A very modern Victorian

Hello friends! This week, I’m writing a series of short essays for my Traitor in the Tunnel blog tour, which starts at the end of this month. The tour will feature some of my favourite YA bloggers, including the Story Siren, I Swim for Oceans, the Booksmugglers, Reading in Color, Steph Su Reads, and the Bookmonsters. Hurray!

My theme for this blog tour is Victorian Obsessions and some of my research for it led me to a series of poems I haven’t thought about since I was a PhD student: Modern Love, by George Meredith. Modern Love is actually a sonnet sequence – a chain of fifty connected poems, each with the same rhyme scheme and all on the same subject.

That’s already ambitious. Yet Meredith goes further. Most sonnet sequences are about love – the development of a romance, the triumph of true love, pure and passionate. But Meredith turns this around completely, because Modern Love is about the breakdown of a marriage; his own marriage. Here’s the first 16-line sonnet, “By this he knew she wept with waking eyes”:

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 strangled 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.

This sonnet blows me away every time I read it. It’s ruthless and violent, fiercely radical and brutally effective. I’d never guess that it was written in 1862; to me, it sounds more like 1962. And it’s a great reminder – especially to me, since I’m now writing about “the Victorians” and invariably generalizing a bit – that every era has its startling exceptions.

What do you think of the poem? Are there other exceptions (Victorian or otherwise) that it calls to mind?

As well as a blog tour, I’ll be having a launch party in Kingston to celebrate the publication of Traitor. Hurrah! The details:

Saturday, March 3, 2012, from 3 to 5 pm

Novel Idea Books, 156 Princess St, Kingston

If you’re local, I’d love to see you there!


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7 Responses to “A very modern Victorian”

  1. JaneE says:

    I love poetry, and this sonnet is particularly beautiful! Thanks for sharing it. I find poetry sometimes has more impact on the human understanding then prose does. Who is your favourite poet?
    Hopefully I might possibly be able to attend the launch party- I would LOVE to meet you! But I live a few hours away from Kingston and it’s an especially tough trek in the winter 😛

  2. Ying says:

    Ack – so sorry for the slow reply, JaneE! I’m really glad you enjoyed the sonnet, and completely agree about poetry’s special ability to say much in a compressed way. It’s like an arrow to the brain (in the best possible way). I don’t have a single favourite poet, but in the nineteenth century I love Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Robert Browning, some Matthew Arnold, Christina Rossetti. Do you have favourite poets? (And I completely understand about driving in winter!)

  3. Guneet says:

    I love that sonnet! So mysterious. We are writing Poems in Language right now. S ofar I have written two cinquain, a diamante, a found poem, rhyme and acrostic poem. We are doing sonnet next week. :)

  4. JaneE says:

    What a truly perfect way of describing poetry! 😀 I have so many favourite poets, although if I had to choose one I would say Emily Dickinson in a heartbeat. Though I do like Byron, the poetry of the Bronte sisters, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow…there are so many!

  5. Ying says:

    I can’t believe I forgot about Emily Brontë, JaneE! And my grandfather is a big Longfellow fan.

  6. Sarah says:

    Hi! So I know this isn’t a page for questions but I couldn’t find anywhere else to write it. So I’m currently re reading the series and I was wondering if you could describe what Mary looks like. I’m reading the body at the tower right now and she is considered a small 12 year old boy … So like how tall is she and how is it people see her as 18 yet also can be passed off as a young boy? Sorry , it’s just been sorta bugging me

  7. Ying says:

    Hi Sarah, and sorry for this slow reply! (I’m so glad you’re rereading the series.) Mary is short and slight for an adult woman – hard to give precise measurements because, overall, people were a bit smaller in 1860 than they are now. I don’t recall describing her as small *for a 12yo boy*; only small enough to pass as one. Any clearer?

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