rather than 1848). Drafts of both poems are in the Fitzwilliam Museum.

Textual History: Revision

DGR revised the first sonnet when he came to publish it in the “Sonnets for Pictures” section of the 1870 Poems. The second sonnet may or may not have been subjected to revisions before it was finally (first) published in regular print form (in Sharp, DGR: A Record and a Study 130 ), after DGR's death. The Sharp text has interesting unique punctuation features and it is organized as a quatorzain sonnet, without division of octave and sestet.

Production History

The painting The Girlhood of Mary Virgin was begun in August 1848 and completed for exhibition in March 1849. Both Hunt and Madox Brown gave advice and direction to DGR as he worked on the painting. DGR repainted the head of the angel in July before sending the work to the Dowager Marchioness of Bath, who had purchased it. In 1864 DGR again had the painting in his hands for some retouching and, most important, for reframing (see Fredeman Correspondence 64. 172 , letter of 7 December 1864 6o Ford Madox Brown). The present frame is the one he designed and had made in 1864.) He had both sonnets inscribed next to each other on the lower part of the frame at this time (for these texts see the Tate Gallery oil painting.


The importance of this double work in DGR's career can scarcely be overemphasized. When the picture was exhibited in 1849, the painter John Orchard was so taken with it that he contacted DGR, wrote a double sonnet about the picture, and began a liaison with the budding PRB group. He published two pieces in The Germ, an important (and uncompleted) dialogue on art and a ballad, before his untimely death in 1850. In his correspondence with DGR Orchard not only expressed “the most intense admiration” for DGR's picture, but in doing that he delivered “a long metaphysical disquisition on the principle of adopting the mode of thought and the practise of any preceding age, which he condemns” (see Fredeman, The Journal of the P. R. B., 11 , entry for 14 August 1849). Orchard's position is important because it underscores that he understood very well the critical character of DGR's pastiche mode: that it was far from “adopting the mode of thought and the practise of any preceding age”.


The sonnets underscore the iconography of the myth of the Virgin, which was so important in early Italian painting. More than this, however, they call attention to the semiotic (if not conceptual) power of images. As textual “versions” of the painting, they argue simultaneously the intelligence inherent in material forms, and the physical character of linguistic signs.

The first sonnet re-presents a psychologically oriented moral reading of the iconography in the painting. As its diction and style emphasize, the sonnet works through a pastiche rhetoric. Its purpose is to offer a “reading” of the picture that might have been produced in the age of Cimabue or Giotto—an important and special moment for DGR, when (in his view) an arresting balance had been achieved between devotional and secular impulses in life and art.

The second sonnet is especially interesting because it treats its various conceptual details in an objectified way (both historicist and painterly). The details do not explain the first sonnet, they represent a mode of explanation that is congruent with the first sonnet, and that therefore comes to us slightly estranged, requiring a new method of understanding. DGR's literal (material) approach is emphasized by the painting, which figures ideas as books with inscribed spines.

Printing History

The first sonnet was published initially in the Catalogue of the Association for Promoting the Free Exhibition of Modern Art. Gallery, Hyde Park Corner MDCCCXLIX. (1849), page 18 (as part of catalogue entry 368, for his picture). It was revised and printed again in the 1870 Poems. The second sonnet “was not in the catalogue; but Rossetti got it printed on a piece of gilded paper (along with the first sonnet), which was attached to the frame of the painting” (see WMR, DGR: Classified Lists 6 ). Surtees says that both sonnets were printed on the gilded paper, and that the original gilded sheet is now on the back of the painting (see Surtees, A Catalogue Raisonneé I. 11 ). The Tate Gallery reports this piece of paper is not present.

The second sonnet was finally (first) published in regular print form in Sharp's DGR: A Record and Study 130 ), after DGR's death, in 1882. Sharp's comments suggest that he took his text directly from the frame of the painting, rather than from a manuscript. The text was first brought into DGR's official corpus in WMR's 1886 collected edition.


Besides The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, the sonnets also connect directly to DGR's next oil painting, Ecce Ancilla Domini!. Indeed, the sestet of the first sonnet refers directly to the subject of the latter, rather than to The Girlhood of Mary Virgin.

Electronic Archive Edition: 1
Source File: 9-1848.s40.raw.xml