For The Wine of Circe, by Edward Burne Jones

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1870 March 12
Rhyme: abbaabbacdcddc
Meter: iambic pentamenter
Genre: sonnet
Sources of the Work:
Pictorial Object: The Wine of Circe
Artist: Sir Edward Burne-Jones
Location: Private collection


◦ Boos, Poetry of DGR 228-230


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

Scholarly Commentary


DGR wrote the sonnet for the express purpose of having “some record of [Burne-Jones'] work in my book [i.e., in the 1870 Poems],” as he told Barbara Bodichon. “I have tried in the first lines to give some notion of the colour, and in the last some impression of the scope of the work,—taking the transformed beasts as images of ruined passion—the torn seaweed of the sea of pleasure. You will remember that in the picture the window shows a view of the sea and the galleys which bear the new lovers and victims of the enchantress” (see DGR's letter of 15 March 1870, Fredeman, Correspondence, 70. 53 ). DGR's interest in the colour dynamics of Burne-Jones' painting reflects his awareness of the problematic character of both beauty and pleasure. That awareness is a constant theme in his work—indeed, is perhaps his predominant theme.

The letter also underscores the distinctively “personal” quality of DGR's 1870 Poems. In as many ways as he could, DGR tried to make the book a reflection of himself in his world (his family, his friends, his loves, his ideas and moral-aesthetic goals). Burne-Jones's picture, which “did much to establish Burne-Jones's reputation” as an artist ( The Pre-Raphaelites, Tate 1974 303,), was also an index or point of focus for Ruskin's aesthetic ideas, which were so important for DGR and the Pre-Raphaelite movement in general. As such, DGR's sonnet becomes itself an interpretation of Ruskinian thought, for the Burne-Jones painting is a conscious effort to express that thought.

Textual History: Composition

DGR wrote the poem on 12 March 1870 and sent a copy the next day to Burne-Jones (with some alternative readings) and another copy shortly afterwards to Barbara Bodichon (which differs slightly from the copy he sent to Burne-Jones): see DGR's letters of 13 and 15 March 1870, Fredeman, Correspondence, 70. 52, 53 . Both of these manuscript texts differ substantially from the received text.

Textual History: Revision

The original MS text was considerably revised as DGR moved the poem into the collection of the 1870 Poems. The changes were made before the text passed into the revise proofs, which were initially pulled on 15 March 1870. The 1870 text was not revised for later printings.

Production History

Burne-Jones's painting was begun in 1863 and completed in 1869, when it was exhibited at the Old Water-Colour Society. Originally comissioned by Ruskin, the painting was a conscious attempt by Burne-Jones to execute a painting that would represent Ruskin's ideas about art and the prophetic office of the artist. On its completion it was bought by Frederick Leyland. The painting's present location is in a private collection. It has been reproduced several times (always in monochrome): in Malcolm Bell's Sir Edward Burne-Jones, page 92 ; in The Pre-Raphaelites, Tate 1974, page 304 ; and in David Cecil's Visionary and Dreamer, pl. 66.

Printing History

First published in DGR's 1870 Poems, where it was included as one of the last additions to the volume—in March, 1870. DGR had special revise proofs pulled to make changes to the sonnet and then have it placed in his new book, which was published in April. Sets of these proofs are in the British Library (two copies), the Huntington Library, the Fitzwilliam, and the Princeton-Troxell collection.


When DGR saw the painting in July 1869 he called it “the greatest picture of the year in my opinion” (see DGR's letter to Alicia Losh of 16 July 1869, Fredeman, Correspondence, 69. 85 ). His sonnet clearly reads the painting (and the myth of Circe) somewhat more darkly than Ruskin had done in Munera Pulveris (which came out in articles in Fraser's in 1862-63). Ruskin contrasts Circe (“pure Animal life . . . full vital pleasure”) with the Sirens, who represent avarice. DGR's view is close to this, but his sense of the intimate relation between Soul's Beauty and Body's Beauty clearly leads him to a darker sense of Circe's enchanting powers (and hence to a darker view of the power of art than Ruskin had).


Keats's “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” was a favorite text for DGR, and this sonnet is yet another Rossettian treatment of the Keatsian theme. In DGR's version, however, the fatal woman is mature and experienced (a representation not at all emphasized in Keats), as here, and of course in the various Lilith texts and pictures.

In the 1870 Poems the sonnet recalls The Sun's Shame perhaps most particularly, but it connects as well with themes relentlessly pursued through Troy Town, Jenny, Eden Bower and The House of Life generally.

Electronic Archive Edition: 1
Source File: 24-1869.raw.xml