This extract comes from George Meredith’s Modern Love, a sequence of fifty sonnets published in 1862. Meredith was primarily a Victorian novelist, but he also wrote poetry, and Modern Love is widely accepted as his most important poetic achievement.
The poet’s aim in this work is to pick apart the idealised image of love that circulates in Victorian poetry. His images of corpses, ghosts, and skeletons are perhaps unexpected for what appear to be love sonnets. Indeed, contemporary reviewers were outraged by Meredith’s depiction of love, using the language of ‘disease’, rot, and vulgarity. Meredith himself engaged with this vocabulary, as he described his poem as ‘a dissection of the sentimental passion of these days’: ‘dissection’ is a medical image which evokes the visceral body.
The two sonnets here depict different domestic scenes: the first, private, as two lovers sit together by a fireplace; the second, shared, as they host a dinner party. In both, as throughout the sequence, love is fraught, reflecting the fact that the narrator has found out about his wife’s infidelity. The adjective ‘shipwreck’d’ in the first sonnet evokes destruction and ruin, and the image of a ‘chasm’, which the lovers witness in the fire but which also expands to describe their relationship, suggests that they have become distant. The line ‘[s]he yearn’d to me that sentence to unsay’ portrays their difficulties in communicating, and their desire to return to a previous time, through the prefix ‘un’ in ‘unsay’. In the second sonnet, Meredith engages with the contrast between the surface and depth of love, using watery language of ‘buoyancy’ and ‘deeps’. That sonnet begins with an image of ultimate cheerfulness, but this joy is haunted by a ‘ghost’, which recurs as ‘THE SKELETON’, ‘devils’, and then ‘corpse-light’ in the final line. This compound noun is typical of Meredith’s poetic style throughout the sequence, as he searches for new language to capture the complexity of the love he portrays.
Meredith draws on a tradition of sonnet-writing, as championed most famously by the late medieval Italian poet Petrarch and later by Shakespeare, amongst many others. The sonnet form was undergoing a revival in the Victorian period. It is striking that Meredith’s sonnets, as well as experimenting with the traditional use of this form, which often spoke of unrequited or yearning love, also play with the rules of the form itself: they contain sixteen lines rather than fourteen! We can wonder why Meredith extends the length in this way. Does it reflect his desire to present the full complexity of love? Does it show him waging war on traditional literary forms as he seeks a new way of expressing his ideas? Meredith’s poetic project is experimental and puzzling.