"Beatrice, immortalized by 'altissimo poeta. . . cotanto amante'; Laura, celebrated by a great tho' inferior bard,-- have alike paid the exceptional penalty of exceptional honour, and have come down to us resplendent with charms, but (at least, to my apprehension) scant of attractiveness."
Thus, speaking of Dante and Petrarch, begins Christina Rossetti's intro to her 'sonnet of sonnets', MONNA INNOMINATA.
The phrase, 'sonnet of sonnets,' is not to be taken in the sense of 'a man among men,' or 'King of kings.' Rather, the sonnet being fourteen lines, this is a series of fourteen sonnets. But it is fourteen sonnets that hold firmly together, that work together, much as the lines of a single sonnet work better together than apart. And they work best when they are not only together, but in order.
Thus, what I am about to do, to present two sonnets from the sequence of fourteen, is terribly crass. I appologize in advance; my only excuse being that a blog is not the right place to present these sonnets as they should be read. It is too long for a blog post. But, having begun to think about sonnets, I cannot in conscience omit some mention of MONNA INNOMINATA.
Rossetti laments that even the altissimo poeta presented his lady as "resplendent with charms, but scant of attractiveness." However, Rossetti continues, "Had such a lady spoken for herself, the portrait left us might have appeared more tender, if less dignified."
Thus, in this sonnet of sonnets she allows Laura, and Beatrice, and the countless other donne innominate (nameless ladies) to gain a voice, to answer back, to have their own say in this world of imortalizing love in verse.
Yet she is not at all speaking with the voice of Beatrice or of Laura, but altogether with Christina Rossetti's voice. These sonnets are her own story.
While very young she fell madly in love with a painter who was often in her house as a friend of Christina's two brothers. When she was still in her teens he proposed, which she delightedly accepted on the condition that he convert from Catholicism to Protestantism. It seemed worthwhile to him, he converted and the two joyously announced their engagement.
Before the wedding could take place her fiance became fearful that he had abandoned the one true church and had lost his soul. Following his conscience he reconverted to Catholicism. With a heart that never stopped breaking for the next sixty years, and a love for him that continued just as long, she followed her conscience and called the wedding off. They continued to love each other dearly and remained friends, often together in groups, but they were never able to overcome that one mighty obstacle of religion.
Much of the burden of MONNA INNOMINATA is her attempt to explain, from a woman's perspective, the love, longing and loss that she experienced. At the same time Rossetti labors to convey why the engagement had to be ended. In her mind she was forced to decide between a husband and God.
"I love, as you would have me, God the most;
Would not lose Him, but you, must one be lost,"
To Christina Rossetti it became a question of either earthly, time-bound love or eternal heavenly love, and she simply wouldn't SETTLE for the lesser if the greater must be given up.
Now, bestial though it is, I am going to rip two sonnets from the midst of the greatest sonnet sequence the English language has ever seen (my own opinion). As one reads the sonnets in their proper order the story line is unmistakable, and these two will quickly tell the reader where they fit in the story of her engagement.
Many in aftertimes will say of you
"He loved her"--while of me what will they say?
Not that I loved you more than just in play,
For fashion's sake as idle women do.
Even let them prate; who know not what we knew
Of love and parting in exceeding pain,
Of parting hopeless here to meet again,
Hopeless on earth, and heaven is out of view.
But by my heart of love laid bare to you,
My love that you can make not void nor vain,
Love forgoes you but to claim anew
Beyond this passage of the gate of death,
I charge you at the Judgment make it plain
My love of you was life and not a breath.
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, be believe
I do commend you to that nobler grace,
That readier wit than mine, that sweeter face;
Yea, since your riches make me rich, conceive
I too am crowned, while bridal crowns I weave,
And thread the bridal dance with jocund pace
For if I did not love you, it might be
That I should grudge you some one dear delight;
But since the heart is yours that was mine own,
Your pleasure is my pleasure, right my right,
Your honourable freedom makes me free,
And you companioned I am not alone.