For an Allegorical Dance of Women by Andrea Mantegna (In the Louvre)

Alternately titled: Sonnets for Pictures 3. A Dance of Nymphs, by Andrea Mantegna; in the Louvre

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1849 October
Rhyme: abbaaccadeffed
Meter: iambic pentameter
Genre: sonnet
Sources of the Work:
Artist: Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506)
Location: Louvre


◦ Gregory, The Life and Works of DGR II. 108-109

◦ Hardinge, “Louvre Sonnets of DGR” (1891)

◦ McGann, Beauty of Inflections, 168-169

◦ McGann, DGR and the Game that Must be Lost, 23-24

◦ Riede, DGR and the Limits of Victorian Vision, 216

◦ Stein, Ritual of Interpretation, 135-136


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

Scholarly Commentary


The difficulty of giving an exact formulation of the meaning of this splendid sonnet is the poem's sign to the reader of its argument. As DGR's note to the Germ text states, the “modern spectator may seek vainly to interpret” the painting, even though —paradoxically—“its meaning filleth it”. DGR's poem means to replicate in itself this effect it ascribes to the Mantegna painting. Baum's view of the sonnet is that “Rossetti, feeling that Mantegna painted chiefly for pictorial effect and assuming that he was not clearly conscious of the meaning he wanted to convey, attempts to supply the clue to the allegory: namely, that the life of the senses is permanent, while the labour of the mind may be in vain” (see Baum, Poems, Ballads, Sonnets 165n ). This view has much to recommend it, but it does ignore DGR's note, which explicitly states that the modern spectator will not be able to interpret correctly (including DGR, who is clearly an interpreter). The latter's interpretation, given in the sonnet, culminates in the last two lines, which have—like the famous conclusion of Keats's “Ode on a Grecian Urn” —the rhetorical form of a definite “meaning” (allegorical). But those lines are themselves only formally determinate (like the rest of the sonnet, like Mantegna's painting). They do not fix a specific “meaning”, they define the difference between the knowledge opened through artistic acts and the knowledge prized by interpreters, whether positivist or hermeneutical.

WMR's view ( 1911, 665n ) is that his brother did not know either the title or the mythological significance of the painting. But this is highly unlikely. DGR probably set those matters aside in order to emphasize his poem's argument about the character of symbolical (or allegorical) discourse. Whatever, WMR's reading of the sonnet is attractive: “that the emotion of the artist . . . is manifest, but not the particular thought which governed it”.

The play of language in lines 1-3 is crucial, and pivots on the double meaning of “frame”. Depending on how one takes that word, we will read the lines as saying that (a) the unheard music that governs the dance rang through Mantegna's body and resulted in this great picture, the execution of which involved him in an experience of profound conceptual awareness; (b) Mantegna embodied the unheard music that governs the dance in this picture, and when he himself saw what he had painted he experienced an understanding of ultimate meaning. Note that in either case DGR is emphasizing the cognitive power of pictorial forms of expression. So far as the rich language of the sonnet is concerned, equally important is the remarkable way that DGR works the pronominal “it”.

Textual History: Composition

An early fair copy is the only known holograph MS of the poem. It is copied on gray note paper along with five other sonnets and some blank verse, all of which DGR wrote during his trip to France and Belgium in 1849. On a small separate paper slip DGR added a note to the sonnet. The MS title of this sonnet, written in October, is simply “On an Allegorical Dance of Nymphs”. The poem in this MS quite different from the texts that were put into print.

The poem would have been written in October 1849. This copy, however, might have been made shortly thereafter; since the packet in which it is included seems to have been sent to George Tupper from London, not from the continent.

A copy made by WMR sometime in the early twentieth-century exhibits both the version published in 1850 and the later version published in 1870.

Textual History: Revision

DGR revised the original MS text quite substantially when he came to publish it in the Germ in 1850. He revised it yet once more, less drastically, when he came to print it in the proofs that would eventually lead to its publication in the 1870 Poems. The Penkill Proofs, which were the first set, show yet further revisions.

Printing History

First published in the Germ no. 4 (30 April 1850). DGR reprinted the poem in the Penkill Proofs, where its text is already much closer to the received version than to the Germ text. The proof process of 1869-1870, toward the publication of the 1870 Poems, resulted in the work as received.


WMR's note to the poem says that it “represents beyond a doubt the Muses (or other Deities) dancing to the music of Apollo while Vulcan is at his forge” ( 1911, 665n ). The painting is one of Mantegna's latest works, executed at the end of the fifteenth century.

Electronic Archive Edition: 1
Source File: 38-1849.raw.xml