Maude Clare by Christina Rossetti

As a form of literature, poetry is an art form that can go into incredible detail to tell stories and share experiences in a way that can be both relatable and completely detached from the reader. A poet is a storyteller in many ways, and Christina Rossetti takes this role very literally in Maude Clare, combining the two forms into a poem that incorporates setting, style, and multiple characters alongside typical poetic conventions. The limitation of using a poem to tell a story, of course, is in the stylistic limitations of the form; Rossetti needs to choose her words carefully and make each line impactful to convey as much story as she can in these short verses, and yet she does so extremely well.

Another interesting point of Maude Clare is that it offers insight into the time from which it was written. Rossetti lived during the later half of the nineteenth century in England, and she was a very popular poet of her time. Such a poem as this one, therefore, serves as a unique gateway into a time period long passed, and provides the reader with insight into the values, movements, and ideals of its time. In all, Maude Clare is a uniquely interesting work with both an interesting story and historic context that helps it to stand out from Rossetti’s many famous works.


Maude Clare Analysis

Out of the church she followed them

With a lofty step and mien:

His bride was like a village maid,

Maude Clare was like a queen.

The poem begins with its first of twelve quatrains, each adhering to a roughly equal syllable count and rhyming pattern (ABCB). This verse uses the word “lofty,” and the poem itself reads as somewhat lofty, as though it is being performed for the reader. The consistency in rhyme and beat give it a light kind of quality. In particular, the way the sentences are structured — “Out of the church she followed them” instead of “She followed them out of the church,” for instance — gives this poem a particular atmosphere that feels casual, enhancing the narrative quality of the work.

The first verse introduces three characters: a man and his bride, along with the title character, Maude Clare. The only action that occurs in this verse is that Maude Clare is following the newlyweds, and the word choice — “lofty” and “mein” in particular — imply that she is feeling some kind of superiority over them. The description of the bride being “like a village maid” with Maude Clare being “like a queen” agrees with this, and also suggests that the narration, while clearly third-person, is adopting Maude Clare’s point of view somewhat. If so, Maude Clare’s opinion of herself is evidently rather positive, and that she describes the man’s wife in particular suggests a past of bad blood between the two.

“Son Thomas,” his lady mother said,

With smiles, almost with tears:

“May Nell and you but live as true

As we have done for years;

The second verse introduces a fourth character while providing names for the two from the first verse. We learn that the man’s name is Thomas, and his bride is named Nell. Thomas’s mother, also present, is clearly happy with the match. Her descriptions of smiles and near tears together give this verse a joyous atmosphere, as befits the time immediately following a wedding. She wishes her son and daughter-in-law all the happiness of her own marriage (presumably; all she says is “we,” but it is difficult to imagine she is referring to anyone other than her own partner). Largely, this verse introduces a good-natured atmosphere to the piece, strangely absent from the first verse. Considering that the setting of this piece is immediately following a wedding, it would make sense for the smiles and tears of joy to introduce the poem — but as the title and first verse serve to imply, this is not to be the focus of the story.

“Your father thirty years ago

Had just your tale to tell;

But he was not so pale as you,

Nor I so pale as Nell.”

Thomas’s mother continues her dialogue from the previous verse, and explains that thirty years ago, presumably the length of Thomas’s parents’ marriage, his father was in a similar situation as Thomas is in now. She remarks, however, that Thomas and Nell are both very pale, and that this wasn’t quite the case for her own marriage. The implication here is that Thomas and Nell are less happy with their own partnership than Thomas’s parents were in theirs, though “pale” could be representative of any number of things. It is likely to mean, however, that there is something notable on Thomas and Nell’s minds besides their own wedding.

My lord was pale with inward strife,

And Nell was pale with pride;

My lord gazed long on pale Maude Clare

Or ever he kissed the bride.

The fourth verse comes in to explain the paleness held by each person, and their reasons are exact opposites of one another. Nell is pale as a physical reaction to her own pride, indicating that she is in fact very happy with her new marriage and husband. Thomas, on the other hand, is experiencing a more traditional cause for pale skin: he is feeling stress. He has also noticed Maude Clare following him and is watching her intently — hardly the behaviour of a happy newlywed — and notices how pale her own skin is. As the only male character present, it makes sense to believe that “my lord” refers to Thomas, who is reminding himself that he “kissed the bride,” indicating the final element of the marital ceremony. This implies that he is trying to stop himself from feeling anything towards Maude Clare that would be inappropriate in the wake of his recent marriage.

“Lo, I have brought my gift, my lord,

Have brought my gift, ” she said:

To bless the hearth, to bless the board,

To bless the marriage-bed.

Maude Clare addresses Thomas in her first lines, which are heavily based in repetition, which serves two main purposes. The first is to contribute to the light storytelling by enhancing the beat of the piece. The second is to give her words additional weight — it is important that Maude Clare has a gift for the man who cannot stop staring at her, and she continues to use the word “bless,” implying that Thomas will need blessings to manage his hew life, home, and, in particular (emphasized by having its own line), marital bed.

“Here’s my half of the golden chain

You wore about your neck,

That day we waded ankle-deep

For lilies in the beck:

Maude Clare presents her gift, and it tells the reader a lot about her past and Thomas’s. Her first gift is half of a golden chain necklace. She reminds him that once, the two of them waded through a stream in the mountains (a beck) because they wanted to pick lilies that grew there. Immediately, the reader is served up the suggestion that Thomas and Maude Clare used to be a couple, who would spend as much time together as they could; that he went out of his way to pick particular flowers for her, and that she kept mementoes of those times, such as the necklace he wore on the specific day he picked them.

“Here’s my half of the faded leaves

We plucked from the budding bough,

With feet amongst the lily leaves, –

The lilies are budding now.”

The second half of Maude Clare’s gift is a pile of leaves, which are symbolic of that same day with the lilies, and which she also kept as a memory of her time with him. They picked the leaves at the same time as the lilies, which she notes are in the budding stage of their growth. The metaphorical meaning for this could well be that Maude Clare believes that their relationship ended prematurely, and that now is the time that she and Thomas should be marrying and beginning their own life together — “budding,” in a sense, themselves.

He strove to match her scorn with scorn,

He faltered in his place:

“Lady, ” he said, – “Maude Clare, ” he said, –

“Maude Clare, ” – and hid his face.

Thomas gets his own first lines now, and he wants to stand up to Maude Clare in spectacular fashion. Instead, he manages to say her name twice, call her “Lady” once, and turn away, embarrassed and ashamed. He is unable to stand up for himself or for his wife in the face of his old lover’s mockery, and she is succeeding in embarrassing him, presumably her original intention.

She turn’d to Nell: “My Lady Nell,

I have a gift for you;

Though, were it fruit, the blooms were gone,

Or, were it flowers, the dew.

While Thomas is stammering his reply, Maude Clare turns her attention to Nell and says that she also has a gift for the bride. Her metaphor, that her gift is a flower without dew and fruit without flower, is an interesting one that indicates that her gift is incomplete; missing the very thing that makes it desirable in the first place. She is polite to Nell, interestingly enough, referring to her as “My Lady,” despite her clear disdain for the union.

“Take my share of a fickle heart,

Mine of a paltry love:

Take it or leave it as you will,

I wash my hands thereof.”

Nell’s gift from Maude Clare is Thomas himself; she declares that she no longer wants anything to do with Thomas and his “fickle heart.” She reminds Nell that leaving Thomas is still an option in some sense, and that she doesn’t care one way or the other. That she describes Thomas as “a fickle heart” is telling, and suggests that the reason she and him broke up their own relationship was so that he could be with Nell — or potentially another woman, for that matter. Despite this, her words are a clear indication that she intends to sow dissension and mistrust between the newlyweds, and likely cares more than she indicates here.

“And what you leave, ” said Nell, “I’ll take,

And what you spurn, I’ll wear;

For he’s my lord for better and worse,

And him I love Maude Clare.

Unlike Thomas, however, Nell has a ready answer for the angry woman. In her own first lines of the story, Nell declares that she is glad to hear that Maude Clare is leaving now, because she vowed to love Thomas “for better and worse,” as befits the marriage vows they’ve taken. She says that she loves Thomas and that if he does love Maude Clare more than he loves her, then she will be patient and love him anyway; that she will be his wife and his friend and will be happy with her situation. The poem concludes in much the same note, with Nell acknowledging that Maude Clare is smarter, taller, and prettier than she is, but that doesn’t matter, because she will love her husband regardless, and that makes all the difference in the world.

“Yea, though you’re taller by the head,

More wise and much more fair:

I’ll love him till he loves me best,

Me best of all Maude Clare.”


Historical Context

Christina Rossetti spent most of her life living in the Victorian era in England. Her upbringing was not an easy one; while she was constantly surrounded by art, poetry, and inspiration, she also had to deal with significant struggle after her father was diagnosed with a severe mental illness, preventing him from working and debilitating his physical health. As a result, Christina Rossetti and her mother became involved with the Church of England, making religion an important aspect of their lives. Rossetti often found religion and faith to be sources of inspiration in her work —“In the Bleak Midwinter,” for example, is a Christmas carol written (lyrically only) by Rossetti.

Maude Clare was first published in Rossetti’s volume, Goblin Market and Other Poems, in 1862, some time after Rossetti’s initial turn to religious devotion. For her to write the story of Maude Clare is interesting, because this story offers notable insight into the cultural custom of marriage in Victorian England. The roles of the woman scorned, the ideal bride, the husband, and the mother are all explored in this poem. Notably, in Victorian England, there was a particular “place” for a woman with regards to her relationship with her husband or lover. The descriptions of intimacy between Maude Clare and Thomas, for example, would have been considered inappropriate for two people who were not married at the time. The perspective of Nell, who chooses to stand by her marital vows regardless of her husband’s feelings is also an interesting commentary for Victorian England, and a standard attitude for the time.

In a Victorian setting, despite Maude Clare being the seeming ideal match for Thomas — she is described as being prettier, smarter, and, if her gifts are any indication, well-suited for his company — the virtue expressed by Nell would have been seen as a significant boost in her favour for readers deciding which was the better match. Nell’s love makes her stand out in a better way than Maude Clare’s scorn, and this was an important aspect of Victorian culture that is well-worth exploring in this work.

Christina Rossetti’s commentary does not indicate her own opinion on the practice; her own beliefs are kept out of the piece. What inspired her to write the story and whether or not she can identify with any of its characters is unknown. It seems likely that Rossetti was a woman surrounded by a society that defined a woman’s place in the world, and sought to add her own voice to that crowd. As a story about what love and marriage mean, it is an interesting tale, especially considering that Rossetti herself never married, despite having received at least three proposals in her lifetime. At least one of these declinations is known to have been motivated by religious reasons, so it is interesting to see Rossetti comment on marriage, especially considering the close relationship between religion and marriage for the time.

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