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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 36

About the middle of the night her call

Was heard, and he came wondering to the bed.

‘Now kiss me, dear! it may be, now!’ she said.

Lethe had passed those lips, and he knew all.

(The entire section contains 1963 words.)

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About the middle of the night her call

Was heard, and he came wondering to the bed.

‘Now kiss me, dear! it may be, now!’ she said.

Lethe had passed those lips, and he knew all.

Summary

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1927

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 possibility (sonnet 16). The husband, who often tries to assume a position of objectivity, seems to attain compassionate detachment only with his wife’s suicide. (That Modern Love should be examined as poetry, not biography, is indicated by the fact that there is no evidence that Meredith’s first wife committed suicide.)

The husband’s struggle with the discouraging truth of self-recognition is revealed. To deny him the ability to describe himself in the third person as well as in the first will not only rob the poem of part of its richness but undercut the variety of the speaker’s reactions: noble, ignoble, cruel, compassionate, rigid, yearning, righteous, wrenching. The emotional crisis the speaker undergoes is such that there is no way to predict how he will react. The husband’s approach to the realization that there is no crime—that neither of them is to blame for the other’s actions (sonnet 43)—is in no way direct. His lament is that a woman’s intellect cannot function independently of her physiology and that the undue subtleties resulting from this given lead to her destruction. He assumes that woman needs “more brain.” Such an assertion attests the fact that his own knowledge is still incomplete, his own sense mixed up in his senses (sonnet 48). Initially, the husband sees complete ruin: himself and his wife lying like Tristran and Iseult (sonnet 1). He believes that their love, in spite of all its vicissitudes, is somehow immortal, hence the allusion to Tristan and Iseult, the couple who most exemplifies courtly love.

Husband and wife, however, no longer have a common fate or share a common history. His wife does not know what is going on in his mind, and her lack of awareness, genuine or feigned, infuriates him. When their superficial smiles meet, his inward rage churns until the world he sees is bloodstained (sonnet 2). While he rages against her, she, completely unaware of his inward soliloquy, sits laughing gently with another (sonnet 6). He is still desirous of his wife. She has meaning for him that no one else has. He nevertheless asserts that he knows it is too late to seek the spiritual in love when “the fire is dying in the grate” (sonnet 4), even though the throes of his passion remain anything but cool. Her beauty enables him to see her with the eyes of other men (sonnet 7). The fact that what is familiar to him is currently even more familiar to another man, however, so distorts his perception that he asks himself if they can actually be married. Only later, in the second part of Modern Love (sonnets 27-39), does he see her once again as his wife and address her as such (sonnet 33).

The sea imagery in Modern Love, including the wreck, is critical. Wrecked or not, wicked or innocent, the speaker will be taken as nothing less than pilot of his own life, no matter what the effect of the wind and the waves. Resolved against ever again leaving his heart in the control of another (sonnet 19), he enters with the Lady in the game of love or sentiment (sonnet 28). There is nothing here to carry him beyond the physical. Even a love seemingly superior in every way to young love has insufficient weight and force (sonnet 39). He is helplessly adrift. Dreading that his original love is still alive prevents him from attending to a new one. How, he asks, can he love one woman and simultaneously be jealous of another (sonnet 40)? Love is increasingly contemplated in the purely earthly realm where a person is nothing but clay. In struggling against his fate, the individual who becomes half serpent, like the Fiend (sonnet 33), may grow again to be half-human. From the very beginning of Modern Love, as in the courtly love tradition, love is associated with death. Even dead, love is terrible in its effect. Aside from the imagery linking love and death, as the sonnet sequence develops the wife is linked with images of death, losing substance, never joining her husband’s present.

Toward the end of the summer, the husband and wife have no shared joys. They are present in the same place and at peace, but not together (sonnet 47). The speaker learns that passion without love allays no torments (sonnet 32), and the Lady, an asp, is no antidote for the “serpent bites” inflicted by Madam. The husband seeks to salvage his capacity to love. Beneath his agony and frustration, a belief in the reality of his past love is gradually to be perceived. Was this love lost (sonnet 50) because it did not develop in time?

He talks about his wife going among “the children of illusion” (sonnet 12); her illusion is no longer his. He marvels that men should prize the love of woman (sonnet 31), but this feeling is only sour grapes, and he admits that being approved by his Lady is not half as fine as being loved (sonnet 31). Midnight may perhaps be regarded as the hour of truth, or less melodramatically, the moment when pretense may no longer pass for reality. Husband and wife succeed in making others envy their love (sonnet 17), but in the country at Christmas, he recognizes that while they fool others, the abyss of midnight, in which they will recognize themselves as hypocrites, still awaits them (sonnet 23). Later, as the clock approaches midnight (sonnet 41), he no longer has any doubt about the death of love, and finally, he recalls that it was “the middle of the night” when he heard her call just before she died (sonnet 48).

The fact that there is a reference to spring in sonnet 11, to Christmas in sonnet 23, and to summer in sonnet 45 has led some critics to assert that Modern Love covers a little more than a year, but a chronology of the poem provides no insight into the husband’s anguished consciousness that is at issue in this poem. Similarly, seeing the poem as divided into three parts (1-26, 27-39, 40-50) does not provide much insight.

In sonnet 43, the images of love and death and water are synthesized. The force of the wind impels the waves that, forced into hissing serpents, leave their mark far up on the sand that they momentarily devour. The same image is used at the end: “In tragic hints here see what evermore/ Moves dark as yonder midnight’s ocean’s force,/ Thundering like ramping hosts of warrior horse,/ To throw that faint thin line upon the shore!” There is an attempt on the speaker’s part to draw some kind of moral in the last two sonnets. Only confusion results. The major achievement of this poem is its depiction of the vivid intensity of a husband’s failing love for his wife. Modern Love remains an oddly undated poem, written one hundred years ahead of its time.

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