The sonnets of George Meredith’s Modern Love offer haunting descriptions that allude to a married couple’s fading love. Sonnets 16 and 17 are particularly visual and subtly woven with a sense of entrapment. These two people are clearly locked in a loveless marriage in a society that does not offer a respectable way out.
Sonnet 16 gives readers a glimpse into a quiet, intimate moment between the couple as they watch a fire in their library fireplace. Almost immediately, there seems to be a similarity drawn between the burning fire and the couple—as if they are staring into a mirror. In line 3, Meredith writes, “Joined slackly, we beheld the red chasm grow” and finishes the phrase in the next line, “Among the clicking coals…” This separation is likely deliberate, since the red chasm symbolically refers to the rift growing between the couple, but in the literal sense it describes the fire. It’s interesting how Meredith uses fire to represent love dying out as opposed to its typical “passionate” sense.
Sonnet 17 describes the couple hosting a dinner for their friends. The very first line establishes their roles: “At dinner, she is hostess, I am host” (Meredith). This reinforces the strict gender roles of the Victorian era. Meredith includes macabre language and imagery in order to illustrate the “death” of their marriage, as well as how the couple probably feels dead inside. In line 4, he notes of their friends, “They see no ghost,” which implies that there actually is a (metaphorical) ghost that the couple has covered up. Meredith also mentions a game he calls “Hiding the Skeleton” in line 7, which he describes as “contagious” (line 6). Despite the couple’s lack of love, they still share a sense of camaraderie, since they’re both stuck in a secret situation that only the other understands. They play their roles so well that they make their guests jealous of their “love” (line 14). This suggests that these guests may be trapped in similar situations—if their marriages were truly perfect as Meredith’s couple’s appears to be, then would they have a reason to be jealous? In line 16, Meredith closes the poem: “Dear guests, you now have seen Love’s corpse-light shine.” With some research, I found that “corpse-light” is another word for “will-o’-the-wisp.” Merriam-Webster states, “Eventually, the name will-o’-the-wisp was extended to any impractical or unattainable goal” (2019). The usage of “corpse-light” in Meredith’s sonnet can function as both a creepy image and an analogy suggesting that a perfect, loving marriage cannot exist.
Image Source: https://medium.com/@antiquitea/that-victorian-couple-their-steam-powered-blog-and-fetishizing-of-the-victorian-era-f9c5ff9e04c2