Poetry Across Time: Relationships
Before we analyse the poem in detail, it is important to understand what the poem is about i.e. the main content of the poem.
A sibling complains that her sister Maude has revealed details about a private relationship to their parents and has caused the death of the relationship. The speaker is bitter and resentful.
Stanza one: The speaker asks who has informed her mother of her ‘shame’ and asks who has told her father of her ‘dear’. The question is answered by the speaker herself – it is her sister Maude. The speaker is angry, accusing Maude of lurking ‘to spy and peer’. Maude has evidently related private matters to their parents.
Stanza two: The speaker relates the fact that her lover is dead: ‘cold as stone’. However, the lover is still attractive in death being, the ‘comeliest corpse in all the world’. He is said to be ‘worthy of a queen’s embrace’.
Stanza three: The speaker acknowledges that Maude may have ‘spared’ her lover’s ‘soul’ as well as her own but stresses that even if she hadn’t been born, her lover would ‘never have looked’ at Maude.
Stanza four: Even though their parents may reside in either ‘Paradise’ or ‘Heaven-gate’, Maude will not be able to sleep during the day or night.
Stanza five: Their mother and father may be able to achieve crowning glory in Heaven and the speaker and her lover may also be admitted, but Maude never will be: she will always be the companions of ‘death and sin’.
Form & Structure (AO2)
The poem is constructed using four quatrains and a sestet, rhyming abcb and abcbdb respectively. What is the effect of the change of stanza form in the last stanza?
Rossetti uses the ballad form for this poem.
Ballads traditionally are written:
• In quatrains (4 line stanzas)
• Use the rhyme schemes: abab or abcb. The second and fourth lines always rhyme but the first and third aren't required to do so.
• The metre alternates between iambic tetrameter and trimeter (i.e. the first and third lines are iambic tetrameters; the second and fourth lines are iambic trimeters).
• The word 'ballad' derives from ballare, the Italian for 'to dance'.
• Ballads usually tell a story.
• Although the quatrain is often used, a sestet (six-line stanza) can also be employed e.g. Wilde's 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol' and Lewis Carroll's 'The Walrus and the Carpenter'.
Rossetti tends to vary the metre within the poem to achieve different effects.
In the opening stanza, Rossetti deviates from the traditional metric construction of the ballad stanza. The first and the third lines are as one would expect: they are iambic tetrameter; the fourth line also conforms to the traditional metric pattern: it is an iambic trimeter. However, the second line is not an iambic trimeter but an iambic tetrameter:
u / u / u / u /
Who told my mother of my shame,
u / u / u / u /
Who told my father of my dear?
u / u / u / u /
Oh who but Maude, my sister Maude,
u / u / u /
Who lurked to spy and peer.
What is the effect of this deviation?
Now look at the first line of the second stanza:
Scan the line, marking the strong stresses first with an ictus mark and then the weak stresses with a remiss mark:
Cold he lies, as cold as stone,
Notice that Rossetti still uses tetrameters but the iambs have been reversed, making them trochees. You may also notice that the final foot is catalectic, meaning that the final weak stressed syllable is omitted. • Why do you think Rossetti has chosen to vary the metre here? • Why is the trochaic pattern important in conveying the sentiments of the line? • Why do you think...
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