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How all occasions do inform: "household matters" and domestic vignettes in George Meredith's Modern Love.

FOR ALMOST A CENTURY AND A HALF GEORGE MEREDITH'S MODERN LOVE HAS been recognized as a challengingly, troublingly modern poem. Successive generations found it contemporary and pertinent. In 1862 the poem irked and even scandalized reviewers for its disturbing tastelessness and for what seemed its vulgar, amoral undressing of marital relations. The young Swinburne, an avatar of the new and shocking, was rare among the poem's first reviewers for his admiring letter in the Spectator of that year. (1) Apprehension about the poem's indecency, however, quickly yielded to apprecitations of its art and then examinations of its richness in form, in style, in narration, and in imagery.

Meredith mimes the courtly sonnet tradition to reveal a tale of marital disarray. The poem's images, which have been widely discussed, combine to depict domestic scenes from this marriage, scenes that are sharp, lucid, and forceful. The emotions--essentially those of the husband--highlight the personal tensions and interpersonal "games" of the couple (what might now be termed "the family dynamics"). Meredith's form, his images, and his attention to psychology 'all contribute to the sense of modernity in Modern Love. Especially contemporary in their feel are the often scathing domestic vignettes that alternate with lyric passages, that sustain the narrative of the poem, and that we are likely to find so vivid and striking. Much of the power and effect of Modern Love derives from them, though they have drawn little critical attention.

The opening sonnet, which elegantly introduces, encapsulates, and anticipates the rest of the poem, begins--almost epic-style--in medias res: "By this he knew she wept with waking eyes." (2) The thrust of the poem will be psychological. The setting is the couple's bedroom, focusing our attention on its centerpiece, their "common bed." The crisply delineated scene, like so many that follow, is wincingly familiar. The husband is cognizant of his wife's misery, sensitive to her "strange low sobs." Behind the stone-stillness and silence of this dismal midnight, "Each [is] wishing for the sword that severs all." The images of the stone-tomb, serpents, venom, eyes, silence, and knives all appear in this stanza and are elaborated thereafter. Whatever ramifications each individual image will carry, it also contributes effectively to the dramatic tableau Meredith constructs. The sword may have chivalric and even biblical resonances, and it prefigures the fatal knife" of the closing sonnet. But both sword and knife also convey the psychological state of the marriage: the commonplace fantasy of wishing for the blade (sword or ax) that would sever all and free one. It is a fantasy that is only incidentally homicidal or fatal; its primary impulse is to get out, to be cut clear. Part of Meredith's genius is to insinuate the inexorable indirect consequences. The dearth of love is fatal--in this case literally, always emotionally.

As a story of a failed marriage, the poem is appropriately focused on the bed, and periodically returns to it. The once-rapturous bed gone amok is a succinct metaphor for the strain and disarray in the husband and wife's relationship. Few furnishings more concisely record the stresses and discordancies in a marriage. Orson Welles ingeniously exchanged the bed for the breakfast table that expands with every cut in the infamous scene calibrating the distance between Kane and Emily in Citizen Kane. Other artists have used opposing books, color schemes, rooms, and the like to register disaffection. Meredith audaciously (for 1862) rejects any such indirection or euphemism, establishing the primacy of this setting. In sonnet 15, the husband watches Madam sleep--alternately reflecting on how the image of Othello, "The Poet's black stage-lion of wronged love, / Frights not our modern dames" (an ironic simile considering Desdemona's innocence) and on how pure his wife's sleep seems. Rather than reinforcing happy, romantic memories, however, the lyric concludes with his perusing her current love letter: "The words are very like: the name is new."
 In sonnets 31 and 32, the jealous, disillusioned husband has sought
 solace in another bed. He appreciates being approved rather than
 loved and praises My Lady's beauty, common sense, and sweet kisses,
 but still he cannot escape the thirst for "a dying something never
 dead." The new bed and mistress do not replace the old; they only
 parody it. In the middle of the poem, it is Christmas and again
 midnight. The attic-crib in the inn, that others tease surely will
 not fret lovers, becomes a hell as he enters. He lies "crouched upon
 the floor" of their bedroom, burning with shame, pride,
 and pare (23).

The final bed scene is the most affecting in its pathos and despair. Madam makes an awful, desperate attempt to revive their sex life and love. He is "to follow her. There is much grace / In women when thus bent on martyrdom" (42). Her overture strikes the husband as "Base .... Fleshly indifference horrible!" Disturbed by "Thoughts black as death," he catches her wrists: "she faltering, as she half resists, / 'You love... ? love... ? love ....?" all on an redrawn breath" (42). The self-abnegating, almost humiliating request for love or conjugality is vitiated by the question marks and the indrawn breath.

The bed, like the once-glorious sex, like their marriage, has dwindled into a setting of despondency, unclear motives, and ambiguous gestures. Meredith's accomplishment is to render it so unflinchingly--in its ordinariness and in penetrating detail. This series of bed scenes differs markedly from the poetic tradition the poet inherited; the attention to the psychodynamics of the bedroom and the obvious shock of recognition we experience in this poem are distinctly modern in tone and texture. Unlike the chamber in which Tristan and Iscult lie separated by a sword, or the balcony or tomb of Romeo and Juliet, or Desdemona's closet, we immediately feel ourselves on familiar ground (even if we are not exactly comfortably at home). The place of the marital bed in art is at least as old as the story of Odysseus, but surely this incarnation of it is much more akin to that of Molly Bloom or of movie images galore of fractious couples. Modern readers would be particularly attentive to the emotional dimensions of conjugal exchanges, where sensibilities and caring are presumably engaged--and their absence is readily signified. Meredith was among the early portraitists to show how hideous, entwining, venomous, and petrifying (to recall the most obvious of his conceits) they might turn. Women "thus bent on martyrdom" could, of course, appear in the poetry of any century; Meredith's perspective, though, is at the vanguard of a literature that was newly investigating such martyrdoms and then discoursing on the psychology of love and sex.

Among the elements that make Meredith's scenes so effective is his wealth of imagery. C. Day Lewis believed him "the greatest image-maker since Shakespeare." (3) Norman Friedman, Walter Wright, Elizabeth Cox Wright, and Henry Kozicki have each explored the intricate and varied patterns that Meredith constructs in Modern Love. (4) They trace how the image clusters of time-torpor-game-sun-wing, murder-knife-wound-blood, snare-bat-cage-pit-beast, snake-venom-poison, midnight-tomb-ghost-skeleton-shadow, music-wave-horse-mark, a lost paradise, eyes, stars, shipwreck, and war enrich the poem. For Elizabeth Wright the images "flow, accumulate, repeat, and proliferate," functioning as the aesthetic links in the poem (p. 1).

Like both the bed and the sword-knife, much of the rest of the poem's imagery contributes strongly to its modernity, inculpating us and our mundane existences. The individual images are woven into the larger, composite images of the domestic and social scenes that compel our attention--and that are so much a part of the poem's vital fabric, and that resonate with experiences common to many.

If the nocturnal effigies of what was once a passionate couple conjure up a dour and somber picture, the morning that follows moves us to a terrain that is more social and that introduces a darkly comic motif. Readers of Modern Love often find themselves laughing, a laughter tinged with the sense of--whoops! I've known that scene, been there, may even have done that. The pattern of awkward, psychologically disheveled beds alternates with that of masks and role-playing. We teeter between the tears and anguish "Beneath the surface" ("Poor twisting worm" [8]) and, like Madam, "laughing at a quiet joke" (6). Day brings no relief; it only alters the form of the tension: "The morrow brought the task.... Each sucked a secret, and each wore a mask" (2). They assume the masks and prepare for games likely to make us shudder, games that remind us of Prufrock's preparing a face to meet the faces that he meets. Cosmetic smiles cover the guilty secrets and ire. These "true hypocrites" begin their day aping "the magnanimity of love" (2).

Meredith's comic muse is broadest and his satire most biting at the dinner:
 At dinner, she is hostess, I am host.
 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:
 it is in truth a most contagious game.
 HIDING THE SKELETON, shall be its name.
 Such play as this, the devils might appal!
 But here's the greater wonder; in that we
 Enamoured of an acting nought can tire,
 Each other, like true hypocrites, admire;
 Warm-lighted looks, Love's ephemerioe,
 Shoot gaily o'er the dishes and the wine.
 We waken envy of our happy lot.
 Fast, sweet, and golden, shows the marriage-knot.
 Dear guests, you now have seen Love's corpse-light shine. (17)

The seminal images of death (a dead marriage), baneful games, and hypocrisy are here leavened with the trappings of a table at which we have all dined. The scene of course exposes the games people play--in a jartingly modern ring. It also teases us with the complexities behind "true hypocrites," which, combined with Meredith's various uses of hypocrisy, suggest that intimate, marital relations are inescapably colored with performances, acting, games--with socially and psychologically scripted deceptions. Four lyrics later, when the scene is again domestic, the husband and wife are trapped by their decorous charade. Their friend, "who at love once laughed," is now fatally smitten. He demands their blessing, "convinced / That words of wedded lovers must bring good." Caught, enamored of their acting, they pat him, laugh lightly, and the husband as narrator sardonically reports, "We have not winced" (21).

Twentieth-century literature often seemed to claim as its special subject the tortuous problems of communication. If part of Freud's legacy is to make us suspicious of what people mean behind what they say, or think they mean, if Beckett, Ionesco, and Genet exemplify the playwrights of pauses and silence, this concern is reflected or anticipated in the novels of the second half of the nineteenth century--in a Middlemarch where Casaubon and Dorothea and Rosamond and Lydgate cannot talk to each other, and where Dorothea and Will Ladislaw barely learn to. Meredith dissects this minefield--in scene after scene. The "stone-still" muteness of the beginning initiates this motif. When the husband watches Madam issue forth radiantly from her dressing room, he is well aware of he, struggle; she is a poor worm whom the "salt / Of righteous feeling made ... pitiful." Touched and tearful, he responds (inwardly): "My breast will open for thee at a sign!"--immediately to pull back, "But, no; we are two reed-pipes, coarsely stopped" (8). He, later in the poem, wonders what she labors to confess: "There is about her mouth a nervous twitch. / 'Tis something to be told, or hidden." Stalemated,
 Her tears fell still as oak-leaves after frost.
 She will not speak. I will not ask. We are
 League-sundered by the silent gulf between. (22)

The gulf of silence, of inexpressibility, grows. His obduracy thwarts the wife's attempt to talk:
 Madam would speak with me. So, now it comes:
 The Deluge or else Fire! She's well; she thanks
 My husbandship. Our chain on silence clanks.
 Time leers between, above his twiddling thumbs.
 Am I quite well? Most excellent in health!
 The journals, too, 1 diligently peruse.
 Vesuvius is expected to give news:
 Niagara is no noisier. By stealth
 Our eyes dart scrutinizing snakes. She's glad

 I'm happy, says her quivering under-lip.
 "And are you not? .... How can I be?" "Take ship!
 For happiness is somewhere to be had."
 'Nowhere for me!' Her voice is barely heard.
 I am not melted, and make no pretence.
 With commonplace I freeze her, tongue and sense.
 Niagara or Vesuvius is defened. (34)

The entire scene of their marital conversation is exquisitely comic; it is also acutely painful--redacting some of the poem's principal images (eyes, snakes, silence, time, ship) and even domesticating Niagara mid Vesuvius. To an outsider, their (his) stubborn impotence seems pathetic; Meredith's rhetoric implies or expects that many among Modern Love's readers have been too much the proud, stymied, agonizing, inarticulate participants. As the husband reflects, thinking of his "secretive, sensitive" wife, "O have a care of natures that are mute!" (35). The superficially "gracious" interview between Madam and My Lady follows. They perceptively and hypocritically seize upon each other's weak points for praise, leaving the husband "amazed" (36).

The obverse side of the couple's incommunicativeness surfaces in the final sequences of Modern Love, and it is similarly poignant and familiar. "At last," the husband records, "we parley: we so strangely dumb / in such a close communion!" (46). The "pained speech" he felt coming (46) is postponed by a lyric that beautifully celebrates a nature whose loveliness offsets their own wretchedness: "We saw the swallows gathering in the sky" (47). Perhaps enervated by games, hollow sentiments, and contrived jealousies, perhaps cajoled by the lure of "this fair garden, we might win," they chance openness: "We drank the pure daylight of honest speech." He ventures to speak of My Lady--now gone as an issue for him--and is summarily misunderstood as bemoaning her loss. Far from the honesty's being healing, he fears that it was the "fatal draught" (48). Both the darkly comic vision of marital pretense and verbal evasion (deferring Niagara or Vesuvius--tears or anger) and the tragic collapse of communication ("that fatal knife,/Deep questioning, which probes to endless dole" [50]) make us grimace like old, uncomfortable familiars. Such scenes carry much of the power of the poem.

Meredith was an accomplished novelist in a period when the novel was not only turning "inward" (in the mode of George Eliot's and then Henry James's psychological fictions), but when it was also carving out the space of domestic realism. Critics have commented on how Meredith, who much preferred to succeed as a poet than as a novelist, adapted many of the narrative techniques of fiction in Modern Love. Dorothy Mermin reminds us how, in the poem, we are always aware that the feelings and situations described exist very much in the ordinary world, the here and now of realistic novels. (5) And Meredith did go on in such of his own works as The Egoist (1879) and Diana of the Crossways (1885) to become expert at slyly exposing the dilemmas of Clara Middleton and Diana--often through pithy, evocative scenes, laced with pungent, epigrammatic dialogue.

Still more critical attention has been paid to Meredith's adaptation of the sonnet tradition. Golden, Kowalczyk, Tucker, Mermin, and Hough are among those who have been intrigued by his appropriation--and extension--of this Renaissance form. (6) If the Petrarchan and Elizabethan sequences concentrated on the courtly situation of an idealized, sentimentalized love (assuredly not married), Meredith uses the form to dissect a disillusioned, fractured marriage. Whereas the inherited tones were of adoration, painful unrequitedness, and romantic longing, his are of emotional turmoil, intellectual hesitancy, and irony. If his Victorian peers, D. G. Rossetti and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, presented, in their sonnets, an ostensibly unidealized, realized love, House of Life and Sonnets From the Portuguese include little of Meredith's scathing discontents, misgivings, or ambivalence.

Most of all, Modern Love is unusual as a sonnet sequence in that it tells a story, develops a narrative thread. Hough finds the sonnets are more like "episodes in a narrative poem, and far more of them are concerned with specific scenes and incidents than is usual with the individual sonnets of a sequence" (p 8). Meredith's topicality, his discussion of contemporary mores, as Golden observes, further distinguishes him from traditional sonneteers (p. 264). Modern Love juxtaposes, largely to subvert and expose it, the courtly, sentimental, relatively static (lyric) mode of the sonnet tradition with the narrative, often satiric or ironic, middle class, realistic characteristics of the novel. Mermin suggests Modern Love is "a point of intersection between Victorian poetry and the Victorian novel" (p. 100); more specifically, it is a meeting place between what had become of the sonnet cycle in the nineteenth century and the evolving, robust Victorian novel. The poem, much in the manner of fiction, "is a sonnet sequence which deals directly with 'society'"--particularly with society's signature institution. (7) By taking as his subject the dissolution of a marriage and making visible the fissures in society's conventions, Meredith almost ostentatiously appropriates the tradition of the sonnet to undo the premises of that tradition. And it is through the portraits of marriage in action, his vignettes, that he achieves this sense of the novel and the modern within the sonnet tradition that he borrows and bends. That Meredith has the husband reach for an example from a French novel of a woman's choosing her husband over her lover, "like a proper wife" (25), draws attention to this dovetailing of genres, as it advances the poem's themes and comic ironies.

Tennyson of course was writing in an epic style, but his contemporary Idylls of the King (1859-85) provides an informative contrast to Modern Love--and not simply because it observes Victorian England through the lens of the legendary past of Camelot. The Idylls trace the nature and ramifications of Guinevere's adultery on a social, royal level, with little doubt about sin and culpability. The political barely acknowledges the personal, or the psychological. Tennyson's strokes tend to have a broad sweep. Fidelity to the King encompasses equally fidelity to the kingdom and to Arthur as Guinevere's husband. Transgressions are not temporized by psychological understanding or any ethical relativism. Modern Love, quite differently, includes infidelity within its examination of an institution that begins to seem unnatural and implausible, ultimately suggesting there is no sin, the fault is mixed (and possibly systemic or inherent). Wendell Stacy Johnson indicates this contrast in hi., study of sex and marriage in Victorian poetry:
 The belief, usually ascribed to the Tennyson of the Idylls, that
 infidelity both undermines marriage and poisons human lift" is not
 at all present here [in Modern Love]. In fact, the infidelities,
 painful as the wife's con be to the husband, are revealed as being
 in a way, entirely honest, as gestures that recognize and result
 from the fact of a dead marriage. (8)

Meredith's focus is on the mundane details and gestures of life and the scenes they comprise. The difference is not that Tennyson was unable to portray emotion and inward states; think only of In Memoriam and Maud. It is that terrible grief following loss was more his subject than the personal tensions that unravel a relationship--and can include infidelity.

If the narrator of In Memoriam importantly consoles himself that "'Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all" (sec. 27), the husband in Modern Love is haunted by how the loss occurred--a distinctly more modern perspective (there is no mitigating hand of God). He puzzles and agonizes over what went wrong. We see (again, in clearly drawn pictures) periodic refractions of the question, where did they fail. How did this once-loving couple, the husband ponders, change into hypocritical players in society's game of sentiments? We hear him ask what is perhaps among the most nagging questions that faltering couples continue to present to themselves (and to their therapists): we had this precious thing, this love, how did we manage (agree) to lose it? Whither fled our paradise, our gleam?

Early in the poem, the husband watches Madam go about her business, initially suspicious:
 A world of household matters filled her mind,
 Wherein he saw hypocrisy designed:
 She treated him as something that is tame. (5)

The verses seem to suggest that the ordinariness and regularity of daily life, "household matters," conspire to defeat love. The husband then glimpses Madam's "familiar" shoulder, and "The 'What has been' a moment seemed his own" (5). His correction is swift; his lips meet her cool forehead, and "Shamed nature, then," he discerns, "confesses love can die" (6). He soon recalls his witless, prophetic banter of the old halcyon days: "'Ah, yes!/ Love dies!' I said: I never thought it less" (16). Most of us experience the headiness that provokes such thoughtless jesting; how could the exaltation ever abate or sour! Many go on to be tormented by the salt taste and bitter sobs of loss Meredith describes. His cameos transform that experience into art, an art of the everyday:
 A kiss is but a kiss now! and no wave
 Of a great flood that whirls me to the sea. (29)

How account for this plunge into the emotional abyss? "Swift doth young love flee" becomes the lesson of his ironic, plaintive love chant: "Lady, this is my sonnet to your eyes" (30). One of the games they played was Forfeits (part of the acting of "this wedded lie"--35). The husband proceeds to wonder how they forfeited their spirit's ecstasy. He lashes out: "The bond that woman broke.... / She killed a thing, and now it's dead, 'tis dear" (38). But his honesty quickly disallows such facile blaming:
 If I the death of Love had deeply planned,
 I never could have made it half so sure,
 As by the unblest kisses which upbraid
 The full-waked sense: or failing that, degrade!
 'Tis morning: but no morning can restore
 What we have forfeited. 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. (43)

Meredith proposes no clear resolution to the near-universal situation he is rendering. Like so many others, the distraught husband torments himself, questioning, "Where came the cleft between us?" (8) and "where began the change?" (10). Stung by angry accusations, self-lacerations, and the helpless sense of being betrayed by plot-spinning passions and duplicity, he experiences the process of self-interrogation, mood swings, a sense of tragic futility, and the powerlessness to rejuvenate a moribund love. if we see the husband as shamelessly blaming and responding in kind (dallying with My Lady), we also see him refusing such cowardly responses a gesture of ethical openness or uncertainty that perplexed and offended many early readers.

Romantic and Victorian audiences were accustomed to poetry concerned with the inner lives of its figures. Wordsworth devoted The Prelude to "the growth of a poet's mind." Browning's popularity derived from his gallery of self-revealing monologists. Meredith adds to these patterns a narrator who sometimes speaks in the third person, retelling past events or lyrically describing and, sometimes in the first person present tense, anxiously involved in the action. His narrator is, furthermore, living in a world whose moorings no longer hold. The rules and responses he was taught prove untenable. Love, marriage, constancy, the underlying idea of sin, of right and wrong, all evaporate as fixed, dependable lodestars. Modern love, as Hough synthesizes Meredith's argument, "is different from love in the past, because it is tormented not by the perennial lovers' woes, but by personal nervous conflicts, psychological contradictions unknown or unrecognized in earlier times, though they had already been hinted at by Tennyson and Elizabeth Barrett Browning" (p. 6).

These emerging "nervous conflicts" and "psychological contradictions" and an ethos of moral relativism largely define Meredith's uncertain, conflicted husband. He and his wife enact a poignant drama that has no satisfactory resolution. Their understandings are inadequate to negotiate their domestic realities. In a modern (recognizable) fashion, Meredith weaves a series of snapshots into his lyrics that trenchantly depicts this frayed, tormented love and that reinforces the tragic-comic mood and meaning of the poem.


(1) Algernon C. Swinburne, "Mr. George Meredith's Modern Love," Letter to the Editor, Spectator 35 (June 7, 1862): 632-633.

(2) The Poems of George Meredith, ed. Phyllis B. Bartlett, 2 vols. (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, c. 1978); citations in text refer to the sonnet numbers.

(3) Cecil Day Lewis, The Poetic Image (London: Cape, 1947), p. 82.

(4) Norman Friedman, "The Jangled Harp: Symbolic Structure in Modern Love," MLQ 18 (1957): 9-26; Walter F. Wright, Art and Substance in George Meredith (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1953); Elizabeth Cox Wright, "The Significance of the Image Patterns in Meredith's Modern Love," VN 13 (Spring 1958): 1-9; Henry Kozicki, "The 'Unholy Battle' with the Other in George Meredith's Modern Love," Papers on Language and Literature 23 (1987): 142-160.

(5) Dorothy Mermin, "Poetry as Fiction: Meredith's Modern Love," ELH 43 (1976): 113.

(6) Arline Golden, "'The Game of Sentiment': Tradition and Innovation in Meredith's Modern Love," ELH 40 (1973): 264-284; Richard L. Kowalczyk, "Moral Relativism and the Cult of Love in Meredith's Modern Love," Research Studies 37 (1969): 3853; Cynthia Grant Tucker, "Meredith's Broken Laurel: Modern Love and the Renaissance Sonnet Tradition," VP 10 (1972): 351-365; Graham Hough, "Introduction," Selected Poems of George Meredith (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1962), pp. 117.

(7) Norman Kelvin, A Troubled Eden: Nature and Society in the Works of George Meredith (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1961), p. 30.

(8) Wendell Stacy Johnson, Sex and Marriage in Victorian Poetry (Ithaca: Cornell Unix. Press, 1975), p. 51.
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Author:Barr, Alan P.
Publication:Victorian Poetry
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2004
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