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The Tragedy in the Bedroom

A masterpiece of Victorian adultery

Hulton Archive

There are not many poets whose fame rests on a single work. George Meredith (1828–1909), conspicuous in his time as both a novelist and a poet, never became a convincing poet on the order of Hardy or Lawrence. He is now known for only one poetic work, “Modern Love,” a fifty-poem sequence that—unlike the rest of his poems, even such charming ones as “Love in the Valley”—engaged in a sustained and penetrating look inward. “Modern Love” appeared in 1862 as the title poem of the volume Modern Love, here reprinted as a whole. The editors argue that one reads “Modern Love” better within its original volume: “Juxtaposing multiple versions of ‘modern love,’ the volume thus explores a range of contemporary sociocultural issues, including English cosmopolitanism, the so-called Woman Question, and the diffusion of democratic ideas about social equality.” If you go to poetry for ideas about “contemporary sociocultural issues,” the re-issue of this volume may please you. But the verses accompanying “Modern Love”—the “Poems of the English Roadside” and the added ballads and lyrics—fall, as poetry, so far below “Modern Love” that only specialists in Victorian culture would care about its reappearance in their company.

For all the editors’ protestations commending Meredith’s attempts at rustic or working-class diction, there is nothing poetically commendable about these poems. The editors lean on theme, and make strained connections between “Modern Love” and the roadside poems and ballads, but in point of fact none of these ballads or lyrics have gained any lasting literary currency. Their jocularity is forced, their sublimity is tedious, their prosody is lumpy. Reading these poems, one is astonished that “Modern Love” got itself written at all.

Among the “Poems of the English Roadside,” for example, we find the blustery opening of “The Old Chartist,” a poem spoken by a labor sympathizer who was transported to Australia but has now returned to England:

Whate’er I be, old England is my dam!
           So there’s my answer to the judges, clear.
I’m nothing of a fox, nor of a lamb;
           I don’t know how to bleat nor how to leer:
                      I’m for the nation!
That’s why you see me by the wayside here,
                 Returning home from
It’s summer in her bath this morn, I think.
           I’m fresh as dew, and chirpy as the birds.

One flinches from more of this, but it goes on for another sixteen stanzas. And when Meredith abandons this affectedly “masculine” voice, and writes sentimental lyrics, the result is even more repellent, as when an outcast lover compares himself, in a feeble metaphor, to another outcast, “the winter rose” in the garden that knocks at his window during a storm. It is no wonder that socio-cultural critics have understandably drawn most of their salient observations from novels and plays. 

The volume’s editors footnote Meredith’s words with a dismaying lack of common sense. The word “dam” in the first line of “The Old Chartist”—“Whate’er I be, old England is my dam!”—is footnoted as: “mother (female parent); also, a barrier.” What reader, in doubt about what “mother” meant, would need the elaboration “female parent”? And how could “dam”—in this context of leering foxes and bleating lambs—mean not a mother but “a barrier”? (Invoking “polysemy” or “ambiguity” cannot cover such a flouting of the obvious meaning.) A comparable absurdity is attached to sonnet XXXIV, in which the husband-speaker fears that his wife is about to declare the end of their marriage. Referring to the myth that the end of the world will come either as a second deluge or as a consuming fire, he bursts out:

Madam would speak with me. So, now it comes:
The Deluge, or else Fire!

The editors seem not to realize that the husband is viewing the end of his marriage as the end of his world. Although they duly footnote “Deluge” as the flood in Genesis, they do not mention God’s promise never to send another flood “while the earth remaineth” (whence a second deluge as a metaphor for the end of the world). This unsatisfactory first gloss is followed by an irrelevant second one: “The term deluge also connotes the self-absorption of France’s King Louis XV … [who] famously said, ‘Après moi, le déluge.’ … The French Revolution began some fifteen years after his death.” Meredith is not alluding to the French king, or to the French Revolution, but to Doomsday. (The editors also present the apocryphal utterance of Louis XV as fact.)

Illustration by Oliver Barret

“Modern Love” was published when Meredith was thirty-four, directly after the death of his wife. Though it has significant fictional elements, it is based (as commentators agree) on Meredith’s catastrophic marriage. The marriage took place when Meredith was twenty-one and Mary Ellen Peacock Nicholls was twenty-eight: he, a naïve boy, she, already a widow with a little girl, Edith Nicholls; he, an unknown writer, she, the intellectual daughter of Shelley’s friend Thomas Love Peacock and the sister of Edward Peacock, with whom Meredith was collaborating on a literary magazine circulating privately among friends. Mary Ellen also wrote for the magazine, and in marrying her George thought that he was gaining not only an intellectual and witty companion but also a wife from a class distinctly higher than his own. After two stillbirths, Mary Ellen and George had a son, Arthur.

Seven years into the marriage, feeling distaste for her ambitious husband, Mary Ellen began an affair with the painter Henry Wallis, eloped to Capri with him, and gave birth to a son, Harold (originally surnamed Meredith), by Wallis. The short-lived affair came to an end, and in 1861, after returning to England and desolately languishing in worsening health, Mary Ellen died of kidney failure. (Her daughter, Edith, and her “illegitimate” son, Harold—with his new surname of Wallis—were passed from hand to hand as they grew up, but lived out full lives.) Meredith would not permit his alienated wife to see their child Arthur until she was on her deathbed. He and Arthur, once close, became estranged in later life: Arthur perceived neglect, George resented the assumption. Arthur died of tuberculosis at thirty-seven.

The poet in George Meredith—by nature inclined to didactic utterance—was educated into a subtler and more complex voice by these marital events, which produced his brilliant set of fifty sixteen-line “sonnets” (which I, with others, will continue to call “sonnets” because we have no name for Meredith’s form of four solid abba quatrains printed as a single block). These sonnets are sometimes stagy, sometimes coy, sometimes ugly, sometimes pretentious—but they are also arresting, varied, and tempestuous. They can be malicious, nostalgic, denunciatory, hopeful, sardonic, scathing; but whatever the tone, they are animated, event by event, by a novelist’s sense for a dramatic moment and a dramatic manner.

Like Shakespeare, Meredith writes a poetic sequence tracking troubled love, and, like Shakespeare, he multiplies characters. Just as Shakespeare’s dramatis personae (complicating the usual two-person sonnet-plot) include himself-as-poet, the treacherous young man, the even more treacherous woman, and a rival poet, so Meredith’s roster includes himself-as-poet, his wife, his wife’s lover, and his own supposed mistress (for whom no documentary evidence exists). It took no little courage for a poet in his thirties to adapt Shakespeare in this way, hauling erotic lyric into the agitated sphere of nineteenth-century marriage.

The chief claim of the present re-issuing of Meredith’s volume of 1862 is that it situates the sequence in a gathering of supplementary writings called “Contexts.” These are subtitled “Contemporary Reactions,” “Advice Manuals and Social Commentary,” “On the Senses,” “Nineteenth-Century Poetics,” and “Other Poetry.” The lyrics collected under “Other Poetry” (like the extracts from the advice manuals) chiefly concern female behavior: we see one of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese, excerpts from Coventry Patmore’s The Angel in the House and from Christina Rossetti’s “Monna Innominata,” and, preceding these, two sonnets by Keats. The excerpts under “Contexts” are introduced by short editorial commentaries attempting to link the given piece to Meredith or to “Modern Love, or to both.

These commentaries are (perhaps understandably) superficial; but there is no excuse for their being sometimes just plain wrong. Offering as context an inept early sonnet by Keats—“Light feet, dark violet eyes, and parted hair”—the editors then proceed to misread it. Keats first says that the physical beauty of young women can dazzle his senses, even if the young women have no modesty or virtue:

Light feet, dark violet eyes, and parted hair;
           Soft dimpled hands, white neck, and creamy breast,
           Are things on which the dazzled senses rest
Till the fond, fixèd eyes, forget they stare.
           From such fine pictures, heavens! I cannot dare
           To turn my admiration, though unpossess’d
They be of what is worthy,—though not drest
In lovely modesty, and virtues rare.

Keats then says that he turns away in a trice (between drinks and dinner, so to speak) from these women, these “lures,” when he finds such physical “charms” rendered shining by a woman’s intelligence. In conversation with a beautiful and intelligent woman, he hears “a voice divine”:

Yet these I leave as thoughtless as a lark;
           These lures I straight forget,—e’en ere I dine,
Or thrice my palate moisten: but when I mark
           Such charms with mild intelligences shine,
My ear is open like a greedy shark,
           To catch the tunings of a voice divine.

Adolescent as this is as poetry, the hunger behind it is real—the hunger of a gifted young man for an intelligent young woman he can not only admire but also, with elation, listen to. It is that “voice divine,” revealing the intelligence behind the beauty, which enraptures him.

Not only do the editors print the sonnet in block form without the indentations marking rhymes, which it had in 1817, but they also misunderstand it. They paraphrase the content thus: “This sonnet details the speaker’s conflicted desire: despite the woman’s obvious pride and vanity, he is charmed by her beauty and ‘voice divine.’ ” They have not recognized that Keats is talking about two different sorts of women: those he lusts after for their looks alone and those who have, besides physical “charms,” intelligence enough to make his ear hunger for their voice. And there are other problems with the editorial commentaries. One cannot trust the taste of editors who speak of Ruskin’s prose as “littered with literary allusions” and remark that Hopkins wrote “strikingly weird poems.” Nor is Meredith’s poetry served by careless errors: the very first poem in the volume tells of war news from a “solider boy”; the past tense of “to lead” is printed as “lead”; “poète” is rendered as “poëte.”

But I return to “Modern Love” and the claims it has on us. It is, first of all, a story of a tragic marriage, told in scenes, beginning acutely in medias res: the husband is wakened, in bed, by the sound of his wife’s weeping. As soon as she becomes aware that he is awake, she stifles her sobs:

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.

(The editors misread this poem, too; they say “In Sonnet I … the psychical devastation felt by the wife is evidenced by the sobs shaking her body even as she sleeps,” while the poem explicitly declares that “she wept with waking eyes.”)

The marital bed, the sexual site, is central to the tale, appearing and reappearing throughout the sequence. In sonnet IX, the husband wants to fall on his wife in a sheer fury of appetite, leading her into “certain dark defiles,” but restrains himself as they approach the bed:

He felt the wild beast in him betweenwhiles
So masterfully rude, that he would grieve
To see the helpless delicate thing receive
His guardianship through certain dark defiles.
Had he not teeth to rend, and hunger too?
But still he spared her.

The bed is where, in another sonnet, the betrayed husband finds his wife asleep: he wakes her, showing her one of her past love-letters to him and, next to it, a letter written by her to her new lover: “I show another letter lately sent. / The words are very like: the name is new.” The bed, in a different guise, reappears in a small attic guest-room set aside for the couple at a Christmas house-party. Other guests intimate coyly that “Such lovers will not fret  / At that.” When the husband arrives at the room, his wife has already gone to bed: he dares not, or will not, approach her: “I enter, and lie couch’d upon the floor.” “A kiss is but a kiss now! And no wave / Of a great flood that whirls me to the sea.” Later, gloating after bedding his mistress, he catches sight of his wife and her lover: “What two come here to mar this heavenly tune? / A man is one: the woman bears my name, / And honour. Their hands touch!” In the couple’s futile attempt at sexual reconciliation, the bed becomes a site of revulsion: frigidly, in an “air of cold / And statuesque sedateness” the wife leads the husband to the bed: “Fleshly indifference horrible!” The husband shudders at arousal without love:

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! 

And so the story closes, as it must, in bed. They have ceased to share a bedroom, but she calls to him at midnight,

… and he came wondering to the bed.
“Now kiss me, dear! It may be, now!” she said.
Lethe had pass’d those lips, and he knew all.

She has ended her life to end the marriage. That a sonnet sequence should be grounded in the marital bed was taken as shocking by many of Meredith’s reviewers and contemporaries. The most revealing of the “Contexts” here is the one labeled “Contemporary Reactions.” It is entertaining to read a theologian not only inveighing against Meredith’s “clever, meretricious, turbid pictures” but also accusing the poet of “meddling causelessly, and somewhat pruriently, with a deep and painful subject, on which he has no convictions to express.” (He added that the poem should really be called “Modern Lust.”) It is more than entertaining, it is also illuminating, to read Swinburne’s biting rejoinder to that censorious review: 

There are pulpits enough for all preachers in prose; the business of verse-writing is hardly to express convictions; and if some poetry, not without merit of its kind, has at times dealt in dogmatic morality, it is all the worse and all the weaker for that. [The present times request a school of poetry] whose scope of sight is bounded by the nursery walls … all Muses are to bow down before her who babbles … and jingles with flaccid fingers one knows not whether a jester’s or a baby’s bells. We have not too many writers capable of duly handling a subject worth the serious interest of men.

So many of the “contexts” here are moral in nature (on both sides, from Ruskin to Mill) that students may begin to think that it is within such contexts that poetry is best discussed. It is true that even writers who do have aesthetic sensibility can—especially in youth—turn a pompous morality on their victims: the editors include an essay by the young Henry James, at thirty-three, declaring of Baudelaire that “evil for him … consists primarily of a great deal of lurid landscape and unclean furniture…. There must be stinking corpses and starving prostitutes and empty laudanum bottles in order that the poet shall be effectively inspired.” James might later have repented of this essay, as he did of his youthful denunciation of Whitman. But with Henry James leading the way with what the editors bafflingly call “a nuanced meditation,” moral disapproval is presented as a sturdy base for aesthetic judgment, while the most reliable contexts for understanding poetry—other poems—are in short supply. To encourage students to understand poems through reading Victorian moral diatribes, or advice to young ladies, or even Mill on the subjection of women, is to distract them from the wider, and more relevant, context: poetry itself. Meredith’s readings in lyric—Greek, Latin, Englishare more important than Cobbett and Mill to his attempts to compose poetry.

In spite of all the fulminations against it, and in spite of its own faults, “Modern Love” still stands. What, if not its narrative of an adulterous wife, is its claim on us? Almost all favorable accounts of the sequence praise its grimness and its irony, but these qualities are by no means absent from earlier poems of eros: witness Shakespeare and Donne. Meredith distinguishes himself from his predecessors by creating his own idiosyncratic patterns of presentation. As a novelist, he requires a narrative impulse to his poem, and as a moralist he requires “philosophical” reflection—which, in poetry, is just one more element in the whole; it occupies no moral high ground “above” the poem. Almost any one of the more famous sonnets shows the characteristic Meredithian alternation of story and epigram. The marital narrative (in the third person) of the last sonnet opens with a reprise of the marriage, seen first as the claustrophobic imprisonment of two wild birds and second as the stasis resulting from nostalgia for a better past:

Thus piteously Love closed what he begat:
The union of this ever-diverse pair!
These two were rapid falcons in a snare,
Condemned to do the flitting of the bat.
Lovers beneath the singing sky of May,
They wander’d once; clear as the dew on flowers;
But they fed not on the advancing hours:
Their hearts held cravings for the buried day.

Its narrative accomplished, the poem twists from private error to a diagnosis of cause, and then to grim universals:

Then each applied to each that fatal knife,
Deep questioning, which probes to endless dole.
Ah, what a dusty answer gets the soul
When hot for certainties in this our life!—

Even with this spiritual broadening to “the soul,” the phrase “this our life” continues to confine the poet’s observation within the compass of the human. To close the sequence, Meredith—writing when Darwin had already rendered suspect the word “soul”—requires an image that, while denoting passion, situates it in an indifferent and inhuman universe:

In tragic hints here see what evermore
Moves dark as yonder midnight ocean’s force,
Thundering like ramping hosts of warrior horse,
To throw that faint thin line upon the shore!

Like many of Meredith’s successful symbols, this last oceanic one reverberates on several planes: the waves as Neptune’s mythical charging stallions will represent passion; midnight cosmically extinguishes each day (whether the nostalgic “buried” one or the hideous living one); “evermore” asserts the eternity of the unuttered despair; the darkness erases intelligibility on any human plane; and the only earthly trace of these midnight surges, confirming the insignificance of human fate, is a “faint thin line.” As ever, Meredith in full strength is eminently quotable. Who can forget, thinking of sexual connection, how hazardous it is (or was, or may be) to become “hot for certainties,” applying “that fatal knife, deep questioning”? Such probing is always lethal: there can be no bearable answer that is also truthful. 

As one reads through “Modern Love,” one sees, in the funneling-down of opening narrative to dense epigram and coda, one of Meredith’s fundamental dynamisms. Since almost any reflective lyric tightens as it goes along, with the authorial choices becoming more and more restricted as the net draws in, the progressive compression in the more “philosophical” poems of “ModernLove” is not by itself unusual; it is, rather, Meredith’s pronounced and rapid shift from one mode to another (from narrative to epigram, from first person to third person, from description to direct address) that calls attention to itself. Although many writers make thought into a narrative—they come upon a governing idea, then construct a story around it—Meredith is more likely to make narrative into a concept, descending from plot to moral to dismissal. One begins to anticipate with a certain pleasure the next spectacle of such funneling-down. 

And what motivates the urgency of this sequence? It is not misogyny but rather Meredith’s mortification at his own premarital misreading of his Mary Ellen. In this shame at his own past stupidity, he resembles Wallace Stevens, who—it can be inferred from the poetry—suffered an ineradicable humiliation when he discovered that his long and eloquent epistolary courtship had been directed at a dull and incompatible woman. Stevens wrote seven unpublished fifteen-line “sonnets” that exhibit his reading of Meredith: “Good Man, Bad Woman” and the two three-poem sequences called “Red Loves Kit” and “The Woman Who Blamed Life on a Spaniard.” These sonnets take up the theme of an ill-suited marital pair in a manner that Stevens could hardly have conceived and executed without “Modern Love.” Like Meredith, Stevens grounds his sonnets in an irreconcilable conflict. In “Red Loves Kit” (1924), the speaker’s wife continues to desire sex, and he—although he still loves her—cannot perform sexually, having discovered her fixed opposition to everything he values. He speaks to himself in the second person:

Your yes her no, your no her yes. The words
Make little difference, for being wrong
And wronging her, if only as she thinks,
You never can be right. You are the man.
You brought the incredible calm in ecstasy,
Which, like a virgin visionary spent
In this spent world, she must possess.

He recalls her railing at his mental escapes—in thought, in writing—from the marriage, and continues, once again speaking to himself,

… That you are innocent
And love her still, still leaves you in the wrong.
Her words accuse you of adulteries
That sack the sun, though metaphysical.

Stevens concludes “Good Man, Bad Woman” with a Meredithian epigram: “She can corrode your world, if never you.” And attempting Meredithian comedy in “The Woman Who Blamed Life on a Spaniard,” he announces that “the fowl of Venus” (normally a dove) metamorphoses in life too swiftly for analysis: “The choice twixt dove and goose is over-close. / The fowl of Venus may consist of both / And more.” The power of Meredith’s despairing example wanes when Stevens begins to see epistemological shock as inevitable and recurrent: “And last year’s garden grows salacious weeds.” That Stevens turned to the intellectual and sexual enigmas of Meredith to voice his own marital quandary discloses his intense response to “Modern Love,” a poem that even now exerts power, one hundred and fifty years after it appeared in print.

“Modern Love” has many active virtues: it wrestles with its “immoral” subject; struggles to fix a beam of analysis on marital infidelity and the withering of love; quarrels with the representation in Christian art of an easy moral mastery over vice; reveals the speaker’s own base moments as well as his justified ones; and repeatedly enacts the ever-tightening torsion of its plot. But Meredith, sometimes uneasy with his own originality, generates peculiar lines. After announcing that he does not share his wife’s bed in the attic room but rather “couches” on the floor, the speaker dreams that her shape approaches him and lies beside him. All well and good, but what are we to make of the concluding image: “My feet were nourish’d on her breasts all night.” How are we to imagine such “nourishing”? Worse are the strained “jesting” lines: had he agreed to the hypocrisy of the “wedded lie,” joining with his wife “to mince / The facts of life,” he could still be acting the role of Prince Charming in the social scene: he could “go / With hindward feather and with forward toe, / Her much-adored delightful Fairy Prince!” It is the hindward feather (however farcically intended) that renders the image verbally ridiculous.

The badness of that image might be excused by our seeing—as noted by the editors—that this sonnet has been substituted for a much darker original, one violently disappointed in a wife’s post-wedding anger when her husband turns away from her (as the advice manual quoted by the editors had warned) to his own ambitions. In revenge, she coldly uses the marriage only for sex. Inwardly, the speaker angrily says to himself:

You have a one-month’s bride, & then a wife
Who weens that time deposes her; rebels;
While you are living upward to the air,
Those passions that are spawn of low despair,
She clasps, & gets the comfort that is Hell’s.

From sex without love, the wife turns to love with another, but without sex. At least she does so in “Modern Love,” where the husband, sure that his wife has not been unfaithful in body, is tormented by her infidelity of spirit. Such an alteration in biographical fact—when Mary Ellen eloped, she was already pregnant by Henry Wallis—permits the sequence to founder solely on the mutual disappointment of husband and wife, rather than on sexual betrayal and desertion. The children who were present in actuality (and whom Mary Ellen, in her flight and residence abroad, abandoned) are conveniently suppressed as well; no little Edith Nicholls, no little Arthur Meredith, and of course no little newborn illegitimate Harold. 

The abstraction demanded by lyric—in which existence is stripped to essentials—is unfriendly to novelists, for whom details are the very breath of life. At its best, “Modern Love” allows social detail a co-presence with cosmic irony; and in such instances, where Meredith is most the novelist, he is also most the poet. In the famous sonnet XVII, for instance, the Merediths are giving a dinner party: husband and wife are presenting themselves as glittering hosts, the very picture of successful wedded love as their intellectual repartee dazzles their guests:

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.

Those at their table are deceived by the ghastly phosphorescence of this gaiety, resembling the ignis fatuus of legend:

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!

Is there a reader who does not recognize inwardly the extent of social pretense? Meredith is very good at sketching moments of social veneer: at one point, the wife and the mistress actually meet and are falsely courteous, each to each; at another, the husband, mad with jealousy, watches his wife and her lover converse in his very presence. The continued power of such moments derives from their being only sketches; Meredith’s garrulousness, so damaging to much of his poetic work, is here strangled by the speaker-husband’s violent need to replay in condensed thought such mute exacerbations, way stations on his route to disaster.

The conflicting emotions provoked by Mary Ellen’s elopement and death compelled Meredith into an intensity of poetic writing that he never attained before or after. There is indeed melodrama, some of it quite awful, in the sequence, but the sonnets that have their theatricality well in hand, forgoing melodrama for fact or terseness, reverberate in the mind. I first read “Modern Love” at twenty-two, in a course in Victorian literature, and I still recall the flashes of energy that came off its bracing pages. Although I saw, and still see, the unevenness of poetic stance, I was gripped, and still am, by the acidic marital truth-telling, and by the tone—which I couldn’t then have put an adjective to—of complicity with the reader: You know all this corruption, dear reader, don’t you? And don’t you ever wonder why nobody admits to knowing it?

Helen Vendler is a university professor at Harvard University and the author, most recently, of 
Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries (Belknap). She is a contributing 
editor at The New Republic.