Verse > Anthologies > Alfred H. Miles, ed. > Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century
Alfred H. Miles, ed.  Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century.  1907.
Critical and Biographical Essay by James Ashcroft Noble
George Eliot (Mary Ann Cross) (1819–1880)
THE STORY of the life of the great writer who chose to be known to the world as George Eliot has been told with more or less of completeness by one American and three English biographers—Mr. George Willis Cooke, Miss Mathilde Blind, Mr. J. W. Cross, and Mr. Oscar Browning; and the details of that uneventful but interesting career are familiar to most readers. Suffice it, then, here to say that Mary Ann Evans was born at Kirk Hallam, in Derbyshire, on November 22nd, in the year 1819, her father, Robert Evans, being agent for an estate held by a member of the Newdigate family. The letters of her quiet early years show her to have been a studious, thoughtful girl, deeply imbued with a somewhat narrow form of Evangelical Christianity; but in early womanhood she made the acquaintance of Mr. and Mrs. Bray, and of their relatives the Hennells—names not unknown in philosophical literature—under whose influence she abandoned her previous beliefs, and adopted a creed which may, perhaps, be most justly described as a reverent and unaggressive agnosticism. Migrating to London she became sub-editor of the Westminster Review, the quarterly organ of Radicalism in politics, philosophy, and religion, and while fulfilling the duties of this post made the acquaintance of that brilliant littérateur, George Henry Lewes. Acquaintance developed into friendship, friendship into something still warmer, and Lewes having contracted an unfortunate marriage, from which circumstances denied him the relief of a divorce, Miss Evans and he entered into an alliance which, though unrecognised by law and custom, had for the persons immediately concerned all the sacredness belonging to a true union of husband and wife. To the stimulation and encouragement given by Lewes, there is little doubt that the world largely owes not merely the famous works of fiction by which George Eliot has won an assured place among the great novelists of the world, but that smaller poetical product which, though doubtless less important, has had such importance as really belongs to it unduly and unjustly minimised. This union, entered upon in 1853, endured for a happy and fruitful quarter of a century, and was terminated by the death of Lewes in 1878. In May, 1880, George Eliot, unable to bear up against the desolation of her solitude, contracted the marriage with Mr. J. W. Cross which has provided material for so much fruitless discussion; but her new happiness was of brief duration, for seven months afterwards her voice in the earthly chorus was stilled, and she passed away to join that other company of which she had sung with such passionate fervency: “the choir invisible, whose music is the gladness of the world.”  1
  That the outward conduct of a life bears a fixed and inevitable relation to the character and personality behind it is a truth to which George Eliot herself bore emphatic testimony; and yet the George Eliot whom, by an act of unconscious synthesis, we evolve from her published writings is, in various perplexing ways, a very different person from the George Eliot who actually lived and loved and rejoiced and suffered. What she said of Dorothea Casaubon is largely true of herself—that the determining acts of her life “were not ideally beautiful”; and in addition to their want of inherent beauty, they seem curiously inconsistent with the nature of that ideal personality which the mind creates for itself from the hints supplied to it. As a matter of fact, however, the self-contained, self-reliant nature, strong to achieve and to endure, which we think we discern behind such creations as Adam Bede, Tom Tulliver, Felix Holt, Romola, and Fedalma, is, like the Shakespeare of so many constructive critics, an entirely imaginary personage. The true George Eliot realised, with a quite remarkable completeness, the old ideal of woman as a being born not to stand alone and to work out her own conception of life, but to love and to cling, to lean on some stronger nature, and to accept its care and guidance. In all the leading events of her life—her rejection of Christianity, her union with Lewes, her appearance before the world as an imaginative writer, and her marriage with Mr. Cross—she was, to an incalculable extent, a passive rather than an active agent, enduring pain, contumely, self-distrust, and the consciousness of dull disapproval, because the endurance was prompted and sustained by the magnetic proximity of spirits more potent than her own. This combination of an intellectual nature so essentially virile, with an emotional nature so typically feminine, is unique in the history of literature; and it confers upon the life of George Eliot the peculiar fascination belonging to objects of thought or vision in which the element of strangeness is added to the element of beauty. Here, however, the beauty is in excess of the strangeness; and the nearer we come to the true personality of this great woman, the more rapidly does the strangeness disappear. The shadowy figure of George Eliot present to the mind’s eye is not altogether unreal—nay, it has the finest reality; for it is the George Eliot of aspiration and endeavour, though not of achievement. She might have said, with Rabbi Ben Ezra—
                    “All I could never be,
            All men ignored in me,
This I was worth to God, whose wheel the pitcher shaped.”
And not only to God, but to man; for—to quote again from the sentences in which she dismisses her own Dorothea—“the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive”; and men went from the presence of this timid, self-distrustful woman with new strength for that battle of life which she herself dared not fight alone.
  To some of us it will always seem inexplicable that the question which must first be answered by any writer upon George Eliot, as a writer of verse, is not “What is her true place among poets?” but that much more searching question, “Was she, in any really accurate sense of the word, a poet at all?” Yet not only is this the case, but any writer who has the courage to return an affirmative reply finds that he has on his side hardly one of the critics who speaks with a voice having any authority. Mr. Oscar Browning, George Eliot’s most recent biographer, denies to her not only “the passionate fire, without which,” he says, “no poet can excel,” but also “the gift of melodious language.” “Verse to her,” says Mr. R. H. Hutton, “is a fetter, not a stimulus.” “A large rhythm,” writes Mr. Edward Dowden, “sustains the verse, similar in nature to the movement of a calmly musical period of prose; but at best the music of the lines is a measurable music; under the verse there lies no living heart of music with curious pulsation, and rhythm which is a miracle of the blood…. She could not sing.” These three criticisms are fairly representative: George Eliot was not a poet; she was not a singer; verse was a fetter to her;—the second and third statements being the justifications of the first. The verdict sounds very formidable, but it may lose some of its formidableness if we see in it only an illustration of a habit which has recently been growing among the critics of demanding in all poetry the presence of certain characteristics which necessarily belong only to poetry of the lyrical kind,—an effusion, an abandonment, a sense as of a pulse beating in the verse. Poetry has, in fact, been too exclusively identified with song, whereas many conceptions which are purely poetical, and which clothe themselves in verse as naturally and inevitably as other conceptions clothe themselves in prose, are not of a nature to ally themselves with song or to allow of being sung. Prose and poetry are not related as speech and song, for speech may be poetry and song prose; indeed the difference between the two is primarily one of substance and only secondarily one of form. Poetry is a sustained metrical rendering of thought or emotion or vision which cannot otherwise be adequately rendered; and in order to decide whether a metrical composition presented to us is or is not poetry we have to ask ourselves whether the form is one with the substance or separable from it,—whether the impression intended to be made would have been deeper or sharper, or even as deep and sharp, if prose had been employed instead of verse.  3
  The writer of these pages has asked this question many times, with regard to the verse of George Eliot; and to the self which asks the self which answers has always been impelled to return one reply. “The Spanish Gypsy” is the work upon which the deniers of George Eliot’s poetic faculty, mainly base their judgment. In speaking of it their voice is loud and confident. “The Legend of Jubal” and “Brother and Sister” bring it down to a lower tone; and as they approach that lyric of solemn rapture, “Oh may I join the choir invisible!” it dies into a whisper. “The Spanish Gypsy” is therefore the structure brave upon which those who greatly dare, because they greatly admire, will, with courageous eagerness plant their standard as a signal that there as elsewhere they are ready to stand an assault. Nor will they fear to admit that there are passages in “The Spanish Gypsy” which lack the metrical inevitableness just referred to,—passages which might have taken the form of prose without any loss of essential weight or beauty; but then they are to be found not less in the “Iliad,” the “Inferno,” the “Paradise Lost.” To the whole world, however, these works are indubitable poetry; and those who regard “The Spanish Gypsy” also as poetry, and poetry of a very noble order, base their regard on the fact that the final impression left by it as by them is of an imaginative conception which could only be made fully manifest in an embodiment of verse. If we try to imagine such characters as those of Zarca, Silva, and Fedalma, such situations as those which one by one reveal the evolution of the great tragedy, embodied in a prose romance we feel instinctively that the work which our vagrant fancy has brought into shadowy being, is a poorer and less impressive thing than the actual existing volume,—a thing that could never stir us as we are stirred by the printed page. Quotation is a poor aid to the appraisement of a great imaginative organism; the “Beauties of Shakespeare” never made any reader feel the marvel of “Hamlet”; but as for the critics who deny to George Eliot “a passionate fire,” who tell us that verse was “a fetter” to her, and that her poetry has no “living heart of music,”—what avail their confident words as we read but one single passage, the reply of Fedalma when Zarca summons her to the great renunciation, and ends his appeal with the terrible words, “Say you will curse your race”?

        “No, no—I will not say it—I will go!
Father, I choose! I will not take a heaven
Haunted by shrieks of far-off misery.
This deed and I have ripened with the hours:
It is a part of me—a wakened thought
That, rising like a giant, masters me,
And grows into a doom. O mother life,
That seemed to nourish me so tenderly,
Even in the womb you vowed me to the fire,
Hung on my soul the burden of men’s hopes,
And pledged me to redeem!—I’ll pay the debt.
You gave me strength that I might pour it all
Into this anguish. I can never shrink
Back into bliss—my heart has grown too big
With things that might be. Father, I will go.”
  The impression that is left by this passage, and by much besides, in “The Spanish Gypsy” is an impression of sombre and profound passion, the combined intensity and elevation of which make themselves heard in a weighty music, not of dance or song, but rather of a solemn triumphal or funeral march;—a measured music indeed, yet measured not by the calculation of conscious thought, but rather by the decorous restraint which every finely trained nature will put upon the outflow of its most poignant emotions. It is this impression that is left by the majestic close of “Jubal”; by the outpouring of Armgart’s foiled aspirations; by the quieter but not really less impassioned colloquy of Stradivarius, most of all by that supreme utterance which will fulfil its own desire, and make its writer an immortal member of the invisible choir. George Eliot could sing—witness the lovely lyric in “How Lisa loved the King!” but she has given us something better than song—the poetry which incarnates energising thought and purifying emotion in a body of stately verse, the gracious form of which is not unworthy of the indwelling spirit.  5

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