Class Blog

Beauty in Death: Tennyson and Howe

Alfred Tennyson’s In Memoriam is a heartbreaking poetic elegy to his beloved friend Arthur Henry Hallam, each verse filled with a painful remembrance and yearning for Arthur to be sitting beside him. However, while the pain of missing someone never quite subsides, we find ways to move on. By the end of In Memoriam, Tennyson comes to a sort of acceptance that his friend is gone, but affirms that the love he has for him will never dissipate; we carry our loved ones in our hearts. The last few cantos of In Memoriam reminded me greatly of Marie Howe’s poem, “What the Living Do”. Tennyson and Howe’s poetry serve to demonstrate an appreciation for life along with an affirmation of love in dark times of grief and mourning.

In canto CVI, Tennyson describes the ringing of bells, presumably ringing out the New Year. At the end of the first stanza Tennyson writes, “Ring out, wild bells, and let him die” (p. 183). The bells ringing out the new year simultaneously symbolize the acceptance of Arthur’s death along with ringing out the painful feelings of grief. As Tennyson calls for the removal of all negative feelings of sin, depression and mourning, he calls for the ringing in of “love of truth and right” along with the “common love of good” (p. 184).

Canto CVI and Howe’s poem both demonstrate a cherishing of life. They are reminders that even in the face of death there are things to be thankful for. As Tennyson calls for the bells to ring in love and peace, he shows the reader that he wants to keep living. In “This is What the Living Do” Howe similarly lists simple things that she cherishes. The purchasing of a hairbrush. The coffee running down her sleeve and wrist. These are things, albeit small, that she can still do because she is alive. In the wake of death, Tennyson and Howe both show us that there are things to look forward to and be appreciative of simply because we are still alive.

Moreover, in Canto CXXX, Tennyson describes how he feels Arthur around him in nature. Tennyson describes how he hears his friends voice on the rolling air and sees him standing in the silhouette of the sun rising and setting (p. 185). At the end of the canto Tennyson beautifully writes, “Far off thou art, but ever nigh; / I have thee still, and I rejoice; / I prosper, circled with thy voice; / I shall not lose thee tho’ I die.” Tennyson’s final stanza has a striking similarity to the end of Howe’s poem. Howe writes about how as she goes through her day, catching glimpses of herself in store windows, she is overcome with an appreciation of life and a remembrance of her departed beloved. Howe writes, “I am living. I remember you.”

Both Howe and Tennyson’s poems are written to someone who is passed yet demonstrate a beautiful appreciation for life and a declaration of remembrance. Howe and Tennyson both show us that even in times of death and grief, there are still things to be grateful for, beauty to be found, and that the love we have for our departed will never be forgotten. This is how we remember and honor our deceased loved ones.

Seeing the “Hope Unseen”: Socialism and William Morris’ “Pomona”

Since William Morris saw the production of art as integral to the creation of a socialist society, one can find in much of his writing an argument, implicit or explicit, in favor of socialism. I find a compelling comparison between the book Socialism: Its Growth and Outcome by Morris and Ernest Belfort Bax, and William Morris’ own poem “Pomona.” 

The relevant arguments I would like to highlight in Socialism: Its Growth and Outcome come from its first two chapters, where Morris and Bax argue that the freedom of prehistoric life gave way to a slavery inherent to life in cities. In the earliest known civilizations, built around mutual protection, “the land began to be accepted as the source of the wealth of the community, and…was recognised as the definite property of the community” (Morris and Bax). As soon, however, as “there was an excess of wealth over bare necessity, its distribution began to be unequal, and… class society began to appear.” (Morris and Bax). The development of the urban world led to “the change in the ownership of land which now made the citizen a representative and possessor of a portion of the city territory…in the earlier times the land belonged to the group; now the individual belonged to the land.” (Morris and Bax). For the two authors of Socialism: Its Growth and Outcome, urbanization severed humanity’s primordial connection to nature.

The figure of Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and natural bounty, seems eminently suited to represent that argument against urban life. Pomona stresses her ancientness in the very first two lines of her namesake poem: “I am the ancient Apple-Queen,/As once I was so am I now” (lines 1-2). She is as prehistoric and unchanging as (according to Morris and Bax) the human desire to live freely in community. Elements of socialist thought then begin to make themselves clear: “For evermore a hope unseen,/Betwixt the blossom and the bough” (lines 3-4); hope, a concept with decidedly revolutionary implications in the 19th century, quite literally comes from within nature.

Pomona begins the second stanza by asking two locations: first, that of “the river’s hidden gold,” and second “the windy grave of Troy” (lines 5-6). While the second reference is obvious, the first may allude to the story of Decebalus, the Dacian king who hid his treasure a river to keep it from the Romans. If this is the correct interpretation, then these lines both seem to refer to signs of ancient social stratification: one to material possessions only accessible to those with wealth, the other to a powerful—and, as we have learned, inherently stratified—city. These questions remain unanswered. While the site of Troy and whereabouts of an ancient treasure hoard are thus unknowable, “yet come I,” Pomona says, “as I came of old,/From out the heart of Summer’s joy” (lines 7-8). Physical, material signs of political and economic domination have faded, but she, representative of nature, is completely unchanged. The resilience of nature—and the human freedom that comes with it—is the “hope unseen” which exists “for evermore.”

Works Cited

Morris, William, and E. Belfort Bax. Socialism: Its Growth and Outcome. 1893,

Morris, William. “Pomona.” The Penguin Book of Victorian Verse, Penguin Books, pp. 548-49.

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.  

The bar is… in the sea??

I thoroughly enjoyed Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s The Blessed Damozel, particularly because of his use of a gold bar that acts as a barrier between Heaven and Earth in the poem. This symbolic use of a physical bar between life and death made me instantly think of the poem Crossing the Bar by Alfred Tennyson. (We didn’t read this particular poem in class, but we did read other Tennyson poems last week so I’m rolling with it).

Tennyson’s poem is a short one that I highly recommend taking a moment to read; It follows the speaker who is being called into the ocean, which, in this case, is the afterlife. “For thought from out our bourne of Time and Place/ The flood may bear me far” (13-14). The speaker notes that by going into the sea, he will be going to a state beyond time and place, which seems a whole lot like death to me. In order to get to life after death, the speaker must cross a sandbar, which is mentioned twice throughout the poem. Its first mention comes in the very first stanza, “and may there be no moaning of the bar, / When I put out to sea” (3-4). I interpreted the moaning of the bar to mean resistance, or perhaps difficult waters for the sailor to pass over. When it is his time to cross, he hopes for calm waters that are “Too full for sound and foam” (6), which will allow the person to pass over easily. The second mention of the bar comes in the poem’s final line: “I hope to see my Pilot face to face/ When I have crossed the bar.” (15-16). Knowing that a pilot acts as something of a guide, and a person that leads a flight/ journey, perhaps this Pilot in the poem is God or another divine figure the speaker could have viewed as a commanding force during his lifetime.

Rossetti’s golden bar is also established as the clear barrier between life and death from the very first lines of the poem, “Damozel lean’d out/From the gold bar of Heaven” (1-2). The damozel is described to be leaning against this bar twice in the poem, the repetition of this action makes it very clear that she is yearning to move beyond this bar. (Just like how the speaker in Tennyson’s poem looks forward to crossing the bar, so does The Damozel; but her wishes are in vain, because, unlike the sailor, she cannot look forward to crossing the bar from the other side) The fact that she presses herself against this bar so firmly it becomes warm (46) proves that she cannot break through it despite her strong desire to do so. This being said the speaker of the poem has seemingly connected to the Damozel, even separated in death, “she smiled. /(I saw her smile.)” (138-39) The implication that her actions have been communicated to someone means that her longing is not entirely futile.

What I find most interesting about this intersection of symbols, is that both substances that make up these bars are strong, but not fixed. A sandbar, for example, may shift in location or shape, but there will always be one there to guide the waves. Similarly, gold is a strong metal but can be easily shaped and bent as it is a highly malleable solid. Both bars in the poems are made of materials that may shift and change depending on the circumstances. Rossetti’s bar bends as the lovers seem to commune with each other, despite being separated in death “She cast her arms along/ The golden barriers, / And laid her face between her hands, / And wept. (I heard her tears.)” (Rossetti 141-144). Tennyson’s bar seems to be malleable as well as the speaker of the poem wishes that when it is his time to cross, the water over the bar is calm, rather than something that may be more painful to endure; clearly stating that the conditions surrounding the bar vary (after all, not everyone can be met with a painless death). In true poetic nature, both speakers hope that their bar will bend, even if only a little bit, just so that they may experience some relief in their experience with death. I think the bar is used very cleverly in both scenarios, and I found it even more interesting that one speaker is experiencing life before crossing the bar, while the others’ story is told from behind this bar.

Cyclical Structure, Interchangeable Words, and Processing Feelings

As someone who loves words and the way they try to express the inexpressible, I absolutely love Alfred Tennyson’s Canto V of his In Memoriam. The diction, cyclical structure, and juxtaposition of words in the poem perfectly encapsulates Tennyson’s feelings of grief, especially how even though the experience of writing can be calming and explorative, it will never let him escape. 

Told in three stanzas of ABBA rhymes, the structure of the canto is very simple. It is a parallel structure (split in two, with the inverse of AB to BA), and feels very monotonous and repetitive. This repeated structure, kept up throughout In Memoriam, speaks to its purpose as a “mechanic exercise,” duplicated over and over (Line 7). One could almost think of it as a Mad Libs, with the structure concrete and the words interchangeable. This cyclical structure indicates the cyclical nature of his feelings of grief and how they’re essentially inescapable for him. He keeps going around and around, writing these poems and never really moving on. However, I think this predictable poetic structure allows for deep thought into what words are put where. The medium of words and their interchangeability allow him to safely explore these repetitive feelings.

For example, in stanza two, the use of “measured” and “mechanic” in lines 6 and 7 respectively, draws the two lines even closer together in meaning, in addition to the B rhymed endings of those lines. Both words imply a sort of slow, unchanging rhythm, which applies to both the content of the poem and the poem’s form itself. The fact that these two words are also stacked right on top of each other on the page draws the two together. In the same stanza, Line 5 mentions the “unquiet” heart, while Line 8 talks about it being “dull” and “numbing.” The juxtaposition of these two adjectives gives the poem a linear flow, showing the evolution of his feelings despite the repetitive nature of the exercise. To me, the word choice and placement of these adjectives heightens the content of the stanza itself, which speaks on how writing these poems allows Tennyson to numb the pain of his grief. The pairing of content and form really heightens the impact of this poem.

Furthermore, to analyze the lines of the poem itself, they reveal Tennyson’s agitation at how the words can only express a small part of his grief, and yet it is soothing to write them. The poems can only ever “half reveal” the depth of his feelings, and end up “half conceal[ing] the Soul within” (Line 3, 4). Whatever he does, whatever he writes, there will always be something that is not, perhaps cannot, be translated onto the page. Even with the adaptability that the structure allows, any words and phrases he chooses will never reveal the entire truth. Nevertheless, this “measured language” and “exercise” allows him to dull the pain and perhaps even process his grief (Line 6, 7). 

By imagining himself in these different situations – as a lover waiting for his beloved (VII), a widower in her marriage bed (XIII), or waiting at the port for his friend to return alive (XIV) – Tennyson can explain and process his own grief through metaphors that help a reader understand. At once, it is an explanation and a discovery. And even though these will only provide an “outline and no more,” they are nevertheless capable of helping Tennyson in his grief (Line 12). This ‘outline’ gives shape to the complicated mess of his emotions and allows Arthur’s legacy to live on.

As he explains in the final stanza, the words “wrap me o’er” and guard him “against the cold,” providing comfort and protection from the overwhelming wave of grief that is threatening to overtake him (Lines 9, 10). Even though it is painful and perhaps futile to write these poems, Tennyson says he will continue anyway, because, almost like “narcotics,” he is addicted to the relief it gives him (Line 8). I think it is really interesting how Tennyson uses writing itself, specifically its structure and word choice, to explore his own feelings. 

“A Loftier Song:” Rethinking the Carpe Diem Tradition

In the fourth poem in Christina Rosetti’s “Monna Inominata” sequence, the speaker’s paced, contemplative structure combats the hypermasculine carpe diem tradition. The speaker untangles the “us” so favored by Andrew Marvell in his poem, “To His Coy Mistress” to engage in a genuine discussion of identity and mutual love. 

The first four lines of the poem are a direct address to the carpe diem poets of the past: “I loved you first: but afterwards your love / Outsoaring mine, sang such a loftier song / As drowned the friendly cooings of my dove. / Which owes the other more?” (l. 1-4). The speaker professes how her love is quiet and her concern that the poet loves her too loudly, too performatively in regimented, iambic pentameter lines. The bird imagery of these lines both recalls Marvell’s poetry, in which he describes “devouring…birds of prey”: a violent, rushing image meant to supplement his argument for casual sex because he claims that time is running out in a woman’s sexual prime. The speaker takes issue with the idea that this “love” is lauded over a more tender connection, emphasized in the figure of the dove and the gentle phonemes of the word “cooing.” To further combat this insistence on fast paced love, the speaker interrupts the fourth line with a rhetorical question which is visually shocking and forces the reader to contemplate the implications of a casual sexual relationship, particularly for a woman. 

The speaker continues, “My love was long / And yours one moment seemed to wax more strong; / …you construed me” (l. 4-6). The speaker emphasizes the fluctuations of the male persona’s actions of love, contrasting them with her own using a distinctly Renaissance masculine euphemism, “long.” Whereas a male speaker may use this slight of hand to refer to an erection, the female speaker uses it to testify to the security of an emotionally invested relationship. The long-ness further engages the desires of Marvell’s male speaker, who wishes to “make [our] sun run” since they cannot “make [him] stand still.” Rosetti’s speaker is concerned with the way that the lover’s affections “wax” in accordance with her willingness to engage with him sexually, the same preoccupations of Marvell’s speaker. Neither man is patient. They wish instead to make of the lover what they wish to achieve this end, emphasized by the enjambed lines. 

However, the final couplet struggles with the format: “Both have the strength and both the length thereof, / Both of us, of the love which makes us one” (l. 13-14). Scanning these lines indicates a break in the highly structured format of the poem, particularly in the final line. The first line emphasizes how both partners must commit to the stability and endurance of their love. But to reinforce this claim, there is a spondaic substitution at “makes us” which replaces the iambic foot. Until this moment, the speaker has been restricted to formal iambic pentameter, and perhaps this moment is an extension of the volta break where the speaker finds a way to actually say what she needs to. Emphasizing “makes us” in the line conveys a set of requirements that must be met before the partners become one, likely the mutual, reliable expressions of love. Leaving “one” unaccented in this line negates the compulsory short-term “coupling” that Marvell suggests in his couplet forms.  

In the final lines, the formal structure struggles to contain the speaker’s sentiments. Rosetti writes a skillful sonnet response which challenges Petrarchan silencing of female subjects and Marvell’s participation in a sexually charged tradition at once. 

Marvell, Andrew. “To His Coy Mistress.” Poetry Foundation, Accessed 14 April, 2023.

A Doll Inside An Artist’s Studio

The Christina Rossetti poem, “In an Artist’s Studio,” greatly disturbed me. The poem reads in a creepy way and the first two lines start with the word “one,” “one face,” “one selfsame figure” (Rossetti 1-2). This use of “one” creates a focus on the one character, the woman who the artist is painting, she is the focus of the poem. However, as the poem continues it mentions that she is “nameless,” this gives the idea that the person painting her does not really know her, even though she is his great focus. Does he really want to know her or does he just want to paint who he thinks she is on his canvas?

Looking at this poem through the relationship lens of the Norwegian play, A Doll’s House, this idea of not wanting to truly know a lover is very evident. In the play, the main male lead, Torvald, states “how warm and cosy our home is, Nora. Here is shelter for you; here I will protect you like a hunted dove that I have saved from a hawk’s claws” (Ibsen). In this quote, Torvald thinks he has saved his wife, Nora, because he has extreme wealth and provides her with an allowance. In his mind, he saved his wife from a life of poverty because she constantly spends money throughout the play and her lack of power is shown through this economic power he has over her life. In this way, he has become the hawk. The same can be said for the mentality of the painter in Rossetti’s poem. He seems to be obsessed with her and he is giving her “back all her loveliness.” He seems to believe that he has discovered her; she is his hunted dove. “He feeds upon her face by day and night, / And she with true kind eyes looks back on him” (Rossetti 9-10). In these lines, Rossetti creates a power imbalance. As the painter takes her all in, all she does is look at him. She does not feed upon his face like he does hers. By creating this point of comparison, it proves that he only sees her for who he believes she is, much like Torvald. The poem ends with the line “not as she is, but as she fills his dream” (Rossetti 14). The poem concludes in this way to drive home this idea that she is not her own person. She is just someone that inspires him; he only needs her to be his object or his muse. Luckily for Nora in the play, she ends up walking out on her husband as well as her children at the end. “I believe that I am first and foremost a human being, like you – or anyway, that I must try to become one.” (Ibsen). This assertion of herself creates space for her to leave and become her own person. Unfortunately, for the “muse” in Rossetti’s poem, this freedom is not found. When men believe they have power because of their art or wealth, they tend to see others as pawns in their life; they become the hawks.

Ibsen, Henrik. A Doll’s House. Dover ed. New York, Dover Publications, 1992.

Rossetti, the “‘Immurata’ Sister”

Despite being a successful female writer during the mid-nineteenth century and facing social stigmas imposed on women during this time, Christina Rossetti’s poetry does not neatly fit into a feminist framework. Instead, Rossetti simultaneously upholds and criticizes the prescribed gender norms within anti-feminist ideologies. In her poem “An ‘Immurata’ Sister”, Rossetti accepts certain gendered stereotypes as fact, but then depicts death as an escape from these gender norms. By presenting death as a much –desired escape from the stereotype that women are more emotional than men, a stereotype that she accepts as true, Rossetti complicates what it means to be a feminist; she shows that acceptance and discontent can both exist with regards to societal gender norms

While Rossetti largely focuses on themes of life and death in “An ‘Immurata’ Sister”, she first centers her poem around the claim that “men work and think” while “women feel” (517, l. 5). Rossetti separates men and women based on their traditional gender roles and expectations, and consequently reduces women to their emotions rather than their thoughts, actions, and achievements. She complicates this claim in the following lines, however, by writing that because she is a woman characterized by feelings, “[she] should be glad to die” and cease from experiencing all of her complex, womanly feelings (517, l. 6-7). The next four lines begin with the same phrase “And cease from”, followed by a vast array of emotions ranging from hope to dread to pain; her use of anaphora amplifies the word “cease” and emphasizes the absence of these emotions upon death. In the beginning of the second stanza, Rossetti accepts the stereotype that “women feel”, but by the end of this stanza, she implies that death and the absence of feeling are the only way to escape this gender stereotype and achieve true peace. This thematic disconnect in the second stanza reflects her ideological disconnect regarding feminist and patriarchal ideals. Despite acknowledging the relief that will come from death and the absence of stereotypical, feminine emotions, Rossetti never strays from accepting patriarchal gender stereotypes as fact.

The disconnect between these two ideologies leaves death as the only way to escape these conflicting ideas about women and gender. Based on these lived experiences, Rossetti describes both an “empty world and empty I!” (518, l. 23). The world, which acts as the environment for gender power dynamics and stereotypes, and Rossetti herself, who experiences the effects of gender power dynamics and stereotypes, are both “empty” due to their involvement with the oppression of women. Death, however, lacks this “emptiness” because it is uncontrollable and therefore free from gender oppression. Rossetti’s depicted struggle between life and death, then, parallels her ideological struggle between gender norms and gender freedom.


Co-Existent Opposites

I really enjoyed reading the excerpts from Tennyson’s In Memoriam A. H. H. I especially liked how Tennyson played with opposites, especially Love and Grief, and sometimes even described them as co-existent. One example of this being his first poem in this sequence, in which Tennyson writes, “Let Love clasp Grief lest both be drown’d,” (l. 9). While mourning the loss of Arthur, Tennyson couples these two concepts together, stating they need each other to stay afloat in this case. Overall this explains that Love cannot exist without Grief and vice versa. Although Tennyson doesn’t mention this relationship between love and grief as explicitly in the remainder of his poems, he continues to hint at the connections between opposing emotions. In the twenty-seventh poem Tennyson writes, “’Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all” (l. 15-16). This time Tennyson pairs love, a wonderful feeling, with loss, a not so wonderful feeling. While these concepts may seem like total opposites, Tennyson writes as if you can’t have one without the other. Furthermore, Tennyson states that it’s better to experience these emotions together than never experience either, further closing the gap between the two.

Tennyson continues to examine “opposites” in his twenty-fourth poem. In this case Tennyson pairs grief with gladness and low with relief: “And is it that the haze of grief / Makes former gladness loom so great? / The lowness of the present state, / That sets the past in this relief?” (l. 9-12). Starting with grief and gladness, Tennyson establishes this idea that grief illuminates memories of former happiness in trying times. Likewise, feeling “low” makes the speaker realize the relief he felt in the past. Here Tennyson is relying on the stark differences between these emotions to show how much he longs for the past when Arthur was still with him. Tennyson returns to the opposing but co-existent concepts of love and grief in the thirteenth poem. Here Tennyson writes, “Which weep a loss for ever new / A void where heart on heart reposed,” (l. 5-6) and “Which weep the comrade of my choice, / An awful thought, a life removed, / The human-hearted man I loved,” (l. 9-11). In both of these parts Tennyson discusses the grief that follows loss. In doing so he emphasizes that grief in a way stems from love because it is the loss of a loved one that causes this pain.

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.