n the prose introduction to "Monna Innominata", Christina Rossetti baldly states her ulterior motive in taking pen to paper: she wants to give the silent beautiful ladies of poetic fame a voice. She writes, "Had such a lady spoken for herself, the portrait left us might have appeared more tender, if less dignified." (294) In the following fourteen sonnets, Rossetti provides a different perspective on the familiar theme of tragic love, the solitary, contemplative woman and death. The sonnets are very much a defense of her own sex and Rossetti is aware of the overwhelming literature celebrating the vocal male and his silent lover. Her unnamed lady actually states, "Many in aftertimes will say of you/ "He loved her" — while of me what will they say?" (sonnet 11, lines 1-2). This is Christina Rossetti's answer to the lady's question.
Rossetti writes within the accepted framework of tragic love poetry. In the first sonnet, Rossetti sets the scene as the woman waits for her love alone: "Come back to me, who wait and watch for you" (sonnet 1, line 1). Moreover, the unnamed lady also muses, "If thus to sleep is sweeter than to wake,/ To die were surely sweeter than to live," (sonnet 3, line 11).
Yet unlike the confined, cursed ladies represented by her male contemporaries, for instance Tennyson's "Lady of Shalott" or Dante Gabriel Rossetti's "Jenny", Christina Rossetti's unnamed lady is a free, rational and assertive actress in her own life. The lady defends her loneliness with the assertion, "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," (sonnet 6, lines 1-3). Rossetti's lady chooses her faith over her lover, and even oddly allows for her lover to take a new companion in sonnet 12, "If there be any one can take my place/ And make you happy whom I grieve to grieve" (sonnet 12, lines 1-2).
Even as Rossetti acknowledges the weakness of her heroine, "For woe is me who walk so apt to fall,/ So apt to shrink afraid, so apt to flee, Apt to lie down and die" (sonnet 9, lines 5-8) she defends the truth of the lady's love. Women love as strongly as men, and may perhaps even be the more constant, men's love may be depicted as "Outsoaring mine, sang such a loftier song/ As drowned the friendly cooings of my dove." (sonnet 4, lines 2-3). The lady admonishes her lover, "I charge you at the Judgment make it plain/ My love of you was life and not a breath." (sonnet 11, lines 13-14). Rossetti portrays her tragic lover as a strong-willed woman, who chose to forgo the pleasures of love for her faith, this is the harder path, but she remains constant to her foregone love even as she contemplates the long solitary years ahead.
In the introduction, Christina Rossetti informs the reader that the voice of the poem belongs to an unnamed lady, one of "a bevy of unnamed ladies 'donne innominate' sung by a school of less conspicuous poets." (294) However, at the same time, Rossetti remained single throughout her life, despite two offers of marriage - both of which she refused on grounds of religion. There is a very obvious parallel then, between the unnamed lady of the sonnets and Rossetti herself. Why would Rossetti want to so ostensibly remove her personal life from the sonnets?
Dante Gabriel Rossetti was very interested in noting the mundane and ordinary in his poems — for instance, the sound of the scraping chairs in "My Sister's Sleep" or the woodspurge in "The Woodspurge." Yet Christina Rossetti devotes an entire sonnet to the unnamed lady's inability to recall the occasion of her first meeting her lover, "I wish I could remember that first day,/ First hour, first moment of your meeting me,... So unrecorded did it slip away,/ So blind was I to see and to foresee,/ So dull to mark the budding of my tree" (sonnet 2, lines 1-2, 6-7). Was Christina influenced by Dante Gabriel's interest in the out-of-place mundane?
In sonnet 4, the unnamed lady muses, "I loved you first: but afterwards your love/ Outsoaring mine, sang such a loftier song/ As drowned the friendly cooings of my dove." (sonnet 4, lines 1-3). And later, the unnamed lady returns to this comparison of male and female love, "I charge you at the Judgment make it plain/ My love of you was life and not a breath." (sonnet 11, lines 13-14) Is Christina Rossetti launching an overt criticism of male love? Many of the paintings we have studied thus far center on silent, waiting women, in this regard, would the painters of such portraits have agreed with Christina? For instance, Millais's Ophelia or Dante Gabriel's The Blessed Damozel.
Throughout the fourteen sonnets, Christina Rossetti makes use of much repetition in her words and phrases. Sonnet 14 offers an ideal illustration of this:
Youth gone, and beauty gone if ever there
Dwelt beauty in so poor a face as this;
Youth gone and beauty, what remains of bliss?
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 corn.
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.
How does the build up of repeated words such as gone, longing, and silence work to sustain the mood of the entire work? Moreover, in this last sonnet, the unnamed lady asks, 'what remains of bliss?' What does remain? How does Rossetti address the long, silent, lonely years before death? Is there any consolation for the unnamed lady?
Last modified 15 October 2006