Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 414
Considered within Victorian British social conventions, the marriage of George Meredith and Mary Nicolls ended in an unusual and, for Meredith, devastating way. Mary began an affair with his best friend, Henry Wallis, and left England to live with him in Italy. She abandoned her son with Meredith and had a child with Wallis, then returned to England after he abandoned her. Mary died in 1861 without ever seeing Meredith again.
Meredith’s poem Modern Love, published the year after Mary’s death, builds on just such a history. The sonnet sequence of 50 sonnets—each of them 16 lines rather than the customary 14 lines—tells of a husband who discovers that his wife has cheated on him. This deception leaves the husband feeling detached from reality: he cannot determine if any aspect of their life together had been truthful. However, it would be misleading to assume that Meredith is attempting autobiography—an assumption that apparently contributed to a generally negative critical reception upon its publication.
The sonnet form, traditionally used for love poetry, and the extended length allow the poet to explore multiple dimensions of love and its joys, followed by the sorrows it brings, including despair and questioning the value of life itself. While the husband is the speaker in the poem, generally using first person, he sometimes switches to third person, especially in the long, full descriptive passages. The poet draws heavily on natural imagery to connect the material with the spiritual realm. His loss does not diminish his belief in the divine power of love, which he praises using garden metaphors, including Eden and serpents; other analogies include storied lovers such as Tristan and Iseult.
The speaker struggles to grasp both the meaning of love and the implications of a loveless life, now that his wife had rejected him. The ongoing struggle to believe in love is matched with the internal battle to extend compassion to the one who wronged him. Identifying another woman as the Lady, the speaker uses spring-time metaphors to introduce the theme of new love, for which he wished but could not indulge in while his wife lived. The underlying questions of the value of life, as he had considered suicide after her abandonment and now must contemplate the implications of her death, are evoked with images of nature’s strong power, such as storms. The poet explores the paradox of freedom from love, brought by her death, and his belief in the necessity of love to life itself.