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.

The Odds Aren’t Ever In Their Favor–Children and the Gov’t

“May the odds be ever in your favor.” But what are the odds? Life? Death? Rather, those selected in the draw aren’t your children, letting them live another day. This is the premise of Susanne Collins’ 2008 dystopian novel, and later film adaption, The Hunger Games, a work that follows teenager Katniss Everdeen and her coming-of-age story while fighting for her life in the Capital’s games, which exist only to prove the power of their institution over the rest of Panem after an uprising. Besides having gone through a Hunger Games phase ten years ago (sorry, Twilight), I feel that this series could have an interesting relation to one of the poems we read in class, specifically Caroline Norton’s A Voice from the Factories. Norton’s piece focuses on the pain and terror associated with selecting a child to “labour life away…to the receptable for dreary woe,/The Factory Mill” (l. 343, 346-347). While the children in Collins’ novel aren’t working their lives away in a factory, these two pieces of literature have similar concerns and comments on the role children played in the government and production industries by mere selection and the death of their innocence.

I think it’s important that these two works are in conversation because, although they cover fundamentally different concepts, the role of children and the destruction of their innocence by government policies is shared between the two women. These children in each literary work have little to zero autonomy in their life due to government institutions and cultural ideals. In The Hunger Games, the children are subject to being reaped for the Hunger Games. This government-sanctioned killing spree pools from children to show the Capital’s power over its subjects and safeguard the future from another uprising against the government’s power. All but one child dies, and the lone victor walks away with riches for their home district, however, these victors are then pawns of the Capital. They are servants who maintain the nationally recognized narrative that the Capital is a generous being, not a villain; subsequently, these victors are never free from their past and the violence they committed for the government.

Similarly, the children in A Voice from the Factories detail the lack of control these children have in their selection to work in the factories to benefit the production industry. Having small hands and bodies, these children are commodities in factories; they can fit into crevasses that men cannot, for one, leading them to be more susceptible to injury and death. However, Norton doesn’t take this route immediately, she instead details each child’s personality and appearance to the reader, then asks them to choose which should go, labour, and suffer, which matches Collins’ process in her novel. These children described are like those in the reaping—the decision as to whom will be working in the factory is something the parent has to make, instead of a government agent. But just like those kids that are reaped and are subject to the Capital in The Hunger Games, they exist and serve at the beck and call of the “Taskmaster’s commands” within the factory (l. 414).

In both works of literature, the role of government institutions heavily plays in children’s lives to promote the advancements of the government by virtually taking the innocent lives of children. Collins and Norton prioritize the lives of children by demonstrating the ease at which they can be disposed of within the governmental system chosen, whether in the Victorian era or in Panem in the near future.


Apparently literary history doesn’t repeat itself

Sonnets open the tiny rose-coloured window to show the greyer world waiting just beyond. In essence, a sonnet’s utility expertly strikes upon the heart as it shows both grief/loss and love/passion intermingling and meshing into one amalgamation quite smoothly, however, it’s also evident that the sheer power of the sonnet isn’t felt in every one person, as William Wordsworth notes in his sonnet circa 1802 Scorn not the Sonnet. Producing and viewing through a literary lens his argumentative sonnet uses the Italian sonnet form with a rhyming couplet to express how the sonnet, through many great literary geniuses, should stand to be relevant. Still, as the last three words tell us, these great men could not make the sonnet impressive enough for critics’ sake.

The sonnet itself mentions seven male poets/epic writers: Shakespeare; Petrarch; Tasso; Camӧens; Dante; Spenser; Milton—all of whom had used the sonnet form, whether English or Italian, to express a profound emotion in simply 14 lines. It’s intriguing that Wordsworth decides to name these seven poets in this order, as evident, they do not chronologically occur in this order as it was Petrarch that influenced Wyatt who then decided to write what we now know to be the English sonnet form (sorry, Shakespeare, but it’s true). Either way, in choosing these men to symbolize the sonnet and what the sonnet can evoke from literary passion and emotion, Wordsworth emphasizes how versatile and creative the stagnant form is. None of these named poets utilized the sonnet similarly to produce their idea or theme. For Shakespeare, he used the sonnet to hide his love for his “master mistress” from sonnets one to 126, followed by his irrevocable pining and lamentations for his “dark lady” for the rest of the sonnets. Petrarch wrote about the lovely pain he has for Laura, his unattainable beloved, and used the sonnet to express this duality and then, once she passes, to immortalize her forever with him and in her grand beauty. Vitally, this difference or shift from one style to another is something Wordsworth wishes to be cognizant of rather than dismiss.

Therefore, by beginning the sonnet by addressing a critic for scorning the sonnet for having “frowned mindless of its just honours,” this opening seeks to implore the critic to not criticize the sonnet as one, a genre, and two, as devoid of freedom and expression (l. 1-2). Literary speaking, the sonnet allows for expansion into multiple feelings and resolutions, although it has been categorized as strictly love-related. Most sonnets in the very general sense are thought, as I had once, to be typically written as being in love but that love sparks grief or even the poetic voice is grieving a loss but that loss with be loved anyhow. But, the poets Wordsworth selects branches that out a little bit to combat the critic’s brash and altogether unprecedented scorn. Each poet has done with the sonnet amazing things: “Shakespeare unlocked his heart;” “Camӧens soothed an exile’s grief;” “Spenser, called from Faery-land/to struggle through dark ways;” Milton…blew soul-animating strains” (l. 3,6,10,12-14). All these things through the literary lens had blown the sonnet form, the original critique of the critic, out of the water and used it of their own volition. Even Wordsworth himself in his sonnet changes the form by breaking the first and second lines with punctuation, which defies Shakespeare’s and Petrarch’s usage of the line structure. Yet, despite all of this, Wordsworth understands—or says lamentably—that although these great poets created great works, “alas” it was “too few” (l. 14). These historical literary marvels are lost behind the genre, not to be seen for their impressive use of the form and mode.

The Tyger and the Sublime

A part of the wonderous collections of poetry in William Blake’s The Songs of Innocence and of Experience, the poem within Songs of Experience titled “The Tyger” critiques the malicious and devious nature of man as surely not being created by the like of an abstractly concrete “he” (l. 19-20). This “he” can be assumed to be a religious figure rather than a man walking the Earth, based solely on line 20 of the poem: “[d]id he who made the lamb make thee?”. The “lamb” refers directly back to a poem found in The Songs of Innocence portion of the collection called “The Lamb,” in which Blake writes about the heavenly-made lamb that is a product of God [using “He” as the reference]. These two related and contrary poems comment on the inculcation of sublime ideals within human nature and that human nature is constantly life-changing. Therefore, with a psychological lens applied to these poems, “The Tyger” tears away from that sublime association with fresh experiences and presents humans, as they gain experience and age, as complex creatures that are no longer sublimely connected to the world but enact on their own volition and knowledge.

In essence, the idea of the sublime is, roughly, about experiencing something that is overwhelming beautiful that it changes the person involved on a spiritual basis and is thought to be a good spiritual awakening—in other words, “the echo of the great soul” as the Longman Anthology writes, incidentally, “The Tyger” doesn’t present the human experience as completely sublime but rather haunting. The third stanza of the poem tells about the tyger’s heart and the coldness that is freezing within it: “[a]nd what shoulder, and what art,/Could twist the sinews of thy heart?/and when thy heart began to beat,/What dread hand? And what dread feet?”. (l. 9-12). The heart is empty and cold, as seen by the imagery of the shoulder, which is typically used to rely on in any hard situation, a steady presence in a person’s life. However, given that the speaker questions what shoulder “could twist” the tyger’s heart sinews imply that the sublime relation to human nature has dissolved and had changed the tyger’s thought on human relations. Also, the consistent use of “dread” throughout the poem feels antithetical to the concept of the sublime, and the speaker makes it known that the tyger is a dreadful creature with much life experience outside of the sublime that makes them a terror and wonder to view.

So forth, there’s implicit fear within the speaker that the tyger is what real people are like during the Industrial age, and they, the speaker cannot fathom this change. Blake uses industrial and mechanical imagery when describing the tyger, leading me to this conclusion. In the fourth stanza, the tyger is being asked what and how were they created: “what the hammer? What the chain?/In what furnace was thy brain made?/What the anvil?…” (l. 13-15). These images strictly contrast those of the sublime, which focuses on the picturesque and the beauty found within the world. So instead of being associated with “suitable for painting,” the tyger is the opposite, or the real version, of the sublime context that isn’t intrinsically positively life-altering (Longman anthology, 34; l. 20). This entirely tears apart from the rapid association typically found in describing people or objects as inherently sublime, even sparking the speaker to reflect upon their fear by repeating the opening stanza as the final stanza. They question whether something immortal could have made something terrifying, just as it could create something so beautiful, like the lamb.

Man vs Man: An Analysis of “Lines Written in Early Spring”

William Wordsworth’s 1798 poem entitled Lines Written in Early Spring is a short, 24-line, and six-stanza poem that tells the melancholy associated with the dissatisfaction with and disassociation between human nature and Nature [the personified object]. Indicative of the Romantic period, the dichotomy between the two forces lives in the quatrains that Wordsworth has writ, going back and forth between the narrator’s conflicting realizations within each individual quatrain. For instance, the fifth quatrain complicates the dream that the narrator wants to feel by expressing that he must “do all [they] can” to imagine that there was a pleasure in the simplicity of the “budding twigs” catching the “breezy air” (l. 17-20). The other stanzas and the form of ABAB rhyme conduct a similar feel of the dichotomy of man and nature. The rhyme scheme alternating between each quatrain establishes the bouncing of the narrator’s thoughts between man and nature, yet, it’s clear that the pressure lies within the individual; therefore, Wordsworth presents a covert existential crisis within the narrator regarding what man really, truly, is and wonders if they are turning into one of these men that terrorizes nature [the object] with the exasperation of the Industrial Revolution taking place.

The poem thrives upon the speaker’s inner thoughts and monologue, which both end up creating the dissonance between the unnatural beauty of Nature and the horror that is man within the structure of the poem’s lines. In the second stanza, the speaker explains that they feel this “link” to Nature in their “human soul that through [them] ran” and how it “grieved [their] heart to think/What man has made of man” (l. 5-8). I think it might be an interesting interpretation of this final line—which is repeated as the final phrase of the poem—that its impersonal nature is, potentially, a reflection of himself within the current world. The first “man” in the line refers to those partaking in the Industrial Revolution and those that have come before him literarily. He fears that these men, have taken advantage of the beauty and place Nature has, hence why the “thousand blended notes” heard as the speaker hides within the grove in the first stanza is quite powerful (l. 1-2). It resembles both natural sounds and industrial sounds, which spark his dissent into crisis as he recognizes, as seen in the latter half of the stanza, that it mixes both “pleasant” and “sad” thoughts together of what once was and what is now (l. 3-4). “Man” emulates the fault that man has committed against man, not Nature.

The second “man” might be read commonly as the basic noun, having no concrete connection to the speaker; however, I would propose that the second “man” is indeed personal, it’s just hidden within the rest of the poem until the final reiteration. Like the nature imagery, the personal pronouns “I,” “me,” and “my,” repeat extensively within each stanza, but instead of the positive imagery that the natural elements represent, the personal pronouns are shown in a negative light such as “I cannot measure” and “I must think—do all I can” demonstrate the4 speaker’s internal worry that they are losing their unique bond with Nature (l. 14 and 19). The choice of phrasing the narrator in this manner indicates some level of existential worry that they are slowly becoming more aligned with the industrial/capitalistic side of man, rather than an appreciator. The personal conundrums the speaker presents matches the conundrum they feel when thinking of what had happened to man, to themselves, and lament what could have been had man not devolved unto himself.