The Burden of Nineveh

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1850
Rhyme: aaaabccccb
Meter: iambic tetrameter
Genre: lyrical ballad


◦ Bentley, “Political Themes”, 166-174.

◦ Boos, Poetry of DGR, 207-15.

◦ Gregory, “Life and Works of DGR” vol. 2, 112-113.

◦ Masefield, Thanks Before Going, 53-54.

◦ Rees, DGR Revisted, 52-56.

◦ Riede, Poetry of DGR, 52-56.

◦ Sharp, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 325-331.

◦ Stauffer, “Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Burdens of Nineveh” .

◦ Stauffer, “Punch on Nineveh,” 369-394.

◦ Stauffer, “Dante Rossetti's ‘Burden of Nineveh’: Further Excavations”, 45-58.

◦ Woodring, “The Burden of Nineveh,” 12-15.


Editorial glosses and textual notes are available in a pop-up window. Line numbering reflects the structure of the 1881 First Edition text.

Scholarly Commentary


Composed in 1850, the poem was much revised for its first printing in the 1856 Oxford and Cambridge Magazine . The work clearly relates to DGR's programmatic concerns about art and its relation to society, concerns that were most pressing for him in the years of his Pre-Raphaelite committments in the 40s and 50s. The 1856 text treats these matters in a comic tone that tells much about his skeptical view of English art and society at large, including a “revolutionary” movement like the PRB, which was organized towards artistic and social reform. As such the poem exemplifies what DGR would later call taking an “inner standing point” toward its materials (see The Stealthy School of Criticism ); that is, treating its subject in such a way that the poem itself is drawn into the point of view taken toward the nominal subject. When he revised the poem yet again for its appearance in the 1870 Poems , that inner standing point was not discarded. It was, however, seriously modified.

Textual History: Composition

WMR says the poem was “Written in the autumn of 1850” (see Works [1911], 649 ), a comment which revises his earlier judgment (DGR as Designer and Writer, 137 ) that it was written in 1851 or 1852. He had clearly consulted his P. R. B. Journal , where he notes that on 13 November DGR had “written a stanza or two to a poem he had begun shortly before leaving London [for a brief sojourn at Sevenoaks] suggested by some of the Nineveh sculptures” ( The P. R. B. Journal, 82 ). How much further DGR proceeded with the poem at that time is unclear. He may have finished a draft, but if he did, he certainly revised it heavily in 1856, when he published it for the first time. A fragment of such a manuscript was printed by Marillier—three stanzas, two from the original manuscipt of 1850, the third an interpolation made in 1856. The present location of this manuscript is not known.

Textual History: Revision

The poem went through three distinct phases of production: its initial composition in the fall of 1850, perhaps only in a fragmentary form; its revision in 1856, when DGR published it in the August 1856 issue of the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine ; and its second revision for printing in the 1870 Poems . At that point the poem had achieved its culminant form, which is a bit shorter than the 1856 text, and very different in tone.

A fragment of manuscript in the South African National Museum shows that DGR had the poem set up in galley proofs sometime around 15 August 1869, and that the poem was at that point revised to the form that it achieved in the so-called Penkill Proofs, the first of the elaborate set of trial books that DGR had printed in preparation for publishing his 1870 volume of poems.

Printing History

The poem was first printed in the August 1856 issue of the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine , a text that was picked up and reprinted in the May 1858 issue of The Crayon .

The poem was next printed in 1869, when it was set in galley proof, revised, and set again in the Penkill Proofs in August. This printing is the earliest surviving proof state in the heavy process of revision of his works that DGR undertook in 1869-1870 Poems .


The contemporary setting focuses on the Near Eastern antiquities being acquired by the British Museum. DGR uses that setting to develop a broadly-based critique of imperial cultures. The critique emerges through his appropriation of certain key literary texts, particularly texts by Byron and Shelley.


The principal source for the poem is Sir Austen Layard, Nineveh and Its Remains and A Popular Account of Discoveries at Nineveh , the abridged edition (1851). DGR used the latter when he was recasting his poem, but the former when he wrote the first version in 1850. Besides this reference work, DGR's poem clearly recalls Byron's earlier satiric treatment of British cultural imperialism in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812) (see especially Canto II) and “The Curse of Minerva” (1812), as well as Shelley's sonnet “Ozymandias” which DGR specifically recalls in his final two stanzas.


DGR casts the poem in a distinctly personal mode, as if it were written by a contemporary Londoner (which it was). That point of view establishes the “inner standing point” in a work that is basically a kind of lyrical ballad.

Electronic Archive Edition: 1
Source File: 1-1850.raw.xml