Poetry, Laudanum, and Exhumation: A 19th Century Love Story

We’ve all heard of the “artistic temperament,” which we plebian hoards are supposed to recognize and respect in a great (or even not so great) artist. Indeed, this stereotype was formed through centuries of tortured artists. One 19th century artist, a major figure of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, took this to a macabre extreme. As you will see, painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti was fond of dramatic gestures.

An 1863 photograph of D.G. Rossetti, demonstrating his fondness for dramatic gestures. Taken by Lewis Carroll.

In 1849, the young Rossetti met Elizabeth Siddall, who was modeling for one of his painter friends. Siddal (Rossetti soon dropped the second “l” in her name) embodied the ideals of beauty to Rossetti and his friends: she was tall, long-necked, with unusual green-blue eyes, dreamy eyelids, and flashing coppery hair. In short order Rossetti was using her to the exclusion of any other model.

Portrait of Elizabeth Siddal, c. 1860, by Rossetti

Rossetti saw Siddal as the personification of Beauty. Siddal took painting lessons from Rossetti and wrote poetry. Soon, Rossetti asked her to marry him. What a romantic story.


Then Rossetti postponed their wedding, likely embarrassed by Siddal’s lower-class background. And Rossetti began cheating on her. And Siddal, frail and sickly, became addicted to laudanum.


Finally, the two tied the knot. Siddal became pregnant, but delivered a stillborn girl. Devastated by illness, tragedy, and the growing distance between her and her husband, Siddal committed suicide. Which leads us to our first dramatic gesture.


Before her burial in 1862, Rossetti tucked his only working manuscript of poems within the coffin, into Siddal’s luxurious golden-red hair, said to be down to her waste at the time of her death. The next year, Rossetti painted what would become one of his most famous works, an homage to Siddal called Beata Beatrix—in which Siddal served as the model for the Italian writer Dante’s muse, Beatrice.

Beata Beatrix, one of Rossetti’s finest works

The years went by, and as Rossetti aged he began to lose his sight. Realizing he faced the twilight of his painting career, Rossetti turned once again with feeling to poetry. The problem was, well, none of his new poems were any good. Rossetti started to regret his earlier dramatic burial gesture. Which led to his next dramatic gesture.


One night Rossetti’s friends traveled to the cemetery and exhumed Siddal’s body. Witnesses said that Siddal’s hair had continued to grow after her death, filling the entire coffin with a thicket of red-sunset hair. The manuscript was found, intact, though slightly worm-holed.


Back in Rossetti’s possession, the exhumed poems were published in an 1870 volume. It was a brilliant success, but at a dear price. In 1872, Rossetti suffered a mental breakdown.


Rossetti  took chloral, a “sedative and hypnotic drug,” and eventually grew dependent on it. Like his wife, Rossetti sank into even poorer health through drug addiction in his last years. Karma?

Proserpine, modeled by Jane Morris, one of Rossetti’s lovers. Also, the wife of his close friend William Morris.

Rossetti relied heavily on female muses to inspire him in his work. In the case of Siddal, she haunted him for ill and for good even after death. Who are some of  your favorite literary muses?


10 Comments Add yours

  1. Ogtho says:

    Can’t think of any female muses off the top of my head, but I thoroughly enjoyed your post! This was very interesting!

  2. Ted from Accounting says:

    OMG! That is so sad! Your blog is like taking a Literature 101 class. I don’t know any particular muses but would think that most poems are probably inspired by a muse. I fail this assignment Prof. Romney. Sorry!

  3. Luke says:

    This reminded me of how after Emerson’s first wife died, he made a trip to the her grave and dug her up a year after she’d popped her clogs.

  4. Brandon says:

    Don’t hear much about Laudanum anymore. Mary Todd Lincoln was an addict, too. Once upon a time in America, adults were permitted to make decisions about the substances that entered their bodies. Imagine that?

    1. Have you read Confessions of an English Opium-Eater? I love De Quincey.

  5. Fabio says:

    Dear Rebecca,
    congratulations for your article.
    About the topic of your article I wanted to alert you of a painting particularly important of Rossetti, entitled How They Met themeselves.
    If you want you can check the connection by reading the lesson of English literature that Borges dedicated to Rossetti .. dedicated to the theme of the double, the fetch.
    If you have not already read might give you a hint rich and very nice to understand the relationship with Elizabeth Sindal.

    1. Thank you for that tip!

  6. Brandon says:

    I just read the wikipedia summary, Rebecca. Sounds fascinating! Drug addiction has afflicted humanity for millenia, yet the brutal and ignorant way in which the state has chosen to attempt to solve the problem is very new, indeed.

  7. Fabio says:

    Please! You will find the universal theme of the double, a theme to which Rossetti and Elizabeth did not escape.

  8. gene fosheim says:

    I’ve always loved this true story. When I go to London I try and visit Elizabeth Siddal’s overgrown grave in Highgate Cemetery. Thank you.

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