True Love: Self-Sacrifice and Romantic Relationships in Christina Rossetti’s “Monna Innominata”

Christina Rossetti’s sonnet sequence, “Monna Innominata,” explores the female poetic voice and shares one woman’s experience as she falls in, and then eventually out, of love. In the short introduction that is included before the first poem in Rossetti’s sonnet sequence, she writes: “One can imagine many a lady as sharing her lover’s poetic aptitude, while the barrier between them might be one held sacred by both, yet not such as to render mutual love incompatible with mutual honor” (p. 489). While Rossetti still adheres to the idea of a distinct gender binary that separates men from women, she does suggest that those things that she believes make men and women different should not actually be the thing that divides them. Rather, she believes that just because men and women might be considered different, it is their inherent differences that work to promote the notion of mutual love being tied together with mutual honor. Rossetti most clearly discusses this idea of a couple combining their strengths to promote the overall well-being of the other in her twelfth poem in the sequence. It is through the constant pairing of “yours” and “mine,” as well as the female speaker’s self-sacrificing tone and tendencies that Rossetti attempts to explain what it truly means to love someone. She also forces her readers to wonder about the importance of their own autonomy in relation to their partnership with their beloved. 

There are several moments throughout the poem where the speaker talks about how she and her beloved are of one soul. She says: “But since the heart is yours that was mine own,/ Your pleasure is my pleasure, right my right,/ Your honourable freedom makes me free” (l. 11-13). The speaker and her beloved cannot be separated from one another; they form a solid unit that works in harmony with one another. The couple’s transcendent connection allows them to physically feel one another’s pain and “pleasure,” and it is only through their mutual satisfaction and happiness that the other can be satisfied. The speaker goes so far as to claim that she would understand if her beloved ever decided to leave her if she could no longer bring him joy. She states: “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” (l. 1-4). The speaker lowers herself to raise her partner up, sacrificing herself for her beloved’s happiness. However, what is so intriguing about Rossetti’s sonnet is the fact that her female speaker does not see this act of self-sacrifice as the key that unlocks her own pain and suffering. Rather, she believes that she will be happy knowing that her beloved is happy, even if it is with another woman. Thus, she suggests to her readers that love is only real when one is willing to do all that they can to put the needs of their beloveds before their own.  

Rossetti’s speaker ends the poem with a single sentence that is all at once poignant, painful, and hopelessly romantic. She directly addresses her beloved, stating: “And you companioned I am not alone” (l. 14). The fact that this final sentence now stands on its own, much like the speaker would be if she allows her beloved to be with another woman, symbolizes what her future will hold. She will be forced to stand on her own, and yet she is accepting of this, as long as she knows that the man she loves is not alone. Thus, Rossetti, through the female poetic voice that she has created, suggests that two people only ever truly love each other if they are willing to put the interests of their partners before their own. While Rossetti believes in a clear separation between the genders, she does not believe that their differences should inhibit a man and a woman from encouraging each other to have the freedom to seek their own happiness, in whatever form that might take.  

All’s Not Fair In Love and War

The female speaker in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet, “I,” equates Love to Death. The speaker alludes to both the figurative and literal deaths that can occur when a woman enters the institution of marriage. The critique that the speaker offers is twofold. First, when a woman is married, her name is removed from all legal records, effectively allowing her husband’s identity to subsume hers. The subsuming of a woman’s identity on the day of her marriage came as a direct result of the coverture laws that were in place in England during the nineteenth century; this is the figurative death that the speaker alludes to in the poem. The literal death that the speaker points to stems from domestic violence. Husbands, under the laws of coverture, had the right to do whatever they saw fit to their wives to “keep them in line” because they were legally their property. Violence of all kinds was tolerated because men were deemed the ultimate figures of authority, and women were meant to be subordinate to them. The speaker shares her fears regarding falling in love through the use of violent diction, enjambment, and halting syntax. She recognizes that Death inevitably follows Love (whether it be figurative or literal death) and she struggles with what to do with this knowledge. Should she allow herself to fall in love with a man or should she go to great lengths to avoid any man who could potentially capture her interest, so she is able to remain an autonomous individual? The speaker points out this dilemma that she faces and shows how these patriarchal laws and hierarchies are doing nothing but exploiting and oppressing women.  

The speaker begins the sonnet by reminiscing on the past, stating: “I thought once . . . Of the sweet years, the dear and wished-for years” (l. 1-2). The speaker remembers a time before she had to make a choice between her desire for autonomy and her desire for a rich and fulfilling love. She remembers the time “in her own life” when she did not “weep” or have to look at the world through her veil of “tears” (l. 6-10). The constraints that coverture laws threaten the speaker with cause her to feel a great deal of anxiety at the prospect of love and marriage. She realizes that she can either detach herself from the man that she is falling in love with, or she can lose herself and the few rights that she does have as a single woman. The speaker claims that she sees “A shadow across [her]. Straightaway [she is] ’ware” (l. 9). The significance of this moment—the speaker’s instantaneous understanding of what will happen to her if she marries—is depicted through the enjambment that Barrett Browning uses. The clear pause that the period offers symbolizes the finality and resignation that the speaker feels. The use of the word “straightaway” to describe her awareness of the situation shows her immediate sense of wariness and mistrust. The shadow—or Death, as she believes it to be—trails after her as she contemplates what to do about her feelings of affection.  

The speaker explains that immediately after its presence is made known, Death “[draws her] back by the hair” and tries to take “mastery” over her (l. 11-12). The language that the speaker uses evokes violent images in the minds of readers. Death is not peaceful or gentle; it is forceful and cruel, pulling on the speaker’s hair and wanting to dominate her. The speaker, along with the readers, are shocked when the shadow tells her that it is not Death that is treating her in such an inhumane way, but Love. The implications of this proclamation are crucial to understanding the speaker’s anxieties; Love has the power to be just as harmful and unforgiving as Death is, especially in its actions towards women. Love is not always patient and kind—it’s sometimes domineering, intimidating, and terrifying. The speaker articulates this most clearly when she says that Love wishes to “master” her, much like a husband might wish to exert his control over his wife and force her into a subservient role. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, through the voice of her speaker, suggests that until women have the legal ability to be both wives and autonomous individuals, it is not safe for them to be married, as there is no way for them to be legally protected from their husbands if they were ever to find themselves in an unhealthy or abusive relationship. As a result of this, the speaker feels a great deal of trepidation at the prospect of falling in love. 

Save a Steed, Ride a Knight

John Keats’s ballad, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” draws upon inspiration from Medieval romances and refashions the ideas that many medieval poets provided by including ideology that appealed to British citizens in the early nineteenth-century. I argue that Keats’s depiction of the beautiful faery lady is meant to represent foreigners, or those that are believed to be “Other,” and who are not described as being real English citizens. Through the use of sexual innuendos, the refrain of the opening stanza in the final stanza of the poem, and the musical quality of the ballad, the knight in Keats’s poem points out the problems that can arise when a man falls for the seductive charms of a beautiful, foreign woman. Thus, Keats, through the voice of the knight, suggests that the coupling of good Englishmen with foreign women is unacceptable, as it will taint the pure British bloodlines that the aristocracy has done their best to maintain. As a result, xenophobic ideology is expressed in Keats’s work.

The love affair between the knight and the faery lady is most clearly implied when the knight says: “She looked at me as she did love,/ And made sweet moan./ I set her on my pacing steed,/ And nothing else saw all day long” (l. 19-22). While the knight could be talking about placing her on his horse, I argue that the knight is actually using the term “steed” as a euphemism for his penis. The lines that surround the word “steed” support this notion, as the knight claims that his beloved “looked at [him] as she did love.” The love that the knight is referring to is not just the feeling, but rather the act of love-making, or sex, itself. The knight also claims that his beloved released a “sweet moan,” which would suggest that she was actively participating and finding some enjoyment in their sexually illicit affair. Their affair continued “all day long” and the knight became captivated by her “faery song” (l. 24). The poem mirrors the beautiful lady’s faery song, as it is a ballad, and thus has a musical quality to it. The rhyme scheme, which follows an ABCB rhyme, is catchy and rolls off the tongue, as it has the repeated B-line rhyme. The repetition of this line allows the poem to become stuck in the minds of readers, much like how the faery lady has become stuck in the mind of the knight.

The knight tells the speaker that he became enthralled by the beautiful faery lady, and at the end of their day together, the knight states: “And sure in language strange she said—/ ‘I love thee true’” (l. 27-28). Special attention should be paid to the knight’s choice of using the words “language strange” to describe the way that his beloved spoke to him. The knight points out his beloved’s “Otherness” to the readers when he calls her language strange, as he implies that she is speaking something other than English. He also describes her home as being an “Elfin grot” and claims that they met each other “in the meads,” which indicates that they are in a place that is totally dominated by nature and has remained untouched by the modern world (l. 13-29). Therefore, one can conclude that the woman in this poem is not an Englishwoman, but rather someone who comes from a different country and culture, and is thus unworthy of being with an Englishman.

The knight’s participation in a love affair with the faery lady turns out to be utterly disastrous for him, as he is filled “With anguish moist and fever-dew,/ . . . “And [he awakes] and [finds himself] here,/ On the cold hill’s side” completely alone (l. 10-44). The love that the faery lady claimed to share with the knight is made false and unviable. She is thus depicted as nothing more than a wicked seductress whose only aim was to harm him. Finally, the knight finishes his woeful tale by telling the speaker: “And this is why I sojourn here,/ Alone and palely loitering,/ Though the sedge is withered from the lake,/ And no birds sing” (l. 45-48). The use of this refrain is significant, as it draws a connection between the question that the speaker poses at the beginning of the poem and the warning that the knight is trying to share with him about the untrustworthiness of foreign individuals. The implication of the sickly knight’s description of a barren landscape with a “withered sedge” and “no birdsong” is this: the coupling between an Englishman and a foreign woman should not be encouraged or desired, as their union will not result in a fruitful marriage. An heir is not produced and the Englishman is left alone and miserable, without anyone to carry on his name or title. Keats’s Romantic poem acts as a great segue into Victorian poetry, as the Victorians cared deeply about Empire building and ensuring the continuation of pure British bloodlines.

Humble Beginnings and Endless Possibilities

In William Blake’s poem, “Infant Sorrow,” the speaker describes the memories that he has of a time when he was a small child and fought against the restraints of his parents. While this seems like a fairly innocuous poem, I argue that it actually serves a far more complicated purpose. The speaker works to draw a comparison between the actions of a small babe and the Romantic poets of the eighteenth-century, and he does so in this way: The Romantics, much like the baby in the story, are fighting against the imposed rules and structures of the older generations of society and working to create a new world in which different and revolutionary ideas can be explored. The musical quality of the poem, which is reflected in its rhyme scheme, allows the words of the poem to truly pervade the minds of readers and the frustrated language that the speaker uses stresses the importance of the ideas that he wishes to share and his feelings of disgruntlement when he is not being properly understood. 

Blake’s lyric poem follows an AABB rhyme scheme, which offers a sing-song-like quality to the work, making it accessible to both adults and children. It is almost reminiscent of a nursery rhyme, which is befitting a story that is all about the struggles of a small child. The speaker states: “Into the dangerous world I leapt —/ Helpless, naked, piping loud” (l. 2-3). A baby, of course, would come into the world this way. While the Romantic poets would enter into society in much less dramatic fashions, the same level of vulnerability is shared between both a newborn baby and the Romantics. The ideas that the Romantics were sharing—such as those that promoted a deeper connection with nature and forced individuals to reassess the ways in which they interacted with the world around them—were revolutionary, and thus, controversial. The world is “dangerous” for the Romantics who wish to go against the status quo. The commas that are used in line three represent the frustrations that the Romantics felt towards those who misunderstood their ideas and refused to acknowledge what they were trying to say. They also mimic the gasping cry of a baby, as the breaks in the line offer a sense of choppiness to the words and add a sense of urgency to the poem. The speaker shares his struggles as an infant, admitting to “struggling in [his] father’s hands,/ Striving against [his] swadling bands” (l. 5-6). The speaker’s father is an oppressing force, and if this is read in a larger, metaphorical context, the argument could be made that the Romantics are fighting against many of the patriarchal social structures that English society was firmly built upon. The speaker’s rhyming of the words “bands” and “hands” also adds to the emphasis that he places upon the oppressive nature of those that are older than him. The speaker states that he is “bound and weary” from the fight that he is putting up against his father, much like how the Romantics grew tired of old ways and wished to refashion the ideas of the past.  

Blake’s speaker offers an alternative view to that of Wordsworth’s, in the fact that Blake’s speaker seems to hold the young in high regard, as there are endless possibilities for a child that has yet to be corrupted by the prejudices and beliefs of older generations. Wordsworth, on the other hand, states in “Old Man Travelling” that he believes the old should be “envied” because they have been able to acquire “perfect peace” with their aging. While the poets value different things, they emphasize a similar idea: it is necessary to work towards eliciting change, no matter who you are.  

A Revolutionary Age

In Wordsworth’s poem, “Old Man Travelling,” the speaker introduces a novel idea that is revolutionary in nature: Growing older is not something to be ashamed of, but rather it is something that should be accepted, even envied. The reason for this acceptance stems from the notion that one can achieve perfect peace with age, as well as gain wisdom and patience. The poem itself is contemplative by design, as it is written in iambic pentameter. The meter of the poem reflects the actions of the old man, as he is actively walking, and the rhythm of the poem is very flowing and leisurely, much like how it feels if one is taking a stroll. The speaker states: “[The old man] travels on, and in his face, his step, / His gait, is one expression” (l. 3-4). The expression that the old man wears is significant, as it speaks to the type of emotion that he is feeling. He feels a perfect peace that does not allow for pain to venture into his body or mind (l. 13). The speaker claims that this feeling of peace is “by Nature led” (1. 12). The speaker could mean this literally, that the nature that the man is surrounded by on his walk allows him to feel a sort of peace that would otherwise be unavailable to him. However, the speaker could also mean that through the natural cycle of the man’s life, he is able to gain a greater sense of peace after living through a number of experiences that shaped his development. While I think that an argument can be made for both interpretations, I am inclined to agree with the latter, as it is through his natural growth and personal evolution that he is able to receive comfort and satisfaction.

The speaker continues to describe the old man’s countenance. He says: “Every limb, / His look and bending figure, all bespeak / A man who does not move with pain, but moves / With thought. He is insensibly subdued” (l. 4-7). The old man does not feel pain. Instead, every action and step he takes is done “with thought” and intentionality. The old man is not in a hurry. He is contemplative and reflective, and “all effort seems forgotten” (l. 9). The old man is alone on a journey. He is free to experiment with his thoughts and relishes the quiet. The poem emphasizes this concept of slowing down and eventually taking intentional stops, as the syntax that is used in multiple lines lend themselves to this understanding. For instance, in lines four through seven, there are a number of times when the speaker uses commas to explicitly show when the man takes a moment to pause and redirect his thoughts. The enjambment that is included in lines six and seven, where the speaker states: “A man who does not move with pain, but moves / With thought. He is insensibility subdued,” marks the point in the old man’s journey when he finishes his thought and comes to an internalized conclusion.

The speaker ends the poem by claiming that “the young behold / With envy [the peace] the old man hardly feels” (l. 13-14). The desire of the young people to achieve what the old man has, and more, is representative of the feelings that the Romantics had regarding older poets. There was a desire to learn from the traditions of the past and then refashion them to create a new world order that valued new discoveries and experimentation. Thus, the Romantics understood that with age came the ability to revolutionize and reinvent the ways in which people thought in eighteenth and nineteenth-century England.