George Meredith’s Modern Love is his longest poem, and when it was published (a year after his wife died), it was seen as a disturbed work. It is a sonnet sequence consisting of fifty separate sonnets rhyming abba cddc effe ghhg. Meredith’s sixteen-line sonnets—a variation on the traditional fourteen-line sonnet—provide an apt structure for presenting interconnected but frequently contradictory feelings and reactions. Noted for their complex imagery, these sonnets present the speaker’s diverse emotions, which are constantly shifting, subtly and not so subtly, in both intensity and distance from his subject. The poem is about his love for his wife.
He discovers that his wife is unfaithful, and to the husband, like a courtly lover, her faithlessness is unforgivable. Her deception is devastating. If her appearance has nothing to do with reality, he is without moorings at all. He does not know himself without her. When man is nothing more than clay and discord, death is preferable, but of death and oblivion he wants no part. Unlike May, whose annual glory defies the passage of time, the husband’s foot rests precariously on a unique but unverifiable past that may neither be seen clearly nor blotted out. It remains to mock him, unless he wishes to consign himself and the past that created him to oblivion.
The brilliance and lucidity of the speaker make it too easy for the reader to forget that, although two people are engaged in the most personal of conflicts, only one side, the husband’s, is available. The husband, the speaker in Modern Love, shifts from third to first person and back as convenience serves (“he” and “I” are mingled throughout the sonnet sequence), and the imagery becomes more densely evocative the more closely it is examined. When the poem was published, Meredith was accused of indecency. The public was not ready to accept the intimate, passionate relationship between a husband and wife as proper subject matter for a writer. The fact that Meredith’s first marriage to Mary Peacock Nicolls ended in separation and her death in 1861 complicated critical opinion even more. Since the poem was read biographically, recognition of Modern Love as a powerful work of art complete unto itself was hard to win. After the 1862 edition, the poem was not reprinted until 1892. Worse yet, the poem was misread as somehow didactic.
The husband perceives love as the earthly state most nearly divine, the loss of which will be intolerable. Such love is a garden, suggesting both the Garden of Eden and the gardens of pagan mythology. When it becomes blighted, however, this garden is most deadly, not only to the lovers (in this case husband and wife, referred to as Madam) but also to any unsuspecting serpents. The golden-haired Lady is a serpent because she is the other woman. The other man, who in this double set of triangles comes first, will undoubtedly meet a serpent’s fate and be crushed beneath a heel until he cannot feel or, if he is so unfortunate as to be callous, until he can.
These two, the other man and the other woman, have hearts into which despair can be, and finally is, struck. The wife does not hesitate but crushes the other woman’s rose under her heel as if she were crushing the Lady herself out of her husband’s life. Such serpents are, however, innocuous in comparison to the serpent struggle between the wife and the husband (see sonnets 1, 6, 14, 34, and 44), who apostrophizes to Raphael, the Italian painter, whose figures never show signs of inner conflict (sonnet 33). Although the speaker occasionally, briefly, quotes his wife directly (sonnets 9, 34, 35, 42, and 49) and seems to be addressing her at other times (sonnets 6, 8, 9, 11, 14, 24, 25, and 26), Modern Love remains the husband’s soliloquy, a soliloquy where there should be a dialogue. The husband’s passionate, at times violent, intensity leads him to accuse his wife of killing their love (sonnet 11). He shows her love letters she wrote but not all to him (sonnet 15). At another moment, he is aware that he should be able to give charity, when he must ask for charity in return (sonnet 20). In sonnet 43, he recognizes their joint responsibility: “I see no sin:/ The wrong is mixed. In tragic life, God wot,/ No villain need be! Passions spin the plot:/ We are betrayed by what is false within.” His desperate need to survive the truth, to reconsider his marriage and the love between him and his wife (which he had accepted as the greatest treasure life had to offer), and to escape despair requires some greater absolute than their love. Long ago, he casually admitted that love dies, but at that time he never thought much about such a...
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