decorated initial 'A' great number of Rossetti's poems take erotic or spiritual passions as their thematic focus. The preface to her powerful sequence of love sonnets, the Monna Innominata, recalls the proper originary context for such poems. It is "that land and that period which gave simultaneous birth to Catholics, to Albigenses, and to troubadours" (Poems, 2:86). In fact, most of her love poems emerge from the same impulses — variously secular and religious — that informed medieval literature. Walter Pater classified the products of such impulses in the traditions of "mystic passion" or "mystic religion.") Pater saw these traditions as culminating in courtly love and Arthurian materials, on the one hand, and the poetry of Dante, on the other. In Rossetti's poetry, the two traditions interact compatibly, becoming rich sources of formal literary values and ideology that she can appropriate for her own, uniquely Victorian purposes. Rossetti uses these two traditions synthetically to generate forceful and beautiful poetic artifacts that are monitory (or prophetic). In her work they combine with values derived from Tractarianism, Pre-Raphaelite aesthetics, Saint Augustine, Plato, and Thomas à Kempis. They enable her to convey ideals and describe idealities that implicitly or explicitly repudiate the value (as well as the material and erotic values) of the world in which they are initially set. These poems are therefore powerfully ideological and find their paradigm in her wellknown sonnet, "The World":

By day she woos me, soft, exceeding fair:
But all night as the moon so changeth she;
Loathsome and foul with hideous leprosy,
And subtle serpents gliding in her hair.
By day she woos me to the outer air, [89/90]
 Ripe fruits, sweet flowers, and full satiety:
 But thro' the night a beast she grins at me,
Avery monster void of love and prayer.
By day she stands a lie: by night she stands
 In all the naked horror of the truth,
With pushing horns and clawed and clutching hands.
Is this a friend indeed that I should sell
 My soul to her, give her my life and youth,
Till my feet, cloven too, take hold on hell?
    [Works, 182]

Like many of Rossetti's best poems, this sonnet (from 1854) is deeply intertextual, undertaking a dialogue with generalized literary, religious, and mythical traditions whose forms and ideologies Rossetti transvalues. Formally, "The World" is an intriguing revision of the Petrarchan sonnet. Their continuity insisted upon through anaphora, the first two quatrains and the first tercet function as a unit that describes the temptress; the final tercet presents the question that enables the speaker (and prospectively the reader) to escape the traditional dialectics — of beauty and horror, desire and destruction, seduction and damnation — which the first three sections of the poem articulate. One can elude a personal repetition of the Fall through wholesale renunciation, through nonparticipation in the setting and dialectical field of values where the Fall takes place.

The poems form echoes its thematic substance, rejecting the strict requirements of the Petrarchan sonnet in which erotic desire (often with the inevitable sequels of seduction and/or self-destruction) has been traditionally expressed. Beyond this formal strategy, however, Rossetti uses a host of traditional images associated with both the Fall and English love sonnets. These include, on the one hand, serpent, fruit, and beast images; and, on the other, images of duplicitous beauty, the fickle moon, and "sweet flowers." These latter images are transposed from their originary Petrarchan contexts of admiration for a beloved. The moral dangers as well as the illusory quality of such images and their uses are exposed through juxtaposition with Satanic reality: the "naked horror" of "pushing horns and clawed and clutching hands."

Here, then, Rossetti's work discloses the spiritual dangers of erotic passion. The thematics of renunciation might be said hypostatically to constitute the ideology of this poem. Such a thematics results not from the combination of particular words, images, or descriptions in the poem, but from all of those, in combination with the work's dialogue with tradition [90/91] and with the implicit value system of the reader. As in Goblin Market, a secular and materialist value system is addressed by use of a concluding commercial metaphor in "The World." But the same value system is also addressed in the poem's rhetorical premises. These present a specifically male self-inquisitor trying to resist an archetypal Eve-figure who is an agent, if not a specter, of Satan. The poem is, thus, designed to operate primarily upon a traditional male audience subject to material and erotic corruption. As historians of the period have repeatedly stressed, Victorian middle-class males — more publicly, visibly, and self-consciously than their progenitors — were confronted on all sides by such temptations to corruption; see, for instance, "We 'Other Victorians,'" in Foucault, History of Sexuality.

Unlike the male speaker in "The World," however, most of Rossetti's characters who confront and often renounce erotic passion are women subject to deception or betrayal by men whose allegiance is implicitly to the material, social, and amatory values of the unregenerate world. Rossetti's finest poems of renunciation, like the Monna Innominata, operate dialogically in particular sociohistorical. contexts but also and especially in literary contexts. These works depend upon such contexts for their effectiveness and their full "meaning." Before undertaking an exemplary contextual analysis of the Monna Innominata it will be helpful to discuss the proper contexts for Rossetti's predominantly secular love poems, along with a taxonomy of these poems, in order to understand how she generated a thematics of renunciation from the array of amatory possibilities — situations, choices, actions — open to Victorian women. Although most of the figures who appear in these poems are not historically localized, the social pressures and moral values that inform their dilemmas and behavior are demonstrably Victorian. Moreover, as Theodor Adorno has argued in "Lyric Poetry and Society.", such poems' deliberate elision of precise historical settings, their very insistence on their own ahistoricity, indicates the nature of their participation in history. Just as the characters in these poems are compelled to renounce the world that victimizes and stultifies them, the poems themselves reject as unmentionable the specific historical moment in which the situation of women has become, finally, intolerable, compelling total withdrawal from the most important and necessary forms of expected social intercourse. [91/92]


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Last modified 24 June 2007