‘Modern Love: VI’ by George Meredith is a sixteen line poem, that is only one in a series of short poems that bare the name, “Modern Love.” This piece was first published in the volume of Modern Love and Other Poems. The poem follows the rhyming pattern of ABBACDDCEFFE… etc.
The poem begins with the speaker observing a private moment. He is spying on the woman he loves and sees her with another man. This man kisses her forehead and he knows that she has moved on from him. She has found another, and from the slant of her eyes to the floor, knows she is only a little ashamed of it.
This shame tells him the new love is real. She might cry in happiness or perhaps in mourning over what she has done to the speaker, but he cries in earnest and the tears are like blood drops. They have come painfully. He cries over a love lost, but, it is not lost. It is still here it has just moved on to someone else.
In the final stanza, he tells the reader what he wants to say to his ex-lover. He wants to insult her and to demand that she tell him who this new man is. He does none of this but continues to watch them in the corner of the room as they speak to one another and she laughs at something the new man says. All of his anguish is contained and he will not act on it.
Analysis of Modern Love: VI
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!
The speaker begins ‘Modern Love: VI’ in the middle of what should be an unimportant interaction between two people. The reader is soon to realize that this is not the case. Something is wrong with their relationship, something that the speaker will find himself frantically speculating about.
The reader is thrust into the middle of an interaction between a man and a woman. The speaker observes a scene in which the woman he loves is having her forehead kissed by another man. This is not a dramatic moment that is built up to or over agonized, it simply happens. It “chanced” that his lips met “her forehead.” The man did not think about what he had done but the woman does feel some negative emotion over it.
Whether she realizes the speaker is watching her or not, she slants “down her eye” to the ground as if she is ashamed of their interactions, or shy of its newness. She does not blush, but the speaker can tell, or at least believes he can tell, that she feels ashamed. This slant of her eye tells him all that he needs to know. It “confesses” to him that “love can die.” He had been in a real, or perceived, relationship, with this woman and has been caught off guard. He knows now that it is possible for love can die and he, the “tender fool,” will be punished for loving her.
He chastises himself for believing that she would honor any commitment between them.
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.
In the next lines of the poem, what the speaker has observed is sinking in. He is greatly upset over what he has seen and is speculating over whether the relationship, or perhaps the woman herself, is dead. He states that she does have a pulse, as well as the ability to produce tears, so she must not be. But the tears are brought from her painfully, as if they are drops of blood. He knows this feeling well as he is the one that has been thrown away. She might cry for the situation, but he is the one that has lost something.
The speaker says that they are both crying for “Love’s ghost.” It is not even something tangible, or real, for which they mourn. Love has moved on, it is here, but it has “changed its aim” to someone else.
O 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.
In the final lines of the poem, the speaker, in his anguish, directly addresses the woman he has lost. He calls her a “bitter barren woman” and demands that she tell him who it is that she has now “won.” What man has she won over and given her affections to?
But, the speaker does not really say these things to her. He stays where he is in the room, looking on at the interaction between the new lovers, like a “coward.” There he will stay and endure the “dire” “sting” that tells him to act.
All these emotions are going on in his head, while she and he, absorbed in their own world, “laugh at a quiet joke.”
About George Meredith
George Meredith was born in Portsmouth, Hampshire, England in February of 1828. His family was well off financially until his father went bankrupt in 1833 and the family was forced to move to London. George Meredith’s father, only six months later, married the housekeeper. Meredith attended schooling in Germany and was, in 1845, apprenticed to a solicitor. But would never make a career out of this profession. It was at this same time that he met Mary Ellen Nicolls, who was widowed with a young daughter. They quickly fell in love and after Meredith came into the remainder of his inheritance, they were married.
The small family moved to Surrey, and there, with the little money that Meredith had, he managed to publish a collection of verses entitled Poems. The volume received positive reviews from fellow poets but that did not stop the creditors from besieging their residence. Their one and only child together, Arthur, was born in 1853. Over the next eight years, beset by poverty, Mary Ellen traveled to Wales along with an artist friend of the couple. There she gave birth to another son, who Meredith refused to acknowledge as his own. She died in 1861.
Meredith would remarry in 1864, to a woman named Marie Vulliamy. Their relationship was much more successful, perhaps partially due to the fact that Meredith was finding some literary success. His novel, Evan Harrington, had brought in a small amount of money, and his finances continued to improve. Over the next 20+ years, Meredith published over seven novels, multiple volumes of poetry, and many shorter works. The popular success that he had been striving for came in 1885 with the publication of Diana of the Crossways. Unfortunately, the happiness did not last long, Marie died the next year, and Meredith’s own health was declining. In 1890, Meredith’s son, Arthur, died but he did not stop writing. He would continue to publish three more volumes of poetry and two more novels.
His writing ceased in 1895 and he was awarded the Order of Merit in 1905. George Meredith died in May of 1909.