'A Royal Princess' - Synopsis and commentary


The poem begins by directly challenging the assumption that riches and privilege entail happiness. For the princess, who has a huge sense of compassion, watching people suffer due to the rule of her father causes her pain. Whilst she is provided with all the riches she could ever want (maid-servants to look after her need, luxuries that come from all around the world), her longing for justice, along with her loneliness and isolation, make her unhappy.

‘Human flesh and blood'

The princess realisation that the men and women her father treats as though they were cattle are, like herself, ‘human flesh and blood' (line 35), comes as a shock. This shock causes her to rebel. When she hears that the poor are ‘clamouring to be fed', her compassion is aroused further.

One day, whilst resting in the palace, she hears her father command his troops to ‘Charge!' against those who rebel at their inhumane treatment. At this, she determines to take action:

With a ransom in my lap, a king's ransom in my hand
 I will go down to this people, will stand face to face, will stand
Where they curse king, queen and princess of this cursed land.
(lines 99-101)

Initially, it appears that the ransom is the gold jewels and other costly items belonging to the princess. However, in stanzas 35-6, it emerges that the ‘ransom' she speaks of is her own life. She declares that the ‘goal' she ‘half conceive[s]' is

Once to speak before the world, rend bare my heart and show
The lesson I have learned, which is death, is life, to know.
I, if I perish, perish: in the name of God I go.
(lines 106-108)


Investigating A Royal Princess

  • Why do you think that the princess declares that she would ‘rather be a peasant with a baby at her breast' than a member of the royal family?
    • List the things that are making her unhappy
    • List the contrasts between the rich and the poor that you can find in the poem.
  • Why do you think that the princess describes the truth as ‘naked' and ‘vulgar' (line 59)?
    • What associations do you have with the word ‘truth'?
    • Why is the truth hidden from the princess?


The Lancashire Cotton Famine

Rossetti composed A Royal Princess in 1851 and first published it in 1863 in a poetry anthology that was compiled in order to raise funds for workers in the Lancashire cotton districts who were being discharged from employment as a result of the American Civil War.

More on the effects of the American Civil War: The American Civil War was a crucial event in the history of the Lancashire cotton industry. By blocking certain ports, the navy cut off the supply of raw cotton on which Lancashire's mills depended. Mill closure, short time working and mass unemployment resulted. The crisis in Lancashire reached its peak in 1862/3

The fact that Rossetti wrote A Royal Princess eleven years before the crises in Lancashire reached its peak can be seen to indicate its universal appeal and broad relevance.

A Prince's Progress and Other Poems

In 1866, Rossetti included A Royal Princess in her second volume of poetry, A Prince's Progress and Other Poems. Compared to the lazy prince of the title poem, A Prince's Progress, who wastes his time and does not act responsibly, the princess of A Royal Princess is shown to be proactive and determined.

More on A Prince's Progress and Other Poems:

Another poem in the same volume, which demonstrates Rossetti's concern with the injustices of society, is entitled The Iniquity of the Fathers upon the Children. The speaker of this poem is an illegitimate child struggling to come to terms with the shame that her birth caused both her mother and herself.

The devotional poems, included in the second half of A Prince's Progress and Other Poems, are concerned with the difficulties of living in the world. With titles including Long Barren, If Only, Weary in Well-doing and Martyrs' Song, these poems attempt to reconcile the problems and injustices of life to the idea of a loving and faithful God.


Investigating A Royal Princess

  • What comes to mind when you think of the life of a princess?
    • How does the poem answer these associations and expectations?
  • What social injustices make you angry?
    • Are these similar to those injustices that the princess describes?
    • Is there a political situation that is happening at the moment to which this poem could be related?
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