Class Blog

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”.

Remembering Rossetti

In many of Christina Rossetti’s poems, she toggles between asking her audience to remember her and assuring them it’s ok if they forget her.  Specifically, in the poems “Song” and “Remember,” she utilizes a very memorable form of parallel structure and opposites when writing these requests. And thus, even when she concludes that it is ok that she is forgotten, the lines that contain this conclusion remain in the reader’s memory.

In “Song,” Rossetti writes “And if thou wilt, remember, / And if thou wilt, forget” at the end of the first of two stanzas (lines 7-8).  The repetition of the phrase “And if thou wilt” makes it seem of more importance than other lines, and it drills into the reader’s mind.  To add to this memorable quality, the lines both end with a single word that means the opposite of the other: “remember” and “forget.”  To have two lines that are short and to the point while simultaneously being identical up until the last word is already hard to forget.  But then having those two words still be closely related to each other only adds to the fact that this couplet will stick out compared to the rest of the poem.  The second stanza and very end of the poem repeats the words “remember” and “forget,” further emphasizing the presence of memory in “Song.” And so, while Rossetti assures the reader that they may forget her, the repetition of phrases and words relating to memory ensures that the reader will not.

In the poem “Remember,” Rossetti employs a similar tactic.  She opens the poem with the phrase “Remember me,” and then proceeds to repeat it two more times in the single stanza poem.  So while there are words that come after each “remember me,” the repeated phrase is the most memorable part.  In addition, while those subsequent words are peaceful and melancholic, “remember me” by itself reads like a stern command.  And so once again, as in “Song,” despite Rossetti’s closing lines disclosing to readers that she would rather they forget and be happy than remember and be sad, the part of the poem readers are most likely to remember is exactly that word–“remember.”  Through the form of her poems, Rossetti reveals that she does not actually want to be forgotten, even if she states that she is ok with it.

Perhaps Rossetti is truly ok with being forgotten.  However, when looking at the parallels in “Song” and “Remember,” it becomes clear that it is more likely that she wants some semblance of herself to remain in memory.  The reason as to why she approves the idea of being forgotten may be that Rossetti is unsatisfied with the version of herself that will be remembered through the artwork of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood.  Rossetti may be using her poetry to indicate that she would much rather be known for her own works than a construction of herself made by someone else.  Hence, not just Rossetti herself, but her actual poetry is speaking when it commands readers to “remember me.”

A Double Poem by John Berryman

Content note: this post references a poem about suicide



I’ve found out why, that day, that suicide
From the Empire State falling on someone’s car
Troubled you so; and why we quarreled. War,
Illness, an accident, I can see (you cried)
But not this: what a bastard, not spring wide!…
I said a man, life in his teeth, could care
Not much just whom he spat it on… and far
Beyond my laugh we argued either side.

‘One has a right not to be fallen on!…’
(Our second meeting… yellow you were wearing.)
Voices of our resistance and desire!
Did I divine then I must shortly run
Crazy with need to fall on you, despairing?
Did you bolt so, before it caught, our fire?

-John Berryman



For some context, John Berryman’s sonnet was first published in 1952 in a collection of 115 sonnets, all of them about an affair he was having with a colleague’s wife. Learning about Isobel Armstrong’s theory of the double poem reminded me of his seventh sonnet.

In Berryman’s poem death is introduced first, then transformed into love. First “suicide” is what brings death into the text, but that phrase is quickly replaced by variations of “fall on”. By the time “fallen on” is used in the ninth line “’One has a right not to be fallen on!…’” the phrase has completely replaced any explicit mention of death. As a result, the language has become ambiguous, and as Armstrong argues, it is “systematically ambiguous language, out of which expressive and phenomenological readings emerge” from double poems (Armstrong 15). The language becomes even more ambiguous in the next line when it is taken completely out of the context of the suicide at the empire building with the lines “Did I divine then I must shortly run / Crazy with need to fall on you, despairing?” The inclusion of  “Despairing” points toward a use of “fall on” which is similar  to its function in the rest of the poem, but the lines are preceded by “our resistance and desire!” and followed by “…our fire” all phrases which suggest a passionate relationship, a fraught and dangerous one, but not a miserable death inducing one. With the added context that this is a poem about the second meeting of future affair partners, “Crazy with need to fall on you” seems to be abandoning its meaning as a substitute for suicide and is instead alluding to the phrase “to fall in love”.

The double meaning of “to fall on” as both love and suicide is impressively disparate and as Armstrong foretold, “expressive and phenomenological readings emerge” from it. At a kind of meta level, the double meaning is either a critic or an exhibition of how language is so fickle that a single phrase can mean two opposite things. It is also potentially part of an argument that love and suicide are two sides of the same coin or at least more similar than one might think, since they can be merged together in a poem. I would argue, though, that the most “expressive and phenomenological” reading which emerges, is that Berryman’s love is a kind of suicide. This reading is backed up by biographical information on the back cover: “after several years of a happy marriage, he had fallen helplessly, hopelessly in love…The affair was doomed to end, and end badly…obsessive, impossible love…Here is the poet…as nutcase.” By falling in love with this woman, Berryman is putting himself in harms way. If it is not quite death, it is something like it, especially since he is risking his marriage, which is meant to be the joining of two people into one. In this light, the women’s request not “to be fallen on!” can also be read as a request for Berryman not to interfere with her life and her marriage, a reading further emphasized by the last line which states that she bolted “before it caught, our fire”. In a similar vein, the man in  “a man, life in his teeth, could care / Not much whom he spat it on” could be read as Berryman, and this line could be indicative of his lack of concern for the harm he does to himself or to anyone else through his affair. This reading could even answer the question of “why, that day…/ Troubled you so; and why we quarreled” which Berryman claims to know the answer to. Maybe the woman is arguing in order to defend against all kinds of falling on. Maybe, even before the poem is written, the “right not to be fallen on” is standing in for the right not to be accosted by crazy love sick poets.

life is too short and love is too long

Elizabeth Barret Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese are, at first glance, intensely romantic sonnets about love written to Robert Browning. However, a closer look at some of these sonnets reveals that they explore more than just the notion of romantic love. The liken love with death, explore the dangers of falling in love, and reveal the power imbalances that come with a love affair such as this one. 

These themes reminded me very strongly of a book series I love. It’s The Locked Tomb series by Tamsyn Muir. It’s a sci-fi series that deals with necromancy, and therefore themes of love, death, time, and morality. In their universe, necromancers are assigned cavaliers, trained warriors who serve and protect their necromancer. The bond is not inherently romantic, but it sometimes can be. Necromancers strive to become lyctors, which are extremely powerful and immortal necromancers. The only problem with this is that to achieve lyctorhood, the cavalier’s soul is absorbed by their necromancer, and their body dies. The necromancer’s eyes change to show that they have done this process. 

There are variations on this throughout the series, and there’s lots of body/soul swapping happening. At one point, two of the characters combine their souls into one body perfectly, creating an entirely new person from their relationship. These ideas reminded me of Sonnet IV (6): “leaves thy heart in mine/With pulses that beat double./What I do/And what I dream include thee, as the wine/Must taste of its own grapes. And when I sue/God for myself, He hears that name of thine,/And sees within my eyes the tears of two” (EBB lines 9-14). In this love, there is no more individuality left for the speaker, she is absorbed completely, or otherwise bonded completely to her love forever. Necromancers and cavaliers have a saying to describe them, which is “one flesh, one end” (Muir). When necromancers and cavaliers discover that the way they achieve lyctorhood is cruel, it raises problems of morality. No one is completely sure how the process works, or if there is a way to do it and preserve the bodies and souls of both people – “perfect” lyctorhood. The two characters who combined themselves into a new person both technically are gone – their souls were essentially rearranged, so their persons are gone but not dead. They sacrificed themselves for each other, refusing to let one live on. The first sonnet echoed this sentiment: “Not Death, but Love” (EBB line 14) allowed the necromancer and the cavalier to create a new soul. 

Some pairs refuse to become lyctors, choosing love and eventual death over immortality and power. In sonnet 22, EBB asks her beloved “what bitter wrong/Can the earth do to us, that we should not long/Be here contented?” and tells him that they should “stay rather on earth” (EBB lines 4-10). It is a plea to stay and love normally instead of turning to heaven, implying that their love would be better even than the perfect love that the angels would provide. This is a sentiment heavily echoed in the series, the choice between the power of a love between people on earth and the pull of an immortal and perfect, but bonded love of a lyctor. Can love and freedom coexist, or does one really love thee better after death?

EBB and Jane Eyre

Reading “Sonnets from the Portuguese,” the speaker frequently reminds me of Jane Eyre. The sonnet sequence, although addressed to the beloved, is more importantly a conversation with the self, a rational assessment of the situation that the speaker is in. Both Jane and EBB contemplate the dynamic between the lovers, are the man and woman of equal standing? Sonnets VIII and IX ask the questions “What can I give thee back” (i) “Can it be right to give what I can give” (i). The tone here is especially interesting, she does not phrase it as “Is it right to give what I give.” The repeated “can” weakens the tone, conveys a sense of reserve. Jane shares EBB’s concern that Rochester provides her a means of living, a place to live, but she has nothing to give back. Another theme shared between Jane Eyre and “Sonnets” is, in the words of EBB, the “silence of my womanhood” (ix, XIII). Both women are brilliantly eloquent in their writing, contemplative in their inner dialogue, but they have trouble verbalizing their sophisticated emotions. The male-dominated society and language don’t allow space for female voices. As a result, EBB and Jane rely heavily on their spirituality as their way of self-exploration. They address frequently to God and the soul, who are their only listeners. The gothic theme also rises out of the repression of female voices. Jane’s double, Bertha, causes chaos in the male-governed mansion, warns Jane of the danger of marriage before her wedding. Similarly, in sonnet I, EBB notices “how a mystic Shape did move / Behind me, and drew me backward by the hair” (x-xi). Their anxiety over losing their selves in the marriage is demonstrated in moments of terror, where the repressed selves send a violent warning.

How Do I Love Thee

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s widely beloved “Sonnet XLIII,” though highly romantic, also explores themes of religion and rationality in relation to love. The narrator uses religious allusions to illustrate her love. The first example she gives demonstrates how she loves her partner with the whole expanse of her soul: “I love thee to the depth and breadth and height / My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight / For the ends of Being and ideal Grace” (lines 3-4). The two uses of enjambment in this sentence emphasize the breadth of the narrator’s love, which is illustrated through God’s expansive power.  

The narrator also states that she loves her partner with the same passion she had for “old griefs,” her “childhood’s faith,” and her “lost saints” (lines 10, 11-12). Each of these – sorrow, innocence, religion – are all-encompassing experiences. They also suggest that the narrator has had a troubled life. Though she lost the passion she felt in each of these scenarios, these lines indicate that she now loves her partner with the same intensity; she views her partner idolatrously, as she would a saint.  

While the narrator describes her love in dramatically romantic terms, she also provides a rationale that justifies her affection. Browning structures the poem as a list with her introductory line “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways” (line 1). She then proceeds to list seven of them, repeating the phrase “I love thee” to reinforce the extent of her affection (line 1). This repetition creates a list format that adds a sense of rationality to the poem. The narrator also states that “I love thee freely, as men strive for right; / I love thee purely, as they turn from praise” (line 7-8). The narrator’s assertion that she freely and humbly loves her partner is especially significant when considered alongside details of Browning’s life. Her choice to elope with her partner and escape from her father’s control adds an additional layer of meaning to the sonnet’s focus on long-lasting, freely chosen love.  

The theme of this sonnet calls back to one of Browning’s earlier works, “Sonnet XIV.” In this sonnet Browning writes, “But love me for love’s sake, that evermore / Thou mayst love on, through love’s eternity” (lines 14-15). This sentiment of long-lasting love, which remains consistent throughout Browning’s sonnets, is especially present in “Sonnet XLIII.” While Browning writes of a dramatic and passionate romance, it is a love that will last “after death” (line 14). In this sonnet, love is literally everything, from the minutest aspect of life to absolute religious devotion. 

The Labor Movement of Shalott

Typical readings of Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott” explore the depiction of female sexuality. I would like to offer an alternate interpretation: “The Lady of Shalott” as a double poem criticizing factory labor.

In the first section of the poem, Tennyson’s description of the island of Shalott evokes a nineteenth-century factory as much as it does a castle. The very first description of the building itself is thus: “Four gray walls, and four gray towers” (line 15); this monochromatic, monotonous description is especially jarring given the surrounding lines are laden with natural images. Her castle seems out of place and imposed on the environment. Even its location beside a river recalls the real-world mills which derived their power from running water.

The Lady’s curse bears an equal resemblance to factory work. “No time hath she to sport and play,” Tennyson writes (line 37), for her labor occupies her life. “No other care hath she” (line 44). She is entirely consumed by her weaving. Her actions as well as her home evoke the life of a textile worker.

The fact that she is not allowed to gaze directly upon Camelot recalls more generally the political situation of the nineteenth-century working class, who were shut out of direct representation in politics. She is only able to see the seat of political power through a mediating mirror. Her eventual decision to reject this subjugation ends in disaster: she loses her life in a one-woman revolution. Just as for real-world industrial workers, her choice is to do the work available or to die.

And it must be noted: the feminist and Marxist interpretations of this poem need not be separate. The poem in fact becomes a much stronger political statement if gender and politics are considered in tandem. After all, industrial labor often made explicit steps to suppress women’s sexuality so as to produce more devoted workers. (For a relevant fiction treatment of this topic, I would recommend “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids” by Herman Melville.)

The Burden of Love: A Close Reading of Sonnets from the Portuguese: XII

In Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese: XII, Browing confronts a multitude of topics surrounding love, whether relevant to her time or timeless abstract concepts that one must approach when in love. Throughout this sonnet, there is ultimately a double meaning between what the author describes as the consequences, or effects of love, treading between the concept of the objectification of women in relation to their husbands, and the burden of feeling the strong emotions evoked through falling in love. As the sonnet begins, reading:

“Indeed this very love which is my boast,
And which, when rising up from breast to brow,
Doth crown me with a ruby large enow
To draw men’s eyes and prove the inner cost”
This love even, all my worth, to the uttermost,” (Barrett Browning 1-5).

Whilst later going on to say, “Hadst set an me an example, shown me how” (Barrett Browning 7). The author is commentating on finding love through societal status, through material objects such as “a ruby large enow to draw men’s eyes”, along with abstract concepts or terms such as “boast”, “cost”, and “worth”. Through these terms, and writing, “prove the inner cost” the author is expressing the concept of finding love as a women, love that illustrates itself in as one’s “worth” is something to “prove”.

This concept is maintained throughout the sonnet as later the author goes on to write: “Thy soul hath snatched up mine all faint and weak,/ And placed it by thee on a golden throne” (Barrett Browning 11-12). In saying, “thy soul hath snatched up mine”, the author is implying that for a woman, love manifests itself in women being an object for men to “snatch” or attain; women being an object of desire.

While this was one reading I took from this sonnet, another is more expressive of the burdens that love provides in manifesting strong emotions. Rather than a commentary on materialism or objectification, the author could be using the “ruby large enow to draw men’s eyes” as a metaphor for the heart, as they are both red, and between the “breast and brow.” When the author writes, “And thus, I cannot speak/ Of love even, as a good thing of my own:/ Thy soul hath snatched up mine all faint and weak,/ And placed it by thee on a golden throne” (Barrett Browning 9-12), while expressing that love is not “a good thing of my own”, it is explained in that the author’s soul was “faint and weak.” The faint and weakness of the author’s soul could be representative of the strong emotional connection towards whom the author is in love with, and that their soul being “snatched” is not necessarily an action of their partner, but the strong emotions of the author that has fallen in love.

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. 

Not as Lovely-Dovey

I thought that it was really interesting to see Elizabeth Barrett Browning write about the anxieties that go hand in hand with love. One thing I noticed throughout a lot of the sonnets was that the speaker seemed to feel inadequate, especially when compared to her beloved. In EBB’s eight sonnet, the speaker calls her lover a “princely giver, who hast brought the gold / And purple of thine heart, unstained, untold,” (l. 2). The use of “princely,” “purple” and “gold” are all associated with wealth and royalty, which help convey how highly the speaker thinks of her beloved. EBB also notes that the heart of this “princely giver” is “unstained” and therefore his heart and love are pure. These descriptions of her beloved help the speaker convey how much she adores him and values his love.

While praising her beloved, the speaker of the poem starts to doubt herself and tear down her worth. At the start of the sonnet the speaker immediately asks, “What can I give thee back…” (l. 1). The speaker is thrown off by everything her beloved has given her and she is unsure whether she should accept it since she has nothing to give him in return. This starts to unravel her doubts as the speaker asks, “…am I cold, / Ungrateful, that for these most manifold / High gifts, I render nothing back at all?” (l. 6-8). Now the speaker fears how she will be perceived if she gives her beloved nothing in return, adding to her prior worries. By doing this, EBB draws the reader’s attention to the speaker’s insecurities and the complex emotions that come with love. The speaker doesn’t feel that she is enough or deserving of her lover because she can’t repay his gifts to her.

The speaker also worries that she cannot love her beloved as much as he deserves. EBB writes, “For frequent tears have run / The colours from my life, and left so dead / And pale a stuff, it were not fitly done / To give the same as pillow to thy head,” (l. 10-13). Here EBB illustrates how the speaker has been grieving and it took a huge toll on her. As a result the speaker feels she is unable to match her beloved’s level of devotion. In this poem, and the rest of the collection, Elizabeth Barrett Browning shows how complex love can be, especially by discussing her speaker’s insecurities and hesitations. This in turn depicts a more realistic love in comparison to other poems where love is simpler and fairytale-like.