The Question (for a Design)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1875
Date: 1882
Subject: WMR's narrative description of the picture: “In this design the Sphinx represents the mystery of existence, or the destiny of man, unfathomable by himself. Three personages—a youth, a man of mature age, and an old man —are shown as coming to the secret haunt of the Sphinx, to consult her as to the arcana of fate. The man is putting his question; the greybeard toils upward towards the spot; the youth, exhausted with his journey, sinks and dies, unable so much as to give words to the object of his quest. With upward and inscrutable eyes the Sphinx remains impenetrably silent.” (93-94).
Rhyme: abbaabbacdecde; abbaaccadeedde
Meter: iambic pentameter
Genre: poem group


◦ Grieve, Alastair, “Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The Question”, The Pre-Raphaelites, Tate 1984, 307-308.

◦ Marillier, DGR: An Illustrated Memorial, 187.

◦ Peterson, Carl A., “Rossetti and The Sphinx”, 48-53.

◦ WMR, DGR as Designer and Writer, 93-94 .

◦ Sharp, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 241-244

◦ Surtees, A Catalogue Raisonné, vol. 1, 139-140.

◦ Wildman, Visions of Love and Life, 293-295.

General Description of The Question. Sonnet I

Date: 1882
Subject: Sonnet I
Rhyme: abbaabbacdecde
Meter: iambic pentameter
Genre: sonnet

General Description of The Question. Sonnet II

Date: 1882
Subject: Sonnet II
Rhyme: abbaaccadeedde
Meter: iambic pentameter
Genre: sonnet

Scholarly Commentary


This is DGR's final “double work” and it was left uncompleted, at least on the pictorial side. The work is quintessential Rossetti and stands in the closest relation to another pair of key, unfinished works: “The Orchard Pit” and “The Doom of the Sirens”. DGR told Madox Brown 9 March 1875 that it was “a sort of painted “The Cloud Confines”” (see Fredeman, Correspondence 75.23 ).

DGR made two composition studies for his planned painting in 1875. One of these appears to be a finished study, and contains the Sphinx and the three supplicant figures Youth, Manhood, and Age, while the other, perhaps earlier, design omits the third figure. Years later (1882), just before he died, DGR composed a pair of sonnets to accompany the finished drawing (“This sea, deep furrowed as the face of Time” and “Lo, the three seekers! Youth has sprung the first”).

Textual History: Composition

On his deathbed DGR dictated the sonnets to Hall Caine and sent them in a letter to Watts (5 April 1882) (see Fredeman, Correspondence 82.28 ). The manuscript, with DGR's autograph corrections, is preserved in the archives of the Oxford University Press. This corrected copy is the only known manuscript of the sonnets.

Production History

DGR's letter to Madox Brown of 9 March 1875 shows the date of the drawing: “I have been making a design— all men and a sphinx!”.


For DGR's commentaries on the symbolism of the picture see the notes here on the finished study.

Printing History

The sonnets were first published from the manuscript in volume 4 of the Doughty-Wahl edition of DGR's Letters (1967) IV. 1952-1953 . They were reprinted from this text in 1971 in Surtees (1971) I. 139-140 and again in 1999 in Marsh, Collected Writings (1999) 468-469 .


Marillier observes that the sonnets were intended to be included in a “miscellany of poems and tales by himself and Mr. Theodore Watts,” with the drawing to serve as a frontispiece to the book.


WMR comments that the dying youth in the picture is a coded recollection of Oliver Madox Brown, whose death in 1874 greatly affected DGR (see his sonnet “Untimely Lost”).

Electronic Archive Edition: 1
Source File: 1-1882.s241.raw.xml