Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

The Search for a Good Cause in George Merediths Modern Love

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

The Search for a Good Cause in George Merediths Modern Love

Article excerpt

George Meredith's unorthodox poetic project Modern Love (1862) is one of the bleakest depictions of love and marriage in nineteenth-century literature. The poem opens onto a disintegrating union between an anonymous husband and wife. The wife, we find out, has a lover, and the husband, on the advice of his doctor, responds by taking his own. Shortly after an overture for a return to monogamy on the wife's part, her suicide dissolves the relationship. Filling in the space between these sparse plot points are tableau-like episodes and passages of intense lyric density, which often recount the husband's psychological and emotional processing of small events in more detail than the events themselves. As a poet and a novelist, Meredith had particular reason to think about the differences between extended narrative and lyric forms and the effect of running those modes together in Modern Love. Formally, Modern Love sits uneasily in the gray area between a thematic collection of fifty sixteen-line sonnets and a variation on novelistic marriage and adultery plots. With this structural ambivalence, Meredith unfolds the answer to the poem's already grim animating question--how might we crawl out of this tragedy?--at a painfully halting pace.

At the very center of the poem, for example, Meredith stalls the already stalling narrative to offer a metacommentary on the adultery plot, taken from a French novel. This sonnet condenses into sixteen lines what I argue is Modern Love's generic argument for the limitations of the novel in representing marriage. Though the husband avows appreciation for the naturalness of the French novel's subject, the sonnet also parodies its narrative logic, which depends on a sequence of cause and effect:

   You like not that French novel? Tell me why.
   You think it most 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 overfond:
   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, they say, is worthy of the Muse. (Sonnet XXV, 11. 1-16)
   (1)

If the husband wants to praise the naturalness of the adultery plot over the implied unnaturalness of English propriety or romanticized ideals, then why does Meredith comment on that form in the very middle of his narrative poem--instead of writing an adultery novel, for example? Meredith had in fact written a novel about adultery: The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, published in 1859, a few years before Modern Love and a few years after one such "French novel," Flaubert's Madame Bovary (1856). Meredith's experience writing a novel about adultery sharpens Sonnet XXV's specific critique of novelistic narrative, a critique that applies to both French and English novels, marriage and adultery plots: its causal logic. That is, he requires not an adultery novel but a uniquely narrativized sonnet collection to make his case against the novel's forward-looking narrative logic. In the first three quatrains of Sonnet XXV, Meredith laughs at cause and effect: Edmond's diet of blanc-mange and absinthe, an emphatically minute detail that parodies the naturalistic mode, leads to his pale aspect, which leads to the wife's admiration, which leads to his change in diet to rosbif, which leads to the termination of the affair.

For a moment, of course, this conclusion is unclear, and that lack of clarity tellingly reflects Modern Love more closely: "Then hangeth all on one tremendous If:--/ If she will choose between them." A marriage whose future appears to be contingent on the wife's decision: the similarity of this situation to the husband's sobers the otherwise dark comedy of the sonnet. …

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