Modern love

George Meredith was one of the most cultivated of the British poets and novelists of the Victorian era. I first came across his sonnet sequence Modern Love in an anthology of Victorian and Edwardian poets edited by W.H. Auden and Norman Holmes Pearson. I was struck by the bitterness and the bite of the poems. They express a palpable pain over the breakup of his marriage, powerfully alternating among self-recrimination, hatred, jealousy, and passion.
Michael Dirda recently read Merdith’s sequence of poems for the first time. In tomorrow’s Washington Post Book World, he takes us through Modern Love in some detail, with several quotes that provide the flavor of the poems: “First encounters: ‘Modern Love’ by George Meredith.”
The sequence opens with the husband and wife lying awake in bed, the wife pretending to be asleep. The rhetoric of the poetry is a little high-flown and abstract, but it strikes me as incredibly powerful. The first poem of Modern Love is one of the seven that the Auden-Pearson anthology reprints, and Dirda’s account takes off from here:
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 flowed 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 through their dead blank years,
By vain regret scrawled 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.


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