On Browning's Sordello

Alternately titled: Sonnet on a first reading of “Sordello”

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1849 January?
Rhyme: abbaabbacdecde
Meter: iambic pentameter
Genre: sonnet


◦ Metzdorf, Robert F., “The Full Text of Rossetti's Sonnet on Sordello”, Harvard Library Bulletin 7 (1953), 239-242


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

Scholarly Commentary


DGR wrote a fair copy of this sonnet on the last text page of a copy of Thomas Woolner's copy of the first edition of Browning's notoriously obscure poem. He inscribed the book (on the half title) “Thomas Woolner 1849”, and he may have presented it to his sculptor friend and fellow PRB member shortly after he returned to England from his fall trip to the continent with Hunt. The sonnet should be compared with the related sonnet “To the P. R. B.”.

The poem constructs a dialogue betwen the octave, where the obscurities of the poem are treated in a slightly bantering tone, and the sestet, where the octave's voice is reproved and chastened. Most interesting is the fact that the octave's remarks are ascribed in the sestet to DGR's “weak soul” (9). An implication is carried (and enforced in the sestet's images) that the soul's weakness lay in actively resisting the body's simple and sensuous clarities.

Textual History: Composition

The exact date of composition is not known but it probably dates from well before DGR and Hunt made their trip to Belgium and France. DGR would have acquired the book either in the last few days of 1848 or very early in 1849. We know he was badgering Moxon, Browning's publisher, for a copy around 22 December 1848 and that Moxon promised to send DGR a copy “in a very few daysℍ after 22 December (see Hunt's verse letter to Stephens (lines 8ff.)

Printing History

WMR first printed (from memory) the octave of the sonnet in his collected edition of 1911. The full text—from DGR's manuscript copy in Harvard's Amy Lowell collection—was not published until 1953 (see Metzdorf's article, bibliography below).


See the drawing DGR made about the same time as this sonnet, Taurello's First Sight of Fortune


DGR was wildly enthusastic about Browning's poetry from the time he first read it in the mid-1840s. He memorized long passages from both Sordello and Paracelsus and recited them from memory for his friends. Indeed, DGR's initial conception of the PRB and its mission was closely related to his understanding of the importance and significance of Browning's work.

Electronic Archive Edition: 1
Source File: 9-1849.raw.xml