The word “modern” is such a subjective term. The 19th century poet, George Meredith, wrote a poetic sequence of 50 poems and entitled it Modern Love. The poems, each having 16 lines in 4 rhymed quatrains, describe the relationship between a man and his wife. It is “modern” for him because it is describing his current life in the 1860s. Yet, it is extraordinarily modern to us, in that it is timeless. It doesn’t seem filtered by the past, but emotionally contemporary. The distant couple, the repressed emotions, the sleepless night, these all seem to be taken from the late-20th-century, early -21st. I swear I have seen countless movies where a modern woman and modern man lie on their backs, thinking, wishing, wondering–the very emotions that Meredith attaches to his “modern lovers.” All it needs is a plaintive soundtrack by Bonnie “Prince” Billy.
Here is the first poem in the sequence. Notice the dread, the sadness, the angst; it seems all so very real, very contemporary.
- By this he knew she wept with waking eyes:
- That, at his hand’s light quiver by her head,
- The strange low sobs that shook their common bed
- Were called into her with a sharp surprise,
- And strangely mute, like little gasping snakes,
- Dreadfully venomous to him. She lay
- Stone-still, and the long darkness flowed away
- With muffled pulses. Then, as midnight makes
- Her giant heart of Memory and Tears
- Drink the pale drug of silence, and so beat
- Sleep’s heavy measure, they from head to feet
- Were moveless, looking through their dead black years,
- By vain regret scrawled over the blank wall.
- Like sculptured effigies they might be seen
- Upon their marriage-tomb, the sword between;
- Each wishing for the sword that severs all.
- (For those who like the “biographical” strategy, check out George Meredith’s life. It makes the poem all the more poignant.)