Christina Rossetti: "Preface to Monna Innominata. A Sonnet of Sonnets"

Table of contents

1. Christina Rossetti "Preface to Monna Innominata. A Sonnet of Sonnets"a

Christina Rossettib

Beatrice, immortalized by “altissimo poeta … cotanto amante”; Laura, celebrated by a great tho’ an inferior bard,--c 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.

These heroines of world-wide fame were preceded by a bevy of unnamed ladies “donne innominate” sung by a school of less conspicuous poets; and in that land and that period which gave simultaneous birth to Catholics, to Albigenses, and to Troubadours,d 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 honour.

Had such a lady spoken for herself, the portrait left us might have appeared more tender, if less dignified, than any drawn even by a devoted friend. Or had the Great Poetess of our own day and nation only been unhappy instead of happy, her circumstances would have invited her to bequeath us, in lieu of the “Portuguese Sonnets,” an inimitable “donna innominata” drawn not from fancy but from feeling, and worthy to occupy a niche beside Beatrice and Laura.

2. Explanatory Notes

A sonnet sequence published in A Pageant and Other Poems (London: Macmillan, 1881). Although Christina Rossetti, a major poet of the generation following EBB, had been admonished by her brother, poet / painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, to avoid the “falsetto muscularity” of EBB’s style (William Micheal Rossetti, ed., Dante Gabriel Rossetti: His Family Letters, with a Memoir [London: Ellis, 1895], 2:323), she considered writing a biography of EBB, of whom she observed: “I doubt whether the woman is born, or for many a long day, if ever, will be born, who will balance not to say outweigh Mrs. Browning” (MackenzieBell, Christina Rossetti: A Biographical and Critical Study [London: Thomas Burleigh, 1898], 90-91, 93). On Rossetti’s complex relationship to EBB, see Harrison (1990) and Stone (1999).


Translation of the Italian: “the highest poet … as well as lover” (Dante, Inferno 4.80, 5.134). Beatrice and Laura were the idealized muses of early Italian innovators in the love sonnet tradition, Dante Alighieri and Francesco Petrarch, respectively. For discussion of Petrarch’s Laura and the conventions of early love sonnets, see the headnote to Sonnets from the Portuguese.

Woman worship was prominent among the Albigensian sect, which replaced the Holy Spirit with Mary, and also in the love poetry of the troubadours, medieval poets and singers who wrote for court audiences in southern France.

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Christina Rossetti. Date: 14-June-2011
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