18 May 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/20

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

There's a tragic story here, with forbidden love and untimely death, but the intense emotional focus of the poem is not so much on the love or the parents who forbade it or the violent end as it is on the unnamed speaker's relationship with her sister Maude. The story is framed by the struggle between the two young women: we hear little about the young man and nothing about how the speaker met him or what they felt for each other; instead, in the very first lines, she asks (knowing the answer quite well) who betrayed them to her parents. And at this point we don't even know what exactly she feels for the young man, because the main point is her anger with her sister. She refers to her shame, which presumably means her relations with the young man have gone beyond love into physical intimacy and possibly even pregnancy. She uses the word, but as we read on we soon see that shame is not what she feels; though she is held within the social strictures that condemn her lover and their affair, she treats them with defiance. Shame is the term she throws back at her sister; it is the attitude of and probably the very word used by tale-bearing Maude, who is identified by her sister with narrow-minded, mean-spirited moralism.

In the second stanza we find out that the lover is dead. He lies there cold as a stone. We can guess that he was murdered from the clotted curls: clotted can mean to cover something with sticky matter, in this case blood. But it's also possible that the lovers were attempting to flee and in their hurry met with an accident that brought the intended elopement to a bloody end – we're not told; all we really know is that the young man is dead, and by some violent means that, we can infer, was brought on by Maude's betrayal. Even before we are told he is still comely when a corpse we can tell that he was beautiful from the curls, which are kind of short-hand for a somewhat dandyish masculine beauty and perhaps for high social standing as well, as in Othello's "the wealthy curlèd darlings of our nation." Was his (conjectured) social rank the reason for her parents' objections to him? We are never told. All we find out directly about him was that he was beautiful, the speaker loved him, and she continues to love him. The action as presented to us centers around Maude: we don't find out how or where the lovers met or what her parents said to her or how the youth was killed, but we do find out that Maude suspected them, spied on them, and betrayed them to her parents, which precipitated the disaster.

In the third stanza, the speaker rebukes Maude for, in essence, choosing the letter of the law over loving-kindness: she didn't need to spy, or to tattle. The speaker frames this stanza in terms of their souls: more than their bodies, it's their souls, their spiritual health, that matters. Again, as with shame in the first line, the speaker uses the standard language of piety, but on her own terms. The speaker runs down the damage (mixing spiritual with physical) that Maude's act of enforcing morality has caused: first to the young man, now lying there dead; next to the speaker, who has lost her soul mate (and perhaps she also suspects some spiritual damage caused by her cold fury at her sister; in addition, perhaps there's an implication here that, having lost her lover, the speaker is planning to join him in death); and finally to Maude herself, whose betrayal of the lovers has destroyed several lives and narrowed or even destroyed her own soul. And here, in the center of the poem, the speaker slices right to the heart, exposing the selfishness and jealousy and general low-mindedness behind Maude's morality: Though I had not been born at all, / He'd never have looked at you. This may sound spiteful, even cruel, but given Maude's actions, we can't dismiss this remark that way – instead, we get the feeling that the speaker is exposing the truth (possibly as part of her last speech on earth) about the unloved and unloving Maude.

Maude may be living a conventionally virtuous life, but she, not the disobedient lovers, is the one who is presented as truly unethical. The thought here reminds me of the forest scene in The Scarlet Letter, in which Hester asserts to her partner in adultery, the guilt-ridden Reverend Dimmesdale, their moral superiority over the officially wronged husband, Roger Chillingworth, since they have (I'm working from memory, but I believe this is the exact wording) "never violated the sanctity of a human heart." The speaker here joins a great nineteenth-century tradition of women who, guided by their sensual feelings, reject conventional social and moral standards in favor of a bolder, more questioning approach to life (some other examples would be Hester Prynne herself, Catherine Earnshaw in Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, Gilda in Verdi's Rigoletto (a characterization which I assume comes from Hugo, though I've never read Le Roi S'Amuse, the play on which the opera is based), and Browning's Pompilia).

After the speaker's piercing remarks on her sister's real motives, the tone switches, as if that remark allowed her to leave behind this troubled earth and direct her thoughts to the afterlife (and to the last judgment she is going to mete out to Maude). In this fourth stanza, it is hinted that the parents, too, are dead, possibly victims of whatever incident or attack resulted in the young man's death. They are spoken of here, and again in the final stanza, as dead, but only in a conditional sense, and nothing is said about their physical bodies, but only about their after-lives: their father may sleep in Paradise, the mother may sleep at the gate of Heaven, and they may wear golden gowns and crowns (symbols of life in Paradise: again, the speaker does not reject the conventional symbols of religion and morality, but she does take her own approach to them). Whatever the parents have done to her and her lover, she has forgiven, but she can't forgive Maude. She contrasts the heavenly rest of the parents with the sleeplessness that will (she announces it like a curse) afflict Maude (perhaps there is a reminiscence here of the guilt-ridden Macbeth: Sleep no more, Macbeth does murder sleep – Maude, too, is responsible for death, however indirectly).

In the final stanza, the speaker reiterates the possibility of her parents getting into Heaven, and then, defying conventional religious and social thought, suggests that she and her lover (the rebellious, carnal pair) may also be admitted into Heaven. Perhaps that is another suggestion that the speaker is planning to commit suicide, joining the earlier hint when she listed her own soul among those destroyed by Maude. (If so, thinking that a suicide could get into Heaven is another act of defiance against conventional beliefs.) She has spoken conditionally and elliptically of her parents and her lover, hinting at a terrible and violent tragedy, but she closes with a final and clear assertion: Heaven remains closed to one party involved in this calamity, and that is Maude, the sneaky guardian of morality. Bide you with death and sin may just mean that Maude will be the only one left in this world of sin and death, since her actions have ended the lives of the rest of them. But the mention of Death and Sin reminds me of Paradise Lost, in which the incestuous self-devouring triangle of Satan, Sin, and Death acts as a diabolical parody of the Holy Trinity. Since the speaker here mentions death and sin, and tells Maude to remain with them, she seems to be reversing conventional definitions of a good daughter and identifying the technically pure Maude with the missing member of the trio: that is, with Satan, the enemy of life and joy and true morality.

I took this from the Penguin Classics edition of Christina Rossetti: The Complete Poems. It was originally published in Rossetti's 1862 volume Goblin Market and Other Poems; in that collection's famous title poem, you'll find a very different story of two sisters, in which one sister risks her life to save the other from supernatural destruction. As with this poem, though, the main emotional focus of that work is the relationship between the two young women.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Such a layered and interesting poem about morality. Don't think for a moment that I didn't enjoy the soap opera aspect of it as well. I love how so much of it is left to the imagination, too. I found it particularly interesting that Maude is the only named person. She is the accused and all the victims get some anonymity. I will add the novel, Atonement, to the list of literature that this reminds me of.