Maude Clare interrupts Sir Thomas and Nell's wedding day. She is Sir Thomas' ex-lover and intends to cause trouble for him and the woman he ended up choosing to marry. Maude Clare is regal and makes Nell look like a peasant in contrast. To quell the chaos, Sir Thomas’ mother tells her son that she and Thomas' father once found themselves in a similar predicament. She means to comfort Thomas with this information, but instead, Sir Thomas and Nell's faces become worryingly pale. Maude Clare, meanwhile, gives the couple some wedding gifts, all of which are souvenirs from her love affair with Sir Thomas. She gives them her half of a golden chain that Sir Thomas wore when they were together, as well as dried leaves that they jointly picked. Sir Thomas ends up being too embarrassed to rebuff Maude Clare, and so Maude Clare presents her final gift to Nell. She gives the bride permission to accept what remains of Thomas’ fickle heart. Nell defiantly declares that she loves Thomas for better and worse and one day, he will love her best.
Rossetti wrote “Maude Clare” in the form of a ballad. It is composed of a dozen four-line stanzas, each with alternating iambic tetrameter and trimeter lines. The rhyme scheme, ABCB, differs from traditional ballads, which are ABAB. The poem consists mainly of dialogue between the characters. The mother speaks to her son, the jilted woman confronts her lover, he responds blusteringly, and the bride defies her romantic predecessor. All of these conversations serve the purpose of shattering the image of marriage as a state of fulfilled love.
Rossetti uses the more spontaneous ABCB rhyme scheme to provide some relief from the strict regularity of the meter. As a result, the meter is awkward at times, paralleling the uncomfortable situation in which the characters are torn between expressing their true emotions and maintaining proper social behavior. The constant battle between restraint and free expression is a recurring theme throughout the piece.
In addition to the contrasting meter and rhyme scheme, Rossetti uses caesurae in Sir Thomas’ speech to illustrate his struggle with his emotions. He falters to find an appropriate term of address for his former lover, alternating between the more remote “lady” and “Maude Clare,” which belies the close relationship they once shared. Thomas may well be in an awkward situation, but as a man, society will not punish him for his role in it. However, Maude Clare will end up an eternal outcast because she is a woman who defies the societal expectations for her gender.
Maude Clare’s aggressive tirade against Thomas and Nell begins with an attention grabbing “lo,” and does not soften with her presentation of wedding gifts. She embodies the Victorian archetype of a scorned woman whose wrath cannot be assuaged. Maude Clare’s hellcat ire makes Sir Thomas look weak in comparison. However, Maude Clare is the victim in this conflict, albeit unwillingly. She compromised her virtue when she spent intimate moments with Sir Thomas, barefoot in the lily field. In Victorian culture, this level of familiarity outside of marriage detracted from the woman’s worth, but not the man's. Marriage formed the structure of a stable society and women who ignored these expectations were considered liminal and dangerous to social harmony. Maude Clare is almost monstrous in her anger, like a savage Juno, but yet, she is a victim of society's conventions.
Nell presents a stark contrast to the unwieldy and aggressively unfeminine Maude Clare. Nell is a loving bride, a paragon of womanly virtue, although she is less stately than her predecessor. Nell also admits that she is less wise and fair than Maude. However, Nell possesses certain attributes that, as a Victorian woman, are worth more than sophistication or status. Nell represents the wholesome goodness of the earth. Her love will sustain Thomas through good times and bad in a way that Maude's never could. Rossetti’s comparison of the simple country maid to the stunning femme fatale reveals this inherent contrast.
"Maude Clare," however, is not proof that Rossetti preferred the Victorian ideal of woman to the fiery Maude Clare- types. Rather, Rossetti simply uses this form to comment on the difference between a woman's actual desires and the limitations of her place in Victorian society.