The bitterest love poetry you'll ever read - George Meredith's Modern Love – fairly rubbishes romantic passion as a snare of fools, or a wasting disease – a kind of phthisis of the soul. The toxicity of the poems is conveyed at the level of its gnarled syntax and the emotional colour of a Walter Sickert in its imagery. If Donne spoke of the 'spider love', Meredith replies with the 'scorpion love' of these sonnets. The marriage portrayed doesn't so much as merely break down - it undergoes time-lapse decay in the astringents of infidelity and mutual hatred; the least of it flawlessly masked by the bourgeois domestic proprieties of the day. The male speaker registers complex responses of disgust and slighted rectitude; looks on his wife as a beguilingly dangerous Lamia who nonetheless commands his abject devotion:
Yea! filithiness 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.
“Shall I,” he asks, “unsustained,/Drag on Love's nerveless body thro' all time?” - Meredith juggles the emollient hypocrisy of polite society ('Dear guests, you now have seen Love's corpse-light shine.') and the cankered tissue of a marriage in extremis. The poems are teasingly crypto-autobiographical – Meredith's wife, the daughter of Thomas Love Peacock, cuckolded and left him for the artist Henry Wallis – and they work around the vexed problem of public self-exposure by a heavy reliance on figural language, rhetorical make-shift, and the feeling-tones of melodrama. (Its atmosphere anticipates the parched, airless recrimination of Ford's The Good Soldier.) The Meredithian sonnet – fifteen rather than the conventional fourteen lines – manages at once to be innovatory and classically sanctioned; yet seems unnervingly out of joint, with the addition of that single line (Tony Harrison adopted the stanza for his School of Eloquence.). Much like Tennyson's In Memoriam, Modern Love lies somewhere the contested territory between public utterance – decorous, seemly, graceful – and the need to articulate vortices of private anguish: “These two were rapid falcons in a snare,/Condemned to do the flitting of a bat.” Suppressed hints of sexual violence and (mutually administered) emotional cruelty curdle the poetry. What may or may not be a mariage blanc is a torture-chamber, with Bluebeard presiding over the banns. Conjugal union becomes as pleasurable and edifying as waterboarding to the parties involved. The essential modernity of this love, it seems, entails the discovery of the unbridgeable gulf between the visione amori and the shabby ordinariness, the grudging compromises of real life. But the disagreeable fact remains: there ain't no cure for love.
The zugzwang – in the exotic argot of the chess world – is a forced move, one the player is compelled to make, even though it might damage his position. Ciaran Carson, in For All We Know, understands this ambiguous tactic as the necessity for the mind to recuperate systematically the fading details of a love affair, lest they finally pale to illegibility and the circumstantial vividness of the experience – its meaning and significance - be lost. (The book's doubled end-pieces are titled 'Zugzwang': "...as the old chess master cannot say if ever he learned/the game, since each new game blossoms with new constellations...")
A sonnet sequence, For All We Know is composed of the voices of a man and a woman, Irish and French, who meet in the seventies at the onset of the Troubles: Gabriel and Nina. Essentially plotless, yet tightly bound together by a calculated recurrence of image, theme and phrase, the narrative prosecutes itself as a verbal ricercare, a highly patterned exposition of key 'topics': the lovers' first meeting, the twofold idea of the 'fetch' as doppleganger and behaviour of waves, language concealing identity, tolling bells, fairy tales, heirloom watches and Mont Blanc pens; cryptic misrememberings, renegotiated selves and exploratory rewritings of experience... The book's overall structure itself lends it coherence – indeed, its aesthetic effects depend more on these thematic intervals than what goes on inside each poem. Its two halves mirror each other – the titles of the poems in the first half are the same as those in the second. Intimate vignettes are replayed, differently weighted. The poems speak to one another, correcting themselves, glossing and revising. Memories are spontaneously reorganized in the telling. The epigraph by Glenn Gould – 'So You Want to Write a Fugue' – rather too obviously drops the hint as to the structural principles operating in the sequence: “Fugue must perform its frequently stealthy work with continuously shifting melodic fragments that remain, in the 'tune' sense, perpetually unfinished.” And 'continually shifting melodic fragments' are precisely what we get here. (In terms of emotional bias, some lines from T.S. Eliot's 'Marina' might have served as epigraph just as well: "What seas what shores what grey rocks and what islands ... What images return...") The soft sift of decaying memories are startled into intelligible shapes at the touch of the poet's finger. Thus reconstituted, they cast another light on the fugitive moments of this petite histoire.
Carson's language is rigorously disciplined. He renders the flitting banalities of the daily course of a love affair with fine scruple; yet each iteration alters itself, often shifting with surreal suddenness into the mythic and heraldic:
You stepped out from the shadows wearing a linen jacket
I'd never seen you in before, buttoned on the wrong side.
A sere-cloth dipped in oak-gall ink with buttons of black jet.
A clasp of ebony in the open book in your hands.
Characters of archaic Hebrew Gothic dazzled the page,
black stars danced in the blank universe between the lines,
your mouth disgorging a stream of language not known to me
or any man, for all I knew of what had gone before.
Sean O'Brien has called Carson a 'secular mystic', and written of the 'intense everyday aestheticism, a relish of the thing' in his poetry. True, the 'melodic fragments' of For All We Know are arranged with a combinatorial energy that summons up unimagined symbolic connections – to the point where the mundane exchanges between the lovers take on the fine luminous perfection of the diamond absolutes... Yet due honour is done to the limitless shiftingness, the Heraclitean unrecapturability of the instant: “...Everything was, as it were, provisional,//slipping from the unforeseeable into tomorrow/even as the jittery present became history.” The structural complexity of the book becomes itself a kind of forcing-house for unresolved mysteries, labyrinths of meaning:
...Fugue, my professor said, is a kind of trance
in which the victim disappears for years on end, until
he comes to himself in a strange town and quits the double
life he led unbeknownst to himself. In musical terms
the fugue must perform its often stealthy work with shifting
melodic fragments that remain perpetually in
abeyance, or unconsummated, so to speak, you said.
And I think of the blank darkness that descended on Bach
as the music which blazed in his head became forgotten.
('In the Dark')
The charge often laid on George Meredith's verse is that he was too indulgent in allowing the febrile chaotic emotional bass-note underlying it to issue in quite alarming – to his first readers – formal disfigurements. Literary decorum was violated; and the relative merit of the result is unsettled. The sonnets that comprise Modern Love strain and heave under the pressure of giving voice to feeling that might have done well never to have been brought to light – the poems are syntactically wrecked, broken-winded by their spiteful flawed candour. For All We Know, with its mirrorball sonnets, revolving and flinging off their tesserae of light, might similarly be criticised for its favouring of elaborate formal play over fidelity to emotional clarity and truth. It's not an easy book: the many thousands of casual poetry readers who snapped up Carol Ann Duffy's Rapture – hoping to find in it some clue to their own predicament, as in a piece of wisdom literature – would be roundly stumped by Carson's portrait of the triumph (in the old sense) of love. Carson owes something to the playful ingenuities of Paul Muldoon; and shares something of that poet's obscurity and tricksy verbal braiding. But its textured loveliness, its sensuous fire, will move anyone ready to take time over For All We Know. As, too, will its note of sweet, aching elegy:
I'm the lady propped up at the bar beside you, who puts
words into your mouth before you even know what they are.
I'm the lady who sleeps in you until death do you part.
I'm the lady you see in your dreams though she be long dead.
('Filling the Blanks')