Meredith's Poems had appeared in 1851; Modern Love was his second book of poetry, and he published a third in 1883, Poems and Lyrics of the Joy of the Earth. Although Meredith's novels were admired during his lifetime, his poetry was much abused, and his remaining five volumes of poems were ignored by the critics: Ballads and Poems of Tragic Life (1887); A Reading of Earth (1888), Odes in Contribution to the Song of French History (1889); A Reading of Life (1901), and Last Poems (1909). Meredith himself stated that he disliked Tennysonian smoothness, though the melodies of his early verse and the the opulence and pained romanticism of his later work suggest an inverted influence.
The Spectator described Meredith in "Modern Love" as "meddling causelessly and somewhat pruriently with a deep and painful subject on which he had no convictions to express." The Saturday Review found the poem a "grave moral mistake." Meredith seems in some respects a modern "born out of [his] due time," as the obscurity and pessimism which offended his contemporaries became central features of modernist poets such as Hardy and T. S. Eliot. And his preoccupation with the uneasy relationship between humans and nature anticipates twentieth-century nature and environmental poetry.
1. What is the form of the individual poems? Are they sonnets? If not, what may be the purpose of the variation? (abba cddc effe ghhg) Is this a good form for its subject?
2. What are some reasons why the sequence is titled "modern love"? What are we to infer makes it modern? (an inversion or dark parody of Victorian expections for love) Can you see parallels with some of the sensation fiction of the day?
Victorian poets such as Arnold and E. B. Browning debated the respective values of classical (Arnold) and contemporary (E. B. B.) subjects. Where does Meredith's choice fit within this debate? (title calls attention to its participation in effort to extend poetry to contemporary subjects--cmp. Tennyson's "Maud," E. B. B.'s "Aurora Leigh," and Clough's "Amours de Voyage" (also 1862).
3. According to the introductory sonnet, what is the moral function of the sequence? How would you contrast this with the moral tone and purpose of D. G. Rossetti's "The House of Life"?
4. What do you see as some of the most striking features of the sequence? How would you characterize its tone? (ambivalence, constant shifts of mood and expression)
5. Are there ways in which the presentation of a sequence of poems about a love affair (in this case, a marriage) sets up expectations of form which are then belied by the sequence's content?
6. George Meredith and D. G. Rossetti were friends, and for a while even lived in the same house. Can you see resemblances between their works, and if so, who may have influenced whom? Might the influence have been mutual?
Both are retrospective, autobiographical presentations of (among other things) what love is not; and the absences embedded within its promises. Meredith also uses personification somewhat in Rossetti's manner--Love, Death, Memory, Passion, child, marriage, Cupid; and he relies on Rossettian images of hair, coins, fire, whirling winds, dead years, prison, slow dancing, letters, and birds.
The poems of "Modern Love" which most obviously echo Rossettian imagery or motifs are 1, 7, 9, 11, 13, and 44. But instead of mourning past ideals, Meredith's speaker is alienated from them by some harsh law of nature. In both poems the past mocks the present, however, and prevents the peace of oblivion. But Meredith's sexuality is blunter, more predatory, and his nature more Darwinian. His images are bitterer: Love's corpse-light (17); repeated evocations of the devil; "Time leers between, above his twiddling thumbs (34). Meredith asserts his control of his own fate (20)--a grim blessing without the wisdom to choose wisely--but in Rossetti the forces of destiny are more elusive.
7. What are some frequently recurring images?
--star and pit
--serpent (7), gaping snakes (1)
--worm (8), nature in one of lowest forms
--wild, predatory beast (9)
--dark rain (5)
--sunsets, line of horizon, sea (as in final image)
--poison-cup (9) poison flowers (2)
--intoxicating grape (9) [a Keatsian image, from "Ode on Melancholy"]
--eye-balls pure (14)
--Poet's black stage-lion of wronged love (15)
-- Love's tooth (26)
--drugs, medicine (27)
--more detailed evocation of actual house, scenes of marriage
--sharp scale of sobs (16)
--playing ball (19)
--clock, time piece (19)
--beating heart (19)
--lamb's bleat (23)
--small bird stiffen (23; compare Morris, contrast Rossetti)
--rose, seed-bag (13)
--ghost (Hamlet) (17)
--many images of flowers--"ripe flame upon the bough" (41)
--dust for fire (41)
--swan with young (47)
--waves mentioned frequently
--contrasts self with a simpler, rustic existence, cmp. Hardy (18)
Of these, which might be said to be also D. G. Rossettian?
8. What is the cumulative effect of all this imagery? Does it give a sense of richness? Contradiction? Intellectualized ambivalence?
9. Is "Modern Love" more narrative than previous poetic sequences such as "Sonnets from the Portuguese" had been? Or does it follow a similar trajectory? If not, may some of its differences be seen as a reaction to earlier love sequences?
10. How does the sequence end? Has the sequence adequately prepared the reader for the horrible ending of their love?
11. Which aspects of the sequence seem to be autobiographical? How do you explain the fact that Meredith described as cold and unbending a man whose actions seem to be similar to his own in a similar situation? Is the poem a kind of self-defense? A form of repentance? An exploration of events and depths of emotion he needs to understand?
12. Does the sequence contain any suggestions of Tennyson's "In Memoriam?"
13. What are the contexts for Meredith's use of nature imagery? Do these images adumbrate anything of his future views on evolution? (30)
14. Did you like this poetic sequence? Do you think it is well-written?
Aside from "Modern Love," Meredith's poems tend to evoke severe critical disfavor; the pattern apparently is that romantics attacked them for obscurity and didacticism, and post-new-critics for their sentimentality. How do you respond to these criticisms? Are they more valid for Meredith than for other Victorian poets of his generation, such as Rossetti or Swinburne?
His early shorter lyrics and sonnets do exhibit derivativeness, including suggestions of Wordsworth and Rossetti. In particular, romantic images of a bird and song are very important to him (but compare Hardy's "The Blinded Bird").
“Grandfather Bridgeman” (published in 1862 volume)
Approximately when would this poem have been written? What events may have precipitated it? (return of wounded veterans from the Crimean War in the late 1850s)
What are some features of the poem’s form and tone--stanza length, meter, and diction? (homely, humorous, ironic)
Is the poem appropriate in length? What would have been lost had it come to its conclusion more quickly?
Why is the poem named after “Grandfather Bridgeman” rather than his grandson?
What type of family event does the poem portray? Why is the old man so loved and respected? (paterfamilias of very large family, fifteen adults sit at the table)
What do we learn of Tom’s past? (son of strict Methodist, beloved by grandfather) Why had he left for war?
What clues indicate that the contents of Tom’s letter may be mixed? Who first expresses anxiety? (John, Tom’s father)
Which unbidden guest causes annoyance to her fellow guests? How has her life changed since Tom's departure? (her father has died; she has inherited money)
How does she behave, and how do the others interpret her emotions?
Of what do they accuse her? (having jilted Tom) Do events bear out their accusations? (Tom and Mary seem to have been engaged, for he comments that “my life belongs to a woman”)
What attitudes are expressed by Tom in his letter? (wildly patriotic, boasts) Is he capable of exaggeration?
How does his audience respond to his narration? (unchecked admiration--eager for war heroism)
Would the Victorian audience have recognized the battle described? (Sebastopol, well covered in newspapers)
What national rivalries are alluded to, and/or maintained? Why would Tom’s audience have had a predisposition to distrust the French?
What is indicated by the repeated invocation of the name Bridgeman? (family pride)
How are family differences in religion and lifestyle represented? (with humor; the Grandfather drinks freely; his son a strict Methodist and teetotaler; the grandson a lively rebel)
What clear hint from Mary does the old man reject? (notice of date of letter--a month old) How are her emotions described? (she too is fighting a battle)
Under what conditions has Tom been carried from the battlefield? (had tried to preserve body of his comrade) Who is his rescuer? (a Frenchman)
What rank does he ascribe to his savior? (General--but he doesn’t know)
How had Grandfather Bridgeman behaved toward their nephew in the past, and how has their mind now changed? (had spat at him, now praise)
What exaggerated expectations does the Grandfather have of the results of his grandson’s battlefield actions? (will marry General’s daughter! will tell his story to Queen Victoria)
Is the sequence of the tale’s events always clearly related? If not, may these unclarities serve any purpose? (like the auditors the audience struggles to understand and absorb what has happened)
Why has Mary not told her tale sooner? (compassion for pain news will cause)
How is Tom’s sudden advent described? What is his present condition? (“the ghost of Tom”)
How does he respond to the news that his grandfather had not previously been told of his wound? (“with something of doubt and alarm”)
What image is used for his wrecked body? (a broken sculpture)
How does the grandfather respond? (loves ruins, weeps)
Does the poem end well? What will be Tom’s future fate, and that of his betrothed and grandfather? In what does the old man take pride?
Is this a good poem, and if so, why? (mixture of sentiment and bitter irony)
What do you think may have been its author's attitude toward war and patriotism? Would these have been unusual views in the late 1850s?
For a Victorian poem, is this unusual poem in its subject matter? (unusual realism in treating a modern subject)
"A Late Alexandrian"--are there ways this poem could be autobiographical?
"The Lark Ascending"--should be read out loud
How is the image of the ascending bird used? Does Meredith's speaker exhibit the skepticism you would expect of the author of "Modern Love"?
(here the bird is a pure romantic image, perceived as an ideal; in song s/he becomes free of personality (Shelleyean?); and yet the speaker is left with an increased sense of the heaviness of this body (cmp. Wordsworth's response to the song of the Highland lass).
In the poem's view, can humans partake of some of the bird's qualities? (human actions can form an analogue to and be transformed into the bird's song)
"Phoebus with Admetus"--based on story from classical sources, among them Euripides's Alcestis; Morris wrote one of his Earthly Paradise tales on this theme, "The Love of Alcestis"
What does the poem's lyric/narrative voice seem to value? (celebration of oddity and richness of life, in the tradition of Keats' "Ode to a Grecian Urn")
What are some features of the poem's language? (its wordplays and echoings suggest Hopkins; by 1880 gnarled language had become a common feature of many poets)
"Love in the Valley," 1878
How has Meredith's poetry changed since his early works (Poems, 1851)?
Do you see similarities between "Ode to the Spirit of the Earth in Autumn" (1862) and "Modern Love," written the same year? Do you see echoes of Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind"?
A kind of activism is added to the desire to unite with nature; these qualities are especially emphasized in the last stanzas.
"In the Woods"
What is this theme of this poem? Does the speaker find cause to celebrate the interfused cycles of life? (VI, VIII, probably antedated D. G. Rossetti's "Sooth-Song")
Is the nature here celebrated mysterious? Hostile? Above morality? Can you see echoes of the forest scenes in Robert Browning's "By the Fireside"?
To what extent is Meredith's viw of nature similar to or influenced by that of Darwin?
What purpose is served by the frequent use of hyphenation? (sense of word coinages, compare Hopkins)
In general, do you think Meredith has been influenced in his language and ideas by Browning? By Shelley?