Meredith's novella in verse about the breakdown of a Victorian bourgeois marriage is a tragic study of 'shipwrecked' love
George Meredith, 1828-1909, is often compared to Thomas Hardy as a successful novelist whose preferred genre was poetry. His 1862 sonnet sequence, Modern Love, best described as a novella in verse, (not, please, a "novelette") suggests a further affinity – with the great 19th-century realist novelist, Gustave Flaubert.
An odd, brilliant fusion of narrative and lyric, Modern Love traces, in 50 16-lined sonnets narrated by the husband, the demise of an ideal "bourgeois" marriage. This week I've picked out a sharply contrasted trio: XVI and XVII are from early in the story, after the speaker's suspicions of his wife's infidelity have been confirmed by a letter. XLV depicts a terminal moment later on, when the husband has since retaliated with an unsatisfactory liaison of his own.
The story is a tragic one, and not simply because the husband and wife are trapped together by Victorian divorce laws, as some flat-footed commentary suggests, though they are certainly constrained by a social etiquette that adds to their misery (see XVII). They are, above all, self-destroyers. While his treatment of location shows him more of a Romantic than the French writer, Meredith brings something of Flaubert's surgical precision to his dissection of the psychologically complex "marriage-knot" entangling the couple. Unlike the Bovarys, these two are not opposite in character: their sensibilities are equally acute, and sometimes mirror each other. Meredith's heavy but potent phrase is: "Imagination urging appetite." This original romantic sin results in poems that writhe with mixed emotions. The memory of happier times now "shipwrecked" is one of the strongest threads in the weave: we never doubt that the marriage was founded on love. Disgust, disillusion, misogyny, self-hatred and ironic despair mingle in the speaker, and it's these often-raw emotions that charge the sequence's metrical good manners with the pulse of living speech.
It would take a severe purist to argue that the poems are not sonnets (after all, the earliest existent sonnets had a mere eight lines). The additional narrative-space doesn't prevent each poem from making a self-contained unit. The internal couplets produced by the ABBA rhyme pattern (with a new, different set of rhymes for each quatrain) work differently, of course, from the final couplet of Shakespeare and Spenser, and help the quatrain to function as a cohesive paragraph. The argument can move more freely without the octet-sestet imbalance of the Petrarchan model, yet Meredith must have wanted to invoke, and subvert, the courtly love sonnet, as when, after writing in his most scathingly Darwinian vein, the speaker concludes, with chilling irony, "Lady, this is my sonnet to your eyes" (XXX).
Meredith infuses his settings with emotional intensity. In the flashback sonnet, XVI, the fire that the younger lovers enjoy in their "library-bower" seems almost animate, with its clicking coals, its constant process of change. The "red chasm" might be a foreboding of (sexual?) hell. It seems significant that the lovers are not securely embracing but "joined slackly". Dilating on a topic of which he is youthfully ignorant, the narrator has unknowingly predicted his own fate: "Ah, yes!/ Love dies!" I said; I never thought it less." The counterpoint of colours and especially sounds (distant chat, fire noise, time's whispering, the young woman's "sharp scale of sobs") is highly expressive: it's as if the scene bustled with ghosts from the future.
The mood and movement of the following sonnet are in complete contrast. Everything is light, brittle, staccato. A metaphor, nevertheless, is picked up from the previous poem: that of the shipwreck. Now, something is being kept afloat, but it is merely the Topic. This is not, I think, a particular topic: simply, whatever topic is up for discussion among the guests. In "sparkling surface-eyes" (a striking coinage, "surface-eyes") again we see the erratic, shifty movement of water over perilous depths. The diction is not particularly colloquial, but its speed of movement gives that impression, and the rich metaphors are more often hinted than developed. Self-disgust permeates the awareness that husband and wife are acting the enviably happy couple, and enjoying their performance. But those spat-out monosyllables of the last line clarify the ghastly truth: "Dear guests, you now have seen Love's corpse-light shine." The romantic firelight of the previous poem has degraded, through falsely sparkling eyes and pretended "warm-lighted looks" to the chemical radiance of decay.
In reading XLV, it's important to remember that the designation "Lady" is reserved for the speaker's mistress. "Madam" designates his wife. The mistress (who has by now met the wife) seems not to be present on this occasion, except in the man's aroused imagination. He picks a rose, re-imagining the golden-haired, glowing-cheeked beauty. His wife guesses what he's thinking, and demands the flower. The stabbing abruptness of action and sound in "drops"/ "stops" contrasts with the "cat-like way" the wife then joins the husband for their garden stroll. The action on both their parts has been childishly petulant and yet the poem is charged with the anguish of violation. When the wife tries to make light conversation, the falsity seems more desperate and radical than before: there is now no excuse of an audience.
Honest discussion comes too late to be of any use, and the couple's misadventure ends with the wife's suicide – plus a redemptive kiss. Meredith's narration here is not, of course, on a par with Flaubert's superbly unsparing treatment of the death of Madame Bovary. But Modern Love remains an outstanding work in its genre, and the title leaves us with a lingering puzzle. Does Meredith find something inherently corrupt in specifically "modern" love – or is his argument with the whole construct of romantic love throughout the ages? I think the latter – but you may well disagree!
From Modern Love by George Meredith
In our old shipwrecked days there was an hour
When, in the firelight steadily aglow,
Joined slackly, we beheld the red chasm grow
Among the clicking coals. Our library-bower
That eve was left to us; and hushed we sat
As lovers to whom Time is whispering.
From sudden-opened doors we heard them sing;
The nodding elders mixed good wine with chat.
Well knew we that Life's greatest treasure lay
With us, and of it was our talk. "Ah, yes!
Love dies!" I said; I never thought it less.
She yearned to me that sentence to unsay.
Then when the fire domed blackening, I found
Her cheek was salt against my kiss, and swift
Up the sharp scale of sobs her breast did lift –
Now am I haunted by that taste! that sound.
At dinner, she is hostess, I am host.
Went the feast ever cheerfuller? She keeps
The Topic over intellectual deeps
In buoyancy afloat. They see no ghost.
With sparkling surface-eyes we ply the ball:
It is in truth a most contagious game:
HIDING THE SKELETON, shall be its name.
Such play as this the devils might appall!
But here's the greater wonder; in that we,
Enamoured of an acting naught can tire,
Each other, like true hypocrites, admire;
Warm-lighted looks, love's ephemerae,
Shoot gaily o'er the dishes and the wine.
We waken envy of our happy lot.
Fast, sweet and golden shows the marriage-knot.
Dear guests, you now have seen love's corpse-light shine.
It is the season of the sweet wild rose,
My Lady's emblem in the heart of me!
So golden-crownèd shines she gloriously,
And with that softest dream of blood she glows:
Mild as an evening heaven round Hesper bright!
I pluck the flower, and smell it, and revive
The time when in her eyes I stood alive.
I seem to look upon it out of Night.
Here's Madam, stepping hastily. Her whims
Bid her demand the flower, which I let drop.
As I proceed, I feel her sharply stop,
And crush it under heel with trembling limbs.
She joins me in a cat-like way, and talks
Of company, and even condescends
To utter laughing scandal of old friends.
These are the summer days, and these our walks.