Christina Rossetti introduces her sonnet sequence "Monna Innominata" by inviting the reader to consider the voices that might have been of those "heroines of world wide fame," Beatrice and Laura, immortalized by Dante and Petrarch, respectively. The poems then progress in a series of meditations on and reminiscences of the love that existed between the living man and now deceased lady, each introduced by two epigraphs taken from the works of Dante and Petrarch themselves. At first, the woman's voice in the sonnets appears to conform to a rather passive notion of the female lover:
To love you as much and yet to love you more,
As Jordan at his flood sweeps either shore;
Since woman is the helpmeet made for man. [5.12-14]
This is her lot in life, she explains, to love him as wholly and helplessly as a gushing flood and buoy him up in being his "helpmeet" while he is as "perfect you as He [God] would have you be." In addition, the use of the epigraphs and of the "rigid form of male verse" (Robet) show that Rossetti relied heavily on the male poetic tradition. However, as the sonnet cycle continues and especially if one rereads the cycle in its entirety, one realizes that this woman is not as passive as she might seem. God is mentioned and invoked for the first time in sonnet five, and the continuing religious imagery coupled with the speaker's secular love implies her "struggle with choosing earthly pleasure or spiritual salvation"(Robinet). This struggle is most explicitly stated in sonnet six: "I cannot love you if I love not Him,/ I cannot love Him if I love not you". An air of melancholy pervades the entire cycle, but in the fourteenth sonnet it intensifies strongly:
Youth and beauty gone, what doth remain?
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. [14.9-14]
In these few lines, love appears all but inconsequential, and this is certainly in contrast to the ideas of Dante and Petrarch. What's more, as Anthony Harrison observes, the whole macrosonnet is in many ways a parody of the works of those two poets. All of these elements combine to create a real female voice in Rossetti's work, "liberating the muse" (Robet).
1. While using a great deal of material from the older poetic tradition, Rossetti's lyrical, almost sing-song tone that one finds in so many of her other poems comes through in "Monna Innominata." In what way does this tone add to the creation of a strong female voice in the poem?
2. Why did Rossetti choose the form of a sonnet sequence for her work? And in what way does each individual sonnet function as an individual line in the work as a whole?
3. Compare "Monna Innominata" to Rossetti's single sonnet "After Death." In both poems, the speaker is a dead woman musing on her beloved in life, although in "After Death" the man never loved her in return. In which poem does the woman appear psychologically stronger? Does the woman's death need to be part of the situation for her to be strong at all?
4. In her introduction to the poem, why does Rossetti say that Beatrice and Laura have "paid the exceptional penalty of exceptional honor"?
- Striving for a Higher, Spiritual Love inĘChristina Rossetti's "Monna Innominata"
- Conventions of Romantic Verse in Christina Rossetti's "Monna Innominata"
Harrison, Anthony H. Christina Rossetti in Context. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1988. (Online at Victorian Web)
Robinet, Dan. Christina Rossetti Archive. Online at: http://venus.uwindsor.ca/english/projects/rossetti/mainpage.htm
Last modified 20 October 2003