Maude Clare

Overview
Another poem about the plight of women who engage in sexual relationships before getting a ring on their finger. The jilted woman, Maude Clare, shows up at her former lover’s wedding and carries herself like a queen, while the bride, Nell, is described in terms of simplicity. We witness the shame that society would traditional cast upon Maude Clare, for her lack of purity, being transferred to the man as she shames him for his previous romantic liaisons with her in front of his new wife, parents and friends.

Click the tabs on the left to view each stanza.

Stanzas 1-3Stanzas 4-6Stanzas 7-9Stanzas 10-12

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.

“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;

“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.” 

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.

“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.

“Here’s my half of the golden chain
You wore about your neck,
That day we waded ankle-deep
For lilies in the beck: 

“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.”

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.

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. 

“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.”

“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.

“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.

Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.

ContextThemesContentStructureTone

Context

Composed in 1859 and published in Goblin Market and Other Poems, this poem deals with the common theme of the fallen woman.

Remember that Rossetti began working as a volunteer at the St Mary Magdalene house of charity, which was a refuge for former prostitutes wanting to sort their lives out. I am not for a second suggesting that the character Maude Clare is a prostitute, but we certainly see Rossetti presenting the perspective of the condemned female in a very conservative and patriarchal society.

 Themes

Already covered, but Rossetti is championing female rights and status and trying to demonstrate that the shame cast on women who are sexually active is deeply hypocritical and unfair.

Content

We start at the end of a wedding as the bride and groom make their way out of the church. Maude Clare follows the couple and is compared favourably to the bride, as if she is more worthy and respectable.

Rossetti reveals the groom is Sir Thomas and his mother wishes him a happy and long marriage like her own. She explains her own wedding was spoiled in the same way as his is being now, as his father had his own Maude Clare, but she suggests that they weren’t as ashamed as Sir Thomas and Nell seem to be now. This could imply that values in society are changing somewhat.

In the fourth stanza we learn precisely why the bride and groom are so pale with shame. Long before Sir Thomas and Nell had got together he had engaged in his relationship with Maude Clare. Now clearly she feels a bit miffed by this and has decided to show him up at his wedding. Although she offers them a wedding gift, we should be wary of it as it is clearly not meant as a blessing for the marriage.

She offers them half of a necklace that they’d shared while together. This seems to represent how substantial their relationship was and the commitment they’d made to each other. I’ll explain why they were ankle-deep in the lily pond in the next section, but by now you should be figuring this sort of stuff out for yourself (think about what lilies represent).

Actually she’s brought more naff gifts. Fallen leaves and a budding lily. Now I will explain this below, but this really adds spice to the poem as the budding lily clearly represents a bun in the oven.

At first Sir Thomas’ attitude is ‘screw you, bugger off’, but he hasn’t got the heart for it and feels deeply guilty. He can’t get out what he wants to say and Maude Clare turns her attention to Nell and gifts her the inconsistent heart of Sir Thomas that she thought she’d owned. Maude is trying to denigrate Sir Thomas and make Nell question her own position in the relationship and whether Thomas will make a good husband.

Fair play to Nell, remember she is basically an innocent in all this, she turns round and tells Maude to get stuffed and that she will value Sir Thomas and that for all Maude’s superior looks and intellect, she has his love and has won.

Language and techniques

Let’s begin with the respective descriptions of Maude Clare and Nell. Maude has a ‘lofty step and mien’ and is compared to ‘a queen’, which suggests she does not bow her head with shame, but walks with pride and confidence. Her superiority is acknowledged by Nell who admits she is ‘taller by the head,/More wise and much more fair’. This confident bearing is furthered by her deliberately antagonistic gifts and direct speech delivered with ‘scorn’ – accusing a lord of being ‘fickle’ and ‘paltry’. The way she holds herself should be recognisable as the archetypal image of hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, but is far from the expected manner for a woman in Victorian society, particularly one in her position without the status of marriage or motherhood to give her authority.

In contrast Rossetti uses a simile to compare Nell to ‘a village girl’. It is highly unlikely that Sir Thomas would actually marry beneath him socially, but the comparison suggests simplicity of appearance and also has connotations of innocence, virginity alongside a lack of culture or refinement of character in comparison to Maude Clare. Nell is described as being ‘pale with pride’, which makes me think two things: (1) she is shamed by Maude Clare’s presence, but is bristling with defiance against this woman and is proud enough to fight for this marriage (2) ‘pale’ is a further suggestions of virginity and innocence and she does not share the shame of her husband, and, in fact, is the most respectable person in the poem.

Notice that in the fourth stanza Maude Clare is described as having been ‘pale’ previously; however, she is no longer described in those terms. This implies that her innocence has been lost with Sir Thomas and indeed we see the same from her gifts to him. She offers ‘my half of the golden chain’ which implies they had made a commitment to each other as awful teenagers do these days with those necklaces with half a heart that fit with another necklace worn by their partner. In this case it is clear that Sir Thomas has the other half and thus had made promises to Maude Clare (no wonder she is so angry and being a mega bitch!).

If we explore this gift a bit more it gets even more scandalous. The necklace was given after they had ‘waded ankle-deep/For lilies in the beck’. I could suggest some really disgusting sexual metaphor here with the ‘ankle-deep’ bit, but will leave that to you. However, I will explore the significance of these ‘lilies in the beck’, which I believe represent the consummation of their relationship sexually. Lilies are used as symbols of innocence and purity and here they are being knee-deep in the stream (‘beck’) chasing fallen lilies.

Rossetti’s language continues to imply the loss of Maude Clare’s virginity in the seventh stanza as the next gift is leaves that they’d ‘plucked from the budding bough’, which has connotations of a tree in full fertility and bloom and the word ‘plucked’ always links to the deflowering of virgins in my experience of poetry – maybe because it sounds like a certain other word that has less poetic merit. Anyway, they do all this plucking and wading and the result is that the ‘lilies are budding now’ which implies that they have somehow manage to make more lilies grow. I think this is a clear suggestion that she is now pregnant and is literally ‘budding’ out with a big old stomach. Imagine that! Poor Nell really must be annoyed at the skeleton’s in Sir Thomas’ cupboard that have managed to ruin her big day!

This brings me onto another important point to make – Rossetti’s comment on the values of society. Although Maude Clare may not be a typical Victorian woman, she is not the one this poem condemns and the fact she manages this aggressive assault and maintains her queenly gait and demeanour suggests we should be on her side. In contrast we have Sir Thomas ‘pale with inward strife’ and who ‘hid his face’, which shows the guilt and shame he feels for his actions even though they have not really effected him or the quality of his life directly – he is still lord and is still able to marry without obstacle.

In addition, while Maude Clare is able to speak with ‘scorn’ from a position of righteousness, he ‘faltered’ when he tried to take the same attitude. This implies he knows he is in the wrong and doesn’t dare to stand up for himself. Rossetti’s decision to have him stuttering and unable to speak beyond her name furthers this impression. Notice too that he begins by addressing her as ‘lady’, which is remote and impersonal, but then shifts to ‘Maude Clare’ implying former intimacy.

Although Sir Thomas’ ‘lady mother’ claims that, despite her father having a similar tale to tell at their wedding, ‘he was not so pale as you’, which tells us that he did not feel the same level of shame as Thomas. I think this reflects the fact that society’s attitudes were beginning to shift as the father clearly isn’t made to feel the same shame as Thomas, and the son’s guilt indicates he knows this is not really acceptable. Alternatively the dad might just be a cold and heartless git.

The whole poem seems to be Rossetti protesting about the hypocrisy of expectations on young men and women. Clearly they all share the same sexual desires – interestingly Sir Thomas’ mum says she wasn’t ‘so pale as Nell’, perhaps suggesting she’d had a role in the hay before getting married – but for women giving into these temptations is life ruining, while men are barely effected. Sir Thomas’ shame and Maude’s anger are meant to demonstrate the absurdity of these values.

However, we also have Nell who acts contrary to this message. her defiance of Maude Clare’s criticism of her husband are met with definitive statements of her commitment: ‘I’ll take’, ‘I’ll wear’, ‘I’ll love him’. She is clinging onto traditional roles for women and wants to ensure her own respectability. Fair enough, she’s done nothing wrong, but Rossetti uses her character to show how men get off the hook while women are screwed.

Structure

This is a ballad, although the rhyme in each quatrain doesn’t follow the traditional ABAB rhyme scheme, but instead is ABCB. This is a bit more awkward than the regular scheme and is at times uncomfortable to read and mirrors the feeling of discomfort in the poem’s narrative.

You could also mention the dominance of dialogue in this poem, and particularly from female characters, as being a tool used by Rossetti to highlight female perspective and give them a voice in a society that was pretty repressive for women.

I forgot to mention in the language section – but it is really a structural thing – that you could mention the repetition of ‘brought my gift’ and ‘to bless’ in the fifth stanza as being used to emphasise Maude Clare’s scornful tone as she sarcastically presents her anger as gifts and blessings.

Tone

Difficult! I guess the overwhelming feeling is one of shame and embarrassment towards Sir Thomas, but that is mainly portrayed in the dialogue, while Rossetti’s narrative is more reflective and trying to challenge us and our beliefs about male and female roles.

Author: Mr Sir

Although I've only been teaching Literature since 2011 and did my degree in History, I think that makes me better placed than many Lit teachers to provide notes that make sense and aren't garbled and wrapped up with inaccessible terminology and effluent nonsense. After adventures in Uganda and Uzbekistan, I am now settling down in the Netherlands. However, currently I am just about as unsettled as I have ever been, with a new job, a new baby, a new country and a hundred other things going on! Ask me a question, collaborate or abuse me.

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