With this poem, Sister Maude, the speaker allows the reader to enter into her own feelings of loss and betrayal. The worst kind of betrayal is that of the family, and here, the speaker believes that her own sister betrayed her because of jealousy. The results of this betrayal were tragic, and the speaker addresses her sister in regards to what she has done.
Sister Maude Analysis
Who told my mother of my shame,
Who told my father of my dear?
Oh who but Maude, my sister Maude,
Who lurked to spy and peer.
These lines reveal that Maude’s first act of betrayal was to tell her parents of the speaker’s lover. Somehow, this was revealing the speaker’s “shame” to her mother by telling her father about her “dear”. She knows that no one could have told them except for her sister, Maude. This reveals that the speaker has trusted her sister with private information that was not to be shared with their parents. Because the speaker had trusted her sister with this information, it makes the betrayal all the more horrible.
Cold he lies, as cold as stone,
With his clotted curls about his face:
The comeliest corpse in all the world
And worthy of a queen’s embrace.
There is a sharp turn of events with these lines. While the first lines seem like merely a petty feud between sisters, line five reveals the deeper and more serious nature of the secret the speaker intended to keep. These lines reveal that the speaker’s lover is now dead, “cold as stone”. She describes “his clotted curls about his face” and calls him “the comeliest corpse in all the world”. Yet, she still sees him as royalty. She describes him as “worthy of a queen’s embrace”. The speaker does not reveal why Maude’s betrayal lead to the death of her lover. That is left to the reader’s imagination. But she does conclude that her lover’s death was a direct result of her sister’s betrayal.
You might have spared his soul, sister,
Have spared my soul, your own soul too:
Though I had not been born at all,
He’d never have looked at you.
With these lines, the speaker addresses Maude directly and tells her that she might have spared him, herself, and her sister (the speaker). It is clear that the speaker accuses her own sister of being the cause of her lover’s death. Then, she gives the reason. She tells her sister that the dead man would never have looked at her (Maude) even if she (the speaker) had never been born. This reveals to the readers that Maude’s reason for betraying the speaker came down to pure jealousy.
My father may sleep in Paradise,
My mother at Heaven-gate:
But sister Maude shall get no sleep
Either early or late.
With these lines, the speaker reveals that she does not blame her father nor her mother. For some reason, Maude’s actions of telling her parents about her sister’s lover was related to his death. And yet, the speaker does not blame her parents. She implies that they are innocent by claiming that they will be in paradise when they die. But for her sister, she wishes her to have no rest at all because of what she has done.
My father may wear a golden gown,
My mother a crown may win;
If my dear and I knocked at Heaven-gate
Perhaps they’d let us in:
With these lines, the speaker emphasizes the innocence of her parents by claiming that they will have crowns someday in Heaven. She even claims that there is a chance that she and her lover would both be allowed into heaven.
But sister Maude, oh sister Maude,
Bide you with death and sin.
With these last two lines, the speaker separates Maude from every other person mentioned in the poem. While the speaker seems to think that she, her lover, and her parents will be allowed into Heaven, she clearly believes that Maude will spend all of eternity “with death and sin”. It is unclear exactly what Maude’s sin was, save for that it was some kind of betrayal. It is also unclear how this betrayal lead to the death of the speaker’s lover. All of these details are left ambiguous.
Christina Rossetti Background
From what is known about Rossetti, she was a highly religious woman who never married and even broke off an engagement because her fiance had become a Roman Catholic, and she was a loyal member of the Anglican church. This poem brings in many of her beliefs. She clearly believed in Heaven and Hell, and in the importance of being honest and true to one another. The speaker in the poem views her sister as a “Judas” figure, and the act of betrayal she saw as unforgivable because it lead to the death of the one whom she loved. The fact that the author experienced a broken engagement reveals that she could somewhat relate to the speaker in the loss of a loved one. There is no information to suggest that Rossetti’s broken engagement had anything to do with the betrayal of a sister, but the poem allows the reader to imagine what that kind of situation would feel like.
When reading this poem, it is important to remember the time period in which Rossetti lived, 1830-1894. These were often perilous times. In the Victorian ages, minor offenses could often lead to death. These minor offenses included, poaching, writing a threatening letter, strong evidence of malice, and of course rape and murder (Hale). Thus, it is not too far fetched to suggest that perhaps the speaker’s lover had committed some crime that would have him executed if found. Perhaps the sister’s betrayal led to the finding of her lover, which eventually led to his death. All of these details are purposely left unclear.
- Hale, Beth. “The 222 Victorian Crimes That Would Get a Man Hanged.” Mail Online. Associated Newspapers, 02 Aug. 2009. Web. 03 Aug. 2016.