- 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 appreciations 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, [End Page 283] 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 death 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...