decorated initial 'I'n the preface to her sonnet sequence "Monna Innominata," Christina Rossetti states her intent to give a real voice to the women such as Beatrice and Laura whom Dante and Petrarch idealized. These well-known muses were also preceded by a bevy of unnamed ladies — "donne innominate" — sung by a school of less conspicuous poets (RPO).She speculates that these women could have also shared their lover's poetic desires and in this reversal, the female speaker proclaims and idealizes her love for the man.

Rossetti introduces each sonnet with lines in Italian from Dante and Petrarch, followed by her own. In the first three sonnets, the speaker recalls her lover and the love they shared. From lines such as, "Ah me, but where are now the songs I sang/ When life was sweet because you called them sweet?" (Sonnet 1) we can gather that their love exists in the past. She laments the fact that she cannot remember the first day they met, a detail that is often paramount to Dante's and Petrarch's formula (RPO). The speaker recalls how she loved him first, but his love "outsoaring mine, sang such a loftier song/As drown'd the friendly cooings of my dove" (Sonnet 4). Despite her claim of first love, the speaker acknowledges the more archetypal role given to her through the supposed verses of her suitor. She also struggles with the meaning of her love and questions her worth and faith. This may all seem to place the speaker in the traditional role of the woman; however, she then addresses this power struggle not by comparing the intensity of their love for each other but to her relationship with God. She states that her love for God is affirmed by her love for him and that at Judgement her love for him will be made plain. The speaker forsees the suffering of unfulfilled love: "I feel your honour'd excellence, and see/Myself unworthy of the happier call: For woe is me who walk so apt to fall" (Sonnet 9) and instead chooses a path leading to a higher spiritual love. Thus while the speaker chooses God over man, sacrificing her physical relationship, she awaits a spiritual eternity where "age and sorrow cease; A little while, and life reborn annuls/ Loss and decay and death, and all is love" (Sonnet 10).

Petrarch tells the story of his relationship with Laura inh his poems in that declare his profound love for his muse, exalting her virtues and endowing her with unearthly beauty. We do not know if she ever reciprocated these passionate feelings. In "Monna Innominata," Rossetti uses the medievalist combination of erotic love and spiritual love to give voice to a female consciousness. The woman speaks strongly of a love "laid bare to you" that "you can make not void nor vain." And having had enough "Of love and parting in exceeding pain," (Sonnet 11) she wisely and faithfully chooses the spiritual path. This subversive tone, like the choice of spiritual over physical love, defies the woman's conventional role as the silent object of male adoration and creates the role of a woman lover who exists as a person in her own right.

Discussion Questions

1. Rossetti says in her preface: "Had such a lady spoken for herself, the portrait left us might have appeared more tender, if less dignified, than any drawn even by a devoted friend ..." Does the use of a female speaker create a "less dignified" portrayal? For example, she says in Sonnet 11:

'He lov'd her' — while of me what will they say?
Not that I lov'd you more than just in play,
For fashion's sake as idle women do.
Even let them prate; who know not what we knew.

How does she dignify herself and her love?

2. At the end of the poem the speaker chooses spiritual love over erotic and physical love, a choice also made in Dante Gabriel Rossetti's "The Blessed Damozel." Does this choice reveal her gender? Does the speaker's choice or reasonings differ in any way from that of the Damozel's? How so?

3. In the final sonnet, the speaker says that the only thing that remains is "A silent heart whose silence loves and longs; The silence of a heart which sang its songs...Silence of love that cannot sing again." While it seems that she reverts to the role of the silent object of desire, could the poem be considered her heart's song? How permanent and lasting then are her words?

4. Rossetti alludes to the Bible in reference to Jordan: "As Jordan as his flood sweeps either shore," Lot's wife: "Nor with Lot's wife cast back a faithless look" and Esther: "I, if I perish, perish"--Esther spake:" The speaker often uses these allusions to measure her love, for example,

To love you much and yet to love you more,
As Jordan as his flood sweeps either shore;
Since woman is the help meet made for man.

She also makes reference to Esther, who risked the king's disapproval by entrancing Ahasuerus with her beauty in order to save her people (RPO). After describing how Esther "trapp'd him with one mesh of silken hair" and "vanquish'd him by wisdom of her wit," she reflects: "If I might take my life so in my hand." How do the Biblical references work in the poem? Do they give her love a greater significance? How do they effect her vision of love and the overall theme of the poem?

Related Materials

References

Representative Poetry Online [RPO]: Department of English, University of Toronto: http://eir.library.utoronto.ca/rpo/display/index.cfm

Harrison, Antony H. Christina Rossetti in Context. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

Stone, Marjorie. ""Monna Innominata and Sonnets from the Portuguese: Sonnet Traditions and Spiritual Trajectories." The Culture of Christina Rossetti: Female Poetics and Victorian Contexts. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1999.


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Last modified 22 October 2003