Blog #196: Meredith’s “Modern Love” As Macbeth Source For To the Lighthouse

“And that, perhaps, is not the least merit of such a book as this. It shows us the wrong side of the carpet and, fascinating though the wrong side of things always is, it is also a little crude, and ultimately breeds a keener desire than we were conscious of before to look upon the right side. All these half-heard words and disconnected fragments, with their suggestion of Meredith talking somewhere behind a curtain, drive us to the true source of Meredith, which is his writing; for. like all great imaginative writers, he reveals himself there with a completeness and subtlety, for good and for bad, which transcend all the facts that we may be told about him.

“Small Talk About Meredith” (1919)

In two earlier blogs, I explored Virginia Woolf’s extensive use of Macbeth in To the Lighthouse. To my earlier findings on the subject, I now add the probability that Meredith is at least partly responsible for the To the Lighthouse Macbeth presence. Mr and Mrs. Ramsay looking “at each other down the long table sending these questions and answers across, each knowing exactly what the other felt,” are close kin to “Modern Love”‘s married couple whose warm-lighted looks “[s]hoot gaily o’er the dishes and the wine.”

There can be little doubt that Virginia was very familiar with “Modern Love,” and it is also likely that she associated some of the poem’s darker ironies with her parents. Leslie Stephen loved to recite poetry aloud, and in “Impressions of Leslie Stephen,” published in Maitland’s The Life and Letters of Leslie Stephen, Virginia wrote that “many of the great English poems now seem to me inseparable from my father; I hear in them not only his voice, but in some sort his teaching and belief.”

Among the poets Leslie Stephen recited was George Meredith. Virginia remembered that her father “loved, too, and knew by heart since he had first read it, George Meredith’s ” Love in the Valley,” and he made us remark and this was a rare instance of its kind the beauty of Mr. Meredith’s metres and his mastery over them.” “Modern Love” would also be among the poems recited by Leslie Stephen, and Virginia certainly revisited that poem later in life. Even if, not surprisingly, she does not refer to it in “The Novels of George Meredith” (1928), she does reference the poem in “On Re-reading Meredith” (1918), and again in “Small Talk About Meredith” (1919).

If reading Meredith and “Modern Love” did contribute to Virginia’s use of Macbeth in To the Lighthouse, then by the quantum laws of literary entanglement “Modern Love” is also a presence in To the Lighthouse, even if only “on the wrong side of the carpet.” To see Macbeth filtered through Meredith expands and reshapes Macbeth implications in To the Lighthouse. Beyond its tragic Shakespearean aspect, Macbeth now acquires an ironic charge and invites deeper thought about conceptions and perceptions of marriage. Far more attention must be paid to the skeletons a marriage hides, and to the ways in which a marriage knot can bind. Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay thoughts and actions, and the ways in which Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay form and deform each other as a couple, need to be scrutinized against the ironies of “Modern Love.” Those ironies must also be brought to bear on the marriage of Minta Doyle and Paul Rayley, all the more so because Minta’s name, by way of Lord Ormont and His Aminta, indirectly invokes Meredith.

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.
With sparkling surface-eyes we ply the ball:
It is in truth a most contagious game:
Hiding the Skeleton, shall be its name.
Such play as this the devils might appal!
But here’s the greater wonder; in that we,
Enamoured of an acting nought can tire,
Each other, like true hypocrites, admire;
Warm-lighted looks, Love’s ephemerioe,
Shoot gaily o’er the dishes and the wine.
We waken envy of our happy lot.
Fast, sweet, and golden, shows the marriage-knot.
Dear guests, you now have seen Love’s corpse-light shine.

“Modern Love” (1862)

List of Matremoirs

List of Patremoirs

Children of Writers

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