Many of Rossetti's most important “manuscript” materials appear as marginal and interlinear material in various kinds of printed documents —most notably, in his proofs and trial books for later published books. The additions he made in these printed documents are often extensive.
These printed materials are relevant here because Rossetti typically used the prepublication printing process as a creative and compositional tool in his writing. The most famous and dramatic instance of this compositional method apppears in the prepublication documents associated with his volume of 1870 Poems: a whole series of proofs and trial books survive that demonstrate how Rossetti, something like Joyce later and Tennyson earlier, closely tracked the passage of his texts through the press to fashion and refashion what he wrote.
That he should have functioned as a poet in this way is hardly surprising, given Rossetti's commitment to the poetical ideal of a “total book.” Like Blake, whom he so much admired, Rossetti sought to make the entirety of his work poetically expressive: not merely the linguistic level of the text, but the design and bibliographical levels as well. The process of imagining and reimagining his poetical works could be properly done only if all the material features of those works were subjected to creative attention. The surviving documents show Rossetti carefully weighing questions of type fonts, page layout, general composition and organizational design of the book units, and crucial ornamental features like the cover and endpaper designs. (The single material aspect of his work to which he did not give close attention was the paper. As it turned out, this neglect proved to have decisive consequences. Because most of Rossetti's works are printed on the wretched chemicalized paper commonly used at the time by publishers, the beautiful “total book” to which he aspired always carries a secret disease. With the passage of time the disease exposes itself: the paper in his books grows ever more brittle and dark with age.)
But our interest is also drawn to Rossetti's manuscripts proper—that is to say, to the original written documents (and exclusive of the prepublication print texts, or composite print and manuscript texts). More than most poets, Rossetti was a nervous writer. He rewrote and revised and tinkered with his works continually, and the documents tell fascinating stories if one follows these processes of revision.
These surviving manuscripts tell another and equally fascinating story about Rossetti's general writing habits. Although the manuscripts are often dispersed as individual leaves or groups of leaves, acquaintance with all of the archives holding Rossetti materials shows that he typically wrote in bound notebooks with sheets of lined paper. More than this, he typically used the same kind of notebook in the 1840s as in the 1880s. The integral notebook at the Bodleian Library, which contains the unique version of The House of Life that Rossetti presented to Jane Morris, is the best surviving example of this typical notebook. Duke University Library has the remains of several notebooks of the same kind, and the paper from still other similar notebooks can be found in various archives and libraries housing Rossetti materials.
If (as seems to be the case) the manuscript of “Another Love” represents a leaf from the volume of manuscript poetry that Rossetti placed in his wife's coffin in 1862, it did not resemble his usual notebooks. The paper with that sonnet is unlined whereas Rossetti's typical notebooks were all ruled.
The surviving manuscripts show that Rossetti plundered his notebooks when he set about the business of publishing his poetry. He would tear out the pages containing individual works and use them to arrange a printer's copy. From the destruction of the notebooks during the print and publication process two bodies of material emerged: (a) new integral documents of various kinds, including printer's copy documents (some of which survive intact or partially intact); (b) a scattering of loose manuscripts.
From a strictly bibliographical point of view, Rossetti's notebooks supply crucial information for dating the composition and revision of various works. Furthermore, in reconstructing the original notebooks from the surviving manuscripts (now scatttered in various places), one can expose relationships between works that might not otherwise be apparent.
Another set of surviving manuscripts should be mentioned: the four small notebooks housed in the Ashley Collection. These all date from 1870-1881. They are notebooks carrying a heteroglot body of materials: memoranda, diary-type notes, shopping lists, draft versions of poems, and so forth. Rossetti seems to have used these notebooks while he was painting or at other odd times. He chose them for their size, because they would fit easily into the pocket of either his painting smock or into the pocket of a waistcoat. Rossetti's brother culled from all of his various notebooks the “Scraps” of DGR's work that he printed in the later series of his posthumous editions (see especially the most complete selection in WMR's 1911 edition of Rossetti's works). A complete edition of these notebooks has never been presented, but T. A. J. Burnett has announced his intention to prepare such an edition in the near future.
One final matter about the manuscripts (narrowly conceived) should be mentioned. As in the case of his pictorial work, Rossetti often made multiple copies of his poems. These would not be copies that were part of a process of composition/revision and/or publication. They are copies with an integral and independent existence of their own. The Bodleian text of The House of Life, a gift to Jane Morris, exemplifies this kind of document, but a great many examples could be given, including the celebrated copy given to the Brownings of The Blessed Damozel held in the Morgan Library.
Rossetti's manuscripts are scattered in many libraries and other archives. There are, however, a handful of principal collections which include the Bodleian Library; the Delaware Art Museum (Bancroft Collection); the British Library (and especially the Ashley collection); the Duke University Library; the Fitzwilliam Museum; the Library of Congress, and Princeton University Library (especially the Troxell collection). Important smaller collections are housed in the Huntington Library, the Beinecke Library (Yale University), the Houghton Library (Harvard University), the Rosenbach Library, the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center (U. of Texas), and Union College Library.