Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. V. Browning to Rupert Brooke
Critical Introduction by John Bailey
George Meredith (18281909)
[Born 1828, at Portsmouth; his grandfather and father were tailors (once prosperous) and his four aunts were among the beauties of the town. He completed his education at the Moravian school at Neuwied, where he learnt German thoroughly. For a time he was articled to a London solicitor, but soon turned to literature. Married in 1849 a daughter of Thomas Love Peacock, who left him nine years later and died in 1861: he married again in 1864. In 1855 he published The Shaving of Shagput, in 1859 The Ordeal of Richard Feverel; but before this he had published a volume of Poems (1851)a complete failure commercially, but now one of the rarest and costliest of modern books. Merediths main work henceforth was novel-writing, but he did not really command a large public till 1885, with Diana of the Crossways. His chief volumes of poetry were Modern Love (1862), Poems and Lyrics of the Joy of Earth (1883), Ballads and Poems of Tragic Life (1887), and A Reading of Earth (1888). He received the Order of Merit in 1905, and died four years later, a memorial service being held in Westminster Abbey.]
IT is not likely that very much of George Merediths poetry will ever be widely read. He is probably the most difficult of all our poets, as difficult habitually as Shakespeare and Shelley are occasionally. He seems to have been totally indifferent to the truth of that generally sound maxim with which Johnson rebuked the critics of Popes Homer: the purpose of a writer is to be read. It does not appear that he acted on any very clear distinction between poetry and prose, or even between prose and verse. The result is that his poetry often fails to satisfy perfectly legitimate and reasonable expectations.
People go to poetry for three things: for the delight with which it enraptures the ear, for its quickening and uplifting of the imagination, for the harvest of wisdom and truth to be reaped from its exhibition of the true life of nature and of man. From the greatest poetry they get all three at once. From Meredith, it must be sadly confessed, they get the first, the music of sound, very seldom: the second oftener, but far from always: the third almost always, though frequently presented in a manner and mood which belong rather to prose than to poetry. As to the first, it can only be said that Meredith, master of language as he was, was utterly defiant of the limitations, without which poetry as an art could not be. He could write, when he chose, things as exquisite as Love in the Valley or those stanzas in The Young Princess which, whatever they owe to Tennyson, could only have been borrowed by a master of music:
The truth is that Meredith never chose to accept the conditions of thought and language under which poetry works. Not only did he write many long poems such as The Empty Purse which consist almost entirely of abstract argument utterly alien to the simple and sensuous nature of poetry; but even into his true poems he introduces, without any apparent consciousness of a false note, such phrases of pure prose as the taint of personality or the brains reflex. Everywhere his poetry suffers from an over-activity of the mere intellect, working almost by itself, and not as poetry demands, in alliance with the senses and the imagination.
Yet it is quite possible that the best of his poetry will outlast his novels. For, brilliant as the novels are, they would scarcely seem to have that assured serenity of beauty and truth which, far more than any such restless cleverness as theirs, is the mark of the novel made for immortality as we see it in Don Quixote and Goldsmiths Vicar and the immortal company of the Waverleys. No novels ever had so much brains come to their making as Merediths; but the supreme work of art demands a harmony of qualities of which brains can only supply one. And however high we place the novels, poetry is still more than prose andwhat is our present pointhas commonly proved much the better stayer. That is not merely because its art is of a finer order. It is because, more even than the highest prose, it belongs to a world in which the contemporary is seen, as it were, from a height and in its true proportions. For this reason great poetry is of all time and is always modern. Even the Waverley Novels have in them far more matter which is now felt to be old-fashioned and to need explanation, than the contemporary poems of Wordsworth or Shelley. And so with Meredith; if a man really is a poet, his poetry, in spite of the exception of Scott, is generally the safest bottom in which he may embark for immortality. Clever as Merediths poetry is, it is never so brilliant as Diana or The Egoist. But Diana and The Egoist belong much more decidedly to the Victorian age and much more doubtfully to posterity than Love in the Valley or A Day of the Daughter of Hades. There is not a line in these poems which our grandchildren will find worse than harsh or difficult. There are many pages in the novels which they will find out of date, odd, and perhaps a little ridiculous. And whatever his poetic faults, Meredith was a true poet. A poet is one in whose words man and nature seem to be alive with a life of which no prose has the secret, a life at once natural and transcendental, at once known and unknowable. So Meredith himself says:
We live in a world of wonder. Some of us have little power to see it; some have no will. But the poet has both, and both in the highest degree. No one will for a moment deny either the will or the power to Meredith. To him the face, both of earth and of man, has sacramental value; it truly is what it seems to be and yet is so much more: and the life of the spirit lies in learning what that so much more may mean to those who have eyes to see it. To feel it is to attain to the consciousness of what lifts man above the indifferent beasts of the field. There, says Meredith, as he gazes on the Winter Heavens,
Into that haven Merediths poetry, at its best, victoriously takes us. The glistening radiance of which he speaks is in all his finest poetry; and he makes us feel, as few poets do, both the manifold energies of earth, her fiery struggles, her everlasting movement, the beauty of her eternal interchange of death and birth, and the companion life of the body and spirit of man, responding to this kind but exacting and remorseless mother, living, working, loving, struggling ever upward into a life which more and more rejoices in realizing itself as a single link in a chain or ascending scale of timeless existence. If the multifold matter on which he lays his hand often fails to answer in music to the touch, yet little of it fails to answer in a new significance of life. History, myth, and the world of to-day all gain by his vivifying imagination. Few poets have created a more arresting vision of one of these mysterious incidents which are the turning-points of history than he in The Nuptials of Attila. There is not much political poetry which equals either in historical insight, or in imaginative power, the strangely neglected Odes in Contribution to the Song of French History which the poet himself valued as highly as any verse he had written. The second ode, that on Napoleon, contains perhaps the most penetrating analysis of his character ever written. The third, France, December, 1870, which we give here, has in it more of the prophetic spirit than any poetry written in England since Wordsworth or perhaps since Milton. And he shows the same power in his handling of myth. The idea, and much of the execution, of The Day of the Daughter of Hades makes it one of the most beautiful adaptations of ancient legend to the uses of an ever-changing humanity which any language can boast. It assumes too much knowledge in the reader, no doubt, as Phbus with Admetus also does; but in spite of crudities and obscurities both are true imaginative creations, and have played a real part in helping modern Englishmen to perceive the undying significance and beauty of Greek story. And of course the author of the novels could not but be even more at home in the world of his own day. What modern poet has given us a finer, more tragic, or truer contemporary drama than Modern Love, of which, by the way, the difficulty is generally much exaggerated? When once the key explaining Madam as the wife and the Lady as the other woman has been firmly grasped, a very few readings will make nearly all the sonnets fairly clear. And Tennyson was as incapable of the subtlety, humour, and understanding of the feminine point of view shown in the Ballad of Fair Ladies in Revolt as Meredith was incapable of producing the lyrics which are the imperishable glory of Tennysons Princess.
Yet, fine as these and other strictly human poems are, in Merediths poetry, unlike his novels, Nature is more than Man. Even in the novels Nature is no bad second. There are readers to whom their wit scarcely gives so much pleasure as their living and intimate knowledge of all the things that may be seen and heard by a man who likes being out of doors, has keen eyes, ears and brains, and makes the most of all of them. But this eager sympathy with birds and beasts and trees and clouds is even more omnipresent in the poems. Perhaps no English poet except Wordsworth and Tennyson brings back to a man who is fond of walking over the face of England so many of his keenest experiences, or prepares him for more and keener next time. No doubt Meredith is, in the Johnsonian phrase, a tremendous companion. You cannot dream or doze with him, as you may with Keats, for instance. The gentle doings of Nature which Keats found softer than ring-doves cooings are not much in Merediths way. He seldom broods over his own thoughts, or sets us brooding over ours. What he does is to translate them into an energy of will and actionin a word, of life. What he finds in Nature and Man he makes into a kind of creed or philosophy of life. The two are for him, more than for most poets, one subject seen from two points of view: Earth, the mother of man; Man, the son who is instantly lost if he attempts to forget or defy his mother. This is his central article of faith, and on it he builds a sort of doctrine or practical faith on which an excellent book has been written by Mr. George Trevelyan. It is a doctrine of courage, endurance, and strength, a facing of all facts, a refusing of all anodynes, a faith not in Heaven but in Earth, not in God but in Man. There is no rejection of a world of spirit: but in Merediths view that world must be reached not by the denial of the body but by its healthy and disciplined affirmation, not by attempting to despise or escape Earth but by loving her, and walking in her ways with firm and faithful feet.
So he wrote in his early Spirit of Earth in Autumn, and the same doctrine is again and again repeated with slightly varied stress in poem after poem all through his life. No one will dispute its manliness, its note of health and sanity. But perhaps neither the poet himself nor Mr. Trevelyan fully realizes how lacking in tenderness, how short of healing power, it must at times appear to ordinary suffering, struggling, sinning men and women. Perhaps no man can explain his own faith. Perhaps the strength which he believes himself to receive from a doctrine, whether of heaven or of earth, which can be stated in words, commonly comes from some breath of spirit which refuses definition, and has no ancestry that can be set out in a genealogical tree. When Meredith puts his creed to the supreme test, as his wife lay dying, and gives us the result in that uplifting poem A Faith on Trial, it is better not to ask too curiously whether, in actual fact, the consolation and strength which he seems to himself to derive from Earth and her wild cherry blossom have or can have any other ultimate origin than the spirit, divine or human, which has spoken through the noblest voices of Israel, Greece, Italy, and England. When in another fine poem, In the Woods, he declares that the green earth gave me warnings of sin and lessons of good and evil at strife, And the struggle upward of all And my choice of the glory of Life, we need not ask how such teaching can possibly come of Earth. It is enough that it comes; that the poets spirit, and ours with his, is in Earths presence quickened into a new and higher energy of life, strengthened to struggle and endure, delivered of self, set free to enjoy, made ready for acceptance and peace.
There we get his creed, purged of its harshness, passing out of intellectualism into music, into that musical reason which is poetry; which, because it is music, cannot be so definite and articulate as if it were mere words. But even in the harsher statements of his doctrine, such as Earth and Man, or The Test of Manhood, or The Thrush in February, poetry, if poetry be that which by the help of the imagination sets the spirit free, is always triumphing over the obstacles put in its way by an over-restless brain and an ear that heard discords without noticing them. Take the great conclusion of The Thrush, with its lovely closing simile: he is speaking of his beloved earth:
The crown of all is given in the strange, difficult, glorious Hymn to Colour, which is for Meredith a single name for the material splendours of Earth and Heaven and the spiritual glories of human Love. With that key men will come out of brutishness, becoming gods without ceasing, or wishing to cease, to be animals.
More gardens will they win than any lost;
The vile plucked out of them, the unlovely slain.
Not forfeiting the beast with which they are crossed,
Poetry has, perhaps, to-day a greater work to do than ever before; and never a better chance of doing it. Each poet can only do it in his own way. He gets the gain and pays the penalty of that way being what it is, which is another way of saying of being himself. Here is Merediths way: what he wrote is what he was. His way is not easy walking. The right and happy thing when we read poetry is to be so caught up into the poets being, so absorbed in him, that for the time we spontaneously see with his eyes, think his thoughts, speak his words. With no poet is that more difficult than with Meredith. Yet, if and so far as we attain to it, we get a new vision of Earth and of Man from one who had looked on both with an eye of rarest keenness, penetration, and love. Truth and Beauty gain for us a fuller meaning. We perceive more, love more, live more. For the life Meredith gives is the life in which, more than all but a very few men, he believed: a life which meant knowing as well as loving, loving as well as knowing.