hristina Rossetti's "Monna Innominata" was first published in 1881, the same year in which Dante Gabriel's The House of Life appeared in its entirety. Therefore, it is tempting to read Christina's sonnet sequence as a response to her brother's. Indeed, in brief prose introduction to the sonnets, Christina refers to a male literary tradition of the glorification of women. However, as Christina indicates, these women "have come down to us resplendent wich charms, but (at least, to my apprehension) scant of attractiveness." In other words, though the physical beauty of women idealized in sonnets such as those which comprise The House of Life is painstakingly chronicled, these women rarely receive the opportunity to speak directly to the reader. Therefore, they have "charms,"but no "attractiveness,"since it is impossible to reconstruct the mutual attraction between these "donne innominate"and their male admirers. "Monna Innominata" is an explicit attempt to correct this ludicrous literary tradition. Therefore, Christina proposes a hypothetical situation in which a woman who "shares her lover's poetic aptitude""speaks for herself."
However, it is impossible to read "Monna Innominata" as merely Christina Rossetti's incarnation of her brother's female literary creations, for there are important thematic differences between the two works. The most dramatic difference is that while The House of Life focuses on love which is attained and later regretted, "Monna Innominata" concentrates on unattained, though not unrequited love. In her preface, Christina deliberately sets forth a situation in which the lovers of her sonnets face "a barrier between them"which is "held sacred by both, yet not such as to render mutual love incompatible with mutual honour." Some literary historians have deduced from this statement that Christina Rossetti is herself the ""Monna Innominata""of her sequence; they have assumed that the sonnets recored Christina's love for Charles Cayley, whom she decloned to marry because of differences in their religious views. Though this attribution may or may not be literally true, it is nonetheless evident that denial and longing are crucial to the project of "Monna Innominata". Indeed, through a comparison of herself to Elisabeth Barrett Browning, Christina suggests that a sense of unfulfilled desire is more important to her project than even poetic talent. Or had the Great Poetess of our own day and nation only been unhappy instead of happy, her circumstances would have invited her to bequeath to us, in lieu of the "Portugese Sonnets,"an inimitable "donna innominata"drawn not from fancy, but from feeling.
While Christina undoubtably recognizes Browning's great talent, she nevertheless suggests that Elizabeth Barrett's happy marriage to Robert Browning, has necessarily robbed her poetry of a certain "feeling"and has allowed her to embrace the "fancy"of a male-dominated tradition of sonnets. Christina's focus on denial and deferred gratification is reflected immediately in her syntax. The first sonnet begins:
Come back to me, who wait and watch for you:
Or come not yet, for it is over then.
This expression of self-inflicted denial finds expression in an astounding number of negative constructions throughout the sonnets. The narrator constantly describes images of "not remembering,""not waking,"and ultimately "not living." This constant negation results in "Monna Innominata"'s beginning at a point which surfaces only halfway through The House of Life; namely, the narrator discovers that her longing to achieve love results in an actual death wish. Whereas Dante Gabriel arrives at this dilemma by demonstrating a breakdown in far-flung and chaotic symbolism, Christina deduces her death wish with ruthless logic, and precise Biblical references.
The first two sonnets describe a woman's waiting for her beloved to arrive. In the first sonnet, the narrator is torn between her desire to see her beloved, and the desire not to see him, since a meeting would necessate the pain of parting. The logical crux of her dilemma finds expression in the lines:
Howbeit to meet you grown almost a pang
Because the pang of parting comes so soon.
Since she is unable to unable to reconcile the pain of denial with the pain of separation, the narrator attempts to seek refuge in the memories of her beloved. However, as she quickly discovers, human memory is fallible, and she cannot completely call to mind her first meeting with her beloved. Her natural implicit human limitations have betrayed her; this is illustrated by the constant nature imagery throughout the second sonnet, as decayed memories are portrayed as changing seasons
If only I could recollect it, such
A day of days! I let it come and go
As traceless as a thaw of bygone snow.
Since her memory is unreliable, the narrator next attempts to find consolation in her dreams. Whereas memory is figured as completely natural and human, dreams have supernatural powers. In the second sonnet, the narrator laments that she has failed to "mark the budding of [her] tree that would not blossom yet for many a May;"the fact that she has not remembered to mark the budding of the tree does not alter the time when it will blossom. However, in the third sonnet, dreams have the power to change natural phenomena.
In happy dreams I hold you full in sight,
I blush again who waking look so wan;
Brighter than sunniest day that ever shone,
In happy dreams your smile makes day of night.
Dreams undoubtably have the power to accomplish what human memory and will cannot. Therefore, the narrator quite logically concludes.
If thus to sleep is sweeter than to wake,
To die were surely sweeter than to live,
Tho'there be nothing new beneath the sun. Therefore, in the first three sonnets Christina sets up the tension which must be resolved in the remaining sonnets; like Dante Gabriel, Christina seeks to discover a transcendent meaning for human life which can embrace desire, despair, and death.
While Dante Gabriel accomplishes this task through an ever-increasing reliance on the human spirit, Christina instead turns to the Bible for much of her symbolism and meaning. Unlike Dante Gabriel's scattered, incontextual use of the bible, Christina appropriates the Bible in conventional, though creative ways. This reliance on Christian faith allows Christina to conceive of a situation in which, to paraphrase her preface, mutual desire is not imcompatible with mutual denial. This brilliant manipulation of Christian theology is most evidence in the tenth sonnet. The sonnet begins with the lines:
Time flies, hope flages, life plies a wearied wing;
Death following hard on life gains ground apace;
Clearly, human life is subject to inevitable death. This is demonstrated by the above lines, as well as frequent references to decay, loss, and death; but more important, these lines draw on the imagery of the previous sonnets, in which love and fulfilled desire are associated with the seasons of summer and spring. Just as summer inevitable turns to fall, and then to winter, love and desire eventually and naturally give way to death and decay.
Surprisingly, Christina does not reject death, but rather seems to believe that an acceptance of death is crucial to the "faith"that "outruns"death. As the eleventh sonnet makes clear, desire is proven only after it has withstood the test of death, and been removed from earthly temptations. Christina uses these beliefs to form a concrete plan of action. She tells her beloved:
Let us go fall asleep, dear friend, in peace:
A little while, and age and sorrow cease;
A little while, and life reborn annuls
Loss and decay and death, and all is love.
The reference to "falling asleep,"is, of course, a reference to death which Christina has reappropriated from Paul's first letter to the Corinthians: And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins. Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable. But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead (1 Cornithians 15:17-20). In addition, her choice of the phrase "sleep in peace"is an almost direct translation of the Latin benediction requiescat in pace. Therefore, the narrator is suggesting that she and her beloved engage in a sort of suicide.
Last modified 1996