Rewriting a Narrative: Christina Rossetti and the Female Poetic Voice

Traditionally, the sonnet is a 14-line poem broken into mainly either the Italian [Petrarchan] or the English [Shakespearean] form to showcase a male poetic voice’s undying love for their female beloved. The male poetic voice, as in the case of Petrarch, Sydney, Wyatt, and Shakespeare, tends to be rather possessive and combat two feelings at the same time, which creates a volta in the sonnet. These male voices take possession over their female beloveds without the women knowing this is the case and are subject to both hatred and yearning within the sonnet form. The women in these poems are immortalized as evil and uncaring creatures as it appears they took no pity on these male writers, although most of these women didn’t know of their admirer’s existence, possibly didn’t exist, and were of the wrong social standing to be considered a possible romantic partner. As this has been the mainstream tradition, it is hard to imagine a female poetic voice that breaks from this narrative. But Christina Rossetti’s sonnet sequence Monna Innominata challenges this as she writes in the introduction: “[h]ad such a lady poken for herself, the portrait left us might have appeared more tender, if less dignified, than any drawn even by a devoted friend” (Rossetti, 489, entry 196). Therefore, in looking at the poems selected, she actively responds to two of the most famous sonneteers—Dante and Petrarch—and does so by using their lines as guides to offer the female perspective they so kindly disregarded and breaks from the linguistic traditions they set forth by making her personal authority known.

The female poetic voice Rossetti creates works in what appears to cyclical thoughts, or as the poetic devices are called: polyptoton [repetition of the same root word] and anaphora [repetition of a word or phrase in the same initial position] (PD, 114-115). In sonnet seven, she writes about the jealously that love may bring and repeats this uncertainty by repeating the same phrase in the first two lines, “‘Love me, for I love you’: and answer me,/‘Love me, for I love you’—so shall we stand;” these lines, which uses anaphora, demonstrates her authority to gain the knowledge the traditional male poetic voice fails to let the female beloved know which she utters later: “We meet so seldom, yet we surely part/so often; there’s a problem for your art!” (493-494, l. 1-2, 10-11). In this meta-sonnet, she points directly at the irony of Petrarch and Laura, his beloved–they rarely ever meet, yet in each of his sonnets, he pains of their departure and separation. Rossetti takes this in stride and gives the female voice an active role by putting the traditional male role in a pickle.

Further, as Rossetti responds to both Dante and Petrarch, I believe her sonnets are split into two seven-line stanzas with the Italian rhyme scheme, rather than the octave-sestet Italian stanza formation, to merge two commentaries into one sonnet. While any of the sonnets could be a great example, I think sonnet four is the best, not only because I’m intimately familiar with it but because it’s clear the break [although I previously disagreed]. The two phrases Rossetti chose for this poem are “A mighty flame follows a tiny spark” [Dante] and “All other things, all though disappear, and love alone remains there with you” [Petrarch] (491). The sonnet begins with contemplation the level of love each has, whether it was rightly perceived or not, to a discussion that love exists equally between the two. While this is a short synopsis, I fell an argument can be made that the first seven lines that tell about the over-heightened sense of love from her lover is in response to Dante. She is the tiny flame, the speaker, while the mighty flame is shown in her poem as the male beloved; an accurate reading of Dante, however, the second half of the poem contrasts with Petrarch’s line. She tells how their love is actually equal between the two—something Petrarch doesn’t say this; instead, he tells that the love stays with his beloved.

One thought on “Rewriting a Narrative: Christina Rossetti and the Female Poetic Voice”

  1. The context you provide on the male sonnet tradition is really helpful in the opening to this post. I am intrigued by your close readings but get a bit lost. For example you highlight anaphora very clearly in sonnet seven, but I don’t really understand what the effect of it is without additional context. I love how you break down sonnet four into Petrarch and Dante sides and clearly connect them back to their origin. I wonder if there is an additional move going on here where Rossetti is pitting two male voices against each other? In that case is Rossetti sacrificing the female voice or strengthening it with a rhetorical strategy?

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