Monna Innominata: A Sonnet of Sonnets

Original Text: 
A Pageant and Other Poems (London: Macmillan, 1881). PR 5237 P3 1881 ROBA. Text from Christina Rossetti, Poems (1890).
Lo dì che han detto a' dolci amici addio. (Dante)
Amor, con quanto sforzo oggi mi vinci! (Petrarca)
1.2    Or come not yet, for it is over then,
1.3    And long it is before you come again,
1.4So far between my pleasures are and few.
1.5While, when you come not, what I do I do
1.6    Thinking "Now when he comes," my sweetest when:"
1.7    For one man is my world of all the men
1.8This wide world holds; O love, my world is you.
1.9Howbeit, to meet you grows almost a pang
1.10    Because the pang of parting comes so soon;
1.11    My hope hangs waning, waxing, like a moon
1.12        Between the heavenly days on which we meet:
1.13Ah me, but where are now the songs I sang
1.14    When life was sweet because you call'd them sweet?
Era già 1'ora che volge il desio. (Dante)
Ricorro al tempo ch' io vi vidi prima. (Petrarca)
2.2    First hour, first moment of your meeting me,
2.3    If bright or dim the season, it might be
2.4Summer or winter for aught I can say;
2.5So unrecorded did it slip away,
2.6    So blind was I to see and to foresee,
2.7    So dull to mark the budding of my tree
2.8That would not blossom yet for many a May.
2.9If only I could recollect it, such
2.10    A day of days! I let it come and go
2.11    As traceless as a thaw of bygone snow;
2.12It seem'd to mean so little, meant so much;
2.13If only now I could recall that touch,
2.14    First touch of hand in hand--Did one but know!
O ombre vane, fuor che ne l'aspetto! (Dante)
Immaginata guida la conduce. (Petrarca)
3.2    Dream of you and not wake but slumber on;
3.3    Nor find with dreams the dear companion gone,
3.4As summer ended summer birds take flight.
3.5In happy dreams I hold you full in sight,
3.6    I blush again who waking look so wan;
3.7    Brighter than sunniest day that ever shone,
3.8In happy dreams your smile makes day of night.
3.9Thus only in a dream we are at one,
3.10    Thus only in a dream we give and take
3.11        The faith that maketh rich who take or give;
3.12    If thus to sleep is sweeter than to wake,
3.13        To die were surely sweeter than to live,
3.14Though there be nothing new beneath the sun.
Poca favilla gran fliamma seconda. (Dante)
Ogni altra cosa, ogni pensier va fore,
E sol ivi con voi rimansi amore. (Petrarca)
4.2    Outsoaring mine, sang such a loftier song
4.3As drown'd the friendly cooings of my dove.
4.4    Which owes the other most? my love was long,
4.5    And yours one moment seem'd to wax more strong;
4.6I lov'd and guess'd at you, you construed me--
4.7And lov'd me for what might or might not be
4.8    Nay, weights and measures do us both a wrong.
4.9For verily love knows not "mine" or "thine;"
4.10    With separate "I" and "thou" free love has done,
4.11        For one is both and both are one in love:
4.12Rich love knows nought of "thine that is not mine;"
4.13        Both have the strength and both the length thereof,
4.14Both of us, of the love which makes us one.
Amor che a nullo amato amar perdona. (Dante)
Amor m'addusse in sì gioiosa spene. (Petrarca)
5.2    More than myself myself, God be with you,
5.3    Keep you in strong obedience leal and true
5.4To Him whose noble service setteth free,
5.5Give you all good we see or can foresee,
5.6    Make your joys many and your sorrows few,
5.7    Bless you in what you bear and what you do,
5.8Yea, perfect you as He would have you be.
5.9So much for you; but what for me, dear friend?
5.10    To love you without stint and all I can
5.11Today, tomorrow, world without an end;
5.12    To love you much and yet to love you more,
5.13    As Jordan at his flood sweeps either shore;
5.14        Since woman is the helpmeet made for man.
Or puoi la quantitate
Comprender de l'amor che a te mi scalda. (Dante)
Non vo' che da tal nodo mi scioglia. (Petrarca)
6.2    I love, as you would have me, God the most;
6.3    Would lose not Him, but you, must one be lost,
6.5Unready to forego what I forsook;
6.6    This say I, having counted up the cost,
6.7    This, though I be the feeblest of God's host,
6.8The sorriest sheep Christ shepherds with His crook.
6.9Yet while I love my God the most, I deem
6.10    That I can never love you overmuch;
6.11        I love Him more, so let me love you too;
6.12    Yea, as I apprehend it, love is such
6.13I cannot love you if I love not Him,
6.14        I cannot love Him if I love not you.
Qui primavera sempre ed ogni frutto. (Dante)
Ragionando con meco ed io con lui. (Petrarca)
7.2    "Love me, for I love you"--so shall we stand
7.3    As happy equals in the flowering land
7.4Of love, that knows not a dividing sea.
7.5Love builds the house on rock and not on sand,
7.6    Love laughs what while the winds rave desperately;
7.7And who hath found love's citadel unmann'd?
7.8    And who hath held in bonds love's liberty?
7.9My heart's a coward though my words are brave
7.10    We meet so seldom, yet we surely part
7.11    So often; there's a problem for your art!
7.13Though jealousy be cruel as the grave,
7.14    And death be strong, yet love is strong as death.
Come dicesse a Dio: D'altro non calme. (Dante)
Spero trovar pietà non che perdono. (Petrarca)
8.2    And bride of life or death she made her fair
8.3    In all the lustre of her perfum'd hair
8.4And smiles that kindle longing but to slake.
8.5She put on pomp of loveliness, to take
8.6    Her husband through his eyes at unaware;
8.7    She spread abroad her beauty for a snare,
8.8Harmless as doves and subtle as a snake.
8.9She trapp'd him with one mesh of silken hair,
8.10    She vanquish'd him by wisdom of her wit,
8.11        And built her people's house that it should stand:--
8.12        If I might take my life so in my hand,
8.13And for my love to Love put up my prayer,
8.14    And for love's sake by Love be granted it!
O dignitosa coscienza e netta! (Dante)
Spirto più acceso di virtuti ardenti. (Petrarca)
9.2    That might have been and now can never be,
9.3    I feel your honour'd excellence, and see
9.4Myself unworthy of the happier call:
9.5For woe is me who walk so apt to fall,
9.6    So apt to shrink afraid, so apt to flee,
9.7    Apt to lie down and die (ah, woe is me!)
9.8Faithless and hopeless turning to the wall.
9.9And yet not hopeless quite nor faithless quite,
9.10Because not loveless; love may toil all night,
9.11    But take at morning; wrestle till the break
9.12        Of day, but then wield power with God and man:--
9.13        So take I heart of grace as best I can,
9.14    Ready to spend and be spent for your sake.
Con miglior corso e con migliore stella. (Dante)
La vita fugge e non s'arresta un' ora. (Petrarca)
10.2    Death following hard on life gains ground apace;
10.3    Faith runs with each and rears an eager face,
10.4Outruns the rest, makes light of everything,
10.5Spurns earth, and still finds breath to pray and sing;
10.6    While love ahead of all uplifts his praise,
10.7    Still asks for grace and still gives thanks for grace,
10.8Content with all day brings and night will bring.
10.9Life wanes; and when love folds his wings above
10.10    Tired hope, and less we feel his conscious pulse,
10.11        Let us go fall asleep, dear friend, in peace:
10.12        A little while, and age and sorrow cease;
10.13    A little while, and life reborn annuls
10.14Loss and decay and death, and all is love.
Vien dietro a me e lascia dir le genti. (Dante)
Contando i casi della vita nostra. (Petrarca)
11.2    "He lov'd her"--while of me what will they say?
11.3    Not that I lov'd you more than just in play,
11.4For fashion's sake as idle women do.
11.5Even let them prate; who know not what we knew
11.6    Of love and parting in exceeding pain,
11.7    Of parting hopeless here to meet again,
11.8Hopeless on earth, and heaven is out of view.
11.9But by my heart of love laid bare to you,
11.10    My love that you can make not void nor vain,
11.11Love that foregoes you but to claim anew
11.12        Beyond this passage of the gate of death,
11.13    I charge you at the Judgment make it plain
11.14        My love of you was life and not a breath.
Amor, che ne la mente mi ragiona. (Dante)
Amor vien nel bel viso di costei. (Petrarca)
12.2    And make you happy whom I grieve to grieve,
12.3    Think not that I can grudge it, but believe
12.4I do commend you to that nobler grace,
12.5That readier wit than mine, that sweeter face;
12.6    Yea, since your riches make me rich, conceive
12.7    I too am crown'd, while bridal crowns I weave,
12.8And thread the bridal dance with jocund pace.
12.9For if I did not love you, it might be
12.10    That I should grudge you some one dear delight;
12.11        But since the heart is yours that was mine own,
12.12    Your pleasure is my pleasure, right my right,
12.13Your honourable freedom makes me free,
12.14    And you companion'd I am not alone.
E drizzeremo gli occhi al Primo Amore. (Dante)
Ma trovo peso non da le mie braccia. (Petrarca)
13.2    Shall I not rather trust it in God's hand?
13.3    Without Whose Will one lily doth not stand,
13.4Nor sparrow fall at his appointed date;
13.5    Who numbereth the innumerable sand,
13.6Who weighs the wind and water with a weight,
13.7To Whom the world is neither small nor great,
13.8    Whose knowledge foreknew every plan we plann'd.
13.9Searching my heart for all that touches you,
13.10    I find there only love and love's goodwill
13.11Helpless to help and impotent to do,
13.12        Of understanding dull, of sight most dim;
13.13        And therefore I commend you back to Him
13.14Whose love your love's capacity can fill.
E la Sua Volontade è nostra pace. (Dante)
Sol con questi pensier, con altre chiome. (Petrarca)
14.2    Dwelt beauty in so poor a face as this;
14.3    Youth gone and beauty, what remains of bliss?
14.4I will not bind fresh roses in my hair,
14.5To shame a cheek at best but little fair,--
14.6    Leave youth his roses, who can bear a thorn,--
14.7I will not seek for blossoms anywhere,
14.8    Except such common flowers as blow with corn.
14.9Youth gone and beauty gone, what doth remain?
14.10    The longing of a heart pent up forlorn,
14.11        A silent heart whose silence loves and longs;
14.12        The silence of a heart which sang its songs
14.13    While youth and beauty made a summer morn,
14.14Silence of love that cannot sing again.


1.1] Christina Rossetti prefaced her sonnet sequence with the following note: "Beatrice, immortalized by 'altissimo poeta ... cotanto amante' (loftiest poet, and lover of equal height); Laura, celebrated by a great though an 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. "The 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, 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 ...." Christina Rossetti is herself the "monna innominata" of her sequence; the sonnets record her love for Charles Cayley, whom she declined to marry primarily because of a difference in their religious views. In the following translations of the introductory lines from Dante and Petrarch, the quotations from Petrarch are identified by the first lines of the poems in which they appear.
"The day that they have said farewell to their dear friends" (Purgatorio, VIII, 3). "Love, with what great power you conquer me today" ("Io amai sempre et amo forte ancora," 12). Back to Line
2.1] "It was already the hour that turns desire homeward" (Purgatorio, VIII, 1). "I go back to the time when I first saw you" ("Vergognando talor ch'ancor si taccia," 3). Back to Line
3.1] "O shades, unreal save in outward show!" (Purgatorio, II, 79). "An imagined guide conducts her" ("S'Amor novo consiglio non n'apporta," 9). Back to Line
4.1] "A little spark fosters a great flame" (Paradiso, I, 34) "Every other thing and every thought departs, and love alone remains there with you" ("Gentil mia donna, i' veggia," 44-45). Back to Line
5.1] "Love which exempts no one beloved from loving" (Inferno, V, 103). "Love led me to such joyful hope" ("Se col cieco desir che 'l cor distrugge," 11). Back to Line
6.1] "Now you can understand the greatness of the love that burns in me for you" (Purgatorio, XXI, 133-34). "I do not wish love to release me from such a tie" ("Perché quel che mi trasse ad amar prima," 17). Back to Line
6.4] Lot's wife. Cf. Genesis 19: 26. Back to Line
7.1] "Here spring is endless, here is every fruit" (Purgatorio, XXVIII, 143; the Italian of this line frequently reads: "Qui prima-vera è sempre ed ogni frutto). "Conversing with me and I with him" ("Solo e pensoso i più deserti campi," 14). Back to Line
7.12] his Book: the Song of Solomon 8: 6: "Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, jealousy is cruel as the grave." Back to Line
8.1] "As if he said to God: 'I care for nothing else'" (Purgatorio, VIII, 12). "I hope to find pity, and not only pardon" ("Voi ch' ascoltate in rime sparse il suono," 8).
"I, if I perish, perish": Esther 4: 16. When King Ahasuerus at the instigation of his counsellor Haman ordered the destruction of the Jews in his country, Esther, his young Jewish wife, risked the king's displeasure in an attempt to save her people. Adorning herself in royal apparel, she entranced Ahasuerus by her beauty and persuaded him to revoke his edict. Back to Line
9.1] "O noble and clear conscience!" (Purgatorio, III, 8). "Spirit more aglow with ardent virtues" ("Discolorato ài, Morte, il più bel volto," 3). Back to Line
10.1] "With better course and more propitious star" (Paradiso, I, 40). "Life flies and stays not for an hour" ("La vita fugge e non s' arresta un' ora," 1). Back to Line
11.1] "Come after me and let the people chatter" (Purgatorio, V, 13). "Relating the events of our life" ("Né mai pietosa madre al caro figlio," 12). Back to Line
12.1] "Love that converses with me in my mind" (Purgatorio, II, 112). "Love approaches in the fair face of this lady" ("Quando fra l'altre donne ad ora ad ora," 2). Back to Line
13.1] "And we will direct our eyes to the First Love" (Paradiso, XXXII, 142) "But I find a burden too great for my arms" ("Vergognando talor ch' ancor si taccia," 5). Back to Line
14.1] "And His Will is our peace" (Paradiso, III, 85). "Alone with these same thoughts, with time-changed locks" ("Giovene donna sotto un verde lauro," 32). Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
RPO poem Editors: 
Margaret Frances (Sister St. Francis) Nims
RPO Edition: 
3RP 3.320.