he speaker in Christina Rossetti's "Monna Innominata" exchanges earthly love for an ideal of spiritual salvation found only through death. The speaker does not make clear exactly why her love cannot be, yet she emphasizes that while honoring the power of her love she will never be satisfactorily united with her lover on earth. Instead she reconciles herself to the idea that "Thus only in a dream we are at one" (3.9). "Monna Innominata" echoes the sentiments of the speaker in "After Death," who knows the impossibility of love on earth and remains satisfied only through death when the speaker says, "If thus to sleep is sweeter than to wake, / To die were surely sweeter than to live" (3.12-3.13). Sonnet 10 emphasizes the impermanence of earthly love and the supremacy of ideal love reached only after death:
ime flies, hope flags, life plies a wearied wing;
Death following hard on life gains ground apace;
Faith runs with each and rears an eager face,
Outruns the rest, makes light of everything,
Spurns earth, and still finds breath to pray and sing;
While love ahead of all uplifts his praise,
Still asks for grace and still gives thanks for grace,
Content with all day brings and night will bring.
Life wanes; and when love folds his wings above
Tired hope, and less we feel his conscious pulse,
Let us go fall asleep, dear friend, in peace:
A little while, and age and sorrow cease;
A little while, and life reborn annul
Loss and decay and death, and all is love. [lines 10.1-10.14]
The speaker gives neither life nor death the upper hand in this sonnet. Instead, faith "outruns" time, hope, life, and even death, and love above all, after the peace of death, triumphs in uniting all. However, this ideal of perfect love spurning perfect life can only exist after death has wiped away the sorrows that come of trying to attain perfect love on a less than perfect earth.
Even let them prate; who know not what we knew
Of love and parting in exceeding pain,
Of parting hopeless here to meet again,
Hopeless on earth, and heaven is out of view. [lines 11.5-11.8]
The speaker confronts the impossibility of her love prevailing on earth, where the pain of meeting and parting with her lover seems so great that she loses sight of heaven. Indeed the speaker bemoans earthly love as contained within two separate bodies that can never achieve a constant state of unity:
We meet so seldom, yet we surely part
So often; there's a problem for your art!
Still I find comfort in his Book, who saith,
Though jealousy be cruel as the grave,
And death be strong, yet love is strong as death. [lines 7.10-7.14]
Like in "After Death," the speaker relies on death for satisfaction and fulfillment just as in "Song" the speaker looks towards the power of indifference she will wield over her lover upon death. However, whereas in "After Death" and "Song" the speaker triumphs or will triumph because she has attained distance or indifference, here the speaker equates the strength of love with that of death. This presents a very different concept of love's constancy as wielding power over the speaker even after death. But the speaker will only give in to love when she can have it in its perfect state, without the encumbrances of earthly restrictions. While the speaker saves herself for the perfect love of heaven, the last sonnet reveals the shortcoming of her idealist patience. She wonders,
Youth gone 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. [lines 14.9-14.14]
The sonnet ends by dramatizing the speaker's loss of youth, beauty, and song. She remains almost waiting for death in old-age, thrice repeating in the last sonnet that "youth" and "beauty" that have left her, and asking twice "what remains?" Yet her longing still tortures her heart in a silence that contrasts bitterly with the "heart which sang its songs while youth and beauty made a summer morn." The earlier "Song" and "After Death" end with speakers who both, although one dies and another remains living, bask in powerful indifference towards the state of love. At the end of "Monna Innominata," the speaker does not present us with her triumph, but rather reveals to us the cost of her idealistic resistance to earthly love.
1. How do you interpret the striking finality of the last line of the sonnet, "Silence of love that cannot sing again?" Are we meant to take this as the speaker's realization in hindsight that death and old age are stronger than love? Does the speaker regret her rejection of earthly love?
2. If the speaker relies on realizing a perfect love after death, is it perfection of her love for her earthly lover or of her love for God that gives her hope?
3. According to Representative Poetry Online, "Christina Rossetti is herself the "monna innominata" of her sequence; the sonnets record her love for Charles Cayley, whom she declined to marry primarily because of a difference in their religious views." If "Monna Innominata" demonstrates an attitude towards love that has changed since the writing of "After Death" and "Song," what might account for this change? How does knowing about Christina Rossetti's relationship with Charles Cayley affect your interpretation of the poem?
4. Rossetti casts the speaker in a role similar to Dante's in Vita Nuova, since here the woman dwells in unrequited and unsatisfied love. But while she loves from a distance, she clearly has had contact with her lover in the past, and this distinguishes her from the male figure in Vita Nuova. Dante's speaker spiritualizes his love by turning it into an idealized tribute to an unattainable woman who he never expects to return his love. How might the theme or message of "Monna Innominata" change if Rossetti's speaker loved only from afar, and had never courted her lover?
- A Female Perspective in "Monna Innominata"
- Conventions of Romantic Verse in Christina Rossetti's "Monna Innominata"
- "Liberating the Muse" in "Monna Innominata"
- Striving for a Higher, Spiritual Love in Christina Rossetti's "Monna Innominata"
Representative Poetry Online [RPO]: Department of English, University of Toronto: http://eir.library.utoronto.ca/rpo/display/index.cfm
Last modified 24 October 2003