Modern Love Characters
by George Meredith

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Modern Love Characters

"Modern Love" is the longest poem by George Meredith. It is a collection of fifty sixteen-line sonnets that portray a marriage that has been destroyed by infidelity.

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George Meredith was a Victorian-era poet and novelist. He is best known for his novels The Ordeal of Richard Feverel (1859) and The Egoist (1879) and often wrote romantic comedies. Meredith was frequently praised for his female characters—often strong individuals who proved that they were the equals of their male counterparts. His later works turned to examine some of the enemies of humanity, including the ego in The Egoist, and mismatches in marriage, as in Diana of the Crossways (1885). "Modern Love" (1862), about the destruction of a marriage, continues this theme. It is interesting to note that Meredith's own wife left him for another man, and this poem was published a year after his wife's death.

There are two primary characters in this poem: the husband and the wife. The poet introduces them together, but the focus is on the wife first.

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 strangely mute, like little gasping snakes,

Dreadfully venomous to him. (sonnet 1, lines 1–6)

She is depicted in distress, crying silently in bed with her husband. Later in the poem, it becomes clear that she is in distress because she has been cheating on her husband, and he has found out.

The husband, the other main character of this poem, is portrayed in both third and first person. His perspective colors the entirety of the poem, and it is his bitterness and grief that makes the woman's sorrow seem venomous. His wife's betrayal has left him shipwrecked (sonnet 3), and all his joys are gone. His sense of identity has been also been lost, and we see this grief (at times) turn to despairing rage over the course of the poem. Despite his rage, he seems torn and conflicted by his former allegiance to his wife, as he watches her struggle (sonnet 8) and remembers happier days (sonnet 45).

The final sonnet (50) clearly draws the lines that connect and divide the two characters over their doomed marriage. The description of the two as an "ever-diverse pair" (line 2) invokes the irony of the situation: two vastly different people are chained together by marriage and their former love, yet they are also constantly divided by infidelity, guilt, and resentment.