Poised against the traditional love sonnet, set off with snippets from Dante and Petrarch counterpointing each section, Christina Rossetti's "Monna Innominata" is not so divorced from the precedents as to be unrecognizable, even while its character is something altogether a departure from the standard. While the pointed absence of physical description of the beloved is striking, as is the emphasis on the primacy of divine love, perhaps more interesting are the fatalistic tendencies; while much love poetry from the earlier canon and elsewhere is naturally far from upbeat, the primary source of despair for the voice of "Monna Innominata" comes not from separation or flaws in the lover but from the nature of earthly love itself.

While the first sonnet concerns itself wholly with meetings with the lover, it dwells only on the sadness of parting. The preoccupation of the second sonnet with the forgotten first meeting similarly creates misery from nothing. The tone continues in the third sonnet with the rather gnostic "to die were surely sweeter than to live", and the pessimistic fixation neither relents nor acknowledges its source. While that might certainly be the necessary trumping of the lover by the Almighty, the last line of the sonnet which introduces that very idea — "I cannot love Him if I love not you" — is the highest praise the beloved will receive, backhanded though it is.

The truly curious thing is the lack not merely of description of the beloved, but of any but the most glancing reference to pleasure at his company. Notable examples — "When life was sweet", "what remains of bliss" — are, naturally, in the past, with reference to bygone days. While the love on both sides is constantly referenced and emphasized, its features are burdens — self-sacrifice, the inadequacy of human love, despair in the face of separation. This love of Rossetti's is a hard sell, especially as it's always second fiddle.

While the spin on love in "Monna Innominata" certainly has its novelty, it reads more like a justification for getting thyself to a nunnery than a love cycle. The faith in love expounded in the seventh sonnet seems at odds to the rest of the cycle; the substance of love is pushed to such an extent that the good of the thing is entirely forgotten, and the faith in it is at odds with the cynicism of the verses; the only resolution lies in casting earthly love as a flawed, broken thing and divine love as the only kind worth having.

Questions

Why, in writing a love cycle, are Christina Rossetti's observations primarily pessimistic about the state of earthly love? Is it simply that this world is a veil of tears, and its love naturally flawed beyond recall?

Is Rossetti being a Gnostic?

Rossetti's distinction between earthly love and heavenly love is not always clear; while presumably when she praises its strength it is divine and when she curses its pangs it is earthly, she uses the term without distinction, only inarguably referencing divine love when she names God. What does this do for the cycle?


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Last modified 5 March 2008