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January 2014 Issue

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MeredithModernLoveA man and a woman lie side by side, not touching. It’s midnight. The man has been sleeping but now her sobs waken him. He tentatively reaches a hand toward her head but otherwise they lie as still as statues, even after she has stifled her weeping. The long, sleepless night stretches out before them. Neither speaks. There’s nothing to say anymore. Ever been there?

George Meredith had been there, and in the first of the fifty poems that comprise the sequence Modern Love, he depicted the mute misery of lovers trapped in a bed that feels like a tomb. That it was Meredith’s own misery is plain to see, and not beside the point. In England in 1862 you didn’t write poems taking readers into the marriage bed, especially if it was your marriage bed. Well, Meredith did.

There are no masks or disguises here – except for those the wretched couple assume for public occasions. Though neither is named, the man is nakedly George Meredith and the woman just as nakedly his wife, Mary Ellen Peacock Nicolls. As a number of critics have remarked, Mary Ellen rather resembled the heroine of a George Meredith novel – beautiful, intellectual, independent, and chafing against social convention, like Clara Middleton in The Egoist. Unlike her husband, a tradesman’s son, she came from a distinguished family: she was the daughter of Thomas Love Peacock, a key member of the Shelley circle in earlier years and the author of Nightmare Abbey. Seven years his senior and the widowed mother of a young girl, she apparently swept Meredith off his feet when they met in 1848.

Not that that made any difference. By 1856, after seven years of marriage, the birth of a son (Arthur Gryffydh Meredith), and what J. B. Priestly described as a “dreary sequence of duns, lodgings, dead babies, and baffled literary ambitions,” it was all over.

Modern Love is the story of what went wrong, albeit with a certain amount of creative license. For instance, the mistress that Meredith invented for the husband was apparently a fiction, whereas the wife’s lover – Henry Wallis, a pre-Raphaelite painter of some distinction – was very real and the father of the boy (Felix Wallis) born to Mary Ellen after she left Meredith for Wallis in 1857. Also, Mary Ellen didn’t kill herself, as the wife does in the second-to-last poem. She merely died, probably of Bright’s Disease, desolate and forsaken, estranged from Wallis and repudiated by Meredith, in 1861. It’s easy to make out Meredith as the villain of this tale, casting him in the role of The Egoist’s insufferable chauvinist Sir Willoughby Patterne, which is what Diane Johnson does in The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith and Other Lesser Lives (Knopf, 1972). (He did in fact forbid her visitation rights to their son until finally relenting; the couple in the book are childless.)

Yet the burden of Modern Love, despite the husband’s flashes of score-settling and self-exculpation, which only add to its verisimilitude, is that no one is the villain of this tale. After examining his motives and hers to the point of exhaustion, Meredith can finally say in one of the last poems:

I see no sin:
The wrong is mix’d. In tragic life, God wot,
No villain need be!

On first reading it’s hard to see what so dismayed Victorian critics, one of whom sniffed when the work was published that the title should have been Modern Lust. Meredith said unsayable things but he said them with what sounds to us like standard Victorian rhetoric, with a lot of classical references, capitalized abstractions, and the strictest adherence to form – in this case, four quatrains making up an extended, sixteen-line “sonnet.” In fact, they’re really not sonnets at all, lacking as they do the classic “turn” of octave into sestet or the epigrammatic force of a concluding couplet. For Meredith’s purposes, these structural complications would only impede the flow of the narrative. What ties the poems together structurally is Meredith’s mastery of rhyme. Rarely has one unchanging rhyme scheme – ABBA CDDC EFFE GHHG – ever seemed so various.

Meredith’s Grand Manner might deceive modern readers, but his contemporaries easily saw beneath the surface decorum. (Browning, Swinburne, and a few others liked what they saw; the reviewers loathed it.) What’s so shocking about the opening poem, with all its murmuring assonance and inescapable rhymes?

By this he knew she wept with waking eyes:
That, at his hand’s light quiver by her head,
The strange low sobs that shook their common bed
Were called into her with a sharp surprise,
And strangled mute, like little gaping snakes,
Dreadfully venomous to him. She lay
Stone-still, and the long darkness flow’d away
With muffled pulses. Then, as midnight makes
Her giant heart of Memory and Tears
Drink the pale drug of silence, and so beat
Sleep’s heavy measure, they from head to feet
Were moveless, looking thro’ their dead black years,
By vain regret scrawl’d over the blank wall.
Like sculptured effigies they might be seen
Upon their marriage-tomb, the sword between;
Each wishing for the sword that severs all.

DianeJohnsonlesserlivesProfligate with public intimacies about domestic violence, substance abuse, and social disgrace, many of us would still prefer to look away when the topic of erotic failure is introduced. Meredith won’t let us. No wonder his contemporaries were aghast. The squirms begin with the first line. “By this he knew she wept with waking eyes”: Eyes are for seeing, not weeping; in the dark midnight of this poem, however, eyes bring not vision but tears. “[A]t his hand’s light quiver by her head”: by her head, not on her head or her hair or her breasts or any other body part where a lover’s hand properly belongs. A hand is for touching; in this poem it only quivers uselessly in the air. “The strange low sobs that shook their common bed”: Do I need to spell out what activity should be shaking a conjugal bed? Hint: it’s not sobbing. “[L]ike little gaping snakes, / Dreadfully venomous to him”: This is the first of nearly a dozen references to snakes and snake-like things that will recur, with queasy sexual overtones, throughout the sequence. There’s a lot of sex in this book, but it’s the kind that Adam and Eve had after meeting the serpent. “Like sculptured effigies they might be seen / Upon their marriage-tomb”: Hard to believe that George Meredith could be bleaker than Philip Larkin, but in “An Arundel Tomb,” Larkin used the same medieval burial imagery to more hopeful effect. Larkin’s entombed couple are dead, but their love survives. Meredith’s entombed couple are alive, but their love is dead. And by the end of the book, there’s even less life than that.

Part of the poignancy of Modern Love is its depiction of a couple torn apart by commonalities, not differences. Cultured, supersensitive, and daringly “modern,” these partners understand each other in a way that no outsider can. No one but they know the ghastly charade they play when circumstances require them to act a part, as in poem XVII:

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,
Enamour’d of our acting and our wits,
Admire each other like true hypocrites.
Warm-lighted glances, Love’s Ephemerae,
Shoot gaily o’er the dishes and the wine.
We waken envy of our happy lot.
Fast, sweet, and golden shows our marriage-knot.
Dear guests, you now have seen Love’s corpse-light shine!

egoistThat must have been quite a party. All those present enjoyed themselves, including the hosts, who for a few hours vanquished their despondence in playacting. They know the worst about each other; the world doesn’t. So if HIDING THE SKELETON is one name for this game, SHARING THEIR MISERY is another. Acting out this travesty of happiness unites them in hypocrisy – cold comfort, but comfort all the same. No one else in the room can muster the social skills and intellectual dazzle required by hypocrisy on this scale. Even now, in this waste, they’re meant for each other.

The biting, sardonic tone of XVII is earned. There’s a lot to be bitter about. Once, as the preceding poem shows, the marriage knot really was “sweet” and “golden.” These abrupt tonal shifts disconcerted Meredith’s original readers, but they may more profitably be seen as part of his admirable tendency not to clean up the mess. Not only from poem to poem but within any single poem he is capable of veering “from tenderness to indignation, from pity to self-pity, from generosity to an annihilating bitterness, faithfully reproducing the mental chaos of a man bewildered by love’s feints and blows,” as C. Day Lewis wrote. Poem XVI, for example, begins as a sentimental reverie and ends with a searing consciousness of guilt – his this time, not hers. In this moment of deepest intimacy from their early life together, he manages to say exactly the wrong thing at exactly the wrong time. But let Meredith tell the tale. He was, after all, a distinguished novelist, able to imbue a lyric with narrative urgency:

In our old shipwreck’d days there was an hour,
When in the firelight steadily aglow,
Join’d slackly, we beheld the chasm grow
Among the clicking coals. Our library-bower
That eve was left to us: and hush’d we sat
As lovers to whom Time is whispering.
From sudden-open’d doors we heard them sing:
The nodding elders mix’d good wine with chat.
Well knew we that Life’s greatest treasure lay
With us, and of it was our talk. “Ah, yes!
“Love dies!” I said: I never thought it less.
She yearn’d to me that sentence to unsay.
Then when the fire domed blackening, I found
Her cheek was salt against my kiss, and swift
Up the sharp scale of sobs her breast did lift: —
Now am I haunted by that taste! That sound!

The setting, with its lulling coal fire and its drowsy elders in the next room, is certainly novelistic, yet the compacted emotion is entirely lyrical. In the span of a few moments the lovers go from the most sensual tenderness to the most wrenching alienation. Thinking to make amends with a kiss, the husband discovers in the most shockingly tactile way just how mistaken he has been. He doesn’t just hear or feel the tears, he tastes them, and years after the fact is still tasting them. That he also pays particular attention to the wife’s breasts is one of the loveliest (and saddest) touches in the whole work.

Desire lives on after love has died. There’s even something like make-up sex after the husband has discovered the wife’s infidelity and taken (partly in revenge) a mistress of his own. Well, anyone could have told them: that won’t work. Meredith’s account of this fiasco reads like the scenario of an Ingmar Bergman film in Victorian costume, with the lovers tearing at each other in an agonizing cycle of need and rage. Excitement, tenderness, guilt, grief, shame, longing, regret, passion and compassion: our sexual lives are all these things, and all these things are in poem XLIII. I wish the news were happier, but the husband was right: love does die. Trying to resuscitate it physically brings not peace but shame. What a wretched morning-after it must have been:

Mark where the pressing wind shoots javelin-like,
Its skeleton shadow on the broad-back’d wave!
Here is a fitting spot to dig Love’s grave;
Here where the ponderous breakers plunge and strike,
And dart their hissing tongues high up the sand:
In hearing of the ocean, and in sight
Of those ribb’d wind-streaks running into white.
If I the death of Love had deeply plann’d,
I never could have made it half so sure,
As by the unbless’d 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 mix’d. In tragic life, God wot,
No villain need be! Passions spin the plot:
We are betray’d by what is false within.

ModernLoveMeredithThis elegy for “the death of love” proffers no illusions about “moving on,” but it does suggest a proper way of mourning that love: by forgiving each other and ourselves. There will always be something false within. Meredith’s couple are no better or worse than most of us. They made the mistakes that any of us might make – of clinging to the past out of fear for the future, of asking questions where no answers were to be found, of analyzing their love rather than living it. As the final poem has it, “what a dusty answer gets the soul / When hot for certainties in this our life!”

Meredith piles on the excruciations. What he calls in poem II “ a shuddering heap of pain” only gets more painful. She mocks his masculine amour-propre (IX); he meets her beseeching looks with stony silence (XII); they play a parlor game in mixed company, ending in a ghastly parody of a loving kiss (XXXV); the wife and mistress meet and exchange lethal pleasantries (XXXVI). Toward the end the reader needs a respite as badly as do the exhausted couple. It comes in XLVII. By now all hope is gone, but it’s not too late to begin treating each other, as they do here, with a little more kindness. So they take a sunset walk, observing the migrating swallows and the reddening sky. It’s only a moment. Neither has any illusions. But the imagery of this beautiful poem does for the reader what nature does for the couple: it blesses, it solaces, it condoles:

We saw the swallows gathering in the sky,
And in the osier-isle we heard their noise.
We had not to look back on summer joys,
Or forward to a summer of bright dye.
But in the largeness of the evening earth
Our spirits grew as we went side by side.
The hour became her husband, and my bride.
Love that had robb’d us so, thus bless’d our dearth!
The pilgrims of the year wax’d very loud
In multitudinous chatterings, as the flood
Full brown came from the west, and like pale blood
Expanded to the upper crimson cloud.
Love that had robb’d us of immortal things,
This little moment mercifully gave,
And still I see across the twilight wave,
The swan sail with her young beneath her wings.

Such benediction as Modern Love bestows is strictly temporary. The harshness somewhat relents in the final poems, but the whole sequence moves toward ineluctable catastrophe, which duly occurs in XLIX, when the wife, perhaps thinking (mistakenly) that the husband truly loves his mistress, swallows poison. That “perhaps” covers a lot of ground in Modern Love. Partly due to the feverish, dreamlike unfolding of events, and partly due to Meredith’s impacted syntax, it’s sometimes difficult to know just what is going on. His prose was no more pellucid than his verse. “Now men whose incomes have been restricted to the extent that they must live on their capital, soon grow relieved of the forethoughtful anguish wasting them by the hilarious comforts of the lap upon which they have sunk back, insomuch that they are apt to solace themselves for their intolerable anticipations of famine in the household by giving loose to one fit or more of reckless lavishness,” reads a fairly typical sentence from The Egoist.

So Modern Love, like all of Meredith’s work, has its longuers. Furthermore, some detractors have found in it exactly the sort of male arrogance and vanity that Meredith so wittily exposed in The Egoist. I think they’re reading the wrong book. What I find when I read Modern Love is just what the title promises: the story of how we love, or fail to love, now.

Stephen Akey is the author of College, Library, and A Guide to My Record Collection. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.