eorge Meredith's Modern Love partakes of the sweet perfume of hopeful expectation and the musky cologne of foreboding anxiety infused the Victorian Age with an odor of confusion and contradiction. Many Victorians did not know what they were supposed to be epitomizing or how they wanted to be remembered in history. According to Walter E. Houghton, even sages like Carlyle and Mill were not reflecting on the outlook of 1830 England when they wrote of the idea of progress; Houghton argues that these two prominent Victorians were instead "attempting. . . to form it" as they helped in the creation of the Victorian frame of mind (31). What the Victorians did not seem to realize is that "History was not a . . . process in which advance [and image] waited upon particular events, but a natural and organic development in which each age was the child of the previous one" (Houghton 29). The disposition towards the previous age of Romanticism took the form of turning away from self-indulgence (and possibly self-fulfillment) and instead emphasizing social responsibility and adherence to order and systems (Landow 1). This business-like attitude might have sufficed during Queen Victoria's reign if it were not all the questions that Victorian society could not suppress or ignore involving religion, morality, labor, and the nature and particularly the role of women. These issues threatened a massive overhaul of accepted norms and systems. To complete the stench of contradiction, a new century loomed before them that made the smell of change impossible to ignore. This disappearance of permanence as epitomized and reenacted in the failed marriage of George Meredith's 1862 poem, Modern Love struck a blow to the Victorian's sense of self. The loveless union depicted in the poem reflects the string of cultural crises facing England during the Age of Victoria.
The most obvious of these crises is that of marriage. If the miserable husband and wife in Modern Love did not want to be wedded to one another anymore, what ever were they doing except torturing themselves and each other as "Their hearts felt craving for the buried day? (50.8)? Why does the husband say, "Never! though I die thirsting. Go thy ways!" (24.16). Because, according to Houghton, the legal and social constraints made it merely impossible for them to divorce (361). And so,
Then each applied to each that fatal knife.
Deep questioning, which probes to endless dole (50.9-10).
Unfortunately, this attempt to converse and confess their unfaithfulness and lack of love by getting everything out in the open brings no resolution as they are still caught in the snare of marriage. Meredith expresses this in the lines that follow: "Ah, what a dusty answer gets the soul / When hot for certainties in this our life" (50.11-12). Houghton writes that "Shelley shouts his defiance of the established order: . . . `any law which should bind [a husband and a wife] to cohabitation for one moment after the decay of their affection would be a most untolerable tyranny, and the most unworthy of toleration'" (361). Marriage is not a bond that ought to be taken for granted. But in this age of transition, the turn from unbending institution to the right to strive for happiness has not yet been made.
Another mammoth issue of this era, as reflected in Modern Love, is the place of the woman. Certainly, equality did not exist on the above issue of divorce. A man could struggle and pay a large sum to rid himself of a wife, though it was advised against-as in Charles Dickens' novel, Hard Times. But this was not even a remote option for the wife. Modern Love sets itself in the quagmire of the woman question as it portrays a woman who ultimately acquires her own freedom on her own terms as Edna does in The Awakening. In addition, the long poem is narrated by the male partner. For the most part, Modern Love is from the man's perspective and we hear him placing more blame for the situation on his wife than upon himself. His plea for her to have "more brain" is sexist and incredibly condescending. Sonnet 48 begins:
Their sense is with their senses all mixed in,
Destroyed by subtleties these women are!
More brain, O Lord, more brain! or we shall mar
Utterly this fair garden we might win" (48.1-4).
In the Victorian Newsletter, Hans Ostrom writes that the husband "has fallen back on the most mechanically formulaic way of perceiving the troubled marriage; the problem. . . no longer exists in the marriage, but rather in the wife's femininity, in the fact that she is acting "like a woman" (28). Victorian women ranged from Coventry Patmore's angel in the household to the "new woman" (Houghton 348). The wife in Modern Love falls between these two categories as she does not revolt from her legal and social bondage as she stays locked in her marriage until the very end of the poem. But, she does demand on right on equal terms that men have had, to some degree, for centuries. She does not seek "he same education, the same suffrage, [or] the same opportunity for professional and political careers" as Houghton suggests, though (348). Instead, she seeks sexual equality in that she takes on a lover just as her husband does. This activity, though not encouraged, was somewhat condoned in secret for the man as we see with the rising rate of prostitution in the Victorian Age, was certainly not allowed for woman's dabbling.
This inequality in the acceptance of extra-marital sex brings us to the larger issue of morality. Extreme morality is what one might consider the Victorian Age is it is remembered for its prudishness. This is perhaps the image that many Victorians would have liked to have maintained. While the actuality of the sanctity of marriage and the monogamy it entails have been questioned throughout history, never before did extra-marital affairs become so openly addressed as they did in the Victorian Age. In the seventh sonnet of Modern Love, the husband expresses his feelings about his wife's promiscuity: "Yea! Filthiness of the body is most vile, / But faithlessness of heart I do hold worse" (7.13-14). He is bothered by the carnal knowledge she has beyond him, but that is not the worst of her wrongs as one might expect. This placement of "faithlessness of heart" as the greater crime than that of the body is a very modern ideas for the mid-nineteenth century.
From one vantage point, the Victorian Age considered sex a necessary and unejoyable act and was certainly not to be spoken of (Houghton 353). But the Victorians could not entirely resist change and ignore such proclamations as those endorsed by liberal Saint-Simonians such as: "men and women giving themselves to several without ceasing to be united as a couple" (Houghton 362). This is precisely the scene Meredith throws at us in Sonnet 25:
"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, wife, and lover. She-but fie!
In England we'll not hear of it" (25.1-5)
How shocking this modern display must have been to the more prudish Victorian! Shortly after its publication, Saturday Review called Modern Love "a great moral mistake" (Norton Anthology 1454). Whether this is a statement about the couple's actions or Meredith's portrayal of them is not clear; probably it is both. From the more "modern" side of the spectrum, Shelley says that "Love is free: to promise for ever to love the same woman is not less absurd than to promise to believe the same creed" (Houghton 361).
Traditionally, the request to believe the Apostle's or Nicene Creed all of one's life was not only absurd, but required. Yet, all things change and nothing is permanent. Beyond the realm of basic morality, the question of religion is not addressed in Modern Love. Houghton explains that man Victorians believed that if faith collapses, then morality would, too, and "society would disintegrate" (58). If the idea is applied to Modern Love, though, it says that if faith in one's spouse is lost, then the union is lost forever. Returning to the seventh sonnet, we hear the husband's lament over the disintegrated faith:
Yea! filthiness of body is most vile,
But faithlessness of heart I do hold worse.
The former, it were not so great a curse
To read on the steel-mirror of her smile" (7.13-16).
The requirement of love in a marriage was a rather new concept in the Victorian Age. In 1854, G.R. Drysdale described the situation: "A great proportion of the marriages we see around us, did not take place from love at all" (Houghton 381). In the past, it was more of a business deal that was made to bring wealth, social position, or some other advantage. Now, in the Victorian Age, when love could be the seal on the contract, problems arose; love is not binding and guaranteed like a wax stamp. Unfortunately, it can wane, fade, or disappear-"Ah, yes! / Love dies!" (Meredith 16.10-11). Ostrom writes:
Marriage was holy. Love was altered by it, for the Victorian, from something a bit nasty to something pure and wonderful. The Victorian anticipated in the state of holy matrimony the most serious emotional experience of his life — quite a different attitude from that of casual eighteenth-century people, with their arrangements, contracts, practicalities. Ah, sacred love. 29
In 1864, Frances Cobb wrote that "we are beginning to see that the canon that `marriage must hallow love' has a converse quite equally sacred, and that love also must hallow marriage" (Houghton 385). At the time, as volatile love was slowly becoming a requirement for matrimony and not merely an afterthought, Robert Browning takes the importance of love much further as he tells us that love is the ultimate purpose in life (Houghton 373).
Meredith's choice of title for his poem about deceit, hate, falsehood, confusion, and suicide is of exteme importance. "Love" is commonly thought to be the antithesis of these entities. So, we are left the "Modern." What is Meredith saying about his world? "Modern" also means "new and upcoming" and oftentimes it denotes the "new and improved." He clearly harbors much of the hopelessness for the future felt in the late nineteenth century, but he is also speaking to his contemporaries in saying that the Victorian frame of mind has driven them to this situation called Love. Perhaps he is using the voice of the husband in Modern Love to point out the fruitless notion that "a pessimistic attitude toward the human situation was considered weak or unmanly" in the Victorian Age as the husband seems to be the more optimistic of the two married parties that it will all work out in the end (Houghton 54). This forced optimism may be Meredith's attempt at showing the idiocracy of a forced image or buttressed institution in his era.
In the chasm between past and the looming future of change with the coming of a new century, the Victorians tried to retain the old, refused to admit its failure, and suffered from a universal sense of anxiety. Numerous Victorian poets expressed this anxiety, such as Hopkins, who dealt with this struggle by accepting God; Clough who dealt with it by refuting God, or Hardy, who, in his poem "Hap," wishes there really were some higher power who would make some sense of life.
Others, like the husband and wife in Modern Love attempt to create a facade of a good, respectable married life. In the seventeenth sonnet, Meredith shows us an example of the play-acting the married couple perform:
At dinner, she is hostess, I am host.
Whent the feast ever cheerfuller? She keeps
The Topic over intellectual deeps
In buoyancy afloat. The 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
Enamoured of an acting nought can tire,
Each other, like true hypocrites, admire;
Warm-lighted books, Love's ephemerioe,
Shoot gaily o'er the dished and the wine.
We waken envy of our happy lot.
Fast, sweet, and golden, shows the marriage-knot.
Dear guests, you now have seen
Love's corpse-light shine.
While this false appearance they are creating seems almost demented in its deception, we must remember "how curiously the dynamics of an age affect the human mind" (Houghton 55). In this dinner scene, the husband and wife have become so caught up in their game of deceit that they are enjoying it. They do such a fantastic job covering their despise for one another that their friends envy their happy lot. In Sonnet 23, the two married enemies share a bedroom at a Christmas gathering again to make their friends and families believe their lie. As they attempt to sustain the system of marriage and upstanding morality, they also are being irreverently immoral by lying to so many others including themselves. The husband has admitted in the third sonnet that he is still in love with the woman his wife used to be as he says,
She is mine! Ah, no! I know too well
I claim a star whose light is overcast:
I claim a phantom woman in the Past" (3.13-15).
At the end of the poem in Sonnet 49, the husband, who has maintained a glimmer of optimism throughout the saga, seems to have convinced himself of the lie as well when
He found her by the ocean's moaning verge, . . .
And she believed his old love had returned,
Which was her exultation, and her scourge" (49.1, 3-4).
They had been living their lie for so long, they no longer knew what was the truth and what was the facade. This attempt at the perpetuation of a marriage simply to keep up their image is the culmination of on major contradiction of the Victorian Age. To place the important of the permanence of the system of marriage over that of the truth is ludicrous and displays the Victorian's tendency to failure in facing reality.
Meredith does leave us with some hope for his age's mentality-though in a morbid fashion. The wife provides a breath of realism as she faces her unhappiness and expresses the truth at the close of the poem. In the middle of Modern Love she says with "quivering under-lip" that happiness "is nowhere for me!" (34.10, 13). She recognizes that the marriage is never going to succeed with or without love and she is also cognizant of the impossibility of divorce in her society. So, she leaves the situation by her own accord via suicide. Although death is rarely the best solution to a problem, the wife in Modern Love has no other choice unless she wants to remain unhappy and live a lie for the rest of her life. She accepts the loss of permanence of her situation, her life, and her world.
George Meredith scection in.The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Second volume. Sixth ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1993. 1454-1459.
Houghton, Walter E. The Victorian Frame of Mind, 1830-1870. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.
Meredith, George. "Modern Love." Selected Poems. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, Inc., 1980. 20-47.
Ostrom, Hans. "The Disappearance of Tragedy in Meredith's "Modern Love." Victorian Newsletter 63 (Spring 1983): 26-30.
Last modified 2002