Christina Rosetti's "Monna Innominata," like her earlier work "Song," employs the conventions of romantic verse to undermine themselves. Unlike the blatant irony of "Song," "Monna" is very subtle. Rosetti takes us through the usual romantic cliches: the forbidden love, anticipation filled meetings and painful partings, remeniscences and protestations of devotion, up to and including the self-sacrificing woman in Sonnet 12 who would give her lover to another woman if that's what would make him happy. And when comes loss, then our lady is still a paragon of virtue and patience: "Searching my heart for all that touches you,/I find there only love and love's godwill" (13.9-10). But instead of ending there, when our speaker gives her lover up to God, we have one sonnet left to go. The feeling in this poem is more bitter:
Youth gone and beauty, what remains of bliss?
I will not bind fresh roses in my hair,
To shame cheeks at best but little fair,--
Leave youth his roses, who can bear a thorn,--
I will not seek 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. [14.3-10]
It's a very melancholy sentiment, but a true one, that "better to have loved and lost" doesn't mean that the "lost" part doesn't really suck. This last sonnet is about her lover only peripherally--we've done with him and now the focus is totally on her. To end in this way makes the major arc of the sonnets (and their affair) not about the male lover, but about our female speaker, the unknown woman.
How do the first sonnets of the poem change in a re-reading? Do they seem more ironic once you know how it all ends?
What's the significance of the Petrarchan epigraph "Only with these thoughts, with different locks"?
Does the Unknown Woman of the title stand in for all the conventions of the feminine in the romantic tradition or for women in general — or both?
Last modified 22 October 2003