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”.

Grim Similarities

Letitia Elizabeth Landon’s poem “The Factory” describes the state of childhood in England amidst the mounting issue of child labor, in direct address to the country in accusatory stance towards their lack of sympathetic legislature. The use of second person “yon” in the first line of the poem, “There rests a shade above yon town” (1) immediately alerts the reader that the speaker is addressing someone specific, other than the general reader. At the end of the poem, Landon closes with the address, “Oh England, though thy tribute waves/Proclaim thee great and free, /While those small children pine like slaves/There is a curse on thee!” (89-92). Her invocation of “England” itself makes it clear that the entire poem is an accusatory address towards the faulty party, whose inaction directly results in childhood death–a theme continuous throughout the poem. Landon invokes the biblical character Moloch as well, “We read of Moloch’s sacrifice, /We sicken at the name, /And seem to hear the infant cries– /And yet we do the same!” (21-24). Moloch is associated with human sacrifice; thus, this allusion demonstrates Landon’s belief that England is sacrificing children to the labor force for the sake of economic productivity. She also highlights their hypocrisy within religion, as they are acting in what the Bible has already represented, and what they have acknowledged, as a sinful manner.

As I was clicking through stories on my Instagram since Monday of this week, I was unfortunately met with current uses of Landon’s rhetoric, but this time, speaking against gun violence and school shootings in the US. There are many eerily similarities that can be drawn between elements of the “The Factory” and posts that are circulating on social media to promote sympathy and action towards stricter gun laws. Generally speaking, the access and popularity of written circulations during the Victorian era is comparable to that of information diffused through social media in present day. Essentially everyone in the general public sees and reacts to this messaging, although it may not actually reach or affect the most powerful audience: the lawmakers. I’ve attached a cartoon that I think aligns well with the elements of “The Factory”. Within the caption “They just loved their guns more, that’s all”, I perceive “they” to reference American lawmakers and those who prioritize their gun rights in the US, suggesting a similar sacrifice of children-for-national-values that Landon alludes to in her work. Childhood death and popular religion are present in the cartoon as well, as the children are being addressed by “God” at what appears to be the gates of Heaven. The cartoon God’s dissociation from the choices of the US in his address to the children demonstrates an argument similar to that of Landon, a divergence from religion which supposedly guides many lawmakers in the country.

Although centuries apart, both “The Factory” and this Instagram political cartoon generate sympathy for children who are losing their lives–whether to labor or to violence, assert religious contradictions, and effectively reach a wide audience through their platform, in hopes of instigating social movement. I can only hope that child mortality due to gun violence becomes a vestige of the past for future consumers of such media, just as child labor in the Victorian era has for us as readers of “The Factory”.

Ozymandias: Ozy-man-dies

Upon initially reading “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley, the poem seems to be a typical Romantic work containing the figure of the traveler and dealing with themes of foreign adventure, the passage of time, and the struggle of man versus nature. However, the sonnet form supports more of a double meaning. The poetic voice is retelling a story told to them by a “…traveller from an antique land” (Shelley 1), immediately contextualizing the poem as more of a “tale” than a direct report. The romantic obsession with the past and the exotic is present in this line. The poem goes on to describe a decrepit statue which has been broken down and lost to the passage of time, despite what appears to be an assertion of the statue’s sake’s strength, “And on the pedestal, these words appear:/My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;/Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! /Nothing beside remains” (Shelley 9-12). This moment perfectly encapsulates the double meaning present in Shelley’s sonnet.

The strict contrast between the declaration “Look on my Works ye Mighty, and despair” and its immediate successor “Nothing beside remains” alludes to multiple intentions behind Shelley’s poem, which is not only concerned with an ancient civilization but an ancient regime. As “Ozymandias” was written during a period of political upheaval, and Ozymandias himself is said to be a “King of Kings” (Shelley 10), Shelley is likely writing with the current monarchies in mind, whether the fallen French or the persisting English. In my initial reading of lines 11-12, I saw irony in the contrast between the declaration of great “Works” and complete barrenness of the desert. In this reading, Shelley demonstrates the lack of self-awareness felt by the English monarchy in their inevitable obsolescence. However, my alternate reading of lines 11-12 perceived a self-awareness from Ozymandias himself, he is warning that the absence of his “Works” around his statue is the reason for despair from the “Mighty” he is speaking to. They too will be lost to the passage of time. According to the Longman Anthology reading, “With ever fresh fears of invasion, the [British] government clamped down on any form of political expression that hinted at French ideas” (Damrosch 17). With this historical context in mind, Shelley is affirming that the tightening of British law and increase of oppression is due to their fear of the failure of the French regime–just as Ozymandias’ fell. Or, to revisit my former reading of lines 11-12, Shelley could be suggesting that no matter what the British do to clutch to their power, they will inevitably lose it and become Ozymandias.

Story of Yearsley, Death of Luco

Ann Yearsley’s poem, “Death of Luco” from On the Inhumanity of the Slave Trade is unique within the collection of abolition-focused poems we read for class in that it focuses on a specific character’s story within a larger context rather than the overall context itself. The entirety of the poem details a conflict between Luco and his master or overseer “Gorgon, remorseless Christian” (l.253) on an unknown plantation which ends in Luco’s violent death. I found this approach to dealing with the topic of British slavery interesting, as it was a departure from the broader condemnations of the practice as a whole from poets such as Cowper and More. However, Fiona Stafford’s chapter “Common Causes: The Abolition” offers insight into Yearsley’s own background, and how it contributes to her achievements as a poet. According to Stafford, “…she had been presented to the public as the remarkable ‘Milkwoman of Bristol’, discovered by Hannah More in a lowly cowshed” and “Universal equality was especially appealing to a poet whose own poverty had been publicly displayed” (Stafford 71). Stafford argues that Yearsley’s personal “story” is an important contextual feature that undergirds all her poetry. She “had to overcome the double difficulties of gender and class in order to have her opinions taken seriously, poetry offered a public platform which would have otherwise been unattainable” (70-71). Thus, when viewing Yearsley’s work through Stafford, it is impossible to separate the poet’s work from the poet’s story. Yearsley becomes almost character-like herself, due to the adversity she publicly overcame before becoming successful. Yearsley perhaps shows an awareness for the importance of poetry in providing a platform for individuals rather than issues in “Death of Luco”. The brief final stanza of the poem takes a more general questioning approach, “Gracious God! /Why thus in mercy let thy whirlwinds sleep/O’er a vile race of Christians…” (l.291-294), but this functions more to summarize the devastation of the poem and the focus is still primarily Luco’s story. Yearsley’s choice denotes an awareness of the likeliness of public empathy to be directed more towards individuals, like her own “despite-the-odds” appreciation. Stafford’s insight into Yearsley’s experience as a poet with a unique backstory demonstrates the inspiration for her anti-slavery sentiments to be grounded within a single character’s story.

Grove Thoughts

In Wordsworth’s “Lines Written in Early Spring”, he utilizes a consistent ABAB rhyme scheme in each of the six quatrains. This consistent and repetitive rhyme allows the reader to move easily through the poem, the true intention being for Wordsworth to elucidate his thoughts as inspired by his setting. The conclusion he reaches, represented through repetition and contrasts, is that nature is so wonderful it saddens him in remembrance of man’s contrasting faults due to his divergence from the cadence of nature. Wordsworth repeats the word “thoughts” four times over the course of the poem, and the verb form “think” is twice repeated. Thus, Wordsworth continually foregrounds the importance of his thoughts in the context he is describing; they are the true object of the work. In the first stanza, he immediately introduces the primary conflict, “While in a grove I sat reclined, /In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts/Bring sad thoughts to the mind” (l.3-4). It is already evident that the setting (pleasing nature) is instigating less pleasing personal thoughts within the speaker’s mind. Additionally, the first stanza is the only in which contrasting words like “pleasant” and “sad” are seen together, clearly presenting the conflict right away. Throughout the rest of the poem, positively connotated words are seen in each stanza that describes a specific nature scene, Wordsworth uses “Enjoys” while describing flowers in stanza 3, “pleasure” both when describing birds in stanza 4 and “budding twigs” in stanza 5. In strict contrast, the stanzas without specific nature imagery contain a repeated ponderance conjoined with negative phrases. At the end of stanza two, Wordsworth writes, “And much it grieved my heart to think/What man has made of man” (l.7-8). At the very end of the poem, he closes with similar lines, “Have I not reason to lament/What man has made of man?” (l.23-24). Thus, when nature is no longer the focal point of his experience, when retreating inside his mind, this is when the negative thoughts crop up within Wordsworth. His enjoyment of the scene before him pushes him to ponder his own role in the setting–that of man. He deliberately separates his descriptions and surface-level reaction to the different elements of the setting and his deeper thoughts into different stanzas, inserting the simplistic natural stanzas between the iterations of his question about the nature of mankind. Wordsworth thus makes the origin of his thoughts–a lament for the departure of man from the order of the natural world–clear while also maintaining a distance between his outer and inner mental workings.