[Part IV of the author's "Conceptions of Romantic Love in Pre-Raphaelite Painting and Poetry."]
hristina Rossetti was an extremely devout Christian, and her religious views affect everything she wrote, regardless of topic. In Rossetti’s poetry, God is always present, is always there — sometimes in the foreground, sometimes in the background. Rossetti wrote a great deal of devotional poetry which uses traditional Christian iconography as originally intended — far different from the works of her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, or Swinburne. In these poems, she commonly addressed God directly, and religion claims the majority of the poems’ space. Rossetti’s love poetry, however, explores another topical space — that of human relationships — while still maintaining the religious undertones in the background. For this reason, her love poetry, despite her characteristically restrained and simple style, often has several layers. In fact, for this reason, it is often has more layers than her straight-ahead religious poetry — and it can be particularly interesting to see how Rossetti navigates love and admiration of another human being with her love for God.
In the end, Rossetti’s love for God always trumps the love of another human, but this does not by any means stop the narrators of her poems from having abundant love for other people. On a number of levels, the poem’s narrators restrain themselves with their religious beliefs and avoid falling into the sometimes unnecessary extremes of emotions caused by romantic love. For one, Rossetti predominately expresses an emotional love — and not a sexualized love. In this regard, her conception of romantic love approaches Burne-Jones’s. However, Rossetti, as a woman, certainly does not objectify women by any means, and more impressively, she does not objectify men either. The portrayals of romantic love have an implicit emotional basis, but the narrators always appear aware of an actual, mutually interactive relationship. For the narrator, the other person is there, and this other person’s well-being is important and valuable. It simply cannot be more important than the narrator’s relationship to God.
To elucidate on Rossetti’s conception of romantic love, I will discuss four sonnets from Rossetti’s “Monna Innominata,” a brilliant series of fourteen sonnets. Rossetti wrote and crafted this series under the persona of the unnamed woman spoken to in traditional love poetry. Traditionally, this woman has no voice, and little character — often having few features other than the ones constituting extraordinary physical beauty and presence. But Rossetti imbues this persona with great emotional complexity and makes sure to counter specifically some traditional notions of the woman in love poetry. But aside from creating negative examples of what love is not and uprooting certain stock notions of what comprises love poetry, Rossetti also, in simple but elegant language, conveys what she regards as constituting a real and substantial romantic relationship.
To begin the discussion, in the fourth sonnet, the narrator begins by saying she loved first, but his love “outsoaring” hers, “sang such a loftier song / As drowned the friendly cooings of [her] dove” (The Complete Poems, p. 296), implying a quick but extreme outburst of positive emotion. This leads the narrator to the question: “Which owes the other most?” (p. 296), and she proceeds to deliberate until she decides that “Nay, weights and measures do us both a wrong” (p. 296). The narrator then explains her reasoning:
“For verily love knows not “mine” or “thine;”
With separate “I” and “thou” free love has done,
For one is both and both are one in love:
Rich love knows nought of “thine that is not mine;”
Both have the strength and both the length thereof,
Both of us, of the love which makes us one” [p. 296]
In the narrator’s estimation, love does not exist unless the typical separation of “mine” and “thine” dissolve. For the love to be “free” and “rich,” there must be equity among the partners — brought together “one in love.” They should in some sense act as if one entity, caring for the other as one would do for one’s self.
Nonetheless, in the sixth sonnet, the narrator contextualizes how the relationship with her lover interacts with her relationship with God. The narrator begins:
“Trust me, I have not earned your dear rebuke,
I love, as you would have me, God the most;
Would lose not Him, but you, must one be lost” (p. 297).
Here the narrator tells her lover simply says that God must come first, even above him, but apparently the lover agrees with her. She loves “God the most” as he “would have” her do. Next, the narrator carries on by making some self-deprecating comments of her being “the feeblest of God’s host” (p. 297) and so on. She does this until she returns to explaining how she views the relationships between herself and God, and herself and her lover:
“Yet while I love my God the most, I deem
That I can never love you overmuch;
I love Him more, so let me love you too” (p. 297).
She loves God more than her lover, but she cannot love her lover “overmuch.” For the narrator, she has no need to make a competition between her love of God and that of her lover. The question does not even arise. She assures her lover (who is as devout as she is) of this, and asks him to let her love him as well. Then, she takes the notion even further:
“Yea, as I apprehend it, love is such
I cannot love you if I love not Him,
I cannot love Him if I love not you” (p. 297).
The first claim, that she cannot love her lover without love of God, makes sense fairly immediately. Her love of God upholds her worldview, is her foundation, without which she would have trouble appreciating and loving any part of the world, including her lover. Nevertheless, the last claim, that she cannot love God without loving her lover, may seem contradictory to the statements that came before. The key, however, is that before she says would lose her lover before she lost God, and she says cannot love God without love of her lover. The narrator would have reverence for and hold belief in God no matter what, but if she could not love her lover, her love for God would be diminished as well. In the end, these two loves become complimentary for the narrator — they uphold and keep strong the other.
In the eleventh sonnet, however, the narrator wants to make the extent of her love perfectly clear. The narrator begins somewhat elliptically:
“Many in aftertimes will say of you
“He loved her” — while of me what will they say?
Not that I loved you more than just in play,
For fashion’s sake as idle women do” [p. 299]
People, when reading her lover’s writings, will see how he loved her, but the narrator expects them to evaluate her love with far less generosity. They will think she loved him just “in play,” loving frivolously and uncaringly “as idle women do.” But the narrator says she does care about this so much. She says “Even let them prate…” (p. 299). She dismisses these gossipers who did not experience the throes of love and parting and who have “heaven out of view” (p. 299). Instead, the narrator wants understanding from her lover, as she says in the final lines:
“Beyond this passage of the gate of death,
I charge you at the Judgement make it plain
My love of you was life and not a breath.” 
If his writings do not express how she loved him back, at least, when dead, before God himself, he should be honest, “make it plain” that her love for him “was life and not a breath.” Her devotion was not some temporary or empty exclamation. It was quite the contrary; it was “life;” it was the entirety of time one has on earth; it was everything one has on earth.
And yet, in the twelfth sonnet, the narrator proves the depths of her affection in a surprising way. She instructs her lover about what he should do, should she die before him:
“If there be any one can take my place
And make you happy whom I grieve to grieve,
Think not that I can grudge it, but believe
I do commend you to that nobler grace,
That readier wit than mine, that sweeter face.” [p. 300]
The narrator believes her lover should be willing to take a new lover, if she dies and should there be someone who “can take” her “place.” She even goes as far as to suggest that this other person could be nobler, wittier and prettier; she is entirely self-deprecating. Later in the poem she gives her rationale:
“For if I did not love you, it might be
That I should grudge you some one dear delight;
But since the heart is yours that was mine own,
our pleasure is my pleasure, right my right,
Your honourable freedom makes me free,
And you companioned I am not alone.” [p. 300]
The narrator continues the idea of herself and her lover being one entity, one heart, even beyond death. If she did not truly love, they could not act as one entity, and she might therefore “grudge” her lover “some one dear delight.” But as they can still regard themselves as one entity, even after death, if her lover is “companioned” then neither of them are “alone.” This selflessness shows little of the narrator’s own ego and proves that she regards the lover’s well-being as truly important.
Overall, these four sonnets establish that Rossetti believed in a multi-layered conception of romantic love, and her portrayals required various angles to match the complexity of her conception. In Rossetti’s view, romantic love simultaneously is equitable, is extremely powerful, requires serious regard for the other’s well-being, and must be tempered, above all else, with a complimentary reverence for God. Rossetti interweaves these strands, as differing as they may be, and manages to create a persona of much belief and integrity, who conveys what, in her estimation, romantic love can and should be.
Conceptions of Romantic Love in Pre-Raphaelite Painting and Poetry
- Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Lover of Body and Spirit
- Sir Edward Burne-Jones: Painter of the Pedestal
- Algernon Charles Swinburne: Love in a Meaningless, Ephemeral World
- A Woman's Voice in Rossetti's "Song"
- A Reversal of Roles in "Song [When I am Dead]"
- Death in Christina Rossetti's "Song"
- The Rossetti Anatomy of Melancholy
Last modified 8 June 2007