Monna innominata means “unknown lady,” and indicates the situation of the speaker of the sonnets. In a brief prose introduction, Rossetti explains that the most celebrated ladies of two Italian poets—Dante’s Beatrice and Petrarch’s Laura—left behind no writing of their own to record the women’s experience of love. In Rossetti’s own century, Elizabeth Barrett Browning did leave such a sonnet record, but her experience, Rossetti says, was happy, and therefore did not match the emotional tensions of Dante or Petrarch’s sonnets. It appears that “Monna Innominata: A Sonnet of Sonnets” is intended to fill that gap.
The fourteen poems of “Monna Innominata: A Sonnet of Sonnets” are truly a sequence: Though each is an artistic whole, there is a progression from one to the other that links them. Rossetti clearly considered them inextricably connected: In an 1883 letter responding to a request to anthologize some of her poems she insisted that none of the individual poems of “Monna Innominata: A Sonnet of Sonnets” be published separately. They are intended to be read as a single work. The subtitle, “A Sonnet of Sonnets,” refers to more than the fact that a sonnet is a fourteen-line form, and the sequence has fourteen sonnets. The development of the whole group matches the form of the Italian sonnet.
The Italian or Petrarchan sonnet is twofold in structure, with an eight-line first part, called the octave,...
(The entire section is 465 words.)