Thinking in recollection, the protagonist reminisces about many things, including his despair in the red-ribbed hollow where his father had died, his rapture in Maud’s high Hall-garden, his ostracism from the grand political dinner and dance because of the opposition of Maud’s brother, his killing Maud’s brother in a duel, his exile on the Breton Coast, his madness in the London asylum, and finally, his pursuit of the blood-red blossom of war aboard a British troop ship on its way to the Black Sea.
The protagonist, an angry twenty-five-year-old, angrily laments the death of his father and the failure of his intimate relationship with the sixteen-year-old Maud, whose own father’s treachery in a business transaction caused the demise of the protagonist’s father. The grief-stricken young man reacts to his father’s death with a savage denunciation of the self-serving greed of the age—which he regards as wreaking havoc on the lives of the poor and which had caused his own family’s downfall. Confident that his morbid mood mirrors the moral rot of society, the protagonist is convinced that fighting in a just war is preferable to the implicit acquisition of peace.
The hero emerges from his depression through a growing involvement with Maud, the neighboring squire’s daughter, who has returned home with her brother to the family’s country estate after having been abroad. By chance, the protagonist sees Maud in a passing carriage and later meets and falls deeply in love with the girl, whom he remembers from childhood. Having won her love, the hero kills her interfering brother in a duel and is forced to retreat into exile.
The protagonist lives his exile in Brittany, where he learns that Maud has died. Later, he suffers successive phases of insanity and remorse, is confined to a London madhouse, and is haunted by hallucinations of Maud. The speaker’s nightmare finally yields to a dream in which Maud is no longer a threatening ghost but rather an angel coming to him with a message of hope. “Sane but shattered,” he expiates his crime by joining a noble cause, England’s involvement in the Crimean War.