Affecting authenticity: Sonnets from the Portuguese and Modern Love

Houston, Natalie M

The title of this essay should be read in two ways: as both Victorian and contemporary critics have acknowledged, both Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850) and George Meredith’s Modern Love (1862) has a powerful emotional effect on readers. This emotional power seems to derive from authentic human experiences and feelings, a power that in Victorian criticism often was linked to the person of the writer: Barrett Browning’s sequence was said to contain “genuine utterances right from her own `brain-lit heart”‘ (Rev. of Poems, qtd. in Donaldson 49), and Meredith was said to be “genuinely drawing from his own resources of observation and reflection” in Modern Love (Rev. of Modern Love 103). Many more recent accounts also derive some interpretive material from the life stories of these two poets. Yet both of these works also make it clear that the effect of authenticity is constructed in the poetic text. For a Victorian poet adopting the older poetic form of the amatory sonnet sequence, such a performance or affectation of authenticity served a particular purpose within Victorian culture, just as the conceits of Renaissance sonnets can be traced to their function within elite social hierarchies. Examining Victorian poetic theory about the sonnet form provides an important context for understanding what was at stake in the Victorian revival and reworking of the amatory sonnet sequence.

“Authenticity” is a useful term for probing the revisionary project in both works, precisely because it is a key concept both in Victorian theories about the sonnet and in Victorian culture more generally. Victorian writers took up questions about authenticity in a variety of contexts, including the dramatic monologue’s focus on language, developments in the new science of psychology, and sensation fiction’s dramatization of concerns about mistaken, fraudulent, or stolen identity. Victorian writings about the sonnet form reveal that the tension between sincerity and artifice (or authenticity and performance) made the sonnet a kind of microcosm for debating the function of poetry in modern life: How could lyric poetry best represent the issues and feelings of modern men and women? While Robert Browning experimented with poetic form and Tennyson and the Pre-Raphaelites triangulated their critiques of the modern age with the medieval period, many other Victorian poets worked to redefine the old, rule-bound form of the sonnet and adapt it to new purposes.

Both the Sonnets from the Portuguese and Modern Love have frequently been read as more or less directly revealing their authors’ life stories. The narrative of the Brownings’ storybook romance eventually overshadowed Barrett Browning’s poetic career in late-Victorian accounts of her life and work, and Meredith’s more fractured marital career was also seen as inspiring his own series of sonnets. But rather than seeing these works or their writers as simply the objects of biographically motivated criticism, I want to investigate the ways in which these sequences self-consciously anticipate and negotiate such an assumption of truthful reality by repeatedly demonstrating that authenticity in a sonnet sequence is always constructed. Although these works have often been thought of as opposing descriptions of the importance or possibility of Victorian romantic love, what I want to suggest here is that both Barrett Browning and Meredith self-consciously use the sonnet form to represent the status of Victorian (modern) love.

Although it has not traditionally been thought of as an important Victorian poetic form, the sonnet was widely used by a variety of writers throughout the nineteenth century. At least seventeen anthologies devoted exclusively to the sonnet were published in Britain, and many others included special sections of favorite sonnets. In addition to the critical introductions included in many of these anthologies, a large number of reviews and critical essays in general periodicals like the Athenaeum, Contemporary Review, Eclectic Review, and Quarterly Review debated rules for the sonnet’s form and promulgated the basic facts of its long history. Critics and defenders of the sonnet argued about its fitness for the English language, its place in a national literary tradition, and the challenges its restricted form posed for poets and readers alike (Houston 243-250).

The story of the sonnet was frequently retold throughout the nineteenth century in part because it had so many different facets. The form flourished during the Renaissance, first in Italy and then in England, but then virtually disappeared during the eighteenth century. Although most Victorian critics credited Wordsworth with the form’s revival, many other poets contributed to the resuscitation of the form in the 1790s and later (Curran 14-28). Because the sonnet’s two major rhyme schemes register this history of national transmission and translation, nineteenth-century critics tried to explain or defend the sonnet’s position within an English literary tradition either as a function of linguistic characteristics, like the number of rhyming syllables in English, or as a function of moral and aesthetic values. By making the sonnet’s early history widely known, the sonnet anthologies and journal articles connected the nineteenth-century sonnet to that of the English Renaissance and simultaneously distinguished it from that past history by emphasizing changes in audience and in poetic style. The stylistic conceits and amatory content of the Renaissance sonnets were disavowed in narratives of national literary progress that valued descriptive and reflective uses for the sonnet form, joining formal changes and poetic themes together in assertions that in the nineteenth century “our English sonnet has been generally the growth of quiet thought and of an imagination fostered under the eye of nature” (Dennis 590). Milton was generally credited with first applying the sonnet form to topics other than love, and, with the exception of a handful of sonnet sequences written by the Della-Cruscans in the late 1780s and 1790s, most early nineteenth-century writers followed Wordsworth in using the sonnet form to record observations and philosophical reflections, rather than amatory expressions. The amatory sonnet cycle had thus become an archaic or antique form by the time Barrett Browning published the Sonnets from the Portuguese in her 1850 Poems.1 The term “sonnet sequence,” now common in critical discussions of sonnets from the Renaissance to the present day, was not generally used until after Dante Rossetti published the 1881 version of The House of Life, after which the term was adopted by other poets and eventually applied retroactively to the Renaissance period (Going, “Term” 400-402). Victorian poets and critics more frequently used the term “sonnet series” to describe collections of sonnets, which were generally grouped by theme, geography, or ideas, rather than being linked by a single speaker.

Defenders of the sonnet insisted that its formal qualities corresponded to its moral or aesthetic value:

There is no safer and more healthful kind of poetry. Capable, as we have already said, of pleasing none but the real lovers of the art, it presents little inducement to the writer to seek adventitious attractions, or to have recourse to vicious ornament…. Hence, in cultivating the Sonnet, we are promoting the purity of our language. (“On the Sonnet” 328)

The sonnet was invoked repeatedly as a form that would train the reader’s mind as it did the poet’s craft. Its small size was seen as an enhancement to its value for readers who studied it and as a useful challenge for wouldbe poets:

It is a special advantage of this form of composition, that it necessitates the precision of language and the concentration of thought, which are of priceless value in poetry. In the sonnet every word should have a meaning-every line add to the beauty of the whole; and the exquisite delicacy of the workmanship should not lessen, but should rather assist in increasing the stability of the structure. (Dennis 582)

One of the most important Victorian criteria for evaluating a sonnet was that it should convey only one key idea:

the sonnet must consist of one idea, mood, or sentiment, solely; and never more than one. It must be a full, rounded, and complete organism; having all its parts maintained and elaborated in themselves, yet each dependent on the other; a portion of the same economy; as it were, a member of one body … a clear, definite, unmistakeable fact. (Davies 190)

According to Victorian critics, this controlled interdependence governed the development of the sonnets one idea: the division of the Italian form into two unequal parts should correspond to the posing of a question or topic and its resolution, and the three quatrains of the English form should progress logically toward the couplet’s resolution. Although the rules for the sonnet form (fourteen lines in a set rhyme scheme) were restated in most critical accounts, the sonnet “offers itself to the expression of such thoughts as are single in their essence,” thereby creating its “unity of thought” (Hewlett 636; Russell 424). Aubrey de Vere’s prefatory remarks on the sonnet form, which were quoted by many later commentators, went further in suggesting that the sonnet “is not a combination of many thoughts, but the development of a single thought so large and fruitful as to be, latently, a poem” (xiii). For Victorian critics, the sonnet form was seen as a means of recording or documenting the poet’s thoughts and perceptions.

The access the sonnet form seemed to offer to a specific individual’s actual experience enhanced its value in Victorian criticism and anthologies. Leigh Hunt, for example, suggests that the sonnet is so favorable for expressing a real feeling, whether it be a cheerful one requiring no greater compass, or a mournful one too painful to enlarge upon, that … the sigh, or the sweetness, of a whole life seems now and then to breathe out of a single sonnet, and readers cherish the memory of it accordingly. (84)

Victorian critical discourse about the sonnet generally assumed that it was a vehicle for truthful revelations. Hunt’s enthusiasm for the sonnet led him to recommend it to would-be poets as a kind of concise diary: “Why did not Milton write a sonnet on every cheerful, mournful, and exalting event in his life? Why do not all poets do so? I mean, when they are not too happy or too unhappy to speak. What new and enchanting volumes of biography we should possess!” (80-81). This belief in the sonnet’s documentary function developed largely from the reception of Shakespeare’s sonnets in the nineteenth century. The full text of the 1609 Quarto containing Shakespeare’s sonnets was not published as part of his complete works until Edmond Malone’s 1780 edition, which inaugurated a centurylong debate about the status of the sonnets as biographical documents and, consequently, about the sexuality of England’s bard (Stallybrass 129-141). Malone’s editorial apparatus (which included a biography, a chronology of the composition of the plays, and numerous cross-references linking the sonnets to the plays) assumed and constructed a psychological interiority, or notion of character, for the person of Shakespeare. Malone’s notes to the sonnets, which drew conjectures about Shakespeare’s emotions, would largely determine nineteenth-century readings of Shakespeare:

Malone’s pursuit from the externally observed to the inwardly felt or experienced … signaled an important shift in how Shakespeare was read. Shakespeare was now cast not as the detached dramatist who observed human nature but as the engaged poet who observed himself…. His singular experience, rather than the experience of all men, became the content of his sonnets. (de Grazia 159)

David Masson’s 1852 essay on Shakespeare and Goethe, first published in the British Quarterly Review, is only one of many examples of this tendency in Victorian criticism. Masson suggests that chronologies of Shakespeare’s life are insufficient: “We seek, as the phrase is, to penetrate into his heart-to detect and to fix in everlasting portraiture that mood of his soul which was ultimate and characteristic” (8). For Masson, the plays do not reveal enough of Shakespeare’s personality, but the sonnets are “distinctly, intensely, painfully autobiographic”: “Criticism seems now pretty conclusively to have determined … that the Sonnets of Shakespeare are, and can possibly be, nothing else than a poetical record of his own feelings and experience-a connected series of entries, as it were, in his own diary” (12). This popular reading of Shakespeare’s sonnets as a kind of autobiography created a widespread understanding of the sonnet form itself as truthful and documentary. Wordsworth’s 1827 “Scorn not the Sonnet,” which claimed “with this key / Shakespeare unlocked his heart,” was quoted frequently in sonnet criticism and in the numerous sonnet anthologies because it so concisely summed up the prevailing Victorian mode of reading the sonnet: “rescuing the gleanings of a poet’s mind, and giving to stray thoughts of his, which must otherwise perish, an entire form and enduring existence” (“On the Sonnet” 324).

As Richard Altick suggests, “the steady drift of nineteenth-century critical attention was away from the work and toward the writer” (96). But that tendency was especially strong within the field of sonnet criticism:

after all that can be said about forms and manners, it is the thought which constitutes the right sonnet … if it be the sincere, unaffected exposition of a just sentiment, rather blossoming out of life spontaneously than sought for its own sake intrinsically, it can never be utterly valueless or absolutely thrown away And here may be fitly enforced to the poet the necessity of choosing the noblest fruits of his life for poetic expression: living all he writes, and counting life of infinitely more importance than any reproduction of it in art can be. (Davies 192)

Almost paradoxically, the rule-bound sonnet form was seen as enabling sincerity and spontaneity. Of course, for some critics, the authenticity of the sonnet as an expression of the poet’s life and feelings was tempered by the rigidity of the form. Arthur Hugh Clough suggested that

the Sonnet is not a likely or usual medium for the expression of very strong present feeling, and this simply because it is the most artificial and elaborate of all stanzas or systems of verse. It is, indeed, very possible that habitual use may render even its most difficult and most perfect form tolerably familiar; but passion would assuredly not naturally and at once frame-and still more assuredly would not pause to frame-the artful harmonies of the Sonnet. it is surely rather fitted to be the after-record of impressions for reflective and for meditative poetry. (49)

Because the sonnet’s formal structure was so well defined, its popularity as a form risked obscuring the boundary between true art and simple workmanship:

Its extreme artificiality is at once a test and a temptation,-a test, since it is only a true poet who can make artificiality serve the purposes of art; and a temptation, since the artificial construction-the mere form-can be easily built up and filled out with Words by the simplest handicraftsman in verse. (Norton 628)

Alternately hailed as the epitome of poetic craft or as the expression of an individual’s life, the sonnet’s condensed form and its many different interpretations throughout the period make evident the tension between Victorian critical notions of poetic workmanship and authentic feeling.

Because the Sonnets from the Portuguese has been read since its first publication in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s 1850 Poems as a series of documents relating to her courtship and elopement with Robert Browning, its reception history is deeply intertwined with the changing reputation accorded the poet herself. By the early twentieth century, as Tricia Lootens has shown in her detailed reception study, the legend of the Browning romance had obscured the history of Barrett Browning as a powerful public poet (116-157). Because Victorian writers and readers assumed the sonnet form to be autobiographically truthful, Barrett Browning’s choice of the sonnet sequence to explore her new love relationship would seem to reinforce the emotional authenticity of the Sonnets’ content. Certain facts are undoubtedly true: that Barrett Browning drafted the poems during their secret courtship and only much later showed them to Robert, and that she first published the series in 1850 without Sonnet XLII, which explicitly refers to a sonnet she had published in 1844. But the interpretations of those facts that developed in the Victorian period (and after) add layers of sentimental romance-romance that, as Lootens suggests, necessarily colors our later readings of the sequence: “If the Sonnets are embarrassing, it may be because the experience of reading them reveals the extent to which we, and not they, rely upon dreams of simple, innocently sentimental Victorian love” (120). One crucial text in creating the sentimental version of the Browning love story was Edmund Gosse’s famous anecdote in his introduction to an 1894 edition of the Sonnets, which was reprinted in other editions until the 1970s. Not only does Gosse portray Barrett Browning as coyly feminine, slipping the manuscript of the Sonnets into her husband’s coat pocket, but he suggests that she resisted publishing “what had been the very notes and chronicle of her betrothal” (2). This undoubtedly fictionalized story succeeded not only because it relied on stereotypes of Victorian femininity, but because it assumed that the sonnet form operated as a kind of documentary record. We may never know the extent to which Barrett Browning wrote the sonnets as a way of recording or understanding her actual experience; what we can see, however, are the ways in which she created a sense of authenticity in her sonnet series, through its form, imagery, and rhetoric.

The external biographical narrative almost overwhelms our perception of narrative structure in the Sonnets, which is provided by an apparently consistent speaking subject. Some connections between specific sonnets are formed by the initial words “but,” “yet,” or “and” (sonnets II, X, XI, XVI), but the sonnets generally function as self-contained lyric expressions, in keeping with Victorian theories of the sonnet form. Very few contemporary reviews of the sonnets discuss them with any reference to the structure of the overall narrative. The narrative shape of the Sonnets that later readers trace-from reluctant shyness (I-IX) through emotional empowerment (X-XXII) to satisfied union (XXII-XLIII)-is not simply determined by the biographical context, but also shaped by Victorian narrative conventions. The “marriage plot” of the Victorian novel responded to and helped create a cultural ideal of domestic romance radically different from the cultural context of the Renaissance sonneteers; closer examination of the Sonnets reveals how Barrett Browning used the sonnet sequence to negotiate between these two ideas of love.

Throughout the Sonnets, Barrett Browning deliberately invokes the Petrarchan sonnet tradition only to revise it according to her own historical moment. As recent critics have noted, in reworking this tradition Barrett Browning was simultaneously marking her filiation with earlier poets and clearing space in order to articulate the desiring female subject.’ The speaker in these poems is both the desiring poet and the female object of desire. Traditionally, in amatory sonnet sequences, the roles of lover and beloved are quite distinct-the female beloved is usually silent, distant, adored. In Barrett Browning’s sequence, she plays both roles: the adored object who speaks her refusal and the speaker of the sonnets who eventually comes to articulate her own desire. The literary roles Barrett Browning takes up in writing the sequence deliberately do not match her actual historical position as a well-known and respected woman poet:

Unlike are we, unlike, 0 princely Heart!

Unlike our uses and our destinies.

Our ministering two angels look surprise

On one another, as they strike athwart

Their wings in passing. Thou, bethink thee, art

A guest for queens to social pageantries,

With gages from a hundred brighter eyes

Than tears even can make mine, to ply thy part

Of chief musician. What hast thou to do

With looking from the lattice-lights at me,

A poor, tired, wandering singer,… singing through

The dark, and leaning up a cypress tree?

The chrism is on thine head,-on mine, the dew,

And Death must dig the level where these agree. (111)

Here, and throughout the sequence, Barrett Browning uses images associated with the courtly love tradition to emphasize the differences between the two lovers-differences that have less to do with their actual poetic reputations than with Barrett Browning’s performance of emotional reluctance. The exaggeration of social difference as a mark of emotional intensity is a key feature of the amatory sonnet tradition, which Barrett Browning uses here in naming herself the “wandering singer.”

Victorian critics preferred the Italian rhyme scheme (abba-abba-cde-cde) as the ideal form of the sonnet, although most nineteenth-century poets used mixed forms like that popularized by William Bowles (abba-cddc-effe– gg) or other variations requiring fewer repeated rhymes. Critics attacked the early English forms of the sonnet (Shakespeare’s abab-cdcd-efef-gg or Spenser’s abab-bcbc-cdcd-ee) as harsh to the ear and as violating the ideal correspondence of rhyme and sense: “Where the rules which govern the structure of the Sonnet are strictly observed, the subject will be set forth in the first quatrain, illustrated in the second: confirmed by the first tercet, and concluded in the second” (Rev. of A Collection of English Sonnets). Although the Sonnets all use a Petrarchan variant (abba-abba-cd-cd-cd), Barrett Browning frequently uses enjambment and the visual divisions of her poems’ syntax to create other rhythms than the expected two-part division between octave and sestet. Here, for example, although the rhymes follow the Petrarchan division, the syntax suggests the movement characteristic of the English sonnet form, three observations resolved by the final “couplet”-not a couplet in rhyme, but serving a similar function in summarizing and answering the previous observations of their differences. Thus in naming herself a poet of the amatory tradition, Barrett Browning acknowledges the complicated history of the sonnet form in order to legitimate the newly modern sonnet tradition she is crafting in her own sequence.

Other references to the sonnet tradition include the transformation of the speaker in sonnet X:

Yet, love, mere love, is beautiful indeed

And worthy of acceptation. Fire is bright,

Let temple bum, or flax; an equal light

Leaps in the flame from cedar-plank or weed:

And love is fire. And when I say at need

I love thee … mark! … I love thee-in thy sight

I stand transfigured, glorified aright,

With conscience of the new rays that proceed

out of my face toward thine. (lines 1-9)

Not the silent object, like the adored Stella of Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella, Barrett Browning’s speaker acknowledges the worth of her love. By the sonnet’s syllogistic logic, she thereby becomes a speaking star, disavowing the unworthiness proclaimed in the first nine sonnets of the series by combining the roles of speaker and object of desire. Sonnet XIV rejects the catalogue of beloved features so frequently itemized in Renaissance sequences:

If thou must love me, let it be for nought Except for love’s sake only. Do not say “I love her for her smile … her look … her way of speaking gently… for a trick of thought That falls in well with mine.” (1-5)

Here, as elsewhere in the series, Barrett Browning counters the idealizing tropes of the amatory tradition with plain reality: “For these things in themselves, Beloved, may / Be changed, or change for thee,-and love, so wrought, / May be unwrought so” (7-9). The Sonnets continually announce that they authentically represent real emotions and real people by borrowing and then rejecting the conventions of the sonnet tradition.

In a typical Victorian comment on the Sonnets, James Ashcroft Noble, in an essay first published in 1880, suggests that Barrett Browning’s Sonnets are marked by an “apocalypse of soul” in the intensity of the feelings conveyed:

In the case of any human being such an apocalypse would have a strange and peculiar interest, but when the revelation is of such a soul as Mrs Browning’s it becomes a thing of priceless value. As we read we know not whether we are most keenly touched by the poem or by the beating of the poet’s heart behind it, by the throb of warm blood in its pulsating lines. (52)

What Noble describes as the poems’ corporeal connection to Barrett Browning might also be thought of as the authenticity effect, an effect not simply produced by readers’ romantic or biographical interest, but by features of the poems themselves: the rhetorical space of conversation, selfreferential textuality, and a focus on modern life.

Nearly all of the fourty-four sonnets in Barrett Browning’s sequence are addressed directly to her lover, either with the epithets “Dearest” and “Beloved” or indirectly through pronouns such as “thee” and “thy” Because the poems take up the question of closeness and distance, both emotional and physical, the close rhetorical space of the poems echoes the metaphors of the Brownings’ relationship that recur throughout: the closed penknife, the enclosure of the dove’s wings, the bee shut in glass, the vine twined round the tree. Barrett Browning makes no conventional claims about the relative longevity of her sonnets as compared to her love and no remarks at all about these sonnets as having any audience other than Robert Browning. Whether or not the poems were intended for publication, their rhetoric presents them as part of a private conversation. Several of the sonnets suggest precise referents outside the space of the text: “But only three in all God’s universe / Have heard this word thou hast said” (11. 1-2); “I see thine image through my tears to-night, / And yet today I saw thee smiling. How / Refer the cause?” (XXX.1-3). Such references encourage us to read the Sonnets as documenting particular events. Sonnet XXVIII emphasizes the larger conversation of their courtship and also the poems’ ground in external reality:

My letters! all dead paper, mute and white!

And yet they seem alive and quivering

Against my tremulous hands which loose the string

And let them drop down on my knee to-night.

This said,-he wished to have me in his sight

Once, as a friend: this fixed a day in spring

To come and touch my hand … a simple thing,

Yet I wept for it!-this,… the paper’s light …

Said, Dear, I love thee; and I sank and quailed

As if God’s future thundered on my past.

This said, I am thine-and so its ink has paled

With lying at my heart that beat too fast.

And this … 0 Love, thy words have ill availed

If, what this said, I dared repeat at last!

By referring to the courtship letters (not published until 1899), sonnet XXVIII self-consciously invokes its own status as an apparently authentic text. The italicized words operate as if they were quoted speech, apparently more authentic than the paraphrase in lines 4-6, yet the mark of emotional truth is silence in the final lines. The sonnet constructs additional layers of apparent documentation only to remind us that emotional experience can never be fully documented, whether in sonnet form or any other text. In summarizing the stages of this most famous Victorian courtship, Barrett Browning also updates her sonnet series by gesturing toward the narrative energy of modern romance-the progression toward marriage usually charted in the novel.

Sonnet XXIII also refers to a letter written by Robert:

Is it indeed so? If I lay here dead,

Would’st thou miss any life in losing mine?

I marvelled, my Beloved, when I read

Thy thought so in the letter. (1-2, 5-6)

The close intensity of their conversation and correspondence is highlighted by Barrett Browning’s frequent use of ellipses and rhetorical questions. Despite the many literary allusions in her series, the overall effect of her language is colloquial, another hallmark of authentic expression. Language and details from everyday life also contribute to the authenticity effect of the Sonnets: “Yes, call me by my pet-name! let me hear / The name I used to run at, when a child” (XXXIII.1-2). As readers of the Browning correspondence note, some of the Sonnets do refer to events that actually did happen, described in fairly simple language, compared with the elaborate metaphors used to describe the poet’s love and her beloved: I never gave a lock of hair away

To a man, Dearest, except this to thee,

Which now upon my fingers thoughtfully

I ring out to the full brown length and say

“Take it.”(XVIII.1-5)

Such moments mark this sequence as explicitly and deliberately Victorian. Barrett Browning brings together the highly ritualized conventions of Victorian courtship-“First time he kissed me, he but only kissed / The fingers of this hand wherewith I write” (XXXVIII.1-2)-with the conventions of the amatory sonnet sequence and reworks the form into a narrative of modern courtship and satisfied romance. Not the plaintive or boastful lover typical in Renaissance sonnets, Barrett Browning’s speaker in Sonnets from the Portuguese insists “Say over again, and yet once over again, / That thou dost love me” (XXI.1-2). This series of sonnets instantiates the physical nearness and reality of that satisfied love, rather than the distant longing of the courtly tradition. The Sonnets from the Portuguese satisfied the existing assumptions about the truthfulness and intensity of the sonnet form while at the same time historically framing the question of how to write about modern (Victorian) love.

For most critics, whether in the Victorian period or more recently, Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese and George Meredith’s Modern Love seem like polar opposites. If the Sonnets’ reception was eventually overwhelming, Modern Love’s was underwhelming: faulted for its obscurity, its formal innovations, and especially for its subject matter, Meredith’s sonnet sequence attracted significant critical appreciation only near the turn of the century. Sonnets from the Portuguese presents lyric moments of intensity belonging to a narrative of true-life domestic romance, and Modern Love tells the story of a marriage’s dissolution. Barrett Browning’s sonnets were read as documents of her own life; Meredith’s sequence presents a narrative, sometimes in the third person, about four characters carefully separated from himself. If (to greatly condense 150 years of criticism) the Sonnets from the Portuguese can be read as a celebration of authentic love, then Modern Love can be read as a painfully authentic dissection of the end of love. Although their thematic material, formal structures, and tone are very different, reading these two works together can help us understand what was at stake in the Victorian construction of authenticity and its relation to the sonnet form.

What disturbed many original reviewers of Modern Love was the subject matter of the poem: the marriage is clearly in decline; the husband, convinced that his wife is having an affair, seeks solace in another woman; the husband and wife unsuccessfully attempt a sexual reconciliation; after the husband encounters the wife with her lover, they reveal their respective liaisons to each other, and the sequence ends with the wife’s suicide. In its often bitter and brutal examination of the end of love, Meredith’s poem challenged the assumptions of its original readers. Recent critics have been more accepting of the subject matter of the poem, but have generally sought to anchor it in Meredith’s own personal experience (his wife left him for another man, and Meredith composed the poem shortly after her death in 1861). The “story” of Modern Love is deliberately murky, and many modern editions publish prose summaries of the sonnets to assist the reader in following the narrative. It does Meredith’s work a disservice, however, to call it “a kind of novel in verse” (as do several anthologies), which obscures the complex ways in which his sequence negotiates between the sonnet tradition and the novel.

Meredith always called the fifty poems that make up the Modern Love series “sonnets,” although they bear little resemblance to any of the sonnet forms legitimated by Victorian critics. Consisting of sixteen lines rhymed in four abba quatrains, the Modern Love sonnets at least visually acknowledge both Tennyson’s In Memoriam and the Petrarchan sonnet tradition. Yet the syntax and sense of the poems belie the filiation of the rhyme scheme, as Meredith revises the amatory sonnet tradition, expanding the scope of lyric toward narrative. By eschewing a first-person pronoun, Meredith makes clear in the first sonnet that he is creating a new form entirely:

By this he knew she wept with waking eyes:

That, at his hands 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…. (1.1-6)

John Westland Marston, reviewing the poem in 1862, says, “These sonnets resemble scattered leaves from the diary of a stranger. The allusions, the comments, the interjections, all refer to certain particulars which are not directly related, and have to be painfully deduced” (100). What makes the speaker of this sequence a “stranger” is not simply that the story is unclear, but that Meredith clearly separates himself from the character in the poem by opening the sequence with the introduction of two characters referred to in the third person. Marston’s remarks reveal the documentary assumption about the sonnet form (the leaves of a diary) but also the challenge Meredith’s sequence posed to it. The amatory sonnet sequence tradition, based though it might be on extended literary conceits, nevertheless required the impression of a coherent speaking subject; here Meredith resolutely refuses such coherence.

One of Meredith’s characteristic techniques in Modern Love is to shift within a single sonnet from a third-person perspective to the first-person pronoun:

… Once: “Have you no fear?”

He said: Iwas dusk; she in his grasp; none near.

She laughed: “No, surely; am I not with you?”

And uttering that soft starry “you,” she leaned

Her gentle body near him, looking up;

And from her eyes, as from a poison-cup,

He drank until the flittering eyelids screened.

Devilish malignant witch! and oh, young beam

Of heaven’s circle-glory! Here thy shape

To squeeze like an intoxicating grape

I might, and yet thou goest safe, supreme. (IX.6-16)

These shifts from third- to first-person perspective, when the lyric form breaks through the narrative, mark moments of emotional intensity. By deliberately exposing the boundaries between intense lyric emotion and distanced narrative, Meredith deconstructs Victorian notions of lyric and biographical authenticity in the sonnet, while pursuing the kind of psychological investigation into character usually reserved for a novel or dramatic monologue.

Many critics have been concerned with mapping the relation between the narrating third-person perspective and the husband’s first-person perspective.3 Although a majority of the sonnets are written from the first-person point of view of the husband, the first and final two sonnets are entirely from a third-person perspective, forming a kind of narrative frame. The third-person perspective, whether in the framing sonnets or in some of the mixed narration poems, offers commentary on the husband’s feelings and actions. The chronology of key events forms the sequence’s narrative structure: the husband confronts his wife in XV, seeks a new love in XXVII, and attempts to reconcile with his wife in XLII. Repetition of key phrases connects XXVII-XXVIII and XXXI-XXXII, and clusters of images provide other connective threads in the series (Golden, “Game” 271-274; Mermin, “Poetry as Fiction” 104-112). But it is clear that the narrative effect is much stronger in Modern Love than in Sonnets from the Portuguese precisely because the voice is less stable. The shifts between event and reflection help to organize the emotional material in ways familiar to readers of novels.

Modern Love often refers ironically to the amatory sonnet tradition. The husband’s new love is the idealized “Lady,” who is contrasted in sonnet XLV with his wife (always called “Madam”):

It is the season of the sweet wild rose,

My Lady’s emblem in the heart of me!

So golden-crowned shines she gloriously,

And with that softest dream of blood she glows:

Mild as an evening heaven round Hesper bright!

I pluck the flower, and smell it, and revive

The time when in her eyes I stood alive.

I seem to look upon it out of Night.

Here’s Madam, stepping hastily. Her whims

Bid her demand the flower, which I let drop.

As I proceed, I feel her sharply stop,

And crush it under heel with trembling limbs.

She joins me in a cat-like way, and talks

of company, and even condescends

To utter laughing scandal of old friends.

These are the summer days, and these our walks.

By shifting from the idealized language of the “emblem” to the daily routine of gossip, moving from the world of the sonnet to that of the novel in sixteen lines, Meredith critiques both the husband’s idealization of his new lover and the painful surface of this particular marriage. Unlike the characters in a novel, however, these people are never named or particularized, which gives them representative power to convey the state of modern love.

Romantic idealization in Modern Love stems from desperation, which Meredith conceives as both individual and more broadly social. In Sonnet II, for instance, which narrates the husband’s feelings about his wife’s apparent infidelity, she appears as “a star with lurid beams” (12) rather than as the gleaming ideal of the sonnet tradition. Sonnet III continues the metaphor of the star, suggesting that, although she may appear as a star to her new lover, her light has dimmed for the speaker:

Only mark

The rich light striking out from her on him!

Ha! what a sense it is when her eyes swim

Across the man she singles, leaving dark

All else!

But she is mine! Ah, no! I know too well

I claim a star whose light is overcast:

I claim a phantom-woman in the Past. (111.5-9, 13-15)

Rather than revising the image of the adored star, as Barrett Browning did, here Meredith examines the jealousy and frustration of love outside marriage-frustrations inherent to the courtly love tradition and to the realities of Victorian marriage (Tucker 354-357). Meredith once called Modern Love “a dissection of the sentimental passion of these days,” pointing to the sequence’s critique of what he saw as harmful illusions about romance in both the amatory sonnet tradition and modern Victorian society (Meredith 116).

Because Modern Love is not organized through a single perspective, the authenticity effect is more abstract than the intimacy of Sonnets from the Portuguese, but it is created by similar techniques. The use of present tense commentary from the husband draws the reader into the action of the narrative:

I think she sleeps: it must be sleep, when low

Hangs that abandoned arm toward the floor;

The face turned with it. Now make fast the door.

Sleep on: it is your husband, not your foe. (XV. 1-4)

Such experiments with immediacy stage authenticity as belonging to the first-person lyric tradition. Without the details of novelistic description, we are plunged into the middle of the action in many of the sonnets, left to orient ourselves with only the husband’s words to guide us. His reliability and consistency gradually come into question as he continually reinterprets his wife’s words and actions, encouraging the reader to doubt the appearance of truth suggested by the form of the sonnet series and its historical implications.

The sonnets that mix narrative strategies go farthest in deconstructing authenticity as the property of the lyric first person:

It chanced his lips did meet her forehead cool.

She had no blush, but slanted down her eye.

Shamed nature, then, confesses love can die:

And most she punishes the tender fool

Who will believe what honours her the most!

Dead! is it dead? She has a pulse, and flow

Of tears, the price of blood-drops, as I know,

For whom the midnight sobs around Love’s ghost,

Since then I heard her, and so will sob on.

The love is here; it has but changed its aim.

0 bitter barren woman! what’s the name?

The name, the name, the new name thou hast won?

Behold me striking the world’s coward stroke!

That will I not do, though the sting is dire.

-Beneath the surface this, while by the fire

They sat, she laughing at a quiet joke. (VI)

Although the first-person lines bear the sonnet’s obvious intensity, the narrative explanation of lines 15-16 provides the emotional context that deepens an affecting sympathy Affect in Modern Love occurs in the mix of lyric first person and narrative third person, challenging nineteenth-century assumptions about the expressive powers of lyric.

In sonnet XXXIII Meredith constructs a documentary ground for the sonnet, including a quoted text:

“In Paris, at the Louvre, there have I seen

The sumptuously-feathered angel pierce

Prone Lucifer, descending….

Oh, Raphael! when men the Fiend do fight,

They conquer not upon such easy terms.

Half serpent in the struggle grow these worms.

And does he grow half human, all is right.”

This to my Lady in a distant spot,

Upon the theme: while mind is mastering clay,

Gross clay invades it. If the spy you play,

My wife, read this! Strange love talk, is it not?

(XXXIII.1-3, 9-16)

As this sonnet itself becomes a document within the story it tells, Meredith forces us to recognize the unstable boundaries between first and third person, between feeling and story, between interiority and external event.

Modern Love, like Barrett Browning’s sequence, includes many details of modern Victorian life: the “world of household matters” that concerns the wife in sonnet V and the couple’s strained daily chatter:

Am I quite well? Most excellent in health!

The journals, too, I diligently peruse.

Vesuvius is expected to give news:

Niagara is no noisier. (XXXIV5-8)

Throughout the sequencer, Meredith critiques and exposes the married couple’s social interactions as false appearances, as at the dinner party in sonnet XVII:

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.

But here’s the greater wonder; in that we,

Enamoured of an acting nought can tire,

Each other, like true hypocrites, admire;

We waken envy of our happy lot. (1-4, 9-11, 14)

For Meredith, Victorian society’s need to affirm the possibility of marital happiness blinds it to the realities of authentic modern love, including the adulterous affairs, sexual violence, and fatal self-recrimination detailed in Modern Love, which functions primarily as an anti-amatory sequence. Thus the explicit sexuality occurring outside the marriage bond is, for Meredith, another mark of authenticity, which he asserts in sonnet XXV:

You like not that French novel? Tell me why

You think it quite unnatural. Let us see.

The actors are, it seems, the usual three:

Husband, and wife, and lover. She-but fie!

In England we’ll not hear of it ….

Unnatural? My dear, these things are life:

And life, some think, is worthy of the Muse. (XXV. 1-5, 15-16)

Here Meredith anticipates the reactions of many of his critics who denounced Modern Love: “So far from a condition of doubt and uncertainty on the general tone of matrimonial morality being in any sense an interesting or attractive thing, it is one of the most disastrous calamities that can befall a nation” (Rev. 106). Meredith insists that the modern sonnet series can interrogate the issues of real life rather than simply conforming to our literary expectations. Most nineteenth-century novels end with one or more marriages, and rarely detail the reality of married life, much less its possible deviation from the ideal of domestic bliss. Most Renaissance sonnet sequences yearn toward the realization of desire, even within social structures that guard against it. Modern Love critiques the expected teleology of romance as a destructive idealization. This critique becomes, then, the mark of the poem’s modernity-the vision of love in its absence– which disrupts the conventions of both the sonnet and the novel.

In sonnet XXX, Meredith deliberately questions the appropriateness of the amatory sonnet tradition for the scientific, modern Victorian age:

What are we first? First, animals; and next

Intelligences at a leap,…

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. (XXX.1-2, 9-16)

In an age beginning to theorize about the relation of biological instinct to social behavior, the findings of nature were often at odds with the decrees of morality. Where Barrett Browning’s sonnets seemed to justify Victorian social conventions by drawing on an older idealized model, Meredith instead claims that such modern romantic conventions overlaid on the ways of Nature are just as false or inauthentic as the Renaissance conceits of the literary tradition. Meredith thus criticizes the very foundation of Victorian sonnet theory by insisting that what can be truthfully spoken through the amatory sonnet tradition is always constructed and therefore never entirely authentic.

The mid-century revival of interest in the ability of the amatory sonnet sequence to represent or stage authentic experience was in both these works historically self conscious, as indeed much Victorian sonnet work was. After all, in a modern, technological age, when many poets were writing longer and looser forms, why would anyone choose to write sonnets? For these poets, in these works, one answer is that the authenticity effect created in the sonnet sequence offered a vantage point from which to scrutinize the romantic ideals of their own modern moment.


1On the history of the early Victorian sonnet, see Going, Scanty; Golden, “Victorian”; and Sanderlin, “Bibliography” and “Influence.”

2 See, for example, Mermin’s “Female Poet,” Reynolds, Stephenson 69-89, and Stone 1-48.

1 See Comstock, Fletcher, Mermin’s “Poetry as Fiction,” and Reader.


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in Selected Prose Works of Arthur Hugh Clough. Ed. Buckner B. Trawick. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1964.

Comstock, Cathy. “`Speak, and I see the Side-Lie of a Truth’: The Problematics of Truth in Meredith’s Modern Love.” Victorian Poetry 25.2 (1987): 129-141.

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Hewlett, Henry G. “English Sonneteers: Mr. Charles Turner.” Contemporary Review 22 (Sept 1873): 633-642.

Houston, Natalie M. “Valuable by Design: Material Features and Cultural Value in Nineteenth-Century Sonnet Anthologies.” Victorian Poetry 37.2 (1999): 243-272. Hunt, Leigh, and S. Adams Lee, eds. The Book of the Sonnet. 2 vols. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1867.

Loosens, Tricia. Lost Saints: Silence, Gender and Victorian Literary Canonization. Charlottesville; London: UP of Virginia, 1996.

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Masson, David. “Shakespeare and Goethe.” British Quarterly Review, Nov 1852. Rpt. in Essays, Biographical and Critical. Cambridge: Macmillan, 1856. 1-36.

Meredith, George. Modern Love. The Poems of George Meredith. Ed. Phyllis Bartlett. Vol. 1. New Haven; London: Yale UP, 1978. 115-145.

Mermin, Dorothy. “The Female Poet and the Embarrassed Reader: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese.” ELH 48.2 (1981): 351-367.

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Noble, James Ashcroft. “The Sonnet in England.” The Sonnet in England fr Other Essays. London: Elkin Mathews and John Lane, 1893.

[Norton, C. Ej Review of The Book of the Sonnet. Ed. Leigh Hunt. North American Review 104 (April 1867): 626-630.

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Rev. of Modern Love and Other Poems, by George Meredith. Saturday Review 24 October 1863. Rpt. in Williams, 103-107.

Rev. of Poems (1851), by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Graham’s American Monthly Magazine 38.3: 277-278. Qtd. in Donaldson, 49.

Reynolds, Margaret. “Love’s Measurement in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese.” Studies in Browning and His Circle 21 (Nov 1997): 53-67.

[Russell, C. W] Critical History of the Sonnet. 2 parts. Dublin Review n.s. 27 (1876): 400-430; 28 (1877): 141-180.

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Stallybrass, Peter. “Editing as Cultural Formation: The Sexing of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.” The Uses of Literary History. Ed. Marshall Brown. Durham: Duke UP, 1995. 129-141. Stephenson, Glennis. Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the Poetry of Love. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1989.

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Williams, loan. Meredith: The Critical Heritage. London; New York: Routledge; Barnes dr Noble, 1971.

University of Houston

NATALIE M. HOUSTON is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Houston. She has published articles on Victorian women writers, nineteenth-century poetry anthologies, and the poetry of the Crimean war. Her edition of M. E. Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret is forthcoming from Broadview Press, and she is currently completing a book on the cultural history of the Victorian sonnet.

Copyright Studies in the Literary Imagination Fall 2002

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved

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