Knowledge Crouches In Its Den

George_Meredith_by_George_Frederic_Watts

Modern Love VII

by George Meredith

She issues radiant from her dressing-room,
Like one prepared to scale an upper sphere:
—By stirring up a lower, much I fear!
How deftly that oiled barber lays his bloom!
That long-shanked dapper Cupid with frisked curls
Can make known woman torturingly fair;
The gold-eyed serpent dwelling in rich hair,
Awakes beneath his magic whisks and twirls.
His art can take the eyes from out my head,
Until I see with eyes of other men;
While deeper knowledge crouches in its den,
And sends a spark up:—is it true we’re wed?
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.


George Meredith, like his contemporary Thomas Hardy, subsidized his poetry through success as a novelist. His most acclaimed novel, The Egoist, is both comedic and personal, a story of a man jilted by his first bride-to-be that illustrates the constrained and convoluted relationships between men and women in Victorian society. Although it was his novels that paid the bills during his lifetime, it is more his poetry that has kept him in front of readers today.

Modern Love consists of 50 separate poems, all are 16 lines with similar construction. Lines are typically 10 to 12 syllables in length and are sonnet like in their feel, as well as sonnet like in their content. Meredith uses the form to process the end of his first marriage and the sadness and disruption the crisis created. Each poem is a separate little drama. As a whole they are a bit chauvinistic but its hard to take the man out of his time. At the core of comedic conflict in The Egoist is the inequality between men and women in the Victorian era. However, scratching a little deeper, for me there is a sense of forgiveness in the entire endeavor, a forgiveness for himself and his wife and lover that rescues it into something honest and enduring.

Maybe I am attracted to these poems simply on the basis of their title – Modern Love. It creates the question in my mind as I read them – what is modern love? How different are we really from the 1850’s? Does how we relate to our partners change with time and the norms of society or is it more time-less in nature – the relationship between lovers? Every generation has to discover and in their way rediscover sex and then define the rules by which relationships and intimacy are to be lived. Meredith’s choice of words may feel a bit outdated, but the emotions on which they are based are modern – modern love.


Modern Love: XVI

by George Meredith

In our old shipwrecked days there was an hour,
When in the firelight steadily aglow,
Joined slackly, we beheld the red chasm grow
Among the clicking coals. Our library-bower
That eve was left to us: and hushed we sat
As lovers to whom Time is whispering.
From sudden-opened doors we heard them sing:
The nodding elders mixed good wine with chat.
Well knew we that Life’s greatest treasure lay
With us, and of it was our talk. “Ah, yes!
Love dies!” I said: I never thought it less.
She yearned to me that sentence to unsay.
Then when the fire domed blackening, I found
Her cheek was salt against my kiss, and swift
Up the sharp scale of sobs her breast did lift:—
Now am I haunted by that taste! that sound!

Love Is Not All

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Modern Love – by Julie Houts

 

When it comes to suitors and publishers…”Although I reject their proposals, I welcome their advances.” 

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Love Is Not All

by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again;
Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
It well may be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Or nagged by want past resolution’s power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It well may be. I do not think I would.


Few poets have seen their fame shine so brightly, only to rapidly fade, and then hang on in the periphery than Edna St. Vincent Millay.   If ever there was a rock star female poet, her shooting star success allowing a lifestyle of sex and drugs, it was Millay. Millay was an unabashed drug addict, love addict and alcoholic who died as recklessly as she lived, by falling down a flight of stairs and breaking her neck at the age of 58.

I adore Millay for her excesses. It is in her frank reality that Millay’s writing survives as relevant. Millay wrote about love and passion with unapologetic honesty.   Millay refused to live by the rules of her time, never settling down, never having children. She was an elfin siren-diva of perfect proportions, standing a mere 5 foot 1 inch, weighing only 100 pounds, with all the female physical attributes that men find attractive, not the least of which was a willingness to live with abandon with no apologies for the consequences.

Few writers have used the sonnet form to more skillfully narrate their inner life when it comes to love and sex than Millay.  She could be spectacularly heartless and in doing so, the reader finds a satisfactory glimpse of their own complex psyche when it comes to their own crimes of passion.

Millay’s life and writing does not lend itself to a short narrative.  Her biographer, Nancy Milford failed miserably at the task, taking over 30 years to deliver an overly long, overly academic brick. Milford then repeated her offense by publishing an incomplete collection of Millay’s poems that leaves out whole sections of some of Millay’s finer sonnets written late in her life.  The problem with biographers is it’s hard for them to leave out salacious details and still capture the essence of something they may know nothing about. I propose that a poet’s biography should only be written by another poet of similar complex character and disposition and in the case of a sonneteer like Millay,  be limited to 14 lines. I think George Meredith may have been up to the task, but their lives did not intersect chronologically. George understood modern love, his 50 sonnet sequence of 16 line sonnets by the same title,  explores many of the same themes that Millay would explore in her writing throughout her career. Maybe this sonnet  of Meredith’s would suffice for both their biographies….


XXIX (Modern Love)

By George Meredith

Am I failing? For no longer can I cast
A glory round about this head of gold.
Glory she wears, but springing from the mold;
Not like the consecration of the Past!
Is my soul beggared? Something more than earth
I cry for still; I cannot be at peace
In having Love upon a mortal lease.
I cannot take the woman at her worth!
Where is the ancient wealth wherewith I clothed
Our human nakedness, and could endow
With spiritual splendor a white brow
That else had grinned at me the fact I loathed?
A kiss is but a kiss now! and no wave
Of a great flood that whirls me to the sea.
But, as you will! we’ll sit contentedly,
And eat our pot of honey on the grave.

And Life Is Warm

George Meredith
George Meredith

Modern Love XXX

by George Meredith

What are we first? First, animals; and next
Intelligences at a leap; on whom
Pale lies the distant shadow of the tomb,
And all that draweth on the tomb for text.
Into which state comes Love, the crowning sun:
Beneath whose light the shadow loses form.
We are the lords of life, and life is warm.
Intelligence and instinct now are one.
But nature says: “My children most they seem
When they least know me: therefore I decree
That they shall suffer.” Swift doth young Love flee,
And we stand wakened, shivering from our dream.
Then if we study Nature we are wise.
Thus do the few who live but with the day:
The scientific animals are they—
Lady, this is my sonnet to your eyes.

She Walks In Beauty

by Lord Byron

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes;
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impaired the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o’er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express,
How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.

And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent!