I love George Meredith and I have failed him

modern love coverI’ve had the new Yale UP Modern Love and Poems of the English Roadside, with Poems and Ballads (eds. Rebecca N. Mitchell and Criscillia Benford) in my possession for months now. I’ve finally come to accept that I am never, ever going to finish this volume. Know I bow my head in shame before I begin my confession proper.

I read George Meredith’s lovely and amazing Sandra Belloni earlier this year and made a vow, which I will keep, to read his complete works, though most of his stuff is long out of print (and I hate e-books). I read all of Meredith’s poems in this volume, but this volume comprises much more than his poetry. It is about half a collection of things Meredith didn’t write, including: reviews of Modern Love (initially widely maligned as unforgivably course and lurid, and later as pure genius); historical contextual materials such as advice manuals and contemporary theories of poetics; and samples of his fellow poets’ works.

I didn’t realize this when I borrowed the book from my beloved public library. It was Yale UP; I was, I think not irrationally, expecting a heavily foot- or endnoted scholarly edition, one in which I would spend half my reading time deep in the illuminating notes. I love that; no really, I do. My formal education didn’t give me nearly enough grounding in the Victorian era and so I need my editions of the Victorian reads I engage with now to make up for this! I need editors who assume their readers want to know everything, line by line.

This edition doesn’t do this. There are a few footnotes but very often they’re just to define archaic words–which made me wonder just who the audience for this volume was imagined to be in the first place. The excerpted contextual material is pretty extensive and so I thought maybe it was for upper-year undergraduates–too packed in and pricy a book for that in the end, however. Then I considered whether or not it would work for graduate students, and decided no again: I’m pretty sure profs would want the sort of footnoted volume I was looking for myself and would also want to choose their own contextual materials to go with it. (Because I mean, how many negative reviews in contemporary literary mags did I need to read? They’re all the same.)

Is it for a “lay” audience then? If so, maybe the hundreds* of people in the world looking for George Meredith’s poetry will appreciate it–unless, of course, they get turned off by the horrid repetitiveness of the above-mentioned reviews or are insulted that someone thought they needed “haply” defined for them!!! Because really: probably no one unaccustomed to reading lit written before the 20th century is going to start with George Meredith. By the time they find him, they’ll have been well-schooled by the Brontes, Dickens, and Hardy at the very least. They’ll already know from poetic archaisms when Meredith drops all three of the ones he uses in his collected poems on their heads.

So, a fail. I read all Meredith’s poetry in this volume and admired it greatly; I liked it so much, that I tweeted about half of the whole thing as I moved through it. But the contextual stuff just didn’t appeal to me at all. As a person committed to finishing all books I get past page 50 with, I don’t know if I should be more irritated with myself or with Yale and these editors. Probably myself: I know, and have always known, that reading excerpts of anything at all unless they’re in a review or an essay is beyond unsatisfying to me: it’s absolutely repellent.

(This alone kept me from blessing my kids with Paradise Lost when I was still university teaching–those Nortons only ever include a few books of the poem and just NO. No, no, no.) My point is: the moment I realized how much of this volume was excerpts of other things I should have decided to wait on Meredith’s poetry until a scholarly edition I could get behind was produced; it’s not like I don’t have other things to read in the meantime.

Damn their eyes and my own; all this irritation with what I consider to be an inadequate and nonsensical editorial apparatus has gotten in the way of this: George Meredith wrote some crazy, awesome, crazy-awesome poetry. All of it was alternately profound, bitter, playful, and hilarious but always beautiful in execution; reading Meredith’s works–but especially, of course, his masterwork Modern Love–was truly satisfying. It reminded me that I would be both happier and closer to the ranks of the morally superior if I 1) acknowledged that, in fact, Milton (1608-74) was not the last person to write super-excellent poetry; 2) I actually, finally, took a 5-minute break from the novel-reading to bust open the Tennyson and Barrett-Browning on my shelves. Mea culpa, my dear Victorian poets, mea culpa.

I keep not discussing George Meredith here; it’s like I’m emulating the Yale editorial apparatus I’m so offended by, damn it. Let’s focus. Modern Love is a sonnet cycle devoted to the bitter dissolution of Meredith’s marriage; it relies on a poetic form traditionally devoted almost exclusively to romantic love, and uses it to present and dissect the recriminations, miscommunications, small pettiness and large jealousies that contribute to the slow cracking of two once loving hearts. It is gorgeous and awful and hideously painful–successful, in other words, in conveying what marital separation looks and feels like. It manages to be both emotionally raw and technically perfect; both homage and transcendence of England’s strong sonnet tradition. Brilliant.

The modern doesn’t reside only in the tearing apart of love’s ideals and marriage’s sanctity, or the exposure of the terribly private pain resulting from these; it’s also in the language which, in spite of “haply”, is very modern. Meredith was, to me, linguistically and in this case, thematically, much more twentieth than nineteenth century. Or, maybe more precisely, you can see the narrator of Modern Love painfully shedding his illusions about his wife and their relationship in tandem with his struggling out of the language of the nineteenth century and towards the twentieth. Here’s a particularly powerful sample:

Modern Love–II.

It ended, and the morrow brought the task.

Her eyes were guilty gates, that let him in

By shutting all too zealous for their sin:

Each sucked a secret, and each wore a mask.

But, oh, the bitter taste her beauty had!

He sickened as at breath of poison-flowers:

A languid humour stole among the hours,

And if their smiles encountered, he went mad,

And raged deep inward, till the light was brown

Before his vision, and the world, forgot,

Looked wicked as some old dull murder-spot.

A star with lurid beams, she seemed to crown

The pit of infamy: and then again

He fainted on his vengefulness, and strove

To ape the magnanimity of love,

And smote himself, a shuddering heap of pain.

Good god. “Each suck’d a secret, and each wore a mask.” This line alone reveals Meredith’s harsh brilliance, but the whole collection is filled with such perfections.

I’m going to come back to all this someday; one of the joys of poetry–and for me, the frustration, because my greying hair and impending 38th birthday make me unable to forget that I have a finite time on earth to get to all the books I haven’t read yet–is savouring it through multiple re-readings. In the meantime, I will not faint on my vengefulness toward Yale et al but will, instead, immerse myself in a Victorian door-stopper edited more to my tastes.

*Versus the maybe tens of people who will read this post through to the end. I don’t have any illusions about my relative importance in this dance!

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