Sunday, 30 September 2012

Sister Maude, by Christina Rosetti


Christina Rossetti begins her poem “Sister Maude” with two similar questions, asking who told her parents about her 'shame'. We do not know at this point what the narrator's shame is, but it gradually becomes clear that she was having an affair with a handsome man. In Victorian times when Rossetti was writing, this would certainly have been considered shameful. The narrator answers the questions in the first quatrain, naming her sister Maude as the person who told her parents what was happening. The quatrain ends with the narrator's comment that Maude was spying on her sister; the word 'lurked' conveys the feeling of furtiveness and slyness. The fact that the narrator says 'who but Maude' when answering the questions shows that no-one else would have betrayed the narrator in this way, that Maude was a despicable sister.

The second quatrain focuses on the narrator's lover. The word 'cold' is emphasised by its position as the initial word, and also by its repetition in the simile 'as cold as stone' in the first line. The phrase 'Cold he lies' tells us that he is now dead. In the second line of this quatrain, Rossetti uses alliteration in 'clotted curls', a phrase that also echoes the initial sound of 'cold'. The description suggests that his once beautiful hair is now possibly congealed with blood. Again in this quatrain's third line we find alliteration with the hard 'c' sound in the phrase 'comeliest corpse'. Even in death, the man is very handsome, so handsome that the final line of the quatrain tells us that he could be the lover of a queen.

In the third quatrain the narrator speaks directly to her sister, wishing that Maude had spared the soul of the man as well as the two sisters. We now understand that it was Maude who murdered the man. She was obviously jealous, and it appears that the narrator was more attractive than Maude. The narrator conveys this idea in saying that even if she had never been born, the man would not have considered having an affair with Maude.

The narrator turns to the fate of her family in the fourth quatrain. She knows that her father is at peace in heaven, or 'Paradise', whereas her mother waits at its gate. This may mean that her mother has just recently died. The narrator knows, however, that Sister Maude will never go to heaven because she has committed murder: she will 'get no sleep'. The phrase 'Either early or late' that concludes the quatrain likely means that Maude is still alive, but her conscience will not allow her any peace or sleep.

The final stanza of 'Sister Maude' stands out as it has six lines compared to the four lines of the previous stanzas. The narrator once again refers to her parents: she believes that her father in heaven perhaps wears 'a golden crown', conveying the idea that he must have lived an admirable life. Again we have the impression that her mother may be not long dead, as she 'may win' a crown in heaven. The narrator then focuses on herself and her lover. She believes that even though they were having an affair, having been cruelly murdered they may be allowed to go to heaven if they 'knocked at Heaven-gate'. In the final two lines of the poem, the narrator once again addresses Sister Maude directly, repeating her name in the penultimate line. She ends the poem by telling Maude in no uncertain terms that she will have to live, or 'Bide', 'with death and sin'. The word 'you' is emphasised with italics, drawing attention to the contrast between the fate of Maude and the rest of the family.

The poem's structure is regular in that all but the final stanza are quatrains; the last stanza has six lines, allowing Rossetti to comment on the fate of her parents, her lover, herself and finally her sister. The rhyme scheme is ABCB for the quatrains, and ABCBDB for the final stanza. The fact that the first and third lines have no rhymes gives Rossetti more freedom in her choice of vocabulary.

The notes in 'Christina Rossetti – The Complete Poems' (Penguin Classics) suggest that Rossetti was influenced in composing “Sister Maude” by Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem “The Sister's Shame”. Both follow the same theme, but Tennyson's version is written from the point of view of the sister who killed the man. A further suggestion is that both Rossetti and Tennyson were influenced by Walter Scott's “Minstrelsy”.

Death is a recurring theme in her poetry, and Christina Rossetti must also have been affected by her voluntary work at Highgate Penitentiary, a home for 'fallen' women. Her contact here with criminals of various kinds that may well have lead her to compose “Sister Maude”. She explores a relationship between two sisters that is destroyed because of Maude's jealousy of her sister's looks and the attentions of her handsome lover. After initially spying on her sister, Maude goes to the extreme lengths of murder to vent her spite. Rossetti, a deeply religious woman, concentrates on the fact that peace in heaven awaits those, such as her parents, who lead an honourable life. Her conclusion is that Maude will be haunted by her crime and will never find peace of mind.

Here is the full text of “Sister Maude”

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.

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.

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.

My father may sleep in Paradise,
My mother at Heaven-gate;
But sister Maude shall get no sleep
Either early or late.

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:
But sister Maude, oh sister Maude,
Bide you with death and sin.

Christina Rossetti – The Complete Poems, Penguin Classics, 2005 (with introduction by Betty Flowers).

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