he central critical issue of the Monna Innominata, and of almost all Christina Rossetti's poetry, is, finally, how the deliberately failed (or postponed) quest of her poetic personae for the ideal operates within her art. Although most of Rossetti's admiring critics have insisted that various poetic virtues are visible in the Monna Innominata, a number have made the usual mistake of reading the sonnets biographically, that is, as a commentary [174/175] on Rossetti's own alleged love relationships that were never fulfilled. Yet none has presented a full exegesis of the sequence or an extensive discussion of the poem's manipulation of its literary-historical contexts; see survey of non-biographical approaches. Because these contexts largely determine the "meaning" and help us understand the extended effects of the sonnet sequence, such an exegesis allows us to locate the poem's ideological, formal, thematic, and stylistic centrality to Rossetti's corpus. More important, a full discussion reveals the poem's true value as a cultural document, one that illuminates the place of uniquely Pre-Raphaelite sensibilities and literary procedures within the larger context of Victorian taste and representative Victorian poetic practices.
The first sonnet of the Monna Innominata laments the absence of the speaker's beloved with a traditional Petrarchan figure: "My world is you." This sonnet focuses upon the psychology of "longing" in its relations with love and "song." Significantly, the sonnet's otherwise perplexing last two lines make clear that the crucial issue (both what comes forth and the crux) of this love is "song": "Ah me, but where are now the songs I sang / When life was sweet because you called them sweet?" At one level of intertextuality, this sonnet enters complexly into dialogue with sonnet 7 of Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese. At the end of that poem, Browning's poet-lover-sententiously, artlessly, and simplistically, by comparison with Rossetti's speaker-acknowledges that ". . . this lute and song . . . loved yesterday, / (The singing angels know) are only dear / Because thy name moves right in what they say" (Browning, 216). By contrast, Rossetti's sonnet ends with a syntactically and intellectually complex question that seems, on deliberation, to require an answer. Not only does the question imply some skepticism about the sincerity of the beloved's compliment, but the lines further imply the primacy not of "you" but of songs! We can't be sure whether happiness is achieved primarily through reciprocated love or through the creative process that results in poetry. Sonnet 1 thus prepares for the increasingly significant concern, as the sequence proceeds, with literary matters, with the quality and value of "song" as well as the prototypes, sources, and touchstones for this speaker's largely derivative, perhaps wholly imaginary emotional and psychological experiences. Significantly, throughout these sonnets, "song" or poetry reflects and at times seems even to generate the poetic vision of transcendent love. Only in song can that vision be realized.
Taking its associative cue from sonnet 1, sonnet 2 reveals its speaker's unsuccessful attempt to recall the time she first met her beloved. [175/176]
I wish I could remember that first day,
First hour, first moment of your meeting me,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
So unrecorded did it slip away.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
A day of days! I let it come and go
As trackless as a thaw of bygone snow.
The poem thus dwells on the speaker's awareness that experience is frustratingly ephemeral. Her psychological condition is especially noteworthy because her situation is so uncommon-romantic lovers traditionally remember in vivid detail their first meetings with the beloved. This sonnet seems to make a deliberate attempt to overturn tradition. It is anti-Romantic (specifically, un-Wordsworthian) in that its central problem does not hinge on a recollection that overshadows present thought and intensifies present joy, but rather on the absence of any emotionally sustaining memory at all. Here Rossetti depicts the opposite of a Wordsworthian "spot of time." All the subjunctives in the poem, as well as the concerns they express, lead us to wonder even whether the first meeting that the speaker seeks to recall ever occurred. Perhaps she desires not really to remember it, but rather to imagine it adequately so as to sustain or justify a set of exalted emotions, which she feels and finds irresistible, but which attach only to a constellation of traditional, literarily derived ideals and expectations comprehended by the term "love." All this occurs to the informed reader, especially because Dante and Petrarch spend many words idealizing the precisely remembered first moments of meetings with Beatrice and Laura. The sonnet's epigraph from Petrarch deliberately draws our attention to this fact: "I recur to the time when I first saw thee" (Works, 462). In this way Rossetti suggests the possible fictionality of her speaker's love. The experience may be a projection of idealities, of emotions, even of intellectual strivings for fulfillment and completion.
With references to "empty shades" (from Dante) and to "an imaginary guide" (from Petrarch), the epigraphs of sonnet 3 reinforce suspicions aroused by sonnets I and 2 that the experience of love depicted here may be largely imaginary. So far, we have been informed only of a lover's absence, not his presence. He is an ideal: "only in a dream we are at one." The speaker desires "that I might / Dream of you and not wake but slumber on" (Poems, 2:87). The movement inward (as with Keats's Madeline), the solipsistic impulse, is so powerful here that it finally yields a [176/177] desire for death as providing the only possible, permanent achievement of the ideal:
if thus to sleep [and dream] is sweeter than to wake,
To die were surely sweeter than to live,
Though there be nothing new beneath the sun.
The allusion to Eccles. 1:9 in the last fine here reinforces perceptions of the ideality of the speaker's experience; dreams can yield novel and desired experiences unavailable "under the sun" of the phenomenal world. But also by the simple act of alluding to the Bible, as well as by the contents of the passage alluded to, this last line reminds us of the ideality of the whole endeavor the author and we readers are engaged in. It reminds us that this poem is an imaginative recreation of the contents of an imaginatively generated (Dantean and Petrarchan) mythos, extending a long tradition of such love poetry. (Eccles. 1:9 reads in full: "The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.")
By sonnet 4 the "problems" treated in the first three sonnets have been solved, apparently by virtue of the imagination's ascendancy within the speaker. Song or poetry seems to have made love real according to the traditional pattern of desires projected in the first three sonnets. Suddenly the beloved is present (the speaker addresses him), and the early period of their love is remembered (that is, created):
I loved you first: but afterwards your love
Outsoaring mine, sang such a loffier song
As drowned the cooings of my dove.
Which owes the other most? my love was long,
And yours one moment seemed to wax more strong.
Here Rossetti reinvents the Petrarchan tradition by innovatively reconstituting the love relationship in the expressly competitive convention of the pastoral singing contest. The speaker's antitraditional emphasis is not only on the equality of the lovers, but also, as a result of that equality, on their harmonious unity demonstrated in an exchange and interplay of songs. Neither partner is silent. Their love can be perfected and fulfilled only through their art. Indeed, given the orientation of the preceding sonnets, it appears that dream and desire have been realized wholly in song. Art can from this point perpetuate the fictive love relationship by dwelling [177/178] upon its nature, alluding to its shaping literary heritage, and by raising new obstacles to its adequate fulfillment. In this sonnet we are reminded that love, like the power of expressive song, is ultimately impalpable. It exists in an ideal realm-not subject to "weights and measures" — and requires interpretation: "I loved and guessed at you, you construed me / And loved me for what might or might not be."
In sonnet 5 the "love which makes us one" becomes for the first time transcendentally transvalued, directed to God for sanction, completion, and perfection. In the form of a benediction, the octave reinforces the extreme identification between the lovers asserted in sonnet 4, but through the use of chiasmus and paradoxical juxtaposition it also directs us forcefully to the transcendent world within the speaker: "Oh my heart's heart, and you who are to me / More than myself myself, God be with you." The grammatical ordering within these lines tends to conflate self, beloved, and God. In the course of the octave, the speaker prescribes for her lover devotion to God "whose noble service setteth free." In that ambiguously liberating service, she will assist by means of her literally undying love" Today, tomorrow, world without an end." This allusion to Gal. 5:1 suggests that the speaker wishes to be to her lover as Paul was to the Galatians, liberating them from the tyranny of Jewish law, and as Christ is to man, liberating him from earthly (that is, erotic and material) enthrallments.
Here we begin to see the relationship between human and divine love that is developed through the rest of the sonnet sequence. As with Dante and his predecessors, the opposition between love and Love (eros and agapé) is portrayed ultimately as a false dichotomy, but here the attempt to reconcile the two is strained. The central impulse in both varieties of love, according to Rossetti's speaker, is pursuit of the ideal, the transcendent, and the mystical. Ultimately, love of man is to Love of God as emotion is to spirit. The love relation with God supersedes but should also encompass love of man. The allusions to Matthew and to Hebrews, here elucidating the speaker's desire that God "perfect" her beloved, indicate that she perceives herself as a Beatrice figure, a guide to her lover's salvation. Here, too, the speaker replicates the theme of her identity with her lover. Matt. 5:48 exhorts, "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect." But as the concluding echo of Genesis ("Since woman is the helpmeet made for man") insists, the beloved will not be alone in his perfection and identity with God.
By this point in the sequence the speaker has progressed from the wish for a physical meeting with her beloved, to a powerful desire for memories [178/179] of their "First touch of hand in hand" to transfiguring dreams of a union that transcends any relationship accessible in life, to a sudden realization of those dreams in a complete spiritual union with the beloved ("love makes us one"), and finally to a desire for perfection of the beloved, which would yield a transcendent union of the lovers with God. We have moved inward and upward well beyond phenomenal reality at this point. In a Dantean pattern, throughout these sonnets "song" or poetry has not merely reflected but seemed even to generate the poetic vision of transcendent love, while enabling that vision to be realized.
However, in sonnets 5 through 8 obstacles arise that halt any continuation of the speaker's projected perfectible love relationship. Sonnets 5 and 6 introduce a concern with God as (paradoxically) both a barrier to the lovers' absolute union and a mediator in accomplishing it. Commending her lover to God's service leaves the speaker unacceptably isolated and subordinate: "So much for you; but what for me, dear friend?" In sonnet 6, a dispute arises between the lovers' respective commitments to eros and agapé. The beloved, in lapsed Dantean and Petrarchan fashion, apparently remains committed to eros and "the world." Unlike the speaker, the earthbound beloved rebukes her. By implication like Lot's wife, he is "Unready to forgo what [she willingly] forsook." While the speaker insists that she loves "God the most," she is nonetheless torn between love of God in purist Dantean tradition, on the one hand; and eros and corrupt Petrarchism on the other: "I cannot love you if I love not Him, / I cannot love Him if I love not you" (Poems, 2:89). In sonnet 7 the love that began as an apparently secular passion with an apparently specific object, and that has by sonnet 6 taken on metaphysical dimensions, becomes even further etherealized. and idealized. Its culmination and fulfillment are envisioned in the posthumous future, "the flowering land / Of love, that knows not a dividing sea." This land is clearly a realm that combines images from Dante's Paradisio and the heaven depicted in Dante Rossetti's "The Blessed Damozel." In it "love is strong as death." Yet this vision severely tests the speaker's willingness to sacrifice and sublimate erotic desires: "My heart's a coward though my words are brave." And in sonnet 8 the speaker takes unprecedented liberties with the biblical story of Esther. She attempts to reconcile her passion and her spiritual ideals by envisioning herself as an Esther-Beatrice-Damozel figure, who will risk her salvation to cull God's ("Love's") sanction for her "prayer" — apparently that perfect union with the beloved will be achieved despite his recalcitrance. But this impulse is transient and is implicitly renounced.
Sonnets 5 through 8 are pivotal in the sequence. After the seventh [179/180] sonnet the speaker's previously articulated quest for the physical presence of the beloved, for sensations of union with him, and for the beloved's perfection through service to God give way to increasingly frequent thoughts of death and decay, as well as to convictions of inadequacy. The ideal has failed in a culture projected (through the depiction of the beloved) as one dominated by a corrupted (that is, insistently patriarchal, erotic, and materialist) ideology of romance. Still, the speaker's frustration ultimately serves to perpetuate, complicate, and enrich the projected love relationship. Her own mutability now becomes her dominant preoccupation, and, as a result, she repeatedly offers (and resigns herself to her beloved's acceptance of) surrogate lovers. The denouement of the sequence begins with the ninth sonnet's nostalgia for the ideal of "all that might have been and now can never be." Sonnets 5 through 8 are also much more densely allusive than the first four poems of the sequence, which contain only one major biblical reference (as compared to fourteen in the second quatrain of sonnets). These allusions reflect the central tension in this section of the Monna Innominata between secular love and love of God. The speaker now uses the language of the Bible far more frequently than she does the conventional language of love poetry.
Sonnet 8 is perhaps the most perplexing and certainly the most "Pre-Raphaelite" of the Monna Innominata sequence. From the perspective of the concluding sonnets, it serves to critique the purely sensory and erotic values of other Pre-Raphaelite love poetry. This sonnet flaunts sensually evocative details and is extremely self-conscious in its artificiality~ It also displays the most radical transformation and redirection of sources that Christina Rossetti employs in the Monna Innominata, or indeed anywhere in her poetry. In the sonnet's first line Rossetti makes clear its source in the Old Testament book of Esther: "'l, if I perish, perish,' Esther spake." However, Rossetti's version of Esther is Keatsian in its sensuality, whereas the biblical text is unembellished. Rossetti's seductive Esther — with the "lustre of her perfumed hair," her "smiles that kindle longing but to slake." her "beauty for a snare, / Harmless as doves and subtle as a snake" — is a morally equivocal figure, rather than a prototype of Christ who risks martyrdom to save the Jewish people (mankind) in mediating on their behalf with King Ahasuerus (God). Making Esther into a Lamia figure and thus altering and imaginatively enhancing her source, Rossetti calls attention, as she does throughout the sequence, to the issue of intertextuality in these sonnets, but also to the parodic power of her imagination to assimilate and transvalue a text in order to generate a poem that carries the [180/181] critical weight of myth. This appropriation of Esther, then, like so many of the sonnets' other allusions (including those in the epigraphs from Dante and Petrarch) reminds us that this poetry is simultaneously "literary" (that is, parodic), self-reflexive, and self-fulfilling, and at the same time critical of an entire cultural ideology of romance that victimizes women who are subject to it and objectified by it. Rossetti's speaker not only fails to "trap" and "vanquish" her beloved but quickly realizes that such an objective is wholly misguided and based upon false values.
The speaker thus reacts, in sonnet 9, with dejection but also with courage to the fact that her fantasy of success "can never be" realized. The Dantean epigraph to this sonnet insists on the speaker's retention of a "dignified and pure conscience" (Works, 462). With an allusion to Corinthians, she ironically announces herself "unworthy of the happier call." As if contaminated by the romantic desires she has earlier indulged while employing the traditionary values and expectations of Petrarchism, she now renounces any love union in this world and determines to "abide even as" Christ. But she does not surrender her more important and pervasive vision of transcendent union in the "flowering land of love" after death. That ideal returns here and in sonnet 10 as the new focus of her attention. She is "yet not hopeless quite nor faithless quite, / Because not loveless."
In sonnet 11 the speaker worries about accusations of caprice in love that she imagines will now be lodged against her (because of her renunciation) by "idle women" who know nothing of "Love and parting in exceeding pain"; that is, by those who know nothing of the tradition of renunciation established by the troubadours, embellished by Dante and Petrarch, but afterward trivialized and corrupted in western literary culture. Her parodic counter to such charges is a literalized convention of the tradition: she calls upon her beloved to "make it plain" at "the judgment" that "My love of you was life and not a breath." And once again before this triplet of the macrosonnet concludes, we are reminded of the extent to which the misguided "love" initially aspired to here has been nurtured by, if it is not entirely the product of, an imaginative and originally religious literary tradition that has become secularized. But this fact is also a source of the speaker's hope for eventual salvation and fulfillment. It is a tradition that has created cultural reality. Solipsistic and self-reflexive, its prelapsarian (that is, Dantean and Petrarchan) originals may be rehabilitated by the individual lover who renounces the amatory (and therefore social and moral) deficiencies of her culture. Even though "Hopeless on [181/182] earth, and heaven is out of view," she vows to reconstitute her "love that you can make not void nor vain" in the afterlife ("Beyond this passage of the gate of death"). That is, she vows spiritually and literarily to treat the figure of her beloved just as Dante and Petrarch had employed Beatrice and Laura. Her fallen beloved's commitment to the pleasures and false values of this world becomes tantamount, in her Victorianized Dantean mythology, to the death of the beloved in its original.
Indeed, so self-sufficient and self-sustaining is the speaker's passion that she invents a challenge to it even more daunting than the one broached in sonnet 5: she invites her beloved to marry any woman who "can take my place" by virtue of a "nobler grace," "readier wit," and "sweeter face." Because of the imaginatively projected and ineradicable spiritual identity between her and the now-idealized beloved, the speaker claims that she would only gain by his taking a bride other than she:
... since the heart is yours that was mine own,
Your pleasure is my pleasure, right my right,
Your honourable freedom makes me free,
And you companioned I am not alone.
This rhetoric of renunciation functions simultaneously on two imaginative levels. For the speaker, whose psychic raison d'être is unfulfilled passion that yields a motive for self-purification and a creative impetus (and thus these sonnets recording the psychopathology of love), such renunciation creates a challenge to her passion that can only serve to sustain it. At a complementary level, the speaker's act of renunciation benefits from its expression in an allusion to Dante's Purgatorio 15. This allusion reminds us once again that we are engaged with a deeply intertextual poem whose parody of a pervasive western literary tradition constitutes a metalepsis whose design is to recover the ideology and the poetic stature of its earliest eminent palimpsest.
Appropriately, an alternate gesture of renunciation dominates sonnet 13. This gesture implicitly reinforces the speaker's sense of inadequacy and "impotence" both in "the world" and for the afterlife once she has succumbed, even transiently, to its corrupting values. Rather than another woman, she now recommends God as a surrogate: [182/183]
If I could trust mine own self with your fate,
Shall I not rather trust it in God's hands?
Without Whose Will one lily doth not stand,
Nor sparrow fall at his appointed date;
Who numbereth the innumerable sand,
Who weighs the wind and water with a weight,
To Whom the world is neither small nor great,
Whose knowledge foreknew every plan we planned.
Searching my heart for all that touches you,
I find there only love and love's goodwill
Helpless to help and impotent to do,
Of understanding dull, of sight most dim;
And therefore I commend you back to Him
Whose love your love's capacity can fill.
Four biblical allusions reinforce the speaker's assertions of God's omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence, which contrast with her own deficiencies. Moreover, both epigraphs to this poem emphasize the speaker's self-chastening adherence to a belief in her spiritual inadequacies. But also, in Dantean manner, they insist upon the inextricable dependency of earthly love upon divine love for fulfillment. "And we will direct our eyes to the Primal Love" is William Michael Rossetti's translation of the epigraph from Dante; and its rationale from Petrarch is, "I find a burden to which my arms suffice not" (Works, 463).
The paradox of Rossetti's play with both originary and corrupted Petrarchan romantic traditions is that her speaker is represented as a "fallen" Beatrice-figure with her own poetic voice, whose diminished efficacy has been inevitably determined by a recalcitrant culture. Through Rossetti's own metalepsis of literary tradition, nonetheless, she can present in exemplary fashion a mode of redemption, a poetic pattern of return to grace. To accomplish this goal, Rossetti's speaker must renounce love and therefore abjure any hope of her own redemption through the power of eros to lead to agapé. She becomes a martyr to the redemption she desires for her culture, and her silence in the end does not indicate a relapse into the role of "silent object," as in Petrarchan tradition, but rather the completion of her self-sacrifice in opposition to that culture's ideological lapses from the Dantean model. In this way, then, poetry becomes the unique vehicle for Rossetti's prophecy and depends for its moral as well as aesthetic accomplishment on parody-the appropriation, critique, and transvaluation of [183/184] literary prototypes. The composite procedure serves as a revelation of one (literary) mode through which "Primal Love" operates in the world.
The fourteenth sonnet's symmetry with the first therefore reinforces our awareness that the experience portrayed in these sonnets is literary and derivative, ideal and artificial, self-generating and self-sustaining. Sonnet 14 deliberately employs the standard Petrarchan theme of beauty's transience: "Youth gone, and beauty gone ... / What remains of bliss?" It also rehearses expected flower images to support this theme, albeit 'in renunciatory directions:
I will not bind fresh roses in my hair,
To shame a cheek at best but little fair, --
Leave youth his roses, who can bear a thorn, --
I will not seek for blossoms anywhere,
Except such common flowers as blow with com.
And the sonnet concludes on the conventional note of "a heart which sang ... songs." But — acting against most authors of love sonnets since Petrarch, including Sidney, Spenser, and Shakespeare — this heart now condemns itself to silence because it had initially followed the misguided pattern of worldly, post-Dantean love songs. These have created a fallen and patriarchal culture of eros dominated by false expectations and desires, a culture that has become blind to the only genuine possibility of fulfilling "the craving heart" and "love's capacity": in "the flowering land" of spiritual love. The sequence comes full circle when we are left, at the end, with precisely that which we encountered at the beginning of the sonnets:
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 mom,
Silence of love that cannot sing again.
The movement from desire to renunciation, the realization that the romantic and literary tradition that has taught her to feel, to write, and to idealize is duplicitous — these have been wrenching for the speaker.
The psychological effects of her experiences appear in the elegiac tone of this concluding sonnet of the sequence. Implicit in the speaker's final renunciation, the renunciation of "song," is Rossetti's awareness that the speaker's achievement in merely sublimating earthly to spiritual passions [184/185] is antithetical to the earliest and best models from the literary tradition out of which the impulse to portray such a speaker emerges. Whereas Dante and Petrarch ascended by means of eros to agapé and celebrated their ascent in poetry, this speaker must altogether reject her erotic desires, the poetry they might generate, and the salvation both might lead to. In this deeply intertextual and self-consciously historical work, Rossetti's creation, her female counterpart of a troubadour poet or her regendered Dante, has failed because her love, her beloved, and her poetic project are circumscribed by Victorian cultural values and informed by Victorian rather than medieval sensibilities. Rossetti's "fancy" of a "'donna innominata' drawn ... from feeling" by "the great Poetess of our own day" — Elizabeth Browning, had she been "unhappy instead of happy" in love — has exposed an extremely significant incompatibility between Dante's system of values and poetic practice on the one hand, and, on the other, the corrupt amatory, spiritual, and even aesthetic values of Rossetti's own era. But, as I have suggested, in at least two other important respects her speaker's failure to reconcile erotic and spiritual passions is the grounds of Rossetti's artistic success.
First, in the Monna Innominata sequence Rossetti depicts a pattern for sublimating and redirecting erotic impulses, for chastening and "perfecting" the will of the tempted earthly lover. That pattern, and even its sadly sentimental outcome, would have appealed to the psychological and emotional as well as the social needs of her Victorian audience. Second, in the distance between the literary potential of love in medieval times and in the Victorian period, Christina Rossetti can discover a limited but congenial field for the operations of her imagination, a mental space in which to exist, as in an aesthetic cloister. In it she finds freedom for her art, just as her brother, Swinburne, and Morris did. But such freedom requires that she renounce all commitments to her own historical era. By promising herself to archaic literary ideals and practice (as in the case of the Monna Innominata), or to God (as in the exclusively religious poetry), or to a life of pure fantasy (as in Goblin Market and Sing-song), she can wander between two worlds, cloaked attractively and protectively in aesthetic garments. In the Monna Innominata, perhaps more than in any of her other works, Christina Rossetti fully exposes the psychological, emotional, and spiritual tensions that inform her poetry, and at the same time she attempts to recover and espouse the Dantean ideology that originally transformed such tensions into great religious art.
Last modified 24 June 2007