- Modern Love and the Sonetto Caudato:Comedic Intervention through the Satiric Sonnet Form
Science misses an advance for want of a live subject to dissect … Society must consent to see its members laid bare if it has the will to improve.1
I can interpret where the mouth is dumb.Speak, and I see the side-lie of a truth.2
In 1885, when asked by William Sharp about the form of the sonnets of Modern Love, one of which he wished to include in his forthcoming anthology, Sonnets of this Century, George Meredith responded: "The Italians allow of 16 lines, under the title of 'Sonnets with a tail.' But the lines of 'Modern Love' were not designed for that form."3 And that was that. From that time and into the present, critical conversation has not been overly concerned with the formal considerations of Meredith's poetry, but rather, has seemed content to weigh by varying measures his talent as a novelist.4 More recent criticism of the Meredith corpus that does take account of the poetry seems to limit itself to three overlapping projects: establishing Meredith's relative modernity; passing judgment—both positive and negative—on a poetics often characterized as prosaic; and weighing in on what Ioan Williams summarizes as Meredith's liability to be saddled by critics with the stigma of obscurity and affectation.5
What has emerged from such a critical frame is a picture of an anachronistic artist: awkward, yet ahead of his time. Indeed, Meredith's Modern Love does employ a willfully prosaic, difficult style in what many critics read as a thematic and aesthetic anticipation of Modernist fiction. However, such tacit agreement in line of inquiry, extending from publication of the poem to our present moment, has done more to shroud Meredithian poetics in obscurity than the famously obscure poetics of Meredith ever could have done on their own. In their continued assessments of Meredith as a proto-modernist, critics often fail to note that Modern Love looks just as decisively backward. Modern Love is not simply an anticipation of the Modernist novel. I suggest that to [End Page 539] reassess the significance of Meredith's most famous poetic work, we should revisit Meredith's only mention of the form of Modern Love, and ask if perhaps the pointed denial of an Italian precursor by a poet always fond of riddles and enigmas might amount to a deliberate confession, or invocation of the "tailed" sonnet. I argue that critics (perhaps even partly because of Meredith's coyly pregnant denial) heretofore have missed the decidedly mannered and often archaic Modern Love's formal heritage and allegiance, misunderstanding that this fifty-sonnet series serves as a Victorian exploration of the satirical and comedic possibilities of what to this day remains primarily a poetic oddity of the Renaissance: the sonetto caudato.6
This essay asserts, then, that Meredith's formal experimentation (and the generic tensions this experimentation produces) is in fact best apprehended when viewed neither as simply archaic nor proto-Modern formal exercise, but as a fundamentally Victorian satirical enunciation using poetic form to signal a public protest. Modern Love engages in debate both with emerging Victorian disciplines, such as psychology and science, and with Victorian discipline in the form of middle-class mores and convention. Further, by employing an approximation of a sub-genre of satirical sonnet—the sonetto caudato—Meredith is formally announcing his intention to be judge and juror of middle-class respectability as well as its contrary, emerging episteme—science. Modern Love contains a comprehensive critique of both progressive and regressive elements of Victorian society, and this critique is augmented by the suggestion of political action contained within the caudato form.7
Where most critical opinion initially errs in discussion of Modern Love, even while stumbling upon its inherent value, is in its insistence on either one of these two mixed genre constructions: novelistic narrative sonnet sequence or lyric tragedy.8 Isobel Armstrong, however, has alerted us to the strangeness of such a characterization, astutely pointing out that the failure to read Modern Love in conjunction with Meredith's other poetry, and especially his essay on comedy...