Friday, October 4, 2013

Unnatural? My dear, these things are life - a look at "Modern Love"

George Meredith has been propped up a bit by his biography.  After nine years of marriage, his wife ran off with a painter.  Whatever might be the usual response by a Victorian of his class, Meredith chose to write a novel (The Ordeal of Richard Feverel) and a fifty poem sonnet sequence, “Modern Love.”

Unusually, in both works Meredith makes the character in his own position, the wronged husband, look as bad as (in the poem) or worse than (in the novel) the straying wife.  I thought writers were supposed to use their books for revenge, not self-mortification and compassionate understanding.

Colleen of Jam and Idleness read the new critical edition of “Modern Love.”  She is skeptical of the edition, asking good “Who is this for?” questions, but enthusiastic about the poetry.  She points out the irony of how Meredith takes “a poetic form traditionally devoted almost exclusively to romantic love, and uses it to present and dissect the recriminations, miscommunications, small pettiness and large jealousies that contribute to the slow cracking of two once loving hearts.”

The story of “Modern Love”: the wife has an affair, then the husband, who mostly narrates, has an affair of his own.  The couple attempts to reconcile, but it is too late.  The wife kills herself, perhaps to allow the husband to remarry, or so the husband thinks, although I have doubts.

At its best, I think, the story is told through scenes that have some novelistic qualities:

'Tis Christmas weather, and a country house
Receives us:  rooms are full:  we can but get
An attic-crib.  Such lovers will not fret
At that, it is half-said.  The great carouse
Knocks hard upon the midnight's hollow door,
But when I knock at hers, I see the pit.
Why did I come here in that dullard fit?
I enter, and lie couched upon the floor.  (XXIII)

This could be a scene from a much later American novel, from Revolutionary Road, at a point in the story where the friends do not know how bad things have become for the couple.

Here the husband and wife discuss a novel:

You like not that French novel?  Tell me why.
You think it quite unnatural.  Let us see.
The actors are, it seems, the usual three:
Husband, and wife, and lover.  She--but fie!
In England we'll not hear of it.  Edmond,
The lover, her devout chagrin doth share;
Blanc-mange and absinthe are his penitent fare,
Till his pale aspect makes her over-fond:
So, to preclude fresh sin, he tries rosbif.
Meantime the husband is no more abused:
Auguste forgives her ere the tear is used.
Then hangeth all on one tremendous IF:-
IF she will choose between them.  She does choose;
And takes her husband, like a proper wife.
Unnatural?  My dear, these things are life:
And life, some think, is worthy of the Muse.  (XXV)

I should try to summarize plots with sonnets.  That could be good for a laugh. 

I have read this sonnet enough times that I am no longer sure how obscure it is.  The husband is always speaking,  The wife’s side of the conversation is implied.  The novel is described in a mocking way that is a passive-aggressive bullying of the wife at a point in the story when, ironically, the husband has begun to realize that he is no more committed to the marriage than she is.

What us really interesting to me is that, if you noted the sonnet numbers, you saw that there is only a single sonnet between the Christmas party scene and the novel-reading scene.  There is no transition in between.  Meredith changes settings with a snap.  Sometimes the chronology is scrambled.  “Modern Love” does what I take for granted in modern novels, presenting the events of the story in an order that is psychologically meaningful and assuming their readers can leap over the gaps.  Another way Meredith was ahead of his time.


  1. "Modern Love" has been called a novel, though I don't know if Meredith did. Not sonnets either, though they've been called Meredithian sonnets. Actually, I wonder if "In Memoriam" lies behind the repeated ABBA rhyme scheme, but there's an extra beat to each line.

    "I should try to summarize plots with sonnets. That could be good for a laugh. "
    There's a tradition of doing it in limericks.

  2. I wonder which would produce more embarrassing results if I tried it, sonnets or limericks?

    Every reference I have looked at just goes ahead and calls 'em sonnets. Easiest solution, I guess.

  3. Well, "sonnet" just means "little song"- there's Billy Collins's "American Sonnet"- twenty one lines- and no doubt someone's writing a Texan Sonnet in several volumes. All the same, I think the fourteen lines and disproportion in form and tension and contrast in meaning are important aspects of the form.

  4. John Hollander, in Rhyme's Reason, identifies Meredith as a special case:

    And as for Modern Love, George Meredith
    Who brooded most ironically upon it,
    Used an extended variant of the sonnet
    To do his sad desmystifying with
    [snip 4 lines]
    Behold the form that disillusion takes!
    The abba quatrain of the old
    Italian mode, its stories oversold,
    Goes rambling past the point at which it breaks
    Off, and the sestet finishes. Unsweet
    Sixteen, this sonnet pattern might be named,
    Ending in embers where once passion flamed,
    Sadder and wiser and not half so neat.

    So I think Hollander is more or less agreeing with you.

    1. Well, no, I'm agreeing with Hollander. He said it first and better.
      Milton and Hopkins wrote 20-line sonnets and there's Hopkins' curtal too. But these work better because they break the 14-line form we expect. We expect disproportion and division between a sonnet's parts. The last line of a sonnet is definitely final. You might say that the Meredithian sonnet is a sonnet that quarrels with the sonnet's form.
      And I think that "In Memoriam" is lurking somewhere behind any Victorian poem with ABBA stanzas.

  5. Sonnets are traditionally 14 lines, but there are exceptions. Aretino wrote 17-line sonnets, for example.

  6. You remind me that I should be getting to Meredith's novels.

  7. 17? That is curious. I have not seen those. Are they 4-4-3-3-3? It seems unbalanced. But also like a good way for a poet to show off.

    Guy, yes, the eccentricities and irritations are real, but the two Meredith novels I have read were easily worth the trouble. I think The Egoist is better than Richard Feverel for what that is worth. The Norton Critical Edition of the former is a model of the form.

  8. Yes, 4-4-3-3-3. Here they are. They're in Italian; they're also some of the smuttiest sonnets ever written. This couple is still in the honeymoon phase:

  9. I had read about these - Renaissance literary history always has plenty about Aretino - but I had never laid eyes on them.

  10. Dante also included two 20-line sonnets in "La Vita Nuova" (6-6-4-4). He called them sonnets, and his word is good enough for me.

  11. Doug, congratulations on the launch of the book!

    Anyone interested in Madcap France, click that link.

  12. Thanks! I'm still recovering from the proofreading. Allais deserves more English readers.