In Proserpine, Rossetti paints the captive wife of Hades, god of the Roman underworld. His model was Jane Morris, the wife of William Morris — Jane shared an longstanding relationship with Dante, as his muse, and possibly more — though a physical relationship is only speculation. None the less, late in life, Jane claimed to never have loved her husband, and so a portrait of a captive queen was tragically pertinent. Rossetti explained the mythological subject of Proserpine in a letter to W.A. Turner, who bought a version of the picture in 1877:
"The figure represents Proserpine as Empress of Hades. After she was conveyed by Pluto to his realm, and became his bride, her mother Ceres importuned Jupiter for her return to earth, and he was prevailed on to consent to this, provided only she had not partaken of any of the fruits of Hades. It was found, however, that she had eaten one grain of a pomegranate, and this enchained her to her new empire and destiny. She is represented in a gloomy corridor of her palace, with the fatal fruit in her hand. As she passes, a gleam strikes on the wall behind her form some inlet suddenly opened, and admitting for a moment the light of the upper world; and she glances furtively towards it, immersed in thought."
Rossetti penned a sonnet to accompany the painting, inscribed in Italian on the painting, and English on the frame:
Afar away the light that brings cold cheer
Unto this wall, - one instant and no more
Admitted at my distant palace-door.
Afar the flowers of Enna from this drear
Dire fruit, which, tasted once, must thrall me here.
Afar those skies from this Tartarean grey
That chills me: and afar, how far away,
The nights that shall be from the days that were.
Afar from mine own self I seem, and wing
Strange ways in thought, and listen for a sign:
And still some heart unto some soul doth pine,
(Whose sounds mine inner sense in fain to bring,
Continually together murmuring,) -
"Woe's me for thee, unhappy Proserpine!"