Maids of Elfen-Mere

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1854
Sources of the Work:
Note: DGR's illustration was made for Allingham's ballad “The Maids of Elfin-Mere”, which was published in The Music Master, A Love Story, and Two Series of Day and Night Songs (1855) volume. It should be noted, however, that DGR employed a variant spelling--Maids of Elfen-Mere--for his design.


◦ Allingham, Letters, 21, 49, 52, 54, 54, 55, 56, 58, 59, 61.

◦ Doughty and Wahl, Letters, 1.208, 1.212, 1.222, 1.226, 1.230, 1.236, 1.237, 1.238, 1.239, 1.243-248, 1.256; 2.850.

◦ Fredeman, Correspondence, 54.21n1, 54.40n1, 54.55n11, 54.57, 54.63, 54.67, 55.4, 55.8, 55.15, 55.16, 55.24, 55.32, 55.33, 56.9n4.

◦ Fredeman, “Woodman, Spare that Block.”, 7-42.

◦ Grieve, Art of DGR: Watercolors and Drawings, 62-64.

◦ Life, “Going Halfway”.

◦ Marillier, DGR: An Illustrated Memorial, 70-71.

◦ Sharp, DGR: A Record and a Study, 112-13.

◦ Surtees, A Catalogue Raisonné, vol. 1, 32 (no. 67).

Scholarly Commentary


DGR was quite vocal about his dissatisfaction with his design for Allingham's The Music Master. Despite those statements, DGR's first attempt at book illustration produced not only a remarkable drawing and engraving, but also a series of comments on the subject of illustration that have important implications for all his work. As he was preparing to do the illustration he told Allingham that “nothing so much spoils a good book as an attempt to embody its ideas only going halfway” (Fredeman, Correspondence, 54.55). He elaborated his thought later in a famous set of remarks to Allingham on the possibility of illustrating Tennyson's poems: “I shall try the Vision of Sin & Palace of Art, &—those where one can allegorize on one's own hook on the subject of the poem, without killing, for oneself & everyone, a distinct idea of the poet's. This, I fancy, is always the upshot of illustrated editions . . . unless where the poetry is so absolutely narrative as in the old ballads, for instance” (Fredeman, Correspondence, 55.4). (See the commentary for DGR's St. Cecilia illustration for the Moxon Tennyson edition.) As Allan Life has argued, what DGR means is not at all that illustrators should do what they please ininterpreting the poem. Rather, he is saying (a) that only certain kinds of poems lend themselves to illustration, and (b) that the illustrator should strive to engage with the subject of the poem and not aim to recover or explicate any “distinct idea” that the poet may have had in mind (68-69).

DGR's thought here corresponds to what he told Gordon Hake in 1870 about the pictorial character of his poetry: “my poems are in no way the result of painters' tendencies—and I believe no poetry could be freer than mine from the trick of what is called ‘word-painting’” (Fredeman, Correspondence, 70. 110). His strong conviction was that the two arts best served each other by preserving their generic differences.

What is involved here is the whole theory of DGR's “double works of art”. Book illustrations like this one for Allingham comprised another kind of doubled work, and DGR's view was that they should construct a dialectical relation between image and text, not a synthesis of the two. The latter process would be “going halfway”. In the case of book illustrations, then, the pictures should be able to stand free as integral works. Their value as illustrations, for DGR, lay precisely in such integrity, which alone would free the work to develop a wholly new and complete point of view on the “subject” held in common by both text and picture.

The drawing and engraving are also important for their stylistic features, which combine certain naturalistic methods (like modelled figures) with more schematic forms and nonillusionistic space. Allan Life correctly points out that both drawing and engraving exhibit “fragmented spatial units and . . . unnatural symmetry” (83); and while the drawing develops a central area of three-dimensionality, the space is quite shallow and the general treatment flat and planar. Furthermore, as in Italian Primitive paintings, both engraving and drawing develop multiple points of perspective, which one sees most dramatically in the drawing's side windows. The spatial structure of the engraving is especially striking because of the position of the pastor's son, who barely maintains his place in the pictorial space. That arrangement enforces the key thematic issue: the separation of the world of the elf maidens from the world of the young man. In DGR's original drawing, the separation is primarily represented in the linear and chiaroscuro contrasts between the maidens and the youth, although the more extreme linear forms developed in the engraving are already implicit in the drawing.

Production History

DGR agreed to involve himself in an illustrated edition of Allingham's Day and Night Songs in July 1854, and after considering various possibilities he settled on an illustration for The Maids of Elfen-Mere by September (Fredeman, Correspondence, 54.21n1, 54.40n1, 54.55, 54.63). He made at least two studies for the work. In the drawing that was ready in October DGR found he had “committed a stupid mistake in not drawing the actions reversed, so that, when printed, the figures will be left-handed” on the wood block. So he set about redoing the work and thought to make an illustration for another of the poems as well; he finished his picture in January 1855 and sent the woodblock to the engravers, George and Edward Dalziel (Fredeman, Correspondence, 54.67, 55.4).

DGR was extremely unhappy with the engraving that was made from his drawing and detailed his complaint in a series of letters to Allingham in March 1855. DGR felt that Dalziel had eliminated all the delicacy of the drawing in his pursuit of “‘severity’ in the design, which has resulted in an engraving as hard as a nail and yet flabby & vapid to the last degree” (Fredeman, Correspondence, 55.14). He wanted to withdraw the work altogether, but Allingham pressed him to let the engraving go forward. In the end DGR agreed to work closely with Dalziel to try to ensure a good result. The book was published in late May but DGR was not satisfied and tore the engraving out of his copy (Fredeman, Correspondence, 55.32).


The engraving made by Dalziel from DGR's drawing brought DGR's draughting and illustration skills into prominence, but he was admired as a book illustrator even before the Allingham book appeared. While he was working on the drawing for the latter he was asked by Moxon “to do some of the blocks for the new Tennyson,”, which later appeared in 1857 (Fredeman, Correspondence, 55.4). Shortly after the appearance of the design for Maids of Elfen-Mere, Allingham confessed to Arthur Hughes that “some like Rossetti's [illustration] best of all, which is encouraging for the P.R.B., in as far as en- or dis-couragement can lie in the verdicts of a very petty jury” (Allingham, 60-61). Finally, it was this drawing that so captured the imagination of Edward Burne-Jones, who arbitrarily noticed it at length in his review of Thackeray's The Newcomes in The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine (January 1856), 60.


Allan R. Life has an acute discussion of the play of the naturalistic and unnaturalistic features of DGR's picture (77-86). He notes in passing (77-78) the possible influence of “Dürer and the Early Netherlandish painters” as well as the “outline school” of Flaxman and David Scott. He might as well have cited Blake's methods as an illustrator.


As an illustration for William Allingham's ballad The Maids of Elfen-Mere, the picture is involved with the stories of the nixies, or water sprites, out of Northern mythology. These women are regularly associated with the Parcae, or Fates—an association that DGR specifically incorporates into his picture's intense and “enigmatic relationship between the Maidens and their suitor” (Life 87). The ballad and its illustration clearly recall the tradition epitomized for DGR in Keats's La Belle Dame Sans Merci.

Electronic Archive Edition: 1
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