Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 747
Now seems the language heard of Love as rain
To make a mire where fruitfulness was meant.
The golden harp gives out a jangled strain,
Too like revolt from heaven’s Omnipotent.
In the first sonnet in his sequence, George Meredith takes the opportunity to introduce the prevailing theme of his work, namely the satirisation of courtly love. He uses juxtaposition of natural imagery—“mire where fruitfulness was meant”—and of music—“the golden harp lets out a jangling chord”—to achieve this.
In our old shipwrecked days there was an hour
When, in the firelight steadily aglow,
Joined slackly, we beheld the red chasm grow
Among the clicking coals. Our library-bower
That eve was left to us; and hushed we sat
As lovers to whom Time is whispering (Sonnet 16).
In this flashback to the honeymoon period of their relationship, Meredeth presents a picture that seems on the surface yet which, with the benefit of hindsight, seems doomed to fail. The fire dominates the setting and is at once symbolic of the firey nature of romantic passion, but it also has an ominous quality. The “fire light steadily aglow” suggests the eternal warmth and comfort of love, yet the “clicking coals" of the fire imitate a clock counting down the hours of their happiness, an idea that the poet reiterates explicitly with his comment on time’s “whispering.” The image of the “red chasm” moreover, though it has its literal reading in the fire, might in fact indicate the beginning of a rift between these two people.
Went the feast ever cheerfuller? She keeps
The Topic over intellectual deeps
In buoyancy afloat. They see no ghost.
With sparkling surface-eyes we ply the ball (Sonnet 17).
Meredith here reiterates the image of the “shipwreck” from the previous sonnet in his metaphor of his partner keeping the dinner conversation and the couple’s pleasing bourgeois image afloat above dangerous depths. The sense of superficiality, of the couple’s positive appearance being skin-deep is reiterated by a furthering of this nautical metaphor in “sparkling surface-eyes.”
And with that softest dream of blood she glows:
Mild as an evening heaven round Hesper bright!
I pluck the flower, and smell it, and revive
The time when in her eyes I stood alive.
I seem to look upon it out of Night.
Here's Madam, stepping hastily. Her whims
Bid her demand the flower, which I let drop.
As I proceed, I feel her sharply stop,
And crush it under heel with trembling limbs (Sonnet 45).
Here, the poet produces a powerful contrast between his mistress, “lady” and his wife, “madam.”
The mellow language with which he recalls his lover and the simile comparing her to “Heaven round Hesper bright!” in particular elevates her in accordance with the feminine ideals of Victorian romance. However the language he employs takes a darker turn with the intercession of "madam," with fricative language such as "sharply stop" and "drop," reflecting the tension between them.
Secretive, sensitive, she takes a wound
Deep to her soul, as if the sense had swooned,
And not a thought of vengeance had survived.
No confidences has she: but relief
Must come to one whose suffering is acute.
O have a care of natures that are mute!
They punish you in acts: their steps are brief.
What is she doing? What does she demand? (Sonnet 35)
Here, Meredith offers a poignant commentary on his partner’s nature. While she is not a bad person in that she is saying mean things to him, her suffering is too great for her to endure and accommodate for as women were expected to in Meredith’s society. In the warning he issues to his readers:
[H]ave a care for natures that are mute!
We can see the poet understands that his partner’s suffering is too great to bear quietly, and that her unhappiness must come to the fore in her actions, if not her words.
Then each applied to each that fatal knife,
Deep questioning, which probes to endless dole.
Ah, what a dusty answer gets the soul
When hot for certainties in this our life! (Sonnet 50)
In this the final sonnet of Meredith’s sequence, the poet concludes the picture he has been painting of romantic love as a kind of mutually agreed destruction:
[E]ach applies to each the fatal knife . . .
That stems from the inability of the human soul to be satisfied with anything less than certain confidence in any soul it joins with.