Sister Helen

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1851-1852
Date: 1870 (circa)
Rhyme: a4b2a4a4c2c3b4
Meter: iambic
Genre: ballad


◦ Boos, Poetry of DGR, 141-150.

◦ Caine, Recollections, 125-133.

◦ Gregory, “Life and Works of DGR” vol. 2, 111-112.

◦ Howard, The Dark Glass, 68-80.

◦ Surtees, A Catalogue Raisonné vol. 1, 123 (no. 220).

◦ Troxell, Rossetti's Sister Helen.


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

Scholarly Commentary


DGR told Hall Caine that the poem “was written in 1851 or beginning of 1852” ( Caine 125 ). It is one of the most subtle and powerful of DGR's literary ballads, and DGR was aware of its success, as his intention (not completed) to create a picture to illustrate the poem shows.

Unlike “Stratton Water” or“John of Tours”,“Sister Helen” sophisticates its ballad originals to a considerable degree. This sophisticating process is most dramatically seen in the refrains—both their metrical and their conceptual features. The poem's strength depends in no small part on the sympathy it generates for Sister Helen, whose implacable treatment of her lover is at once horrifying and impressive.

The poem is set in a generally medieval locus, though the scene is specifically Ireland. It employs a well-known folklore motif: killing someone by destroying an effigy of the person fashioned by witchcraft.

When DGR was augmenting the poem in March 1880 he sent some new stanzas in a letter to Jane Morris. There he says that “the tenor of the poem now shows that the witch began her spell on the wedding-morning of her false lover. Thus the ‘alas for birth!’ which was of course not probable. I think you will agree that the gain to the subject is enormous—in fact, once thought of, I cannot think how I never did it before. Moreover, the excess of her provocation (in spite of the height of her spite) humanizes her somewhat” (see ( Fredeman, Correspondence, 80. 94 ).

Textual History: Composition

The earliest version was composed in 1851 or early 1852, a text that was then published in 1853.

Textual History: Revision

In August 1869, or perhaps a bit earlier, DGR wrote out a revised copy of the poem in anticipation of printing it with a number of his other poems—a project that would eventuate in the publication of the 1870 Poems. This manuscript (in the Fitzwilliam Museum) was first printed in a set of galley proofs pulled in early to mid-August; these were slightly revised and printed in the Penkill Proofs around 18 August. Further revisions were executed on these and subsequent pre-publication printings in late 1869.

After the appearance of the 1870 Poems DGR continued to make revisions as the book passed through its subsequent printings; these first appear in the second and the fifth editions. DGR's copy of the Tauchnitz edition, which he gave to William Sharp, includes extensive manuscript additions to the poem. These, added to the book in 1881 when DGR borrowed it back from Sharp, were almost certainly composed in or around March 1880 (see DGR's letter to Jane Morris of ca. March 1880, Fredeman, Correspondence 80.94). These late revisions first appeared in print in the New Edition of the Poems (1881). The copy DGR sent to Mrs. Morris is preserved in the British Library, along with a draft of further stanzas he was composing at the time.

Three other surviving manuscripts carry revisions made between 1879 and 1881: a corrected fair copy of stanzas 30-33; a draft copy of stanzas 35 and 39; and a fair copy of stanzas 31-35 that he made and sent to the printer in May 1881.

Production History

DGR's wife executed a sketch, perhaps even two, for the ballad, but it was subsequently lost (see DGR's letter to Barbara Bodichon, 11 January 1870: Fredeman, Correspondence, 70. 2 ); the date of Elizabeth's drawing is uncertain. In 1870 DGR began his own drawing but did not complete it. Surtees dates it ca. 1870.


See Commentary (Reception) for the 1870 Poems.


Surtees (A Catalogue Raisonné vol. 1, 123) describes the extant drawing thus: “A young woman kneels on the floor, turned to the left; her head is turned round and rests on her left shoulder, looking down; the arms are extended downward, hands tightly clasped. In the fireplace beside her, a waxen male figure is tied to a stake. Upper right in a gallery (?or at a window) a boy looks down at her and points to the left.”

Printing History

First printed in The Düsseldorf Artists' Album (1853). DGR revised and augmented the poem for publication in his 1870 Poems. For the latter he had the poem set in a galley proof early in August 1869, and printed again through all the proof stages of the 1870 Poems. As the latter went through its various editions, DGR made further small revisions to “Sister Helen”. When the 1881 edition of the Poems was issued the text of this poem was printed again, with substantial additions.


Though not related specifically to any painting, the ballad is manifestly “painterly” in its treatment of its pictorial details. Most notable is DGR's use of colors, perhaps best displayed in the figure of golden-haired bride dressed in black, with her hair turning white under the shining moon.


The poem is a highly sophisticated reprisal of the traditional ballad, in particular of a ballad like “Edward”. DGR's reworking of the form is both brilliant and self-conscious, particularly in his management of the refrain lines, which introduce repeated and subtle comments on the action and the import of the action.

Baum cites, as literary sources for the folklore motif, Reginald Scot's Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) (see Book 12 chapter 16) or the Gesta Romanorum no. 102; neither seems an especially compelling source. The literature (both historical and legendary) on witchcraft with clay or wax poppets is widespread. Much more important was Lady Jane Wilde's translation (1844) of Johann Wilhelm Meinhold's gothic tale Sidonia the Sorceress, which was a special favorite of DGR's all his life (see DGR's letter to Allingham, 19 September 1854, Fredeman, Correspondence, 54. 63 ).

DGR much admired the poetry of Sidney Dobell, and the changes to “Sister Helen” may have been influenced to some degree by Dobell's “Keith of Ravelston”, which appeared in 1856.

Electronic Archive Edition: 1
Source File: 2-1851.s220.raw.xml