Vain Virtues

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1869
Rhyme: abbaaccadefdef
Meter: iambic pentameter
Genre: sonnet


◦ Baum, ed., The House of Life, 196-197

◦ Buchanan, “The Fleshly School of Poetry”, 334-350

◦ Doughty, A Victorian Romantic, 388

◦ Mégroz, Painter Poet of Heaven and Earth, 77-79

◦ Rees, The Poetry of DGR, 102-103

◦ WMR, DGR as Designer and Writer, 246-247

◦ Sharp, DGR: A Record and A Study, 429


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

Scholarly Commentary


Sharp's comment, that “there are no more terrible and impressive sonnets in our language” ( DGR: A Record and A Study, 429 ) than “Vain Virtues” and “Lost Days”, remains persuasive, and has been echoed by many others. But the argument that the sonnet is making in the context of The House of Life is by no means transparent. The word play of the title defines the problematic issues: for this is a poem about “a soul's sin” and its vain virtue, not about what Shakespeare called “lust in action” (see Sonnet CXXIX).

To read the sonnet accurately we must remind ourselves of DGR's poetic traditions: that is, the stil novisti and troubadour traditions where the resources of erotic neoplatonism are elaborately exploited. When Buchanan attacked DGR (see below), and this sonnet in particular, he did so with a clear (and correct) understanding that this was the tradition that governed the verse. Buchanan called it the “Artificial School” and cited its two principal English exponents: Metaphysical verse up through the work of Cowley, and the Della Cruscan movement that began in the 1780s (see “The Fleshly School of Poetry”).

The extremities of wit pursued through this kind of writing place correspondingly extreme demands on a reader's attention. In a poem about sex and sin, for example, particularly in a Victorian context, the two would be expected to stand in a direct relation. But Buchanan recoiled from this poem (and from DGR's book in general) because he saw that it was submitting that relation to a foundational critique. So in this sonnet the sin that is a function of virtue results in the corruption of erotic desire. DGR's argument, as always, proceeds by images. Most important to notice is the idea that the transformation of the “fair deed” by “a soul's sin” should appear in conventional figures of purity and goodness (lines 4, 8). DGR is arguing that “the sorriest thing that enters hell” is, in several senses, an unconsummated act that is proud of its formal virtue: an intense “desire” (“God's desire at noon”, line 11) that does not attain its fulfillment.

Equally important is the function of the figure of death in the sonnet. The tropic structure clearly suggests that this is in one sense the “little death” of coition: the moment of consummation that would have produced a “sainted” event. In more cosmic terms, this death is directly associated with the running theme of “Newborn Death”, which provides the whole sequence with its conceptual/imagistic climax.

Some of the most startling moments in the sonnet emerge when the text generates what appear as arbitrary and even unwanted associations. Notable here are lines 10-11, where the religious figure also suggests coitus interruptus; or lines 11-12, where the image of drowning recalls both “Willowwood” and “Nuptial Sleep”; or, perhaps most disturbing, line 13, where the figure of sin as a “destined wife” makes various (autobiographical) connections that the sequence all but forces upon us.

Finally, one must call attention to the long tradition that has read the sonnet as DGR's personal expression of regret. The thought is that the sonnet is DGR's version of Shakespeare's “Th' expence of spirit in a waste of shame” (Sonnet CXXIX). But in a crucial sense the sonnet is arguing that sin (and regret) are a function of a misconceived idea of virtue, purity, and marital faithfulness. The thought of the images in the sonnet is clearly Blakean: “Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires” ("Proverbs of Hell").

Textual History: Composition

WMR noted in his diary of 18 March 1869 that DGR had just written this sonnet (see WMR, Rossetti Papers 1862 to 1870 ). The Troxell Collection manuscript is a late copy made for the 1881 printing of the poem in the Ballads and Sonnets volume.

The two manuscripts in the Fitzwilliam collection of “House of Life” are an early working copy and a copy with further revisions that was made for the Tauchnitz printing.

Textual History: Revision

Once printed in August 1869 the text underwent only one alteration in proof before it was published in the 1870 Poems. DGR made three significant changes later, when he came to republish it in the Tauchnitz edition of 1873. These changes seem to be responses to Buchanan's attack upon the poem.


Along with “Nuptial Sleep”, this was the poem that most exercised Robert Buchanan in his famous attack on DGR in “The Fleshly School of Poetry”.

Printing History

First printed in August 1869 as part of the Penkill Proofs, the sonnet remained in all proof stages and was published in the 1870 Poems and thereafter, although the text is altered in three places in the Tauchnitz edition of 1873. These changes are brought forward into the 1881 Ballads and Sonnets, where its placement is shifted from Sonnet XXXIX in the 1870 volume, to Sonnet LXXXV.


While the whole of The House of Life works off the extreme concettistic traditions flowing from the troubadors, this famous sonnet probably represents the extremity of DGR's erotic/metaphysical wit. As so often in DGR's sonnets, the treatment is quasi-allegorical rather than personal.

The sonnet clearly recalls Milton's representation of Sin and Death in Paradise Lost Book II.


The sonnet is regularly interpreted as DGR's paean of regret for the ruin of his life by his sexual promiscuity, or (at any rate) by his divided love relations and his unfaithfulness to his wife (see Mégroz and Doughty; and see Rees for a more general comment along these lines). But if one is to pursue a reading within this critical framework one might follow the poetic argument of the poem, which figures damnation as unconsummated erotic desires. That argument would associate DGR's regret more with Jane Morris than with his wife Elizabeth. The “vain virtues” would be his faithfulness to his wife (while she was alive) and his refusal to act on his love for his friend's wife.

Electronic Archive Edition: 1
Source File: 17-1869.raw.xml