A major theme in the Monna Innominata cycle of sonnets by Christina Rossetti is the attempt to make love last in the face of time and the inevitability of death. In Sonnet 2, the speaker wishes she could remember the first day of meeting her lover, but cannot. She says:

If bright or dim the season, it might be
Summer or Winter for aught I can say;
So unrecorded did it slip away,
So blind was I to see and to foresee.
That would not blossom yet for many a May.
If only I could recollect it, such
A day of days! I let it come and go
As traceless as a thaw of bygone snow.

Rossetti seems to suggest here that the speaker's attempt to recall through physical, environmental clues will prove futile. She makes heavy use of seasonal imagery, speaking of months and weather, e.g. May and snow. Rossetti uses similar motifs throughout the group of poems, such as "My hope hangs waning, waxing, like a moon" in Sonnet 1, or "Love builds the house on rock and not on sand" in Sonnet 7. The latter clearly references the idea of the church being built upon a rock (Pietro, Peter; Pietra, rock) — a symbol that unifies Rossetti's longing for love of both God and men.

Nature's role in the sonnets seems almost negative - a measure of the waning of love and a reminder of mortality. But there are a few positive mentions of nature such as in the "rock" of love and, in the last sonnet, "I will not seek for blossoms anywhere,/Except such common flowers as blow with corn." Rossetti seems to favor the simplest of natural objects, while challenging what are generally considered the romantic symbols such as the moon, roses, and summer.

Questions

1. Shakespeare's famous sonnet "Shall I compare thee..." takes on a similar question, of how to make beauty last. He complains that "Summer's lease hath all too short a date." But Shakespeare's answer is in the preservation of his subject's beauty through the praise within the poem itself. What might have been Rossetti's view of her own poems' function? Considering that she speaks very little of any lover's physical beauty, to what extent might the Monna cycle be seen as a response to Shakespeare's (and almost all other poets') physical praises?

2. Rossetti clearly attempts to establish a dialogue by including a line of poetry from both Dante and Petrarch at the start of each sonnet. How does Rossetti's stance on temporal love contrast or add on to those of Dante and Petrarch?

3. Rossetti's view on nature is difficult to parse out. She seems to reject natural phenomena as groundings for experiences of love, but still recognizes the importance of certain objects, e.g. the "rock." Must things in nature carry heavy religious weight for her to praise them?

4. Is Rossetti resigned to accepting the shortness of love? Does love's preservation, for her, depend on an escape from nature?


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Last modified 3 February 2008