1 January 2013

Modern Love

I could, of course, write reams and reams prompted by the well-promoted, excellently curated exhibition on the Pre-Raphaelites I went to a couple of months ago at Tate Britain. I could write about the muses, Mariana, and the watery Ophelia. I could write about the detail and illustriuous list of greats in Ford Madox Brown's painting The Seeds and Fruits of English Poetry. I could write about the staggeringly darkly beautiful wardrobe created by Philip Webb and Edward Burne Jones as a wedding present for William and Jane Morris. The front panels depict an image from Chaucer's The Prioress's Tale; a rather anti-Semitic yarn about a young hymn-singing boy who has his throat cut by Jews. Interesting choice of decoration for a wedding gift. But instead I will write about The Death of Chatterton by Henry Wallis. Partly because I have always loved this painting, but mostly because there seemed to be odd coincidences surrounding it.

Chatterton, that tragic Romantic hero, the poet who penned pseudo-medieval verses and committed suicide at the unfathomably young age of seventeen. [And if it wasn't suicide, it was death from an overdose of arsenic used as self-medication for a venereal disease, so equally Romantic.] Chatterton who ghoulishly languishes on his dishevelled bed wearing bright purple breeches in Wallis's depiction. Chatterton, painted by Wallis, modelled by the poet and novelist George Meredith. Meredith was married to Mary Ellen Nicolls, the daughter of Thomas Love Peacock (the rather overlooked yet most eccentrically excellent novelist), but she ran off with Wallis two years after her husband was painted as Chatterton. Scandal. However, it did lead to a rather great work: Modern Love. Meredith wrote fifty sixteen-line sonnets about the demise of a marriage. Arguably the demise of his first marriage to Mary Ellen.

'Fast, sweet and golden shows the marriage-knot.
Dear guests, you now have seen love's corpse-light shine.'

The sonnets are narrated by the husband and are at once both dramatic and domestic, intimate and heartbreaking.

'I pluck the flower, and smell it, and revive
The time when in her eyes I stood alive.'

The boy I know best once wrote an eight-thousand word essay on this novella in verse. He then used them as a starting point for one of his band's songs. I think of the Romantics and endless sonnets whenever I hear them play Meredith.

And so to yet more coincidental oddities. Just after I went to the exhibition and marvelled at The Death of Chatterton, I began my obsession with Nigel Nicolson's Portrait of a Marriage. This is an account of his mother and father's marriage. His mother and father just so happen to be Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson. Their story is told in different sections, with great swathes taken from Vita's autobiography, followed by texts added by Nigel Nicolson who comments on events using his own memories, various letters, and Vita's diaries. It is, quite simply, wonderful. They had an unconventional marriage, yet it worked for them. Vita fell in love with bright distracting glittering figures frequently, passionately and obsessively. Most of these figures were women. Harold had his own dalliances. Yet family, literature, love and gardening fused them together until Vita's death. They were happy oh so more often than they were unhappy. They were separate free spirits, but they made a whole. A whole marriage. I thought it interesting reading about this marriage in light of what I had discovered about George Meredith (who I had looked into further on seeing him posed as Chatterton), but it wasn't until I was a little way through the first part that I had one of those eyebrow-raising moments. Vita is describing her seventeenth year in her autobiography, just before she met Harold but after she has first become hopelessly enamoured with Violet Keppel, and she writes 'I must have been suffering from a bad attack of Weltschmerz, and indeed I had just finished a play on Chatterton of quite unequalled gloom'.

There is no further reference to Chatterton in this work, but Vita did indeed write Chatterton: A Drama in Three Acts. A play running to 60-odd pages and her first published work. Unfortunately I have not read it myself so cannot comment on the content, but I do find it extraordinary that everything is connected and it all overwhelmed me in a wave. The Romantics, Chatterton, Wallis, Meredith, Modern Love, the intricacies and fascinations of marriage, Vita and Harold...

My not very good photograph of a photograph of Vita and her penmanship

NB Weltschmerz, ( German: “world grief”) the prevailing mood of melancholy and pessimism associated with the poets of the Romantic era that arose from their refusal or inability to adjust to those realities of the world that they saw as destructive of their right to subjectivity and personal freedom—a phenomenon thought to typify Romanticism.


Chris said...

Definitely worth the wait

Anonymous said...

please can we have a link to the eight-thousand word essay in verse?
I'd like to see that.

anna said...

Whoops, I meant to hyphenate. Novella-in-verse. Alas, the essay was not in verse, but ABOUT the verse. Perhaps less interesting....

mike said...

Well, can you ask "the boy you know best" to write an essay in verse? Obv not 8000 words, as there are not that many rhymes in English (yes please, with rhymes) and not necessarily on the novella: could be on anything really, as long as its printable.


Anonymous said...

I just wanted to say that I adore your blog and have been following it regularly for a relatively long time now. It's one of my favourites!

I never really left any comments (for various reasons) but this sounds like the right opportunity to do so -- because I would love to know the name of that band! It's entirely understandable if it's too personal to tell us but I really want to listen to that song.