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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 465

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...

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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, rhyming abbaabba, and a six-line conclusion, called the sestet, with various rhyme patterns, but never more than three rhymes. Thus, there is usually a turning point, which the Italian sonneteers called a volta in the ninth line, signaling the change from the octave to the sestet, matched by a similar change in thought. “Monna Innominata: A Sonnet of Sonnets” mirrors this pattern in the overall structure of the sequence, its first eight sonnets depicting a tension between divine and earthly love in the speaker’s relationship with her lover, and the ninth suddenly announcing that the love she hoped for cannot be.

“Monna Innominata: A Sonnet of Sonnets” explores the familiar Rossetti theme of the conflict between romantic love and the love of God. The first four sonnets do not mention God’s love at all, establishing the situation of the earthly lovers: the pain at separation (sonnet 1), the attempt to recall their first meeting (sonnet 2), the preference of dream love over reality (sonnet 3), and the immeasurability of love (sonnet 4). The next four sonnets introduce the preeminence of God’s love, ending with a comparison to the Biblical lover Esther (sonnet 8). Sonnets 9 through 12 move toward a reconciliation that is completed in sonnet 13, with the speaker renouncing her claim to her lover. The last sonnet reveals that the pangs of earthly love remain, despite the idealized sentiments of resignation.

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