Rossetti Archive Doubleworks

In the fall of 1848, while Rossetti was working on his first major painting, The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, he wrote a sonnet to accompany the picture. He finished the painting in time to exhibit it at the Hyde Park Corner Free Exhibition in March 1849 and at that time wrote a second sonnet for the painting. When the painting was exhibited, the pair of sonnets was attached to the picture frame on a piece of gold-leaf paper as an accompanying textual component. So using the title The Girlhood of Mary Virgin may designate simultaneously the sonnets he wrote in 1847-1848, the painting he completed in the same period, and the composite set of all the textual and visual materials that bear upon the visionary project of that name. This composite set of textual and pictorial materials on the subject of “Mary's Girlhood” (which was the title he gave to the first sonnet) defines what has come to be known as Rossetti's “double work of art.”

The typical Rossettian double work develops in the manner of The Girlhood of Mary Virgin. That is to say, Rossetti executes a picture and then writes a poem—typically a sonnet or a pair of sonnets—that comments and elaborates upon the pictorial work. Only once—in the famous case of The Blessed Damozel—did the textual work precede the pictorial work. In another case, the “Introductory Sonnet” to the 1881 edition of The House of Life, the textual and visual elements are inseparably bound to each other in the manner of a Blakean illuminated work. Of course in this case Rossetti, like Blake, must have drafted the poem before he executed the illuminated drawing. But insofar as the work is a double work, it was conceived as an illuminated text.

The special status of the “Introductory Sonnet” is useful for helping us to appreciate Rossetti's double works. Blake's “composite art”, as it has been aptly called, had a profound influence on everything Rossetti did, not least of all on his double works. But the gap that stands between the composite parts of the Rossettian double work is one of its essential features. Blake does not develop or exploit this kind of gap to anything like the extent that Rossetti does. We know that Blake's work continually shifts the reader's or viewer's perspective, and we can see how much Rossetti learned from studying Blake's methods. But we can also see the difference—for instance, through the telling case of Proserpine: Not only did Rossetti make and remake different pictorial versions of this work, he re-doubled it in two distinct sonnets, one Italian, one English. But all these works cultivate a severe dialectic of “doubled” construction whereby the integrity of the individual elements is scrupulously preserved. So, in the case of The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, each sonnet can and should be read as a complete work, just as the picture has a free-standing identity. If there is more than one state of the picture—as happens in many of Rossetti's double works—each of the pictures tends to possess an independent status within the larger confederated set of imaginings. The Blessed Damozel, Lady Lilith, and Venus Verticordia, for example, descend to us in markedly variant versions. To think of the variations as “studies” or “copies” is largely to miss the point of these developing kinds of visionary arrays of material. All the works, textual and pictorial, illuminate each other exactly as they are states or forms of the subsuming visionary pursuit that is defined by the double work.

The situation is nicely defined in a notebook entry Rossetti wrote for a picture he projected but did not execute: “Venus surrounded by mirrors, reflecting her in different views.” (A sketch of this picture survives.) The idea defines what is involved in the Rossettian double work of art. Each part of the double work is a unique view of an ideal visionary reality whose existence is posited through the different incarnate forms. The whole of the double work becomes, then, a dynamic representation of the process by which the visionary imagination sustains and develops itself.

There is a core set of about thirty double works, i.e., works that have original Rossettian textual and pictorial elements. For a number of these works, like Michael Scott's Wooing, Sister Helen, Dante at Verona, Aspecta Medusa, or Mnemosyne, some of the elements (textual or material or both) do not survive, or they come down to us only in incomplete forms. Then there is the key group of such works. Besides those already noted (like The Girlhood of Mary Virgin), other well-known works in this group are La Bella Mano, The Day Dream, Lady Lilith (or “Body's Beauty”), Fiammetta, The Question, Pandora, The Sea-Spell, Astarte Syriaca, Cassandra, Found, Mary Magdalene at the Door of Simon the Pharisee, The Passover in the Holy Family, Proserpine, and Sibylla Palmifera ("Soul's Beauty").

Because the pictorial work is normally the determining element in the array of “doubled” materials, the textual elements typically organize themselves in relation to it both conceptually and physically. The commonest place for the doubled texts to appear is as inscriptions on the frames of the pictures (frames that Rossetti himself normally designed). But texts can also appear within the space of the picture itself. Often the texts do not appear at all, but are only alluded to in the picture's title. In rare instances the texts are put on the back of the picture.

In some cases the “doubling” of picture and text is only loosely or provisionally or temporarily maintained. Examples of these three less rigorous kinds of doubled work would be The Portrait (which Rossetti also imagined in another relation); Monna Vanna (which has a doubled relation to two of Rossetti's works, chapter XXIV of his translation of the Vita Nuova and "A New-Year's Burden"); and Fazio's Mistress, which from 1863-1869 was a double work with Rossetti's translation of Fazio degli Uberti's “Canzone” (“Io miro i crespi e gli biondi capegli”).

Rossetti's double works emerge from two established traditions, one textual and one pictorial, that he exploited and developed in important ways. The textual tradition is the “poem on the subject of a picture,” like Wordsworth's “Elegiac Stanzas Suggested by a Picture of Peele Castle.” This genre proliferated in the nineteenth-century through the wildly popular gift books and annuals, which featured engravings with “illustrative” poems or stories. Rossetti's contributions to this genre include some of his most important works. He called them, in general, Sonnets for Pictures, a rubric under which he would eventually gather some of his own double works. The first set of Sonnets for Pictures, however, comprised a group of six that appeared in the fourth number of The Germ in 1850. These sonnets developed interpretive responses to the works of four masters whose works he had seen during his trip to Belgium and France in late 1849: Memling (or rather Gerhard David—the picture he saw had been misattributed), Mantegna, Titian, and Ingres. Of his other Sonnets for Pictures, the most important respond to works by Leonardo, Botticelli, Burne-Jones, and an anonymous early German artist. Also notable is Rossetti's poem “The Card Dealer”, a brilliant interpretive exploration of Theodore von Holst's haunting picture The Wish.

The other tradition supplied Rossetti with models of pictorial doublings. The tradition has two lines, and both were important for his work. On one hand is history painting (including the literary picture), and on the other are book illustrations and miniatures. Many—indeed, most—of Rossetti's pictorial works are visual interpretations of textual scenes or events, commonly medieval or contemporary. What he said of his famous illustrations to Tennyson's poetry applies in general to all this kind of work. He called it “allegorizing on one's own hook,” by which he meant rethinking the significance of the original work in his own terms. The difference between the medium of the original and his interpretive response presented a crucial opportunity. It freed Rossetti from the translation model of response (so important to him in other respects), encouraging the brilliant pictorial fantasias of works like St. Cecilia, Monna Vanna, and Fazio's Mistress.

Rossetti is such a literary visual artist that nearly all of his work inclines to a doubled character. At the limits of the core set of such works, therefore, one also finds a great many others that test the adequacy of those limits. Some of these are unexecuted double works; others are works for which only minimal, fragmentary, or uncompleted parts survive. For study purposes we have organized these kinds of work in the same structural way that we have organized the core set of double works. Doing so allows the student to keep track of the patterns of literary and pictorial doubling that is such a marked feature of all of Rossetti's artistic efforts.

1840s 1850s 1860s 1870s 1880s
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Page Images Available for William and Marie. A Ballad


William and Marie. A Ballad

aka William and Mary. A Ballad

“O whither awaye, myne own true love?
Page Images Available for Sorrentino


Page Images Available for Lisa ed Elviro


Lisa ed Elviro
Page Images Available for “Retro me, Sathana!”

1847 1848

“Retro me, Sathana!”

Get thee behind me. Even as, heavy-curled,
Page Images Available for The Blessed Damozel

1847-1870 1871-1881

The Blessed Damozel

The blessed damozel leaned out
Page Images Available for Dante Alighieri. “Sestina. Of the Lady Pietra degli Scrovigni.”

1848? 1861, 1874

Dante Alighieri. “Sestina. Of the Lady Pietra degli Scrovigni.”

To the dim light and the large circle of shade
Page Images Available for Mary's Girlhood (For a Picture)

1848 (sonnet I), 1849 (sonnet II) 1848-1849

Mary's Girlhood (For a Picture)

aka The Girlhood of Mary Virgin

This is that blessed Mary, pre-elect
Page Images Available for Dante at Verona

1848-1850 1852 (circa)

Dante at Verona

‘Yea, thou shalt learn how salt his food who fares
Page Images Available for The Bride's Prelude

1848 1870 (circa)

The Bride's Prelude

aka Bride-Chamber Talk

‘Sister,’ said busy Amelotte
Page Images Available for Hand and Soul


Hand and Soul
Page Images Available for Old and New Art (group of 3 poems)

1849 1849 (text); 1857 (picture, circa)

Old and New Art (group of 3 poems)

aka St. Luke the Painter [sonnet I]

aka The Mission of Luke [sonnet I]

Give honour unto Luke Evangelist;


Page Images Available for St. Agnes of Intercession

1850 1860 1850

St. Agnes of Intercession
Page Images Available for Love's Greeting

1850 1861, 1864

Love's Greeting

aka Lines from the Roman de la Rose

Tendre eut la chair comme rousée,
Page Images Available for Sister Helen

1851-1852 1870 (circa)

Sister Helen

‘Why did you melt your waxen man,
Page Images Available for Parody on “Uncle Ned”


Parody on “Uncle Ned”

Dere was an old nigger, and him name was Uncle Tom,
Page Images Available for The Return of Tibullus to Delia

1853-1855 1867

The Return of Tibullus to Delia
Page Images Available for Beauty and the Bird

1855 1858 June 25

Beauty and the Bird

aka Bella's Bulfinch

She fluted with her mouth as when one sips,


Page Images Available for Bocca Baciata

1860 1859

Bocca Baciata

aka The Song of the Bower

Say, is it day, is it dusk in thy bower,
Page Images Available for Guido Cavalcanti. “Ballata. He reveals, in a Dialogue, his increasing love for Mandetta.”


Guido Cavalcanti. “Ballata. He reveals, in a Dialogue, his increasing love for Mandetta.”

Being in thought of love, I chanced to see
Page Images Available for Francesca Da Rimini. (Dante.)

1862 September 1855

Francesca Da Rimini. (Dante.)

aka Paolo and Francesca da Rimini

When I made answer, I began: ‘Alas!
Page Images Available for Fazio's Mistress

1863; 1873

Fazio's Mistress

aka Aurelia
Page Images Available for The Seed of David (For a Picture)

1864 1864

The Seed of David (For a Picture)

aka The Seed of David

Christ sprang from David Shepherd, and even so
Page Images Available for Beatrice, her Damozels, and Love


Beatrice, her Damozels, and Love
Page Images Available for Aspecta Medusa

1865 October 1865-1868

Aspecta Medusa

Andromeda, by Perseus saved and wed,
Page Images Available for Body's Beauty

1866 1864-1869

Body's Beauty

aka Lady Lilith

aka Lilith

Of Adam's first wife, Lilith, it is told
Page Images Available for Soul's Beauty

1866 1864-1870

Soul's Beauty

aka Sibylla Palmifera

Under the arch of Life, where love and death,
Page Images Available for La Pia. Dante


La Pia. Dante

“Ah! when on earth thy voice again is heard
Page Images Available for Venus Verticordia. (For a Picture.)

1868 January 16 1863-1869

Venus Verticordia. (For a Picture.)

aka Venus (For a Picture.)

She hath the apple in her hand for thee,
Page Images Available for The Portrait


The Portrait

O Lord of all compassionate control,
Page Images Available for Mary Magdalene at the Door of Simon the Pharisee (For a

1869 1853-1859

Mary Magdalene at the Door of Simon the Pharisee (For a Drawing)

‘Why wilt thou cast the roses from thine hair?
Page Images Available for Eden Bower

1869 1863-1864 (circa) or 1869 (circa)

Eden Bower

It was Lilith the wife of Adam:
Page Images Available for Pandora (For a Picture)

1869 1868-1871

Pandora (For a Picture)

What of the end, Pandora? Was it thine,
Page Images Available for Troy Town

1869-1870 1863-1864; 1869-1870

Troy Town

Heavenborn Helen, Sparta's queen,
Page Images Available for Michael Scott's Wooing (For a Drawing)

1869-1871, 1875-1876 1853, 1869-1871

Michael Scott's Wooing (For a Drawing)

Rose-sheathed beside the rosebud tongue
Page Images Available for Death of A Wombat

1869 November 6

Death of A Wombat
Page Images Available for Parted Love!

1869 September 10 1869 September-1869 November (circa)

Parted Love!

aka The Wombat

Oh! how the family affections combat
Page Images Available for The Passover in the Holy Family (For a Drawing)

1869 September 1849-1856

The Passover in the Holy Family (For a Drawing)

Here meet together the prefiguring day
Page Images Available for Cassandra (For a Drawing.)

1869 September 1860-1861, 1867 1869 1869 1869

Cassandra (For a Drawing.)

Rend, rend thine hair, Cassandra: he will go.


Page Images Available for A Sea-Spell (for a Picture)

1870 1877

A Sea-Spell (for a Picture)

Her lute hangs shadowed in the apple-tree,
Page Images Available for On William Morris

1871 September

On William Morris

Enter Poet, moored in a punt,
Page Images Available for Proserpine

1872 1871-1882 1872 1872


aka Proserpina

Lungi è la luce che in sù questo muro
Page Images Available for Hero's Lamp


Hero's Lamp

That lamp thou fill'st in Eros' name to-night,
Page Images Available for Dante's Dream on the Day of the Death of Beatrice: 9th of 
June, 1290

1875? 1856

Dante's Dream on the Day of the Death of Beatrice: 9th of June, 1290

aka Dante's Dream at the Time of the Death of Beatrice

‘Then Love said : “Now shall all things be made clear :
Page Images Available for La Bella Mano (For a Picture)

1875 1875 1875

La Bella Mano (For a Picture)

O bella Mano, che ti lavi e piaci
Page Images Available for The Question (for a Design)

1875 1882 1882 1882

The Question (for a Design)

This sea, deep furrowed as the face of Time,
Page Images Available for Silence. For a Design

1877 1870

Silence. For a Design

Page Images Available for Astarte Syriaca (for a Picture)

1877 January-1877 February 1875-1877

Astarte Syriaca (for a Picture)

Mystery: lo! betwixt the sun and moon
Page Images Available for Perlascura. Twelve Coins for One Queen


Perlascura. Twelve Coins for One Queen

Page Images Available for Fiammetta (For a Picture)

1878 (circa) 1878

Fiammetta (For a Picture)

Behold Fiammetta, shown in Vision here.
Page Images Available for Joan of Arc

1879 (unfinished) 1863, 1882

Joan of Arc

This word had Merlin said from of old:—


Page Images Available for Introductory Sonnet ("A Sonnet is a moment's monument")


Introductory Sonnet ("A Sonnet is a moment's monument")

aka The Sonnet

aka Sonnet on the Sonnet

A Sonnet is a moment's monument,—
Page Images Available for Mnemosyne



Thou fill'st from the winged chalice of the soul
Page Images Available for The Day-Dream (for a Picture)

1880 September 1878-1880

The Day-Dream (for a Picture)

The thronged boughs of the shadowy sycamore
Page Images Available for “Found” (for a Picture)

1881 February 1854

“Found” (for a Picture)

“There is a budding morrow in midnight:”—