It is with great pleasure that I rediscover in a “reading pile” a complete edition of ‘Modern Love’ (1862), a series of 50 sonnets, and launch into them complete and almost without a break.


Today, ‘Modern Love’ is typically approached:


  1. Biographically. Mary Ellen, his wife, a widow seven years his senior and the daughter of Thomas Love Peacock did indeed abandon Meredith (and their son Arthur) for another man — and was never forgiven. The subsequent second marriage to Marie, a woman less intelligent and witty but more domestic, was much happier.  Evidently Meredith didn’t want to be married to a Meredithian heroine.


  1. Sociologically. There is much discussion of divorce laws and the rights of women. For some reason it is sometimes thought that the point of view of “the wife” is represented (other than as the object of outright condemnation) in ‘Modern Love’ — but I cannot agree.


  1. Psychologically.  The death of Meredith’s mother when he was only five and his ultimate happiness with Marie is blended in with discussions of how this painful material is handled successfully only by being carefully distanced in the novels.


To me the essential questions, after all this loam and tilth is forked over, remain the literary ones. Why is this love “modern”?  Is it a “novelette in verse”?  Why this extraordinary form, the “Meredithian sonnet”?  Does it work? Is it worth reading?


A husband and wife, it appears, are both carrying on affairs with other partners, so the poem concerns the enormously painful ending of a marriage. So autobiographical is the poem that in one edition GM Trevelyan inserts himself, as a “friend of the author”, to sort out the pronouns and explain that the wife commits suicide at the end, though none of this is particularly unclear.


Perhaps the explicit treatment of unhappy married love is modern, if adultery itself is not, and Meredith’s earlier career in fiction was hampered by the suggestion that his writing might be immoral, though he ultimately won through to grand old man status, a nine volume collected edition of his works by Chapman and Hall and approval by the rising generation (Ford, Shaw).


Much of the shock of the modern, though, is contained in the very first sonnet, which describes — with telling imagery — “little gaping snakes”, the agonised wakefulness of the couple in their shared bed in the small hours:


By this he knew she wept with waking eyes:

That, at his hand’s light quiver by her head,

The strange low sobs that shook their common bed

Were called into her with a sharp surprise,

And strangled mute, like little gaping snakes,

Dreadfully venomous to him. She lay

Stone-still, and the long darkness flowed away

With muffled pulses. Then, as midnight makes

Her giant heart of Memory and Tears

Drink the pale drug of silence, and so beat

Sleep’s heavy measure, they from head to feet

Were moveless, looking through their dead black years.

By vain regret scrawled over the blank wall.


Sonnet 1


Few poems of any age have achieved such a bold and striking opening. But this is never quite recaptured. Indeed, immediately after this the couple is transformed, unexpectedly and incongruously, into a manorial tombstone:


Like sculptured effigies they might be seen

Upon their marriage-tomb, the sword between;

Each wishing for the sword that severs all.


Sonnet 1


The Victorians felt they had to do this sort of thing at inordinate length: Tennyson had used the ABBA quatrain at a book length in ‘In Memoriam’ and the Meredithian sonnet is simply four such quatrains gathered into a stanza. So we get an excursus to the Louvre, some art criticism on Raphael and, at one point, even a discussion of a French novel that dares to mention adultery.


There is no reason in principle why the narrative momentum should not be harnessed as it is in a certain kind of novel, but no attempt is made to do so.  Rather, certain situations — threesomes, foursomes — are presented and this is sometimes taken to be characteristic of a novel. However, so little is said and these remain so unclear (such that Trevelyan has to assure us the wife is dead) that we are left where we started — with a poem of 800 lines.


Some of the sonnets, even taken out of sequence, are effective as free-standing poems — 21 and 47 come to mind — and there are superb incidental felicities:


Mark where the pressing wind shoots javelin -like

Its skeleton shadow on the broad-backed wave!


Sonnet 43


I stand; and wavering pale before me there,

Her tears fall still as oak-leaves after frost.


Sonnet 22


But there are also many touches of bathos:


It is not half so nice as being loved


Sonnet 31


We’ll sit contentedly,

And eat our pot of honey on the grave


Sonnet 29


or even, of a Virgilian bucolic scene,


‘Tis true that when we trace its source, ‘tis beer


Sonnet 18


These tend to reinforce other uncertainties of tone and register:


And lo, she wins, and of her harmonie

She is full sure!


Sonnet 13


The word woman is loaded (“O bitter barren woman!”, Sonnet 6) and, after each instance of its usage, something especially destructive often follows:


Look, woman in the West.  There wilt thou see

An amber cradle near the sun’s decline:

Within it, featured even in death divine,

Is lying a dead infant, slain by thee.


Sonnet 11


(but see additionally sonnets 6, 15, 22, 24 and 38). Sonnet 34 seems generally hostile and Sonnet 36 downright cruel.


This failure through art to achieve any distance, resolution or control is perhaps the main stumbling block today though, to be sure, the material would have to be judged no more tractable, the attempt no less courageous. This struggle shows up in the unevenness of the verse: the rhyme scheme breaks down twice in Sonnet 42 and twice the iambic pentameter dissolves in Sonnet 10.


More specifically it is Meredith’s own unconscious self-betrayal (whether as poet, narrator, husband or lover) that strews the biggest obstacles.  Emotionally these are often clangers:


I am content

To play with you the game of Sentiment


Sonnet 28


And he seems quite happy to show himself rejecting initiatives aimed at communication or even conciliation (Sonnet 34).


The poet is quite explicit in repeating that he cannot forgive and understandably this colours all else, but there is a great deal more to his lack of insight than this.  He flings around dire vocabulary worthy of a Beddoes. For instance in Sonnet 9, the wife apparently confides her feeling of trustful safety when she is with him, but this unleashes something close to hysteria:


And from her eyes, as from a poison-cup,

He drank until the flittering eyelids screened.

Devilish malignant witch! and oh, young beam

Of heaven’s circle-glory! Here thy shape

To squeeze like an intoxicating grape —

I might, and yet thou goest safe, supreme.


Sonnet 9


Some of this, for instance the second line, is so incoherent it is not even quite clear how one might paraphrase it.


One is left, then, with a very uncertain and unsteady self-portrait — and no portrait at all of the wife, who seems to sail beyond the reach of the verse.  A conservative form (old skins) is made to contain the new wine of intractable material from a doomed relationship. An honourably over-ambitious failure then?


It needs to be pointed out, however, that Meredith is not alone in this particular landscape and, today, looks squeezed by four – in particular – other figures. The first person monologue, often charged with sexual, marital and other “mature” matters, had long been developed and perfected by Robert Browning. But even in Sonnets from the Portuguese, he and Elizabeth took elaborate precautions not to publish anything as undigested as ‘Modern Love’.


Tennyson has already been mentioned and, inevitably and unfairly, it must be said that emotionally difficult and compelling material was successfully carried through by him in a very similar form at much greater length. It may be doubted, though, whether Meredith’s sovereign was ever lulled by the mellifluous modulations of ‘Modern Love’.


Perhaps the most important figure here is that of Thomas Hardy, a writer whom Meredith had the genius to discover while he worked as a reader for Chapman and Hall. Hardy himself could be the subject of ‘Modern Love’. He endured a long, silent, estranged marriage but, after the death of Emma, he suffered an outpouring of grieved, nostalgic and amorous verse whose originality still seemed singular to FR Leavis in 1932 and remains haunting today. Though he seems never directly to have attempted to write about the impasses – the binds and tangles – of the marriage as they occurred, Hardy succeeded where Meredith failed to write in a valid way about the inner experience of the male protagonist.


Finally, there is Matthew Arnold.  It has been said that ‘Modern Love’ is not a religious poem, but this takes no account of a key passage in Sonnet 30:


Then if we study Nature we are wise.

Thus do the few who live but with the day:

The scientific animals are they. —

Lady, this is my sonnet to your eyes.


Sonnet 30


The last line is venom; but apart from the brief apparition of clergyman botanists, trudging routinely between the Athenaeum and the London Library, inspecting their pocket watches for signs of lunch, as disciples of Walter Pater, living with if not for the day, it is clear that we are back, not in Piccadilly, but on ‘Dover Beach’. And in Arnold’s characteristic and pervasive orbit as a cultural critic, he might have had large things to say about marriage as an arena of failure of belief, in the context of the “melancholy long withdrawing roar” of organised religion.


2nd September 2007