The Muse Strikes Back

Sonnet 4 from Christina Rossetti’s “Monna Innominata” begins with the speaker acknowledging her belief that her lover has outpaced her in demonstrating his love, but then shifts in the turn to asserting that both should love equally and not delineate themselves as individuals in the relationship. The rhyme scheme of the sonnet is ABABBCCB DEADAE which suggests that the sonnet is Italian, with an octave and a sestet. However, the conceptual shift occurs one line earlier, creating an even split of seven lines in each section. Notably, Rossetti continually juxtaposes first person versus second person pronouns throughout the first seven lines, demonstrating what the speaker sees as an unequal dynamic in the relationship. Then, in the eighth line, “Nay, weights and measures do us both a wrong” (8), Rossetti uses the first-person plural “us” to denote that the speaker feels it is important to move past comparing the individual efforts within the relationship because it is not productive. The second half of the poem works on breaking down the “…separate ‘I’ and ‘thou’” (10) that the speaker had set up in the previous half. The yearned-for equality of the relationship is apparent with five more uses of the word “both” after line 8.

Examining this sonnet in conjunction with Mary Wollstonecraft’s “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” provides an explanation for why the sonnet would start with a pragmatic assessment of the inequality within a relationship but then just seem to give up. According to Wollstonecraft, “…genteel women are, literally speaking, slaves to their bodies, and glory in their subjection” (Wollstonecraft 197). It is likely that Rossetti, or the speaker of this poem is feeling this subjection as well, perhaps in the role of “muse” to the unknown beloved. Wollstonecraft argues that women fulfill their objectified roles in society because that’s all they are taught to do, and perhaps this sonnet represents the beginning of an objection to this status quo from the muse. She is frustrated that her love for her lover is being overshadowed by his performance of his love–perhaps through poetry, “I loved you first: but afterwards your love/Outsoaring mine, sang such a loftier song” (1-2). She is aware that as a muse, she is perceived simply as what most inspires her lover, “…you construed me/And loved me for what might or might not be” (6-7). These assertions are followed by the turn which only speaks of equality in the relationship, representing a sort of backing-down. The speaker is trying to rebel in her role as muse but seems to come to the realization that as a woman, this is the only role afforded her. It would be easier to just accept it and enact agency through her perception of possible equality, and maybe even glory in her subjection: at least she’s “loved”.

3 thoughts on “The Muse Strikes Back”

  1. I love how you connected “A Vindication on the Rights of Women” to Christina Rossetti, because I think its message is applicable to most of Rossetti’s poems. The question of equality in relationships, which you mention, is a theme that occurs frequently throughout Rossetti’s poems. I think the poem “In an Artist’s Studio” is another perfect example of this. The muse within this poem is found “hidden just behind” the canvases that bear her likeness; not only that, the artist that paints her “feeds upon her face.” This poem stays consistent with Sonnet 4’s themes by illustrating the inequality and exploitation that often occur in artist-muse relationships.

  2. I would actually love to hear your thoughts on the blog post right above yours, “Rewriting a Narrative: Christina Rossetti and the Female Poetic Voice.” You argue that Rossetti settles in the role of muse because it is what is permitted for her gender, but this blog post discusses the fact that Rossetti being the narrator of such a work as “Monna Innominata” is already stepping out of the confines set for women. I can see both sides. On one hand, Rossetti is defying gender expectations by providing a female perspective of the sonnet where the male poet is rambling about his great love. On the other hand, as you say, she backs down within her unequal relationship, knowing as a woman, sometimes it’s best to just be grateful you’re even receiving love.

  3. This is so interesting ! I love this concept that she is able to take back control in the only way she is able to as a woman. By writing about surrendering to the role of a woman, she is in a way also taking agency by being aware that this role is in place and speaking on it, which is also breaking the role, because women are expected to sit and just obey limitations and rules set against them.

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