homas Sebeok has recently described the concept of intertextuality as "Janus-faced," working "as much prospectively as ... in retrograde scape." Extending Bakhtin's "hardly precise formulation of heteroglossia, dialogism, and polyphony," Sebeok emphasizes the ways in which "Works of art — especially literature — are produced in response not to social reality but to previous works of art and the codes and conventions governing them." For him the concept of intertextuality helps us to understand all that is most ahistorical about a work of art: to the degree that it is intertextual, a novel, poem, or film "becomes distorted, opaque even, a darkly specular reflection of actuality-as, for instance, a myth. It becomes [148/149] a lattice of signposts, regressing into, effectively, infinity, and thus capable of sustaining many alternative interpretations" ("Enter Textuality," 657-58).
In opposition to Sebeok, Claus Uhlig perceives the intertextual dimensions of a literary work as a precise barometer of the text's self-conscious historicity:
It is exactly in the intertext [as palimpsest] ... that historically conditioned tensions come to the fore: tensions not only between calendar time and intraliterary time but also between the author's intention and the relative autonomy of a text, or between the old and the new in general. What in this way contradicts the obsolete aesthetic ideal of an organically structured work of art appears from the literary historian's point of view as a necessary consequence of that history within the text the palimpsest preserves.... Any text win the more inevitably take on the characteristics of a palimpsest the more openly it allows the voices of the dead to speak, thus ... bringing about a consciousness of the presentness of the past. ["Literature as Textual Palingencsis," 502.]
Such speculation brings Uhlig to the startling and problematic conclusion that many literary works, because of their deliberate intertextuality, concern themselves preeminently with their own histories or genealogies. "It is doubtlessly true, and all the more so since the Romantic era" he insists, "that the aging of poetic forms and genres constantly increases their self-consciousness as knowledge of their own historicity. Through this progressive self-reflection, whose sphere is intertextuality, literature is in the end transformed into metaliterature, mere references to its own history." (15). The intriguing difference between the positions of Sebeok and Uhlig — for those who study the evolution of literary forms in their relations with cultural value systems, that is, with ideology — is that Sebeok assumes an absolutist view of history and Uhlig sustains a relational concept of history. Whereas Sebeok is what Hayden White would describe as an "historicist , " Uhlig is a "radical relativist" (503). Both critics agree, however, that self-consciously intertextual literary works usually have little concern with "social reality." As is evident in her intertextual uses of Dante, Christina Rossetti proves an exception to this rule and employs parodic reworkings of literary palimpsests, their forms and themes, precisely in order to present a critique of particular deficiencies and false values basic to the social reality of Victorian England.
Sebeok and Uhlig also agree that views of history and of the self in relation to history — especially our creations or works in relation to past works — are deeply ideological; on this topic in connection with nineteenth-century literary studies, see the recent work of Jerome J. McGann and Hayden White, as well as that of Marilyn Butler, Terry Eagleton, Fredric Jameson, and Jane Tompkins. Yet the preoccupation with such relations [149/150] might be said to have begun only in the nineteenth century. It was during the nineteenth century that "the modern discipline of history first came fully into its own as a truly rigorous inquiry into the past" (Gilbert, "Female King," 866. Also see Culler, Victorian Mirror of History, and Dale, Victorian Critic and the Idea of History.). Ultimately, however, because of "the very success of scientific history at reconstituting the past," the powerful awareness of the past itself became "burdensome and intimidating, . . . revealing — in Tennyson's metaphor — all the models that could not be remodeled ." In fact, the apocalyptic aims of the Romantic poets early in the century reflected "the idea that history, simply by existing, exhausts possibilities, leaving its readers with a despairing sense of their own belatedness and impotence. And this despair in turn leads to anxious quests for novelty, to a hectic avant-gardism, and in the end to an inescapable fin de siècle ennui" (Gilbert, "Female King," 866).
As self-appointed heirs of the Romantics, the Pre-Raphaelite poets, including Christina Rossetti, display in their works an extraordinary degree of historical self-consciousness. As we have seen, with Rossetti such historical self-awareness can be either elided or explicit, as is the case in the , Monna Innominata sonnets. When Rossettis work operates openly and directly in the sphere of literary historical relations — that is, of intertextuality — it becomes deliberately parodic in the full and true sense of the term. Moreover, when her poetry functions parodically it can simultaneously accomplish solipsistic, aestheticist effects on the one hand, and the aims of a cultural critique on the other.
Some especially useful theoretical discussion of parody has appeared in recent years in the writing of Roland Barthes, Gerard Genette, Michael Riffaterre, and Mikhail Bakhtin. But these theorists have done work that serves, finally, to marginalize, bracket, or in other ways delimit and deflate parody both as a literary genre (or subgenre) and as a medium for self-conscious ideological discourse. Linda Hutcheon's recent book, A Theory of Parody, however, largely succeeds in rehabilitating parody by cogently redefining it as a specific mode of discourse and by enlarging our notions of what constitutes parody and what literary parody can accomplish. In doing so, she forcefully demonstrates the interrelations between parody and some central issues that emerge in recent semiotic, formalist, and new historical approaches to literature and literary theory.
According to Hutcheon, "a parodic text [is] defined as a formal synthesis, an incorporation of a backgrounded text into itself. But the textual doubling of parody (unlike pastiche, allusion, quotation, and so on) functions to mark difference .... [O]n a pragmatic level parody is not limited to producing a ridiculous effect (para as 'counter' or 'against'), but ... the equally strong suggestion of complicity and accord (para as 'beside') allow[s] [150/151] for an opening up of the range of parody" (Hutcheon, 54). Thus there exist "both comic and serious types of parody." Indeed, as Hutcheon points out, "even in the nineteenth century, when the ridiculing definition of parody was most current ... reverence was often perceived as underlying the intention of parody" (Hutcheon, 57). Further, parody "is never a mode of parasitic symbiosis. On the formal level, it is always a paradoxical structure of contrasting synthesis, a kind of differential dependence of one text upon another." Parody, moreover, can involve a whole ethos or set of conventions rather than a single text; parodoxically, "parody's transgressions [or transvaluations of a text or a set of conventions] ultimately [are] authorized by the very norm it seeks to subvert.... In formal terms, it inscribes the mocked conventions onto itself thereby guaranteeing their continued existence" But of course, "this paradox of legalized though unofficial subversion ... posits, as a prerequisite to its very existence, a certain aesthetic institutionalization which entails the acknowledgement of recognizable, stable forms and conventions" (Hutcheon, 75).
But the texts, conventions, traditions, or institutions encoded by an author in his or her parodic text often require a sophisticated reader to recognize them and to decode the text, that is, to perceive the work at hand as parodic and dialogic, as transcontextual and transvaluative. Most works thus understood are also perceived finally as avant-garde. They engage in a form of what Barthes termed "double-directed" discourse, often "rework[ing] those discourses whose weight has become tyrannical.' For Christina Rossetti, as well as her brother Dante Gabriel and A. C. Swinburne, one of the most important among such "discourses" is found in the tradition of Dante.
Swinburne, who greatly admired the Monna Innominata, had since 1866 sent Christina Rossetti copies of nearly all his volumes of poetry. In his poems and prose he had written copiously on the subject of literary inheritance and its influence on the poetic imagination. Many of his poems are richly and complexly intertextual and parodic (in Hutcheon's sense of the term). Such is the case with "Ave Atque Vale" his Dantean elegy on the death of Charles Baudelaire (himself greatly influenced by Dante), and with his 'Prelude" to Tristram of Lyonesse (a volume Christina Rossetti described as "a valued gift" [Packer, Christina Rossetti, 353]) In the "Prelude" he specifically alludes to Dante and Dante's career as emblematic of the poetic vocation and activity. As he is about to launch into his epic poem on the well-worn subject of the love between Tristram and Iseult, Swinburne, like Rossetti at the beginning of her Monna Innominata, is careful to place his imaginative enterprise in its full and proper historical context. In doing so he [151/152] identifies himself with all great lover-poets, and specifically with Dante. Re-envisioning Dante's image of Tristram and Iseult that appears in the Inferno Swinburne asserts that "these my lovers," at the moment of their encounter with the poet,
Saw Dante, saw God visible by pain,
With lips that thundered and with feet that trod
Before men's eyes incognisable God;
Saw love and wrath and light and night and fire
Live with one life and at one mouth respire. [Poems, 4:11]
Commenting on this passage, Jerome McGann has elucidated Swinburne's point that, like every great poet, "Dante created the world anew.. . . Therefore, Swinburne has been called to explain a fuller significance for Dante's own creation, just as Blake knew himself called to explain the 'true' meaning of the Bible and Milton" (Suinburne, 140). At the end of his "Prelude" Swinburne explains his own vocation, identifiable metaphorically as an intense and essential impulse, or "heart." He questions his motives for (and implicitly the value of) writing yet another grand love poem based upon the myth of Tristram and Iseult:
So many and many of old have given my twain
Love and live song and honey-hearted pain,
Whose root is sweetness and whose fruit is sweet,
So many and with such joy have tracked their feet,
What should I do to follow? yet I too,
I have the heart to follow, many or few
Be the feet gone before me. [Poems, 4:12]
Christina Rossetti invokes precisely this pattern of self-justification in her writing of the Monna Innominata sonnets, as her preface and epigraphs make clear. At work in her awareness of literary precedents (and in Swinburne's) is a phenomenon more complex than mere "anxiety of influence" or the inescapable activity of interpretation (though both of those are involved in Rossetti's endeavors).
In her preface to the Monna Innominata Rossetti lays claim to an already intertextual tradition that her sonnets appropriate, extend, and transvalue for her own particular historical moment. Discussing the nine-teenth-century love lyric as the "successor to the Petrarchan love lyric," Margaret Homans has acknowledged that "women writers did not often choose to write romantic lyrics, for to do so was either to repeat the [152/153] traditional quest plot, in linguistic drag, or to take up the position of the silent object [of desire] and attempt to speak from there" ("'Syllables of Velvet,'" 574. Hereafter cited in the text as Homans).Rossetti, she insists, in the Monna Innominata "provides an example of the challenges and pitfalls of the second of these strategies. In her self-consciously anti-Petrarchan sonnet sequence ... she writes love lyrics from the position of the silent object in the complete awareness that she is attempting to reverse centuries of tradition when she does so, but in the end tradition writes her perhaps as much as she rewrites tradition" (Homans, 574). A brief overview of the structure and the "plot of des ire" in Rossetti's sonnet sequence will help demonstrate some important oversights in Homan's critique, however, and will help elucidate the work's true historical relations and value.
The thematic structure of the Monna Innominata is at first difficult to discern, and once perceived, it includes a good deal of repetition and variation. However, like her brother's House of Life, the structure of this sequence echoes that of the Petrarchan sonnet itself. (For a similar argument regarding Dante Rossetti's sonnet sequence, The House of Life, see William Fredeman's now-classic discussion, "Rossetti's 'In Memoriam.'")Four discrete thematic units appear within this "sonnet of sonnets," or macrosonnet (Hereafter I have adopted the "macro" designation when discussing the structure of the sequence, as opposed to its thematic and psychological movements). These roughly correspond to the first and second quatrains of the octave within a Petrarchan sonnet and the two triplets of the sestet. The first sonnet of the series establishes the aesthetic context (sustained through all fourteen sonnets) identifying "song" with "love"; it also strikes the dominant thematic note for the first four sonnets — the desire for fulfillment of erotic passion. The first sonnet states the need for the beloved's physical presence. The second expresses a poignant wish to generate memories of the lovers' first meeting. The third acknowledges that, at present, perfect union between the lovers occurs only in the speaker's dreams. And in sonnet 4 the desires expressed in sonnets 1 and 2 and the fantasies of sonnet 3 are abruptly realized. The lovers are apparently together, their respective feelings of love for each other at first in open competition but finally yielding unity between them. Such union has been achieved, as far as the reader can tell, exclusively through the exercise of the poetic imagination, in an operation reminiscent of Keats's comparison of that faculty's workings to Adam's dream: "He awoke and found it truth."
The focus in the second quatrain of sonnets (5 through 8) is the role of God in the speaker's secular love relationship. In sonnet 5 (analogous to the first line of the macrosonnet's second quatrain) the speaker renounces the service proferred by her lover in favor of his granting it to God. This psychological turn occurs as abruptly as the realization of unity between the lovers in sonnet 4. Sonnet 6, however, tempers the renunciation that [153/154] precedes it and reasserts the indissoluble unity of the lovers. It also asserts an absolute dependency of the speaker's love for her innominate earthly lover upon her love of God. The tension between earthly and religious devotions culminates in sonnet 7 with a vision of relief from this tension and a perfect union between the lovers "as happy equals" in the afterlife. Sonnet 8 perplexingly reinforces the speaker's hope for such a union by prefacing a prayer for God's sanction of her earthly love with an elaborately sensualized rendition of the book of Esther.
In the first triplet of the macrosonnet's sestet (sonnets 9 through 11), the speaker now fully resigns herself to renouncing any earthly fulfillment of her love. Yet she retains hope for a preferable fulfillment in the afterlife. Sonnets 12 and 13 reassert the speaker's inexorable belief in her feelings of union with the beloved whether she renounces him in this world in favor of another woman (12) or God (13). Sonnet 14 reinforces the themes of renunciation and resignation but introduces a new emphasis on the speaker's melancholy awareness of mutability. Despite the dolorous tone of this sonnet, its extended implications for the macrosonnet's themes are salubrious, for without mutability, the wished-for heavenly reunion of the lovers could not take place. The sequence concludes with a description of the same "longing ... heart pent up forlorn" that began the sequence but which now, having explored possible routes for the release and fulfillment of its longing, adopts the silent pose of "love that cannot sing again."
With this overview of the Monna Innominata's structure in mind, we can observe that the sequence self-consciously uses for experimental purposes the guise of an unrequited poet-lover and the tradition of song as a medium of release for such a figure. The sequence is an experiment in aesthetic and psychological exploration that also tests the boundaries of literary and religious traditions, especially as these appear to conflict and to intersect with each other. Optimistic about the power of song and imagination early in the sonnets, the speaker is apparently pessimistic by the end. Neither one alone nor both in combination have sufficed to relieve the speaker's pent-up longing heart or satisfy her passion, whether intended by the author to appear real, fictionalized, or a psychologically realized fiction. The reader can envision, through the aesthetic enterprise of the sequence, an author steeped in Dantean and Petrarchan tradition, the poetry of Keats and biblical texts, and the literature of confession and renunciation trying in verse to work out the problem of love. The origins of the author's Romantic endeavor and of the speaker's romantic expectations [154/155] appear to include both literature and social reality because of the extent to which actual Victorian patterns of behavior in love (especially among the Pre-Raphaelites) were conditioned more radically than our own by literary paradigms. We are reminded of this fact by the focus in the symmetrical framing sonnets on "song") on the value (or lack of it) of the poetic mode as a medium for filling "love's capacity."
For the Victorian "poetess" who speaks in the sequence, however, the Petrarchan paradigm fails to yield satisfaction, exposing the social, moral, and spiritual inadequacies of the tradition itself and of her own historical moment. The sonnets conclude with her resignation to unfulfillment, with
The longing of a heart pent up forlorn,
A silent heart whose silence loves and longs;
The silence of a heart which sang its songs
While youth and beauty made a summer morn,
Silence of love that cannot sing again. (Poems, 2:93)
Yet this voice has, of course, already sung, and done so eloquently, in a radical, avant-garde fashion. This conclusion to the Monna Innominata follows thirteen sonnets that powerfully and with unconventional assertiveness articulate a female poet-lover's commitment to her passion and her struggle to overcome all temptation to mere earthly fulfillments of love. The posture of silence she assumes at the end is, therefore, not one whereby the speaker simply relapses into the role of the silent object of desire, but one in which she deliberately defies that role as traditionally conceived, having not only renounced the typical patterns and expectations of experience found in ritual Petrarchan love lyrics, but having also instructed her traditionalist lover to yield to such conventions if he must: in sonnet 12 she unjealously "commends" him to any woman with "nobler grace, / And readier wit than mine." In sonnet 4 she has asserted their equality: "With separate '1' and 'thou' free love has done, / For one is both and both are one in love"; and in sonnet 7 she envisions transcendent fulfillment of passion, when the two shall "stand / As happy equals in the flowering land / Of love." Rossetti thus subverts the post-Dantean values and expectations of her genre while defiantly resisting the conventional role of silent object and overturning the gender relations usually accepted in Petrarchan sonnet sequences.
Margaret Homans thus ignores at least two important implications of [155/156] Rossetti's preface to the Monna Innominata that become increasingly significant as we read through this sequence of sonnets, which moves from desire to transient union with the beloved to the female speaker's renunciation of him in this world. The first implication is that, for Rossetti, Laura and Beatrice are "resplendent with charms but ... scant of attractiveness" precisely because they are silent objects of desire, powerless to respond to their lovers. When Rossetti gives the donna innominata a voice, she also gives her a character rather than the merely idealized "charms" traditionally projected upon such female objects of desire. Rossetti's speaker subverts Petrarchan tradition, however, not only by becoming a personality and abjuring all expected courtly compliments from her beloved, but also by assuming the role of an equal (rather than a subordinate and powerless idol) in the relationship. Yet she goes further than this, taking full control of the relationship after sonnet 9; 'in order to preserve the integrity of her love, she repudiates all possibility of the sort of earthly fulfillment often desperately sought by male love poets after Petrarch. As a final gesture, she abjures. even the literary form in which such fulfillment has been traditionally sought. Her sequence thus serves to expose the corrupt and fraudulent ideology the form itself has come to represent.
Such a strategy is made clearer still by the immediate historical context Rossetti invokes in her preface. She refers explicitly to the "Great Poetess of our own day and nation" as a prospective writer of these sonnets had she "only been unhappy instead of happy" in love. With this curious invocation Rossetti announces further parodic dimensions of her work, inviting the reader to compare and contrast her sonnets of renounced love with Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese, which speak of fulfilled love and do so with inferior craft in more than thrice the number of poems. Joan Rees has convincingly demonstrated the superiority of Rossetti's craft in the Monna Innominata. Rees insists that Rossetti exercises "the utmost economy [212/213] and simplicity of statement" in the sequence, while exhibiting "taughtness" and "firm intellectual control" (Poetry of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 146-60). Unlike Rossetti's sequence, Browning's surrenders entirely to tradition. As all readers of her sonnets are aware, Browning's speaker repeatedly embraces her subordinate role in the relationship with her beloved.
Accepting the traditional "charms" and courtly compliments projected upon donne innominate (as well as ritual conventions such as the exchange of locks of hair in such relationships), Browning's speaker fully identifies with the tradition she employs. She thus lacks genuine character as an individual. Whereas Rossetti's speaker insists upon equality and refuses to be objectified as a "charming" idol, Browning's implicitly adopts this conventional role by reciprocating the discourse of courtly compliment and embracing its economy of artifices, one that claims to worship women while disempowering them in praxis: [156/157]
I should not love withal, unless that thou
Hadst set me an example, shown me how,
When first thine earnest eyes with mine were crossed.
[Browning, Poetical Works, 217. Hereafter cited as Browning.]
Browning's emphasis upon her speaker's subordinate and protected position runs as a dominant motif throughout her sequence: "Thou art more noble and like a king, / Thou canst prevail against my fears and fling / Thy purple round me" (Browning, 217). By further contrast with Rossetti's heroine, who loves "God the most"---her love being such that "I cannot love you if I love not Him" (Poems, 2:89) — Browning's speaker, "who looked for only God" but "found thee," is content with her earthly lover and the baggage of conventional Petrarchan desires, expectations, and fulfillment that accompany him: "I find thee; I am safe, and strong, and glad" (Browning, 220). Unlike Browning's poet-lover in another way, Rossetti's speaks characteristically in imperatives, ultimately renouncing all the modes of fulfillment and happiness to which traditional Petrarchan sonneteers aspire.
In this sense, once again, the intertextual qualities of Rossetti's poem function as a corrective to the lapsed Dantean tradition that she recovers by a process Jerome Bump has termed metalepsis; it is "the attempt to establish priority over the precursor by being more true to the precursor's own sources of inspiration" (see Bump, "Hopkins, Metalepsis, and the Metaphysicals."). Reconstituting and purifying the love lyric tradition, whose most eminent practitioner, for Rossetti, was Dante, her speaker becomes, unlike Browning's complacent poetess, a genuine type of Beatrice leading her beloved to salvation and their relationship ultimately to a transcendent, rather than an earthly, level of fulfillment. At the same time, Rossetti — the poet behind the fictitious "poetess" of the sonnet sequence-represents herself obliquely as a cultural critic whose special concern is with the presently corrupt relations, not only between men and women, but also between love and religion, especially as those relations are expressed in a particular artistic tradition.
Within, the projected action of the sonnets themselves, however, any direct cultural criticism is elided. In repudiating the values of love as they are typically enacted in "the world," the speaker attains an aestheticist and solipsistic distance from the amatory issues the sequence raises. The poems she generates succeed in the forceful expression of a yearning-indeed, a passion-for death, peace, and an amorphous but ideally fulfilling afterlife in "the flowering land" where "all is love.", At the same time, however, art itself (as the process of creation) demonstrably provides a psychological and imaginative space in which a kind of fulfillment — as [157/158] redemption from intense, unsatisfied longings-takes place, even while it expresses and reinforces the desire for fulfillment. Describing a frustrated passion for the ideal in a sense achieves that ideal, for it is exclusively in the tension between longing and a vision of fulfillment that the ideal exists. And art gives that tension palpable form.
For Rossetti's speaker, as for Dante in Rossetti's own reading of him (and in that of other, more modem critics of Dante), art thus attains a unique primacy and autonomy. It becomes a mode of redemption, a simultaneously aesthetic, spiritual, and emotional pursuit. As Franco Ferrucci explains, "Dante's genius lies in his deep-rooted conviction that heaven is attainable through a poetic masterpiece, and his profound faith rests upon the vast expressive possibilities that the Christian hereafter offers to his imagination. Spiritual evolution can never be separated from its representation. To believe is to represent, and vice versa; consequently, spiritual flowering cannot be separated from creative rebirth" (Ferrucci, Poetics of Disguise, 121.). In this sense, then, "heaven" becomes the embodiment of an imaginative ideal in the real world and can be attained only in art.
IN its complex relations with the text of the Monna Innominata, the literary genealogy that prefaces the poem illuminates the values, patterns of meaning, and origins of many poems by Christina Rossetti. The preceding analysis of the preface — as it bears upon the generalized action, the themes, and literary form of the poem — helps us also more fully to understand how Rossetti's poetry operates within its special Pre-Raphaelite contexts, as well as the larger contexts of formal and thematic developments in canonical Victorian poetry.
Because Christina Rossetti appears in her poetry to be an "orthodox" devotee of both amatory and religious literary traditions that dominate the Victorian scene, her works are more fascinating than those of her brother or Swinburne or Morris, all of whose poems are often overtly subversive of accepted ideologies. Christina Rossetti's poems reflect an historically more complex set of cultural tensions than do the works of the other Pre-Raphaelites. Her works, in fact, simultaneously illustrate two of the three dominant post-Romantic directions in nineteenth-century literature for social, cultural, and (ultimately) spiritual amelioration. The central direction, which Rossetti generally eschews in her poetry, is found in the realistic and topical, often openly didactic, literature of the Victorians, which can be seen as a reaction against the potential solipsism of the Romantics. Another direction is visible in the early literature of aestheticism, which (as it is fully realized in Pater and the decadents) accepts — [158/159] indeed revels in — the solipsism so feared by the Romantic poets themselves. The final direction appears in the ascetic withdrawal advocated by participants in the Oxford Movement. While the aesthetes focus their attention on secular passions or empirical beauties and the religious writers focus on love of God, both groups ultimately move toward withdrawal and transcendence of the phenomenal world. In that sense the art of both is generally self-reflexive and self-sustaining, rather than mimetic or topical.
Christina Rossetti's poetry, as we have seen, combines characteristics visible in aesthetic as well as Tractarian poetry. It is in every sense idealistic, has largely literary origins, and forcefully delineates the struggle between the ascetic and aesthetic alternatives while at the same time synthesizing them. Yet the effect of such a synthesis in Rossetti's work is, finally, to distance her poetry from its immediate historical contexts and by doing so — paradoxically, it would seem — to present a forceful ideological critique of those contexts. Her work's focus on broad cultural issues and traditions — religious, amatory, philosophical — draws attention to the inadequacies, hypocrisies, and false values of her society as well as the literary work that has preceded her and that proceeds around her.
In accomplishing this goal she finds her purest precursor in Dante. Looking at Christina Rossetti's love poems, many of which either explicitly or implicitly extend Dantean tradition, one might say about the exemplary value of these traditions for Rossetti what she said about the symbolic value of Beatrice for Dante: "either [they] literally, or else that occult something which [the poetry they produced] was employed at once to express and to veil, must apparently have gone far to mold [her] ... ; to make [her] what [she] was, to withhold [her] from becoming such as [she] became not" (Christina Rossetti, "Dante. The Poet Illustrated out of the Poem" 571). Ultimately, it is the Dantean contexts for Rossetti's poetry that allow us to arrive at some holistic view of her work, which seems, at the superficial level, to be divided into secular and religious categories. Those contexts enable us, as well, to understand the full and complex relations between Rossetti's project as a writer and the work of the other Pre-Raphaelites on the one hand; and, on the other, between her project and the directions and ideologies of other major Victorian poets.
In the Monna Innominata Rossetti operates at a self-consciously intertextual level, as we have seen. She succeeds in integrating not only Dantean, but also troubadour, Petrarchan, and biblical tradition in a fashion similar to that which Laude Lévi-Strauss originally defined as bricolage. This method is common also in her brother's work (and that of his subsequent imitators). Ron Bannerjee has described the results of bricolage, for [159/160] instance, in discussing T S. Eliot's allusions in "La Figlia che Piange" (1917) to D. G. Rossetti's "The Blessed Damozel." In Eliot's poem "a new system of myths not only reorganizes the fragments of the preceding system, but ... the 'ends' of that system become its 'means.' . . . What looks like reorganization is also a process of transvaluation." Rossetti generated a purely aesthetic mythology that Eliot wished to supersede with his own. But clearly such an effect is also accomplished in Christina Rossetti's own uses of Dante. Although the effect of bricolage in the Monna Innominata sonnets is different from that achieved by Eliot and by Dante Rossetti, the method itself is certainly at work in Christina Rossetti's poem. It involves
the ambivalence, indirection, synthesis of heterogeneous elements, the quality of myth embodying repetition. Multiple analogues are functional in the same way as exemplary universality of myth is.... Allusions serve as myths, not to control the poem, but to define its boundaries of suggestion. [Bannerjee, "Dante through the Looking Glass," 148.]
Thus, assembled in the Monna Innominata — along with direct allusions to Dante, to troubadour tradition, and to Petrarch-are biblical echoes, evocations of Shelleyan Platonism and of some eighteenth-century treatments of love (we are reminded powerfully here of Pope's Eloisa), and an atmosphere and language familiar from gothic and sentimental nineteenth-century fiction. Although the poem's most wrenching emotional effects may come simply from the speaker's personality and her final tone of loss and discouragement, the poem's total effect upon the reader results in large part from its yoking together of only partially compatible traditions, which it attempts simultaneously to revive, sustain, and critique. Ultimately, the framework of literary allusions that surrounds the speaker reinforces her eclectic Victorian voice.
That voice seems intensely Victorian, in part because of the standard of taste implied by its ornamental but weighty literary bricolage, but also because of its sentimentality that depends upon the use of commonplace — especially religious — allusions, language, and images. Such a procedure, though fairly rare in Rossetti's secular poetry, is typical in her devotional verse with its many subjectively employed biblical allusions, and it reflects a pervasive tendency in much Victorian art to use such images and diction as code words. This procedure dominates Rossetti's prose works, especially Seek and Find and The Face of the Deep, but it also characterizes the Monna Innominata sequence. In sonnet 6, for instance, the speaker describes herself as "the sorriest sheep Christ shepherds with His crook." Earlier, in sonnet 5, the speaker with a loose biblical allusion compares [160/161] her love, which will extend from this life into the next, to "the Jordan at his flood," which "sweeps either shore." And in sonnet 9, she alludes to the story of Jacob wrestling with God's angel (Gen. 3:2). Transvaluing for spiritual purposes images that are at once economic and sexual, the speaker compares Jacob's struggle to the conflict within her between love of God and the passion she feels for her earthly beloved:
... love may toil all night,
But take at morning, wrestle till the break
Of day, but then wield power with God and man:--
So take I heart of grace as best I can
Ready to spend and be spent for your sake. (Poems, 2:91)
Sonnet II provides us with an example of yet another peculiarly Victorian element of the Monna Innominata sequence: its free, almost reckless adaptation of the medieval traditions of poetry concerning obstacled love. Rossetti's female troubadour focuses upon her "love and parting in exceeding pain / Of parting hopeless here to meet again, / Hopeless on earth, and heaven is out of view." Yet her love "foregoes you but to claim anew / Beyond this passage of the gate of death, / ... at the judgment" (Poems, 2:91-92). Rossetti's procedure here reflects a characteristic more specific to the Pre-Raphaelites than the general tendency among Victorian writers to take liberties with medieval values and tradition; for a full discussion of this topic, see Girouard, Return to Camelot. Dante Rossetti, Morris, and Swinburne in their poems repeatedly project upon this tradition their own compulsions to sublimate sexual energies and redirect them as aesthetic or spiritual (often mystical) aspirations. (For a comprehensive commentary on Swinburne's debt to this complex tradition, see Harrison, Swinburne's Medievalism [full text in VW]. For discussions of Morris and medieval romantic tradition, see Silver, Romance of William Morris, and Riede, "Morris, Modernism, and Romance. ") just as Morris appropriates Malory and Froissart in his Defence of Guenevere volume, as Dante Rossetti exploits Dante for aesthetic effects and psychological backgrounds in much of his verse, and as Swinburne uses for his own purposes Romantic and various medieval literary sources and precedents, so in the Monna Innominata Christina Rossetti projects an imagined psychological resonance with troubadour and Dantean tradition. She is manifestly enamored of this special literary tradition, and the poet-speaker she depicts as born of it craves union with a fantasy lover. Yet the speaker finally feels compelled to sublimate the psychological reality of her love to religious aspirations that conflict with it; and she does so in a manner represented as true to the oniginary Dantean tradition, which is at once amatory, literary, and religious.
Dante and his early successors were able, in their art, to build upon [161/162] and enhance erotic impulses so as to translate them finally into all — pervading and all — encompassing spiritual passions. While Rossetti attempts to parody and thus recover the fundamental ideological values of that art, her brother, Morris, and Swinburne generally allude to medieval tradition in order to flaunt or sublimate erotic impulses. In the latter case, the result can be either an unsatisfactory conflation of erotic and spiritual yearnings, or an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to redirect erotic passions in vaguely spiritual directions, or (more rarely) an ineffective and seemingly affected attempt to disguise eros as agapé. Because troubadour and Dantean cultural values are psychologically irrecoverable in Christina Rossetti's positivist and post — Romantic era, however, her own Victorian poet-lover's attempted reconstitution of Dantean tradition in the Monna Innominata is doomed to fail. She, too, appears merely to conflate the erotic and the spiritual, or to sublimate passion, or to place supreme value on an art that is generated by the insatiable "craving heart." But her failure constitutes Rossetti's avant-garde exposé of a spiritually bankrupt culture. Thus Rossetti's Dantean works, like her other amatory poems, function as a cultural critique, simultaneously idealizing and lamenting a lost age of spiritual opportunity and unified, rather than fragmented, sensibilities. These works, like love poems by the other Pre-Raphaelites, most often culminate in pathos and aestheticism, but for different reasons. Moreover, although the radical appropriation of literary tradition upon which Rossetti's poems depend for such effects is — like that strategy in the work of the other Pre-Raphaelites — virtually unique in her era, the resulting mood of her amatory poetry (and theirs) is in many respects typically Victorian.
The speaker's voice in the Monna Innominata sonnets would therefore have seemed comfortably familiar to Christina Rossetti's contemporary readers. In its spirit of melancholy resignation, it resembles the voices we find in Meredith's Modern Love, Dante Rossetti's The House of Life, and even Arnold's "Marguerite" poems. The Monna Innominata, like these love poems, seems characteristically Victorian in its false starts, its equivocations, and its dominant tone of frustration. Ultimately Rossetti's sonnet sequence exposes its speaker's immobility in the quest for fulfillment and transcendence. Wandering between two worlds, she pursues an archaic, no longer functional set of ideals, to which she is, nonetheless, wholly committed. Thus, rather than shoring up the fragments of tradition against her ruin, the speaker's adherence to traditional ideologies and the poetic forms used to express them ensures her psychological ruin and finally her spiritual malaise. As a result, the poem reflects at a highly generalized level [162/163] the Victorian poet's typical condition: tom. between past ideals, primal (that is, universal) emotional, spiritual, and intellectual needs, and modem scientific and social realities that subvert those ideals and threaten the satisfaction of those needs.
At this level the Monna Innominata may appear to be an historically inevitable poem. Yet Christina Rossetti differs significantly from most other important Victorian poets in the value system that underlies her work and belies the apparent similarities between her poetry and theirs. The others are perpetually questing for alternative ideals to those discovered in the traditional literature they most admired. The alternatives they generate, however, yield only partial fulfillment or the promise of it. For Arnold, religion and the literary culture associated with it in providing a sustaining system of beliefs and ideals must be replaced with a more monolithic "culture," whose heart is poetry. For Tennyson-in a more limited, personal way — fame, the laureateship, and the Victorian prophet's podium appear to have allowed some compensation for lost ideals. For Morris (and Ruskin), art and its power for social amelioration promised hope. And — more radically but in the same direction — for Dante Rossetti and for Swinburne, art and devotion to beauty itself became an ultimately melancholy substitute for the less limited (and limiting) spiritual and emotional values of the writers they viewed as their own precursors. More conservative, finally, than any of these writers, Christina Rossetti returned with fierce determination to the no longer functional religious and amatory ideals of her literary fathers, especially those of Dante.
Last modified 24 June 2007