St. Agnes of Intercession

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1850
Date: 1860
Genre: short story


◦ McGann, ‘DGR and the Betrayal of Truth’, 339-342

◦ Riede, DGR Revisited, 15-17

General Description of

Date: 1850
Rhyme: abbaab
Meter: iambic tetrameter
Genre: lyric


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

Scholarly Commentary


This (uncompleted) story's close relation to the more famous Hand and Soul is evident even in its first documentary notice, WMR's diary entry for 21 March 1850: “[Ford Madox] Brown finished today his design for the King Lear etching, and Gabriel his of Chiaro's painting. He is now engaged. . .on a tale entitled ‘An Autopsychology’, originally suggested to himself by an image he introduced into ‘Bride-chamber Talk’ [i.e., The Bride's Prelude as it was first titled]” (see WMR, The P.R.B. Journal 64). Both tales are coded artistic manifestoes. “St. Agnes of Intercession”, however, is more explicitly located in a contemporary scene. It also differs sharply from its companion story in being deliberately ironical in its style. The story treats some of DGR's most cherished ideas and aesthetic sources—not least of all his love of Keats—in a comic style.

The image mentioned by WMR is that pervasive bogey figure, as DGR called it whenever he referred to its central pictorial illustration in How They Met Themselves. The image of meeting one's double is a central Rossettian haunting, and comes in an auditory form in The Bride's Prelude (see lines 459-460).

That the tale is the vortex of an important and volatile Rossettian idea is clear on at least three counts: first, DGR's obessive interest in the story itself; second, the centrality of the “bogey” image for all of his work; and finally, the power that the story exercised on DGR's visual imagination. As to the latter see especially below, the “Production History” commentary. Most notable is the fact that the story's double work is a watercolour whose focus is not the characters in the tale, but a pair of analogous (and fictional) medieval characters.

The title of this story alludes to the thirteen-year-old Roman virgin who was martyred, according to tradition, in the early fourth century. Like Keats, DGR's interest focuses on the legend associated with St. Agnes: that a virgin who prayed to St. Agnes on the eve of her feast day (21 January) would be granted a vision of her future spouse. DGR's tale shifts the Keatsian focus to encompass the issue of fore-seeing, which is a recurrent Rossettian preoccupation.

Textual History: Composition

As WMR's diary shows, the original aim was to publish this tale in The Germ , as Hand and Soul had been published in the first number of that periodical. The demise of The Germ at the end of April 1850 may have cooled DGR's enthusiasm for the story, for he set it aside at this time.

Three manuscript fragments of the work survive, one in Notebook II (so called) in the Duke University Library, the other (earlier manuscript) in the Getty notebook, and an incomplete fair copy, with corrections, in the library of the University of Virginia. The latter was made in 1870 when DGR was thinking to complete the story and publish it (see commentary for the Virginia fair copy).

It is clear from the text published by WMR (see below) that another, more extensive fragmentary version of the story must have existed and must have been used by WMR when he published it in 1886 after DGR's death.

Textual History: Revision

In his important commentary on the fragment WMR notes that his brother twice returned to the tale, once around 1870 when he recopied and presumably augmented what he had already written, and again in the last few months of his life (when he seems not to have actually written anything new). See 1911, the long note on page 680.

Production History

The long-standing idea that DGR made (and destroyed) a drawing to accompany this story seems to be true, but it is a complicated tale in itself. WMR points out ( Memoir I. 155 ) that DGR made a drawing for an engraving to illustrate the tale Hand and Soul . This engraving was being made by Millais from a drawing by DGR, and was not available when the story appeared in the first number of The Germ. The plan was to print it in a later number. The drawing was made in March 1850, but when DGR saw the engraving “he was so displeased with the result that . . . he tore up the impression and scratched the plate over”. The picture represented Chiaro “in the act of painting his Soul”.

That is WMR's account in 1895. In his 1911 commentary on “St. Agnes of Intercession”, however, he also notes that DGR himself “began an etching to illustrate [this story] but threw it aside in disgust at his failure in technique. Sir John Millais then undertook to execute the etching” (see 1911 690n).

All the foregoing serves as a kind of pre-history to the work that actually survives as DGR's illustration to the story. This is the watercolour known as Bonifazio's Mistress, which DGR painted for George Boyce in 1860.

Printing History

First printed by WMR in his 1886 edition of his brother works, and kept in all subsequent reprintings of WMR's collected editions.


The story supplies a useful and human glimpse into the show rooms at the annual Royal Academy exhibition. It distinctly echoes remarks that DGR spelled out in a review he wrote in December 1850 about an exibition of modern British Art held at the Old Water-Colour Gallery.


The influence of Poe's short stories, particularly the supernatural tales, is evident in this work, as it is in its famous companion piece Hand and Soul. But DGR decisively shifts the Poe model so that both tales become programmatic commentaries on art and its contemporary psychic and socio-cultural relations.

The hoaxing character of these tales is marked in this one in an especially arresting way. The Sterne epigraph is actually a spurious (pastiche) text. DGR clearly means it to function as an oblique signal to the discerning reader.

Special notice should be taken of the lyric embedded in the story. Written specifically for this tale, it stands in the work much as Stephen Daedalus' famous “Are thou not weary of ardent ways” stands in Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Each poem is written partly as an index to the character of its fictive author—in this case, the character of the poet/critic being satirized by DGR in the story. Part of the wit of DGR's poem lies in its parodic resemblance to certain features of DGR's own poetical style. Self-parody is a form of pastiche that DGR, like Swinburne, liked to practice, and in this case it functions especially well. The story as a whole, for instance, is written under the parodic sign announced in the spurious epigraph from Sterne placed at the front of the tale.

The Keatsian facet of this self-parody is partly discernible in the general allusion to Keats's famous narrative “The Eve of St. Agnes”, and partly in two witty lines in the poem imbedded in the tale, “O thou who art not as I am”. The words “purplehushed” (line 21) and “bloompulvered” (line 30) are Keatsian constructions (a fact slightly concealed when WMR published the poem and hyphenated both words, though they are not hyphenated by DGR). Other words and phrases in the poem—for example, “unipotence” (line 13) and “autumntide and aftermath” (line 22)—are clearly self-parodic of DGR's own Keatsian-influenced style.


Several parts of the story display clear autobiographical elements. WMR notes that the opening, especially in the first draft, gave “a true sketch of our father” (see 1911, 680). The narrative of the protagonist's art training, as well as his thoughts about the “art scene” in London at mid-century, is drawn from DGR's personal experience. An excised part of the first draft is notable for indicating DGR's lack of sympathy with a Ruskinian approach to "nature": the hero of the story begins his artistic pursuits by seeking the “expression of my own fancies and ideas; without appealing to the study of nature” (see the first draft, pages [13]-[14]). Finally, the last paragraph of the incomplete tale as it descends to us gives a vivid glimpse of DGR's distinctly urban imagination. We know that he liked to walk around London, particularly at night, but no record that has come down to us supplies such an acute psychological account of this frequent and important event in his life.

Electronic Archive Edition: 1