Mrs. Holmes Grey

Alternately titled: The Coroner's Inquest
Alternately titled: An Exchange of News
Alternately titled: A Plain Story of Life

William Michael Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1849, 1868
Rhyme: blank verse
Meter: iambic pentameter
Genre: narrative poem


◦ Bentley, D. M. R.. ‘ “A Very Clever and Finished Piece of Writing”: William Michael Rossetti's “Mrs. Holmes Grey”.’Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies N.S. 20 (Spring 2011) 5-25.

◦ Boos, Florence. “Old Controversies, New Texts: Two Recent Books on Pre-Raphaelitism.” Modern Philology 77.2 (November 1979): 172-187.

◦ [Forman, H. Buxton] “The Rossettis—Part III.” Tinsley's Magazine 5 (October 1869): 276-281.

◦ Fredeman, William. “A Key Poem of the Pre-Raphaelite Movement: W.M. Rossetti's ‘Mrs. Holmes Grey.’” Nineteenth-Century Literary Perspectives: Essays in Honor of Lionel Stevenson. Ed. Clyde de L. Ryals. Durham: Duke UP, 1974.

◦ Fredeman, William. The P.R.B. Journal: William Michael Rossetti's Diary of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, 1849-1853; Together with Other Pre-Raphaelite Documents. Oxford: Clarendon, 1975.

The Germ: Thoughts towards Nature in Poetry, Literature, and Art. London: Aylott and Jones, 1850.

◦ Ives, Maura C. “Descriptive Bibliography and the Victorian Periodical.” Studies in Bibliography 49 (1996): 61-94.

◦ Lang, Cecil Y., ed. The Yale Edition of the Swinburne Letters: Volume 2, 1869-1875. New Haven: Yale UP, 1959.

◦ Peattie, Roger W., ed. Selected Letters of William Michael Rossetti. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1990.

◦ Poe, Edgar. “The Black Cat.” Poetry and Tales. New York: Library of America, 1984. 597-606.

◦ Poe, Edgar. “The Imp of the Perverse.” Poetry and Tales. New York: Library of America, 1984. 826-832.

◦ Roll-Hansen, Diderik. “The Third Rossetti Reconsidered.” Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies 4.1 (1983): 1-11.

◦ Rossetti, William Michael. Dante Gabriel Rossetti. His Family-Letters with a Memoir. Vol 2. 1895. New York: AMS, 1970.

◦ Rossetti, William Michael. “Mrs. Holmes Grey.” The Broadway Annual. [1895] 6 (February 1868): 449-459.

◦ Rossetti, William Michael. Some Reminiscences of William Michael Rossetti. 2 vols. New York: Scribners, 1906.

◦ Thirlwell, Angela. William and Lucy: The Other Rossettis. New Haven: Yale UP, 2003.


Editorial glosses and textual notes are available in a pop-up window. Line numbering reflects the structure of the Line numbering scheme for annotations keyed to Broadway Annual text.

Scholarly Commentary

Guest Editor: Paul Fyfe


“Mrs. Holmes Grey” is William Michael Rossetti's longest poetic effort and a signal artifact of the development of early Pre-Raphaelitism. It was composed in the midst of the PRB's enthusiastic plans to produce a journal, soon published in 1850 as The Germ. WMR undertook “Mrs. Holmes Grey” as an experiment in the aesthetic principles the PRB were attempting to formulate. The poem's significance and its critical reception have largely been framed by WMR himself. “Mrs. Holmes Grey” was, as WMR described in the Family Letters, “a Præraphaelite poem”: “The informing idea of the poem was to apply to verse-writing the same principle of strict actuality and probability of detail which the Præraphaelites upheld in their pictures” (2: 63). WMR wrote of his poem to W.B. Scott that “it was written rather as an experiment in principle [...]. I wanted to attempt, in subject of commonplace life, a more systematically commonplace treatment that I remember to have met with in any poet” (Peattie 11-12). So important was this interpretive context to WMR that when the poem was published in 1868 he appended an explanatory note about the poem's origins in the “prae-Raphaelite movement”: “I [...] entertained the idea that the like principles might be carried out in poetry; and that it would be possible, without losing the poetical, dramatic, or even tragic tone and impression, to approach nearer to the actualities of dialogue and narration than had ever yet been done” (459).

Perhaps as a result of WMR's thorough characterizations, “Mrs. Holmes Grey” has won little acclaim beyond its significance as an experiment in poetic documentary. However, as Fredeman suggests, the poem does represent an interesting and underappreciated aspect of Pre-Raphaelite poetics, one that shades into naturalism rather than a visionary surreal (“Key Poem” 149-150). WMR evinces what Florence Boos calls an almost “protoscientific curiosity” (183). “Mrs. Holmes Grey” undertakes a “strict naturalism,” according to Roll-Hansen, that differs from the continental procedures of Zola (5). With its unexalted characters, domestic subject, descriptive particularity, absence of moral platitudes, transliteration of a coroner's inquest report, and long stretches of unadorned dialogue, “Mrs. Holmes Grey” describes a naturalism or realism that, like the term Pre-Raphaelitism itself, is difficult to adequately define. It accepts the mundane, characterizing individuals only to the limits of their likely personalities. It exhibits “indiscriminate” interest in particulars and does not attempt to subordinate the trivial to the consequential (Fredeman, “Key Poem” 156). It recovers an empirical dimension to Pre-Raphaelite poetics and makes claims for the uniqueness of its enterprise. But it did not, apparently, carry much influence. Still, WMR refused to let “Mrs. Holmes Grey” fade completely away. Much of its lesson, then, may be in considering its failures.

“Mrs. Holmes Grey” represents a road that Victorian narrative and dramatic poetries did not take, which turned instead toward monologue, idyll, and (briefly) spasmodism. WMR's poem lights out for other territory, to explore the capacities of the commonplace to carry deeper insights into character, relationships, and location. His verse delights in facts and calibrates narrative probability to its very meter. As WMR wrote of the “scientific requirements” for the death of Mrs Holmes Grey, “‘congestion and effusion of the ventricle’ is the right term. This will adapt itself to rhythm with all ease” (PRBJ 32). More broadly, the poem attempts to convey the shock of the mundane, as with its scene of reading the newspaper. DGR praises his brother's poem in a letter with favorable comparison to George Crabbe, declaring that it possesses a “harsh reality” and rings out with notes of the modern. The poem looks forward to the rough, plain aesthetic of Williams and the subsequent Objectivist work of Charles Reznikoff. Reznikoff rekindled the experiment of “Mrs. Holmes Grey” in Testimony (1965, 1968) using court evidence in free verse to tell stories both striking and plain.

In 810 lines of blank verse, “Mrs. Holmes Grey” tells the story of a Victorian domestic scandal (for a detailed précis, see Fredeman, “Key Poem” 152-155). In brief: Holmes Grey, a physician, invites a colleague, Dr. Luton, to stay awhile at his house. Mrs. Grey recognizes in Luton the man she loved in childhood and makes several advances, which are rebuffed. Luton leaves, but she makes excuses to follow and confronts him again. When Luton threatens to contact her husband, Mrs. Grey promptly dies of an aneurysm.

The poem's central story is doubly mediated. First, through a frame tale in which Holmes Grey, keeping a candlelight vigil over his wife's corpse, explains his side to a former friend, John Harling. Harling was visiting the town and happened to catch sight of Grey in the window. WMR adds another narrative layer when Grey, in lieu of elaborating the story, hands Harling a newspaper with an article headed “Coroner's Inquest—A Distressing Case.” For several hundred lines, WMR's poem becomes a transcript of the newspaper in blank verse: questions from coroner and jury, testimony by all the principals, bits of courtroom description from the implied journalist. After Harling finishes reading, he has a short conversation with Grey that ends the poem. The inquest has exculpated Luton, but Grey resolves to ruin him nonetheless.

Textual History: Composition

WMR kept track of his poem's progress in the PRB Journal. He first conceived of the idea for the poem on September 12, 1849, while on vacation on the Isle of Wight. There, WMR enjoyed several meditative walks which informed the poem's setting in an English seaside resort. The first draft was completed within the month.

Textual History: Revision

WMR revised his poem between October 1849 and February 1850, and again during November and December 1867 before its publication. However, the specific content of his revisions are difficult to trace, as neither manuscripts nor proof copies are known to have survived. What we do know comes from exchanges of letters and WMR's own notes in the PRB Journal and his diary.

By early October 1849, WMR was sharing his poem in drafts and recitations with contemporaries. DGR, traveling with Holman Hunt in Europe, enthusiastically requested the manuscript by mail and soon replied with their extensive commentary (Family Letters 2: 63-66). Their first recommendation was to change the title; WMR complied, and “An Exchange of News” became “A Plain Story of Life.” Paragraph by paragraph, DGR makes a variety of suggestions on word choice, avoiding the “awkward” and “rather common” and instead aiming “to increase the force” with “newer” and “more strikingly truthful” language. DGR's own poetic commitments emerge in his criticism, as he warns off WMR from descriptions and phrasing that are melodramatic, Tennysonian, or—apparently far worse—Gallic. By and large, the letter praises the poem and WMR's efforts: “a very clever and finished piece of writing,—wonderfully well-managed in parts and possessing some strong points of character. [...] your poem is very remarkable, and altogether certainly the best thing you have done” (66).

Fredeman notes that WMR took some but not all of his brother's suggested revisions (Correspondence 116). WMR subsequently recited his poem to John Lucas Tupper, who in turn consulted with a medical man to confirm, WMR wrote, the “scientific requirements for the death of the woman [...:] ‘congestion and effusion of the ventricle’ is the right term” (PRBJ 32). In November, he recited it to Millais and offered the manuscript to Patmore—who was perhaps predisposed to dislike it, considering “the age of narrative poetry to be passed for ever” (PRBJ 27). As WMR learned through the grapevine, Patmore was not impressed. Where DGR admired the absence of cloying sentiment and morality, Patmore “finds a most objectionable absence of moral dignity, all the characters being puny and destitute of elevation” (PRBJ 25).

WMR continued on, making corrections to accentuate the poem's “newspaper fidelity”. He sent the manuscript to William Bell Scott in January 1850 (PRBJ 43). Scott did not condone the experiment. As WMR noted, “[h]e evidently looks on it as a curiosity out of his line of thought and poetic faith, not wanting in good description, but exceptional and wrong in delineation of character” (PRBJ 47). By February, WMR seems to have conceded. In a reply to Scott, he humbled himself as naïve: “[I] now feel convinced that it is almost too ambitious, before a somewhat extended experience of real life, to attempt the embodiment of what is likely to strike as a metaphysical paradox” (Peattie 12). The last straw may have been the reaction of Joseph Wrightson, who looked upon the poem “as more than half intentionally comic” (PRBJ 58). “A Plain Story of Life” went into a long dormancy.

In 1867, WMR received a letter from Edmund Routledge soliciting literary contents for his fledgling monthly magazine The Broadway Annual. WMR balked at the overwrought prospectus, but Routledge appealed to him again in October with promises of the magazine's improved character, more serious contributors, and likely commercial success (Peattie 181-182). WMR signed on and dug up his blank-verse poem, though confessing to Swinburne in a letter that “any 2 lines out of 3 need some amount of modification” (Peattie 182). By this point, WMR was referring to the poem as “The Coroner's Inquest,” and eventually settled upon “Mrs. Holmes Grey” for publication. WMR also felt the need to append an explanatory note—almost an apologia—to the end of the published version of “Mrs. Holmes Grey.” This note deprecates his “unpractised hand” and his poetic “experiment,” admitting that the poem has been published “not indeed without some revision, but without the least alteration in its general character and point of view” (Broadway 459). The note may extend WMR's misgivings about the poem's original reception, or his worries for the lost context of the poem's composition in the ferment of the early PRB.


After its publication, “Mrs. Holmes Grey” elicited only one formal review. In the last of his three-part series on the Rossettis for Tinsley's Magazine, H. Buxton Forman spent the better part of his article on WMR panning “Mrs. Holmes Grey.” Forman's admiration for the Rossettis notwithstanding, his article targets “the theory of the preraphaelites” that simple materials will increase the caliber of artistic production (276). As for “Mrs. Holmes Grey,” Forman cannot abide the non-poetic language. He denigrates it as “sensational literature” barely differing from “carefully-written prose” (277).

WMR denied that the Tinsley's review bothered him, telling Swinburne of his detachment from the poem (Peattie 232). Swinburne, for his part, overflowed with praise for WMR. Swinburne gave “Mrs. Holmes Grey” several close readings and wrote: “I now take leave to tell you honestly that it seems to me not only good but great in quality. [...I]t is the only thorough and poetic piece of domestic tragedy wrought out since Balzac—except of course Flaubert” (Lang 28). Even though WMR considered this a “superfluously enthusiastic letter” and that Forman's review was “nearer the mark,” he was grateful, perhaps even persuaded to continue writing poetry (Rossetti Papers 297; Some Reminiscences 1: 82). When he asked DGR what kind of poetry to pursue, DGR advised him “to go on the same tack” as “Mrs. Holmes Grey.” Considering WMR's total hiatus from poetry until beginning the Democratic Sonnets in 1881, WMR may not have concurred (Roll-Hansen 7).

“Mrs. Holmes Grey” languished in relative obscurity after its initial publication. In 1974, amid his efforts to rekindle critical comment about the PRB, William Fredeman suggested that “Mrs. Holmes Grey” possesses “a documentary significance that overshadows its literary shortcomings” (159). Fredeman uses to poem to complicate evaluations of Pre-Raphaelite poetics typically based upon works like “The Blessed Damozel” (149-150). Following on Fredeman's claims, Roll-Hansen sees “Mrs. Holmes Grey” as a window into the dispassionate naturalism and philosophical positions of WMR and early Pre-Raphaelitism.

Printing History

“Mrs. Holmes Grey” was originally slated for the fourth number of The Germ (PRBJ 43), but, because of the periodical's early demise and lukewarm response to the poem, it was not included. WMR did not again actively seek to publish the poem, even when encouraged by George Meredith in 1861 (Fredeman, “Key Poem” 152). After agreeing to Routledge's proposals, “Mrs. Holmes Grey” was printed in the sixth number of The Broadway Annual (February 1868 issue). The publisher's records indicate a run of 30,000 copies. The Broadway Annual lists its places of publication as London and New York, but no records exist to confirm an American printing (Ives 90). “Mrs. Holmes Grey” has since been republished only once, as an appendix to Fredeman's edition of the PRB Journal (1975).


Fredeman suggests that “Mrs. Holmes Grey” is stylistically distinct from other pre-Raphaelite poems as it contains “no attempt to introduce purely pictorial elements” (159). Even so, at least three illustrations were created for the poem. DGR apparently made two sketches for it, though neither has survived. According to the PRB Journal, DGR began a rough sketch on January 16, 1850, intended to accompany its publication in the fourth number of The Germ (PRBJ 43). When Edmund Routledge agreed to publish it in 1867, he suggested DGR as the illustrator. DGR declined. He did, however, privately make WMR a sketch of the death scene (Rossetti Papers 243).

WMR and Routledge agreed upon Arthur Boyd Houghton to illustrate the poem's coffin scene. This woodcut design was printed in The Broadway Annual on the facing page of “Mrs. Holmes Grey.” WMR sent a note of thanks to Houghton who was greatly relieved: he had expected “a ferocious wigging for the illustration” from the now-famous WMR (Rossetti Papers 284).

Houghton's illustration places the viewer in a bare room looking over the shoulder of the poem's interlocutor, John Harling, and into the candlelit coffin of Mrs. Holmes Grey, her face and hair barely visible, her gaunt husband standing immediately behind her. With its sightlines converging on the well-lit face in the center, the illustration is suggestive of a contemporary fascination with fallen women, figured in the spectacle of the female corpse.


Thirlwell among other critics has suggested that WMR based his poem on an actual scandal reported in the press, though no specific cases or articles are cited (186, fn25). However, coroner's inquests were legion in the Victorian newspaper and, according to WMR himself, he “sat down to think for a subject for a poem, and, without much trouble, invented one” (PRBJ 14).


WMR takes his epigraph from Edgar Poe's short story “The Black Cat” (1843). Poe held great esteem with the PRB and was even celebrated by Coventry Patmore as the best writer America had produced (PRBJ 31). “The Black Cat” is a first-person confessional: a man afflicted by alcoholism and his own madness murders first his cat and then his wife; his second cat gives him away to the police. Poe's story relates to “Mrs. Holmes Grey” in at least two provocative ways: in its narrative procedures and in its investigation of the perverse.

As Poe's narrator explains in the first paragraph, “My purpose is to place before the world, plainly, succinctly, and without comment, a series of mere household events” (597). As Poe draws out the complexities of a domestic tragedy, so too the author of “A Plain Story of Life” devotes his poem to quotidian sensation and almost newspaper-like fidelity. WMR's guiding principle was “strict actuality and probability of detail” intent on producing “the actualities of dialogue and narration.”

These are the methods WMR uses, like Poe, to illuminate the perverse. In his essay “Imp of the Perverse” (1845), Poe identifies “a radical, primitive, irreducible sentiment” that does not fit into moral or religious cosmologies (826). We can find such a sentiment in both Greys of WMR's poem: Mrs. Holmes Grey is in thrall to Dr. Luton with an irrepressible love that ruins her life; her attachment is linked in several places to mesmeric meetings they attended together during their early acquaintance. Mr. Grey, after sitting with the corpse for some days, resolves to ruin Dr. Luton regardless of the exculpatory evidence and his friend Harling's objections. Perversity also resonates with the interest in unexplained motive forces characteristic of PRB aesthetics. The epigraph from “The Black Cat” echoes the PRB's declared interests in raw emotion and the first principles in art: “the primitive impulses of the human heart” and the “primary faculties or sentiments [...of] the character of man.” This nexus of perverse psychology and aesthetic principles is the grotesque, which became a perennial sticking point for critics of “Mrs. Holmes Grey” and preraphaelitism itself.


Swinburne suggested to WMR that “in France I think even a poor translation, if literal, would be felt”. He particularly wanted to share it with Flaubert. And so Swinburne promised to translate “Mrs. Holmes Grey”: “I'd do the drudgery myself gladly: I would indeed and submit the translation to you, lest it should prove a ‘translation-treason’” (Lang 28). However, no such translation seems to exist or was ever published.

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