Monna Innominata

Child abuse
Overview
My final Rossetti poem and I can’t help feel a tinge of sadness. Partially that is due to this poem being another example of her self inflicted emotional turmoil, but in part it’s because I’ve loved reading and analysing her work. However, I won’t miss some of these stinking long poems, purely because they take me a lifetime to write about!

Anyway, this poem is a sonnet of sonnets. Fourteen stanzas exploring Rossetti’s love for some chap. However, it follows a pattern that should by now be familiar: she loves him with all her being, but so much so that she hates the thought of not being with him forever. With that in mind, she sacrifices their earthly relationship in the hope they will come back together in heaven and enjoy eternity together.

Needless to say, Rossetti feels pretty miserable about this… Jesus Christ, woman, don’t do it then, just love him, get married and settle down!

Click the tabs on the left to view each stanza.

Stanzas 1-2Stanzas 3-4Stanzas 5-6Stanzas 7-8Stanzas 9-10Stanzas 11-12Stanzas 13-14

I

 ‘Lo di che han detto a’ dolci amici addio.’ – Dante.
‘Amor, con quanto sforzo oggi mi vinci!’ – Petrarca.

Come back to me, who wait and watch for you: –
Or come not yet, for it is over then,
And long it is before you come again,
So far between my pleasures are and few.
While, when you come not, what I do I do
Thinking ‘Now when he comes,’ my sweetest ‘when:’
For one man is my world of all the men
This wide world holds; O love, my world is you.
Howbeit, to meet you grows almost a pang
Because the pang of parting comes so soon;
My hope hangs waning, waxing, like a moon
Between the heavenly days on which we meet:
Ah me, but where are now the songs I sang
When life was sweet because you called them sweet?

 II

 ‘Era già l’ora che volge il desio.; – Dante.
‘Ricorro al tempo ch’io vi vidi prima.’ – Petrarca.

I wish I could remember that first day,
First hour, first moment of your meeting me,
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,
So dull to mark the budding of my tree
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;
It seemed to mean so little, meant so much;
If only now I could recall that touch,
First touch of hand in hand – Did one but know!

III

 ‘O ombre vane, fuor che ne l’aspetto!’ – Dante.
‘Immaginata guida la conduce.’ – Petrarca

I dream of you, to wake: would that I might
Dream of you and not wake but slumber on;
Nor find the dreams with dear companion gone,
As, Summer ended, Summer birds take flight.
In happy dreams I hold you full in night.
I blush again who waking look so wan;
Brighter than the sunniest day that ever shone,
In happy dreams your smile makes day of night.
Thus only in a dream we are at one,
Thus only in a dream we give and take
The faith that maketh rich who take or give;
If thus to sleep is sweeter than to wake,
To die were surely sweeter than to live,
Tho’ there be nothing new beneath the sun.

 IV

 ‘Poca favilla gran fliamma seconda.’ – Dante.
‘Ogni altra cosa, ogni pensier va fore, E ol ivi con voi rimansi amore.’ – Petrarca.

I lov’d you first: but afterwards your love 
Outsoaring mine, sang such a loftier song
As drown’d the friendly cooings of my dove.
Which owes the other most? my love was long,
And yours one moment seem’d to wax more strong;
I lov’d and guess’d at you, you construed me–
And lov’d me for what might or might not be
Nay, weights and measures do us both a wrong.
For verily love knows not “mine” or “thine;”
With separate “I” and “thou” free love has done,
For one is both and both are one in love:
Rich love knows nought of “thine that is not mine;”
Both have the strength and both the length thereof,
Both of us, of the love which makes us one. 

V

‘Amor che a nullo amato amar perdona.’ – Dante. 
‘Amor m’addusse in sì gioiosa spene.’
 – Petrarca.

O my heart’s heart, and you who are to me
More than myself myself, God be with you,
 
Keep you in strong obedience leal and true
 
To Him whose noble service setteth free,
 
Give you all good we see or can foresee,
 
Make your joys many and your sorrows few,
 
Bless you in what you bear and what you do,
 
Yea, perfect you as He would have you be.
 
So much for you; but what for me, dear friend?
 
To love you without stint and all I can
 
Today, tomorrow, world without an end;
 
To love you much and yet to love you more,
 
As Jordan at his flood sweeps either shore;
 
Since woman is the helpmeet made for man.

 VI

‘Or puoi la quantitate Comprender de l’amor che a te mi scalda.’ – Dante. 
‘Non vo’ che da tal nodo mi scioglia.’
 – Petrarca.

Trust me, I have not earn’d your dear rebuke,
I love, as you would have me, God the most;
 
Would lose not Him, but you, must one be lost,
 
Nor with Lot’s wife cast back a faithless look
 
Unready to forego what I forsook;
 
This say I, having counted up the cost,
 
This, though I be the feeblest of God’s host,
 
The sorriest sheep Christ shepherds with His crook.
 
Yet while I love my God the most, I deem
 
That I can never love you overmuch;
 
I love Him more, so let me love you too;
 
Yea, as I apprehend it, love is such
 
I cannot love you if I love not Him,
 
I cannot love Him if I love not you.

VII 

‘Qui primavera sempre ed ogni frutto.’ – Dante. 
‘Ragionando con meco ed io con lui.’
 – Petrarca. 

“Love me, for I love you”–and answer me,
 
“Love me, for I love you”–so shall we stand
 
As happy equals in the flowering land
 
Of love, that knows not a dividing sea.
 
Love builds the house on rock and not on sand,
 
Love laughs what while the winds rave desperately;
 
And who hath found love’s citadel unmann’d?
 
And who hath held in bonds love’s liberty?
 
My heart’s a coward though my words are brave
 
We meet so seldom, yet we surely part
 
So often; there’s a problem for your art!
 
Still I find comfort in his Book, who saith,
 
Though jealousy be cruel as the grave,
 
And death be strong, yet love is strong as death.

VIII

‘Come dicesse a Dio: D’altro non calme.’ – Dante. 
‘Spero trovar pietà non che perdono.’
 – Petrarca.

“I, if I perish, perish”–Esther spake:
And bride of life or death she made her fair
 
In all the lustre of her perfum’d hair
 
And smiles that kindle longing but to slake.
 
She put on pomp of loveliness, to take
 
Her husband through his eyes at unaware;
 
She spread abroad her beauty for a snare,
 
Harmless as doves and subtle as a snake.
 
She trapp’d him with one mesh of silken hair,
 
She vanquish’d him by wisdom of her wit,
 
And built her people’s house that it should stand:–
 
If I might take my life so in my hand,
 
And for my love to Love put up my prayer,
 
And for love’s sake by Love be granted it!

IX 

‘O dignitosa coscienza e netta!’ – Dante. 
‘Spirto più acceso di virtuti ardenti.’
 – Petrarca.

Thinking of you, and all that was, and all
That might have been and now can never be,
 
I feel your honour’d excellence, and see
 
Myself unworthy of the happier call:
 
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 (ah, woe is me!)
 
Faithless and hopeless turning to the wall.
 
And yet not hopeless quite nor faithless quite,
 
Because not loveless; love may toil all night,
 
But take at morning; wrestle till the break
 
Of day, but then wield power with God and man:–
 
So take I heart of grace as best I can,
 
Ready to spend and be spent for your sake.

‘Con miglior corso e con migliore stella.; – Dante. 
‘La vita fugge e non s’arresta un’ ora.’
 – Petrarca.

Time flies, hope flags, life plies a wearied wing;
Death following hard on life gains ground apace;
 
Faith runs with each and rears an eager face,
 
Outruns the rest, makes light of everything,
 
Spurns earth, and still finds breath to pray and sing;
 
While love ahead of all uplifts his praise,
 
Still asks for grace and still gives thanks for grace,
 
Content with all day brings and night will bring.
 
Life wanes; and when love folds his wings above
 
Tired hope, and less we feel his conscious pulse,
 
Let us go fall asleep, dear friend, in peace:
 
A little while, and age and sorrow cease;
 
A little while, and life reborn annuls
 
Loss and decay and death, and all is love.

XI

‘Vien dietro a me e lascia dir le genti.’ – Dante.
‘Contando i casi della vita nostra.’ – Petrarca.

Many in aftertimes will say of you
‘He loved her’ – while of me what will they say?
Not that I loved you more than just in play.
For fashion’s sake as idle women do.
Even let them prate; who know not what we knew
Of love and parting in exceeding pain,
Of parting hopeless here to meet again,
Hopeless on earth, and heaven is out of view.
But by my heart of love laid bare to you,
My love that you can make not void nor vain,
Love that foregoes you but to claim anew
Beyond this passage of the gate of death,
I charge you at the Judgment make it plain
My love of you was life and not a breath.

XII

‘Amor, che ne la mentre mi ragiona.’ – Dante.
‘Amor vien nel bel viso di costei.’ – Petrarca.

If there be any one can take my place
And make you happy whom I grieve to grieve,
Think not that I can grudge it, but believe
I do commend you to that nobler grace,
That readier wit than mine, that sweeter face;
Yea, since your riches make me rich, conceive
I too am crowned, while bridal crowns I weave,
And thread the bridal dance with jocund pace.
For if I did not love you, it might be
That I should grudge you some one dear delight;
But since the heart is yours that was mine own,
Your pleasure is my pleasure, right my right,
Your honourable freedom makes me free,
And you companioned I am not alone.

XIII

‘E drizzeremo gli occhi al Primo Amore.’ – Dante.
‘Ma trovo peso non da le mie braccia.’ – Petrarca.

If I could trust mine own self with your fate,
Shall I not rather trust it in God’s hand?
Without Whose Will only lily doth not stand,
Nor sparrow fall at his appointed date;
Who numbereth the innumerable sand,
Who weights the wind and water with a weight,
To Whom the world is neither small nor great,
Whose knowledge foreknew every plan we planned.
Searching my heart for all that touches you,
I find there only love and love’s goodwill
Helpless to help and impotent to do,
Of understanding dull, of sight most dim;
And therefore I commend you back to Him
Whose love your love’s capacity can fill.

XIV

‘E la Sua Volontade è nostra pace.’ – Dante.
‘Sol con questi pensier, con altre chiome.’ – Petrarca.

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 which sang its songs
While youth and beauty made a summer morn,
Silence of love that cannot sing again.

Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.

ContextThemesContentLanguage and techniquesStructureTone

Context

This poem is much later than most of our selection, published in 1881 as part of A Pagaent and Other Poems.

At this point Rossetti is 51 and we can safely assume that both she and society felt she was past it romantically. However, this could still be biographical and relate to her friendship with Charles Bagot Cayley. We’ve not spoken much about him, but he proposed in 1866, was rejected, but the pair remained close until death and were only really kept apart by religious differences. Could her forsaking of earthly love here refer to this relationship?

It is often taken as being a response to her brother’s (Dante’s) poem The House of Life, which is a series of sonnets that idolises the beauty of women.

Christina spoke of this poem as breaking a literary tradition where women are only ever spoken about by men, seemingly valued for their physical beauty, but never given a true voice or expressing the real feelings of the gender. The image of the admirable woman in literature is seen by Christina as being generalised and lacking any personalisation and not relating to an individual, but an ideal for the gender. She said that women in men’s poetry are painted as being ‘resplendent with charms, but scant of attractiveness’, suggesting that though they have traits to admire, these are as baubles rather than individual features of their character or personality.

The title of the poem is Latin and means ‘Unnamed Woman’. This refers directly to the idea that women of the time were effectively voiceless in literature and as such this poem is a bit of a gender break out. However, she’s definitely not the first, but it continues, to some extent even today, to be true that the literary world is overly dominated by men, writing stories about men.

If you want a more detailed contextual account give this a read, but beware it can be pretty thick and stoggy to read.

 Themes

It’s Rossetti, so we’ve got the incessant struggle going on throughout. However, I think this poem is equally important for its perspective of gender relations. It is a beacon of female emotions and feelings about relationships in a night shrouded in the words of men.

Content

I’m going to stick with my recent stanza by stanza breakdown technique, but expect much less information than in Goblin Market as I am exhausted with writing such intense analysis after my long summer holiday from working on the site!

I’ve mentioned the title above, but let’s recap. It means ‘Unnamed Woman’ and is basically Rossetti’s way of showing that women’s feelings are under-represented in literature and show that we only rarely get to see things from a feminine perspective.

The other question I know you want answered is about the bold lines above each sonnet. These are always one line from Dante Alighieri and one from Francesco Petrarca (more commonly known as Petrarch) who were two famous poets from the Renaissance (both writing in fourteenth century Italy). Rossetti is directing her words at their words and giving voice to the type of woman they idolised in their works – Dante’s Beatrice; Petrarch’s Laura.

I am not going to try to translate their words because Google translate is pretty unhelpful with poetic phrasing and my Latin/Italian is refined to being able to conjugate one or two verbs and being able to roughly understand a comedic play about a pot (I didn’t get why it was funny!). However, the meaning is less important than its presence as a sign of what Rossetti was trying to achieve with the poem.

Below I’ve gone through each sonnet individually, but for a neat overview you can consider the sonnets to follow this pattern:

1. Longing; 2. Memory; 3. Dreams; 4. Unity; 5. Blessing to her Beloved; 6. Surrender; 7. Biblical model of Love; 8. Sacrifical love; 9. Memory; 10. The Race; 11. In Retrospect; 12. Letting go; 13. Faith and love;  14.Celibacy/Christian rebirth.

Shamelessly borrowed from here (a neat little Prezi about the poem), but with some tiny alterations.

https://prezi.com/lpbuiowlceqs/monna-innominata-victorian-poetry-presentation/

Sonnet 1

In our first sonnet I don’t think we really get an impression of what is to come. Rossetti plays with the idea of longing for a loved one. She feels at once that she wants her lover to be with her, but at the same time she doesn’t want it because then the sense of anticipation and longing will be over. Also, the sooner her lover is with her, the sooner they will have to part again.

Although she is contemplating her emotions here, there is a vague hint of what is to come in the concluding two lines to the sonnet. She sounds wistful when considering where her songs from when ‘life was sweet’ have gone. This implies that her life and love is no longer quite so sweet.

Sonnet 2

Rossetti continues to explore their past in a way that initially appears nostalgic, but later can be interpreted as melancholic. She rues the fact she cannot recall the first moment she met the man she was to grow to love. This suggests her love was not based on lust and physical attraction, but rather developed over time. Somehow this makes the love all the more real and significant to me, like a proper connection between two people.

An interesting line here about whether their meeting occurred in summer or winter. Put your pathetic fallacy cap on for a second and you’ll probably sense a suggestion that love is a double edge sword and can be summer or winter, depending on your perspective.

Sonnet 3

This is a beautiful stanza, where Rossetti wishes that her dreams of him could last forever. Her dreams turn night to day and allow them actually to be together. She longs to be trapped in these dreams because in reality they cannot be together with the same sense of permanence. This could be interpreted in two ways: 1) they are unmarried and thus do not live together and must endure time away from each other; or 2) their earthly life and love cannot have the permanence of the dream because of their mortality – heaven would serve as the dream in this scenario.

I think this second interpretation is closest to the money as the stanza ends with a suggestion that Rossetti wants out of this life in order to bring about the eternal togetherness that she hopes for in heaven.

Sonnet 4

In this stanza she talks about the evolution of their shared love – at first she’s more keen, but in time his love outstrips hers. His love was apparently more passionate, but had its ups and downs, while her love was constant.

In the middle of this sonnet Rossetti tires of comparing her love with his love and instead wants to consider the love as a whole, combined product.

Sonnet 5

This is really pretty. Rossetti speaks of her lover as her ‘heart’s heart’ and more herself than she is. This shows his importance to her, her self conception and her existence.

However, after she’s buttered him up with this compliment she tries to convince him to turn his life to God. This is, by now, a common theme in Rossetti’s poetry, she wants him to give himself to God in order that their love can continue forever in heaven. However, this isn’t all motivated by her selfishness, she also reasons that devoting himself to God will end any sorrow or suffering in his life.

Sonnet 6

Here she is comparing her love for him with her love for Him. Although she often claims she loves God the most, she’s actually unable to concede that her love for her chap can be beaten or outmatched.

Sonnet 7

We continue thinking about eternal bliss and their love being everlasting in heaven. She counsels that it is better to build your house upon the rocks than the sand, which reminds me of a lovely song from my primary school days! Basically she means that if he were wise he’d make sure he got to heaven where he build a love based on longevity, rather than focus on earth where life is brief and love is transient.

Sonnet 8

This sonnet begins with a biblical quote about Esther, so let’s explain who she is.

Esther was a queen who owed had once been exiled and enjoyed the hospitality of the Jewish – she later reveals she actually is Jewish to the king. Some schemer in her husband’s court managed to get the king to give him permission to terrorise the Jews (as you do!) and confiscate their property. Once Esther heard about it she wanted to speak to the king and get it stopped. However, it was against the law for her to appear before the king without being summoned. This is what leads her to say, ‘If I perish, I perish’ as she risks her life for the Jewish.  Needless to say, she doesn’t perish and the king sides with her, hangs the schemer and allows Jews the freedom to protect themselves and some positions of honour within his court.

Anyway, the comparison here between Esther and Rossetti is based on them both using their charms to convince their man to do something for them. Rossetti’s goal is a little less impressive than Esther’s as she only wants to convince her lover to change his faith and beliefs so their love can endure. I guess the perish element for Rossetti is she feels that her insistence on this being the only way for their love risks alienating her lover and ruining their relationship – thus causing her to suffer an emotional death.

Sonnet 9

Here Rossetti’s pleas give way to real regret. She contemplates what they have enjoyed together, but also what could’ve been. She considers herself unworthy of not only his love, but enjoying the highs of earthly love.

However, what’s more interesting is that she explains why she has backed away from it. It is not simply her faith and commitment to God, but she also tells us that fear of what could go wrong and the potential heartbreak that is a part of earthly love.

As a result of this she mind have surrendered to an absolute hope in eternal love, but she reveals that she is still struggling between her desire/passion and her fear. This ‘wrestle’ continues until the new day, which represents the day she is/will be reborn as a devout worshipper.

Sonnet 10

In the tenth we have another oft-tread path for Rossetti. She is weary of life as she is forsaking all the good bits. As a result of her decision the earth is just a place of suffering for her that she has to endure before ascending to God’s marshmallow/cloud palace. Her faith is represented as a tireless runner who will outrun life, earthly love/misery comfortably (like the Duracel bunny).

She briefly touches on the power of love, but emphasises that it is temporary by describing it in terms of a single day, which sets all too soon. Whereas in death – and presumably heaven – she sees us as being able to finally attain contentment and rest.

Sonnet 11

This sonnet is a complete sea-change in terms of mood. Rossetti is almost angry with the faceless that she fears will judge her feelings of love less kindly than his as a result of the decision she is making. She stresses how difficult her decision has been and argues that her love is more worthy than most of being remembered and spoken about as she has sacrificed the transient pleasure of earthly love in order to secure eternal bliss and the everlasting existence of her feelings in heaven.

Sonnet 12

This sonnet is a bit like a Hollywood romantic comedy. It is rich with soppiness and romantic nonsense. She tells her lover that she just wants him to be happy and will feel happy for him if he replaces her with someone more worthy in his heart. Whenever anyone says this you need to be cynical and recognise that it is basically personal PR to make her look like such a wonderful person.

Okay, you can disagree with me if you wish, but consider whether you’d ever really want someone you love to forget about you and fall in love with someone else. Would you? I wouldn’t, or certainly not unless I’d moved on from them completely and utterly, having no further interest in their love.

Sonnet 13

Now we’re back to convincing the chap to repent and see the light. She argues that God is a pretty powerful and wise dude, thus it is probably better that they trust him with their happiness rather than trust themselves to get it right on earth.

Sonnet 14

In the final sonnet, her rebirth is complete. She has lost the beauty of her youth – although she modestly questions whether she ever possessed it – and has turned into the grey, old woman that Rossetti created in The Convent Threshold. This is not meant as a physical ageing, but a transformation of her life, reborn as a devoutly religious so and so.

Through this rebirth earth has become about subsistence rather than about pleasure and fulfillment. Her overpowering love and emotions described before are for now silenced, presumably only to be reheard when she is up in heaven.

Language and techniques

Again we find ourselves in the position that there is so much to comment on that it is difficult to know where to start. So, I will just dive into some ideas that interested me and try to link them through the poem.

Threesome

Sorry, couldn’t resist.

In this poem Rossetti portrays three types of love: earthly, sacrificial and biblical. She does this to show us how torn she is when making her decision, but it also helps us to question the value of each type of love.

I think this is particularly important to Rossetti. See how pissed off she gets in the eleventh sonnet when she thinks we are going to think less of her for turning her chap down in favour of spending all her time thinking about and praying to God.

Earthly Love

In the opening sonnet we have the idea of pure or earthly love. The emotion is fraught with difficulties, which is shown by her contradictory feelings: ‘Come back to me… Or come not yet’ and ‘the pang of parting comes too soon’. This demonstrates the twin aspects of earthly love: the intensity, desire, longing and passion set alongside the inevitability of its end, disappointment or diminishing passion. She is almost scared of actually embracing this love and prefers just contemplating it, as to realise it is also to realise its end, or their parting.

The twin aspects are also expressed with the moon imagery. Her ‘hope hangs waxing, waning’, which shows that earthly love is at times full, bright and pretty wonderful, but it also shrinks. If you consider the cycle of the moon, then you can consider the cycle of earthly love – for every full moon there is an eclipse… (I know this isn’t true, but it sounded good and I’m sure you get my point).

However, for all these dual positive/negative ideas and imagery, Rossetti reveals its strength too. ‘My world is you’ might be dismissed as romantic hyperbole, but it is an expression that is returned to continually. This earthly love gives Rossetti purpose and becomes what makes her tick. Her lover is described as ‘my heart’s heart’, implying that without him the organ that keeps her alive would stop, and he is ‘more than myself myself’, suggesting that she has only become who she is as a result of him and their relationship – thus she owes herself more to him than to herself.

This is also evident in the sixth sonnet, where Rossetti’s love for God is set apart, but then she raises her lover to the same pedestal as ‘I cannot love you if I love not Him,/I cannot love Him if I love not you’.

Sacrificial Love

On the face of it, one could argue that Rossetti has decided to dump this chap and is trying to make him feel better about himself. However, the way that she explores and explains her decisions gives lie to her true hope that this love can be a part of her for eternity.

In the third sonnet she discusses dreams. ‘In happy dreams I hold you in full’ – this line revisits the idea of earthly love being temporary, in that a dream is the only place where their meeting does not have to be met with a parting. You could argue dreams are even more temporary, but you’d be ignoring the fact that the dream she is talking about is clearly not just one she has in bed at night. Our dreams are the things that guide us in life and the things that we strive to fulfill. Her sacrifice here is made in order for her to achieve her dreams of an everlasting love rather than the double edged sword of temporary earthly love.

By comparing herself to Esthar in the eighth sonnet she directly relates her decision to a necessary sacrifice. Esthar saved her people but risked her own fate – Rossetti hopes that the risk she is taking in rejecting earthly love will be rewarded in the same way, by saving her love and ensuring its eternal survival.

In the following stanza, she makes it clear just how much of a sacrifice this is. Her emotional turmoil is demonstrated by the image of her ‘faithless and hopeless turning to the wall’, ready to ‘lie down and die’. This powerful imagery makes me picture her on earth racked by the pain her decision has caused her as her longing is denied to herself – she wants death to embrace her to save her from this suffering.

We can also comment on her anger in the eleventh stanza being a sign of how powerful a sacrifice she feels she has made. Her love ‘foregoes you but to claim anew/Beyond this passage of the gate of death’, meaning that she feels her love is all the more worthy that she is willing to wait and suffer in order for love to be renewed in heaven.

Biblical Love

At first she starts with subtly hinting at this power with all that dream stuff. However, this is soon presented in a forceful manner as she begins to try to force her lover to repent and follow her path.

In the fifth sonnet, he is recommended to God and it is clear she places her trust in God to ensure his ‘joys [are] many and [his] sorrows few’. However, she soon comes to the crux of her problem – i.e. the magnificence of God and her being unable to overcome her devotion to Him. She ‘would not lose Him’ even though she positions herself as being the ‘feeblest’ or most unworthy of his subjects. This personal diminishment is typically Rossetti, but serves to emphasise the worth of the big man.

In the tenth stanza Rossetti paints the clearest picture of the difference she draws between Biblical love and earthly love. She uses the image of a race between love and mortality. Inevitably ‘Death follow[s] hard on life gains ground apace’ and thus love cannot outrun mortality and must certainly perish. However, Faith enters the race and is in a different league to the other two losers. ‘Faith runs with each and rears an eager face’, which suggests that Faith’s love no longer need to fear Death as Faith will be with them when Death catches them and thus they’ll be able to carry on.

Her analogy continues and she makes it clear that while ‘life wanes’ and eventually earthly love has to ‘fold his wings’, while Faith ‘Outruns the rest’ and thus the faithful are able to continue in bliss forever. There are also some negative connotations with earthly love here, not only with its being overtaken by Death in this race, but also she links it to ‘loss and decay and death’, and thus again gets us thinking about the potential heartbreak that is a necessary evil of realising earthly love. You could also comment on the negative associations at the beginning of the stanza – ‘hope flags, life plies a wearied wing’.

So, she makes a pretty convincing argument that realising love in heaven is better than on earth (as good as earthly love is), based on the old mortality vs eternity argument – of course, she never touches on the uncertainty that the word faith implies, which could make her look very silly!

Finally, comment on the thirteenth stanza, where Rossetti tells us that she is placing her trust in her lover’s happiness in God. She feels that her devotion to Him and his power mean that she would ‘rather trust [his happiness] in God’s hand’. We also have some imagery that demonstrates the magnitude of heaven’s power and gives us more incentive to follow her decision in renouncing earthly love in favour of this more significant love.

Girl Power

I find it interesting that this poem stops to contemplate the meaning of love at so many different points. Not only do we have the three different types of the emotion explored, but we have Rossetti directly questioning whose love was more worthy and worrying about others perception of love.

This happens in sonnets that abandon the Petrarchan rhyme scheme (see below for further information) and these sonnets stand out to me as being a feminine perspective of love.

In the fourth sonnet she paints her lover’s emotion as a bird ‘outsoaring’ her love and singing a ‘loftier song’ than hers. However, his love seems to ‘wax’ and therefore presumably wan, therefore showing an inconsistency and a more romantic/passionate tendencies rather than being long lasting and consistent. Her love is ‘the friendly cooings of my dove’, which might not sound particularly romantic, but it was ‘long’. Is Rossetti here contrasting ideas of masculine love that seem to focus on romance and passion with a more feminine perspective that is based on companionship and longevity? I think so, and I think it is beautifully expressed.

Later in  the same sonnet she makes it clear that both types of love are as worthy and love is something to be considered for its reciprocal parts, rather than one’s feelings in isolation. However, the reason she chooses heaven seems to be based on her idea of maintaining that longevity.

Probably my favourite sonnet, the eleventh, shows her anger about perceptions of love. The rhetorical question, ‘while of me what will they say?’, shows that she fears her feelings being judged less favourably for not being based on high passion, but on this idea of commitment and companionship. She distances her feelings from those of ‘idle women’ who are controlled by ‘fashion’ and thus their emotions change with time. This again expresses this contrasting way of loving between men and women (well, her or her type of woman), and contrasts commitment and romance.

Structure

One of the main things to focus on here is the overarching structure of this poem. As a sonnet of sonnets (the poem comprises 14 sonnets, sonnets comprise 14 lines) Rossetti is trying to make a point about her affections.

Consider the structure in relation to what she is saying in the eleventh sonnet. She is worried that the strength of her love will be diminished by the fact she has made the decision to give it up in order to devote herself to God. She argues that her love is all the more powerful and worthy of being remembered for her decision, as it is made with the hope that her feelings can be made eternal at some point in heaven. By composing this sonnet of sonnets, she is effectively saying ‘looking how bloody amazing my love is’. It is worthy of more than just one lousy sonnet.

You should also comment on the variance in structure between the sonnets. Although all the sonnets use iambic pentameter, some follow a Petrarchan rhyme scheme (ABBAABBA in the sonnet’s octave, the sestet is a bit more flexible – and yes, this is the same guy – this rhyme scheme is not just his, but was one commonly used in his era), while others don’t seem to have any regular rhyming pattern. To be specific, sonnets 4, 7, 11 and 14 do not follow the Petrarchan pattern. Why?

Well, I reckon it has something to do with the title. If Rossetti wants us to think about the feminine perspective of love, then what better way to show us the differences between what men and women are thinking than by diverting from the regular male developed rhyme scheme of Petrarch. The differences we see in these stanza include her consideration of which love is more powerful, the up and down romantic love of her chap or her long term devotion (sonnet 4); her wish for the foundations of love to be built on faith rather than through earthly fulfillment (sonnet 7); her worry that his love will be deemed the more worthy or true (sonnet 11); and finally the rejection of earthly love for the dream of eternal salvation.

Thus the flaws in the rhyme scheme are enabling us to see things from her perspective that we wouldn’t have seen in the portrait of women in male poetry.

Tone

As always with Rossetti, particularly in her longer poems, we have a bit of a mix of emotions going on. She begins with longing, but travels through heartbreak, desire, anger and almost everything else.

Author: Mr Sir

Although I've only been teaching Literature since 2011 and did my degree in History, I think that makes me better placed than many Lit teachers to provide notes that make sense and aren't garbled and wrapped up with inaccessible terminology and effluent nonsense. After adventures in Uganda and Uzbekistan, I am now settling down in the Netherlands. However, currently I am just about as unsettled as I have ever been, with a new job, a new baby, a new country and a hundred other things going on! Ask me a question, collaborate or abuse me.

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