"Maude Clare," by Christina Rossetti, deals differently with the common Pre-Raphaelite theme of tragic love than do contemporary members of the PRB. While Dante Gabriel Rossetti's poems infuse love with elements of tragedy through the introduction of death, Christina Rossetti's work, 'Maude Clare" deals with a more complex form of tragic love. As Lord Thomas's previous love, Maude Clare's presence sullies the nuptials between Nell and him, adding conflict to the wedding day occasion. Neither bride nor groom experience pure joy during the occasion because of Maude Clare's conspicuous attendance:
My lord was pale with inward strife,
And Nell was pale with pride;
Rather than using flowery description or hard-edged realism, like her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Christina Rossetti primarily composes her narrative poem of dialogue. Her unusual preponderance of dialogue with little attention to description of the environment gives the reader a sense of watching a scene in a play, rather than reading a poem.
Instead of stealing the focus of the wedding day, as one would traditionally expect, the bride forfeits all the attention to Maude Clare. A former lover (perhaps a very recent lover) of Lord Thomas, Maude usurps the reader's attention as the focal point of the narrative at the outset of the first stanza:
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.
Rossetti continues to contrast Maude Clare and the bride throughout the poem. Nell serves as a secondary character, speaking only in retaliation to Maude Clare's non-too-well masked jabs, and pales, literally and figuratively, in comparison to Maude Clare's stature and personage. As an ironic wedding gift, Maude Clare offers Thomas and Nell both physical amulets of love like 'half of the golden chain" that Thomas wore, as well as a more biting gift of her 'share of a fickle heart." Though Rossetti doesn't specifically delineate the exact circumstances that lead to this uncomfortably awkward and emotionally charged wedding scene, she highlights the profound tension between Maude Clare and Nell. Furthermore, Lord Thomas struggles to reconcile his marital vows and obligations to Nell with Maude Clare, the 'More wise, and much more fair" other woman. Maude Clare claims that she has washed her hands of Thomas and that Nell can have his heart, which lacks 'bloom" or 'dew", implying that it has somehow lost its sparkle. The tone of her words and her conspicuous domination of the scene reveal her true, somewhat bitter attachments, however. In the end when, in a curt exchange of dialogue, the two women shoot venom-charged words at one another, Nell's retaliation concludes the poem. The interchange reminds us of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream when, while fighting over Lysander's affections, Helena attacks Hermia by calling her a puppet, prompting the deterioration of the argument into a clawing, biting, physical confrontation:
"Yea, tho' 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."
Though not the blushing, bubbling bride that one might stereotypically expect, Nell gets the last word, but not the last thought. Rossetti's choice to emphasize Maude Clare's name in the finale leaves the reader to ponder the impending doom of Thomas and Nell's marriage. With the looming presence of Maude Clare at their wedding, acting as a bad omen for the marriage in general, it's unlikely that Thomas will ever love Nell the best, as she hopes. The tragedy lies not in a spiritual love lost by means of mortality, but instead in the interplay of a love triangle that leaves all parties unsatisfied, confused, and still longing for an ill-manifested vision of love.
1. The originally published manuscript version of 'Maude Clare" had forty-one stanzas, as compared to the 1862 version, which contained twelve. According to Anthony H. Harrison, the more detailed, longer version paints a picture of Maude Clare as a sympathetic character with whom the reader can truly identify. How does Rossetti portray Maude Clare in the shorter, 1862 version? Can the reader empathize with her or is her disruption of the wedding scene depicted as nasty and underhanded?
2. Although dialogue dominates the poem, it has two stanzas of pure narration. Still, however, Rossetti does not give the narrator a clear identity. Who is the narrator? What purpose does she serve? What impact does the narrator's relative anonymity have on the poem?
3. There are two moments in the poem when Rossetti references the natural world. In the sixth and seventh stanzas while describing a romantic day Thomas and Maude Clare spend together, she writes about the 'faded leaves" and the lilies through which the lovers wade. The seventh stanza ends with: ''The lilies are budding now'." What significance does the natural world, specifically the lilies, have in the poem?
4. Compare 'Maude Clare" to 'After Death." How are Nell and the speaker in 'After Death" similar? What contrasts are there between these two depictions of tragic love? How do they differ from other PRB depictions of tragic love, like 'The Blessed Damozel" or 'Porphyria's Lover"?
5. What qualities of the ideal Victorian woman do Nell and Maude Clare embody? Could either be likened to Dante Gabrielle Rossetti's Fair Lady? Why or why not?
Last modified 28 October 2003