Rossetti's prose writings, both published and unpublished, comprise a large body of work. They fall into four categories: fiction; criticism (literary and artistic); letters; notebooks.
Of the more formal materials—the fiction and the criticism—two works are especially notable and important: the story “Hand and Soul”, written in 1849 and first published in 1850 in The Germ; and the critical essay “The Stealthy School of Criticism” which he published in The Athenæum in 1871 to answer “The Fleshly School of Poetry”, Robert Buchanan's pseudonymous attack on Rossetti's 1870 book of Poems. Another early story, “St. Agnes of Intercession”, was begun in 1850 and worked on later. Left unfinished and unpublished in his lifetime, it remains one of Rossetti's most significant works.
The character and quality of Rossetti's fiction is such that it commands the greatest attention. His two stories, much influenced by his close reading of Poe in particular, stand virtually alone in mid-Victorian England as examples of a style with short fiction that would soon become celebrated through the work of French writers. The gift books and periodicals were filled with short fiction, but in England at mid-century only Mrs. Gaskell was producing work that could be compared to Rossetti's in point of quality; and in point of innovation, Rossetti stands alone.
A crucial feature of Rossetti's fiction is its strongly theoretical quality—what we would today call its “metafictional” character. This is especially remarkable in “Hand and Soul”, which is as much a statement of Rossetti's ideas about art as it is an imaginative work of pseudo-historical fiction. Poe was probably Rossetti's immediate model for this innovative use of imaginative work for exploring ideas. (Rossetti often used his other work in similarly programmatic ways, as his Sonnets for Pictures show very clearly.) The tendency reflects his view that forms of imaginative expression are themselves intellectual forms—indeed, that ideas are best and most fully developed not in expository prose but in imaginative writing, prose or poetry, or in the imaginative representations of pictorial expression. His translations are similarly “intellectual” in their conception.
Rossetti wrote significant formal, expository criticism besides “The Stealthy School of Criticism”. Of first importance are the essays and commentaries he wrote for The Early Italian Poets (1861). These writings supply the general context of ideas that drew Rossetti to study and emulate the poets from the Sicilian School through Petrarch. The preface to that book, which lays out Rossetti's ideas about the art of translation, is a document of the greatest importance.
Only slightly less significant are Rossetti's writings on Blake: first, the general essay published as the last chapter of Alexander Gilchrist's Life of William Blake (1863), where Rossetti ranges pretty broadly on the subject of art and Blake's art in particular; and second, the series of commentaries in volume 2 of the Life that treat particular works of Blake, both poetical and visual. All of this commentary was revised and significantly augmented in the second edition of the Life published in 1880.
Hardly less notable are the editions Rossetti produced of the work of Dante and the early Italian poets, on one hand, and of Blake on the other. (The latter comes as the second volume of Gilchrist's Life of William Blake.) The materials that are selected, their arrangement, the methods of presentation: all these matters tell a great deal about Rossetti's critical and aesthetic thinking. His method of editing Blake, for example—idiosyncratic, not to say high-handed—may leave much to be desired in a scholarly point of view; as an index of Rossetti's mind, however, the work is very valuable indeed.
Rossetti also published several important reviews as well as some art criticism, but the body of this work is not large.
Rossetti's letters comprise his most significant informal prose. Less lively (in general) than Byron's or Swinburne's letters, Rossetti's are nonetheless quite interesting in various ways. They are especially important for revealing the day-to-day affairs of a highly professional artist and writer who was, despite his increasingly reclusive life, widely connected. Rossetti is almost always reserved, however, so the letters reveal very little about the intensities of his personal life. William Michael Rossetti first published a good selection in 1895 in volume 2 of his Dante Gabriel Rossetti. His Family Letters, with a Memoir. Since that time individual selections from the correspondence have appeared from time to time, and a dreadfully inadequate collected edition (in 4 volumes) was published in 1965 by Oswald Doughty and John Robert Wahl. William E. Fredeman's long-awaited complete edition, the first volume of which was published in 2002, is progressively making this important material available in proper form.
The other informal prose descends to us as notebooks or loose papers. This material contains interesting sketches for literary works he projected, or remarks on art or on the work of particular artists. William Michael culled these materials from Rossetti's posthumous papers, and in particular from various notebooks, and then published them as “fragments” in his several editions of his brother's works.
The notebooks are quite interesting, especially the four small notebooks, now in the British Library's Ashley Collection, that Rossetti must have used while he was painting and that he would have kept in a pocket of his artist's smock. These contain a heterogeneous body of material ranging from quotidian notes about groceries to draft versions of poems and ideas for pictures. One other notebook (at the Bodleian) contains an integral and unique version of The House of Life. Rossetti made a gift of this notebook to Jane Morris, who was the focus and inspiration of the poetry in the notebook.
The surviving manuscripts show that other notebooks once existed, but that they were subsequently dismantled and plundered for their contents. Rossetti himself used his notebooks in this way when he was putting together the work that would eventually appear as the 1870 Poems. The notebooks are important for the considerable light they shed on less public areas of Rossetti's life and work. Being workbooks rather than diaries, however, they are rarely sources for information about or insight into Rossetti's (often strange and tormented) private life.