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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
George Meredith (1828–1909)
Meredith’s Poetry by Gertrude Elizabeth Taylor Slaughter (1870–1963)
WHEN Meredith had become the acknowledged leader of English letters and “the oracle of Box Hill” he was still, as he himself said, “an unpopular novelist and an unaccepted poet.” Official criticism, having placed his novels where they will doubtless remain, hesitates about his poems. And not without reason. For poetry such as his cannot be accepted or rejected till the time is ripe. His forward-reaching mind conceived ideas that were difficult to express and he made demands upon his readers which only time can lessen. But if the task of a poet is the reinterpretation of life, no quality is more requisite than a “forward imagination.” And it may well happen that the quality of Meredith’s poetry which is the chief cause of its slow appeal will be a reason for its final acceptance. Certainly, if poetry is to convey a new realization of the meaning of things, it can be received only when our highest intelligence is awake. It must be poetry that we shall cling to with our strength and not with our weakness.  1
  It is clear from the Letters that Meredith thought of himself always as a poet and that he was inclined to poetical expression by every instinct. Before he was twenty years old he had given proof of his ability to sing; and the volume that he published at the age of seventy-three shows over-concentration but no diminution of his power. Often when he was writing the novels the “curse of verse” would come upon him to “bedevil him” and hinder his work. Poetry was his “evil fairy who had condemned him to poverty from the cradle through the love of verse.” In middle life, when he was less driven by the pressure of remunerative work, he said: “Latterly I have felt poetically weakened by philosophical reflection. But this is going and a greater strength comes of it. For I believe I am in the shadow of the truth; and as it is my nature to sing I may yet do well.” That he had the gifts of a poet none will deny. The imaginative quality of his style, with all its “passionate and various beauty”—its ability to flash meanings in a phrase and to translate moods into pure lyrics—combined with his power over the elements of tragedy and comedy to produce, in whatever medium, the work of a poet. If he seemed to abuse his power at times, it was never willfully but because of an overabundance of the intellectual vigor which enhances the value of his most majestic lines and his most melodious cadences.  2
  It was maintained by an English critic at the end of the century that, in the true succession of English poets, Meredith stands next to Wordsworth, inasmuch as no other poet after Wordsworth gave such exalted expression to the passion of the century, which was the love of nature, combined with so great faith in its virtue. Meredith’s poetry does in fact attach itself to Wordsworth’s, although far exceeding it in scope, in that both gave to natural phenomena, each as his own age understood them, that “living and colored representation” which Sainte-Beuve declared to be the function of poetry. To both of them nature was the great revealing agency. Meredith accepted freely the scientific teachings of his day toward which Tennyson’s attitude was vacillating and Browning’s reactionary. He accepted them moreover with the enthusiasm of a poet and they became the justification of his faith, the reasonable warrant of his dream. During the entire second half of the century, while literary movements waxed and waned and the new world ushered in by Darwin’s popularization of scientific theories seemed powerless to be born, Meredith was creating in his poetry an interpretation at once faithful and original of the theories and the spirit of the new science.  3
  His conclusions led him to none of the extremes to which, by the subjectivity of logic, the tenets of science have led many modern thinkers. Between the material determinism of modern literature which involves every individual life in the energy that drives existence forward and the narrowness of mid-Victorian individualism he held a middle ground, asserting that by the power of the spirit the fates are within us even while, by the laws of nature, we are in the hands of the fates,—the inevitable paradox of life. He did not resort to the false line of reasoning that constructs the moral world by literal deductions from the physical. He is a poet and proceeds in a different way. Accepting the biological theory of evolution without any sense of conflict, he sees an earth alive with meanings; and to read those meanings is to behold the significance of life in an impassioned vision of reality. The outlook is not through science to despair. Nor is it to self-complacent optimism. For the vision is not for those who “lean their heads on downy ignorance” and transfer their responsibilities to fate or circumstance or to the power that somehow, in spite of us, will make for righteousness. It is for those who have understanding minds and “souls not lent in usury”; for those who, scorning Fear and casting Self aside, are willing to throw themselves—their strength well knit—into the brave wars that must be waged before mankind may attain to the stature of the gods. Although struggle is the condition of growth and will never end, it is the glory of man to share in the upward impulse of nature. And that upward impulse, which has produced reason and love and laughter, is away from rivalries and self-seeking toward brotherhood, away from slavery toward liberty, from the senses to the spirit, from Earth “Up to God’s footstool whither she reaches.”  4
  It seems to Meredith that systems of religion and schemes of worship have often “slain the soul of brotherhood,” whereas the aspect of nature in the process of evolution creates both brotherhood and reverence. It levels mankind. As old Martin says,
  “It pours such a splendor on heaps of poor souls.”
  But if it levels mankind and crushes the pretensions of the elect it also creates distinctions that prove the soul. It is at this point that the seer ventures beyond the sky-line of the scientist. For while life is at the grindstone set to make good instruments of men, yet in the end the fittest to survive is solved in spirit. For the spiritual is the eternal. “Earth that gives the milk the spirit gives,” and he whose spirit conquers the flesh is the best-loved child of earth.
  “Our lives are but a little holding lent
To do a mighty labor. We are one
With heaven and the stars if it is spent
To do God’s will. Else die we with the sun.”
  Among those who have admired Meredith’s poems there is wide divergence of opinion. One pronounces his fame secure because ‘Love in the Valley’ is the greatest love poem of the century. Another would base his reputation on ‘The Woods of Westermain,’ which he regards as a great and original achievement, while ‘Love in the Valley’ is only a successful venture in a popular vein. Another, who finds in ‘Juggling Jerry’ the universality of Homer and Shakespeare, condemns ‘Modern Love,’ that searching tragicomedy which Swinburne declared to be “above the aim and beyond the reach of any but its author,” as artificial and strained and false. While another who has only scorn for ‘Juggling Jerry’ places ‘Modern Love’ above Shakespeare’s sonnets. Another presses for the ballad poetry, declaring that ‘The Nuptials of Attila’ raises its author above the other poets of his day. Still another finds the proof of his greatness in ‘Earth and Man,’ another in ‘The Day of the Daughter of Hades,’ another in the ‘Ode to France,’ and another in ‘The Lark Ascending.’  7
  These personal preferences have an interest as the opinions of interesting men. But the time has come to judge Meredith’s poetry more critically, to study it as a whole, and to inquire whether there is not some poetic quality common to all of these types,—to nature poetry and ballad poetry, to lyrical outbursts of simple melody and analytical poems of deep reflection, to dramas of domestic life and criticisms of literature, to impersonations and reminiscences and histories. If they possess a unity of imaginative conception it is a greater thing than unity of style. Similarity of form gives an easy vogue to many a passing versifier and often betokens poverty of expression. There is a deeper unity which is rooted in thoughtfulness and therefore in the general life.  8
  It is indeed difficult to understand how the rough and involved expressions of some of the poems can be related in any way to the melodious flow of others; how the lines of the ‘Ode to the Comic Spirit,’ for example, can have issued out of the same mind that produced the stanzas of ‘Love in the Valley’—those stanzas that made Stevenson “drunk like wine.” Nothing can excuse the faults of faulty lines, and there are many of Meredith’s that nobody will read twice if he can help it. But it is true that one may accustom oneself to inversions and syncopated forms, and that there comes to be even a certain fascination in the ruggedness and independence of the style. Its very asperities impart a kind of strength, like the strength of the relentless sea. Whether one will tempt this sea of verse will depend upon how forcibly one is impelled by the power of the portions that have been revealed to one.  9
  It is only by reading this poetry until one has penetrated through its diversity of form to its unity of spirit that one is made aware of its power to touch the soul with new life even as it haunts the ear with strange melodies. The faithful reader will be led through some tangles and desert wastes. Nevertheless he is led on an exhilarating journey. He is taken into the secret haunt of every bird and flower of the English countryside, where, in “Æolian silences,” he will catch the sound of “water, first of singers” or the “chirp of Ariel” or the “Dryad voices of old hymning night.” He is carried upward with the lark who “wings our green to wed our blue” and taken delving into dark problems of evil and left to rest where
  “The soft night wind went laden to death
With smell of the orange in flower.”
He will meet a few members of the aristocratic world of the novels but he will encounter oftener some roadside beggar or farmer or villager or some princess of old romance. He will enter no unreal gardens of Proserpine or the Sensitive Plant but in the meadows where he walks among familiar sights he will meet Apollo and Daphne and Demeter and Triptolemus and one who is close kin to Nausicaa. He will feel the teeth of the fiercest wind and there is no mood of the woods that he will not share. Wherever he is led he will find more than pictures and music, or more than the emptiness of poetry that attempts to do the tasks of pictures and music. But no weight of thought will prevent his tasting “joy’s excess” and the “savage freedom of the skies.” He will be caught up by the spirit of life until he echoes the poet’s faith that forward sets and his “dream of the blossom of good.”
  The inherent magic of the poet is one with the fundamental tenet of the philosopher. That which the philosopher counsels the poet realizes.  11
  He realizes it most of all by the cumulative effect of the poetry as a whole. It would be impossible to convey an impression of that effect in prose, but it may be indicated by some lines in which the poet says of Beauty and the Soul:
  “He gives her homeliness in desert air
And sovereignty in spaciousness. He leads
Through widening chambers of surprise to where
Throbs rapture near an end that aye recedes
Because his touch is infinite and lends
        A yonder to all ends.”
The effect of the poetry is to impart to the reader a sense of homeliness in desert air, of sovereignty in spaciousness. It has the power so rare in modern verse of compelling the mind to sink its fate, or enlarge its life, in the encircling radiance of universal being.
  It would be possible to go through the poems and show how they contribute severally to this effect. The purest lyrics, like ‘The Lark Ascending,’ with its marvelous bird-song, take you into the heart of things and make you one with nature. ‘The Day of the Daughter of Hades’ exalts life with ecstasy. It is a series of singing pictures, full of the enchantment of growing things, of the glory of light, of the splendor of storm, of the wonders wrought by the law of life and death. It is at once the most beautiful transformation of the Demeter legend into a modern poem and a perfect expression of the poet’s view of reality. ‘Love in the Valley’ weaves the delights of nature and young love into a pattern of exquisite harmonies. The sonnet-sequence, ‘Modern Love,’ is the tragedy of two souls caught in the net of a subtle selfishness. It reveals in trenchant and haunting phrases the dark depths of their suffering and the littleness of their problem in the face of nature’s great simplicity. ‘The Woods of Westermain’ is an alluring invitation to the courageous soul to enter into the secrets of nature in her multitudinous aspects and to learn joy and wisdom from every cone and seedling, from growth and decay and birth and death, and from “Change, the strongest son of Life.”
  “You of any well that springs
May unfold the heaven of things.”
  Meredith was always unfolding the secrets of the Woods of Westermain, from the ‘Pastorals’ and ‘The Southwest Wind in the Woodland’ of his earliest volume, through ‘Melampus’ and ‘Phœbus with Admetus’ and ‘The Spirit of Earth in Autumn’ and ‘The Thrush in February’ and the ‘Night of Frost in May,’ even down to the youthful song of his eightieth year:
  “My heart shoots into the breast of the bird
As it will for sheer love till the last long sigh.”
  Ballads, like ‘The Nuptials of Attila’; poems of character and incident, like ‘Earth and the Wedded Woman,’ ‘The Old Chartist,’ ‘A Ballad of Fair Ladies in Revolt,’ and ‘Juggling Jerry’; and delicate lyrics like ‘Autumn Even-song’ and ‘Wind on the Lyre’—all have their inspiration in a consciousness of the unity of life. Everywhere man and nature are held close together as nature holds them.
  “Earth was not Earth before her sons appeared
Nor Beauty Beauty ere young Love was born.”
  Some of the poems breathe less the spirit of life and expound more coldly the views of the philosopher. ‘Earth and Man’ is usually cited as the most complete expression of the philosophy. But ‘Earth and Man’ presents ideas in gaunt outlines. It does not compel us “to feel that which we perceive and to imagine that which we know.” It represents the earth as producing man her offspring and leaving him to contend with the elements for his existence. She gives him what he needs but not what he desires. She bids him crush his personal longings; and her only consolation is the maxim, “Live in thy offspring as I live in mine.” She has planted a dream within him and he will learn that she is spirit and that he may rest his faith in her. But these ideas are not illumined. They lack the impassioned expression, the instinctive joyfulness, and perception of beauty of many of his earlier poems and his later softened understanding of life.  16
  The sonnet, ‘Lucifer in Starlight,’ contains the sterner aspect of truth, but it does not leave the reader coldly speculating. It conveys a sense of what it proclaims, the reign of unalterable law. In ‘A Meditation under Stars’ the measureless immensity is made palpable in lines that contain the essence of the philosophy. The poet finds no answer to his questions of the stars but he is satisfied with the belief that
  “The fire is in them whereof we are born,
The music of their motion may be ours.”
  ‘The Test of Manhood,’ written nearly twenty years later than ‘Earth and Man,’ is a more comprehensive and more poetical formation of Meredith’s philosophy. It describes in impressive words the brave struggle of the race through crimson mire, like a seed toward light and air; and when, in his effort to balance rightly the powers of life, man is “dragged rearward, shamed, amazed,” the poet asks what hope there is and answers that with each recovery he acquires a surer sense of his march ahead. Something permanent is gained at every new advance.
  “A sun goes down in wasted fire: a sun
Resplendent shines, to faith refreshed compels.”
  As the philosopher’s reading of life is condensed into ‘The Test of Manhood,’ the poet’s enthusiasm for the beauty of nature is concentrated in the ‘Hymn to Color.’ The spirit that animates the poems and gives them unity assumes in the ‘Hymn to Color’ a form that bears witness to the poet’s constructive art. It is a form unique in modern verse. It stands apart like an ode of Pindar, in a high light, aloof from the beaten paths. Yet it is not elusive or fantastic. Its truth springs from the actual. It is as if the poet, in the maturity of his years, were standing on an eminence and looking down upon the world into whose secrets he had penetrated and, gazing through the web of phenomena, perceived the meaning of things more clearly because he stands apart; or as if he had taken into his hand the bare essentials of his structure of human life and molded them into a plastic form at once sensuous and austere. This beauty that Meredith exalts is “Color, the soul’s bridegroom,” the beauty of nature seen through love, the beauty of dawn that vanishes in an instant and yet lasts through eternity, that gives warmth to life and gentleness to death; and, more than all, it is the fount from which to drink delight of battle. It is the soul’s armor for the warfare of humanity in which he may go forth to triumph after triumph of the spirit until
  “He shall uplift his earth to meet her Lord,
Himself the attuning chord.”
  The ‘Hymn to Color,’ written at the age of sixty, holds in perfect balance the poetic ardors of Meredith’s earlier poetry and the intellectual abstractions that dominated more and more his later work. It belongs to a group of poems which, issuing as they do out of a period of great strain and suffering, when, as he said in one of the Letters, he “trod on spikes where once were flowers,” offer a certain corrective of his earlier philosophy. One discerns in them a deepened vision of spiritual reality, a fuller sense of the cost to the individual of the renunciation that underlies his doctrine of acceptance. The ungrudging willingness to be sword or block in the service of future generations is an ideal too austere for the maintenance of the joy the poet cherishes. The change is one of emphasis rather than of doctrine, but it has the effect of mellowing and humanizing the philosophy.  20
  The ‘Faith on Trial’ is the story of the white heat of the ordeal. It takes the reader into the heart of the beech-woods in early spring and into close intimacy with the poet. The heavens have broken upon him; and his own soul as well as his philosophy is put on trial. He sees the clearing vision in the folds of blossom on the wild white cherry-tree, but it is only when he has wrestled with himself and bowed in resignation and cried, “Smite, sacred Reality,” that his philosophy triumphs. The triumph of his philosophy is the triumph of his faith in the life of the spirit. He has applied his test to himself unflinchingly, and like Melampus and Juggling Jerry and Shakespeare and the Daughter of Hades he has looked upon earth deeper than flower and tree and has found
  “A soul beside our own to quicken, quell,
Irradiate, and through ruinous floods uplift.”
  In the ‘Odes in Contribution to the Song of French History’ Meredith applied his test of human worth to nations. Three of the four odes were written in the poet’s seventieth year, the ode to ‘France, 1870’ thirty years earlier. Taken together they so far exceed in magnitude any similar treatment of history in English poetry as to constitute a new type of lyric. They give evidence of a close reading of history and they uphold a conception of the responsibility of nations that forecasts the “new internationalism” of the present time.  22
  The whole series is a vivid analysis of the “radiance and the monstrous deeds” of France since the days that preceded the Revolution and a prophecy of her future task before the world. The character of Napoleon, which is drawn with master strokes, is presented in its contrast with the national ideal of “soaring France.” In all of Meredith’s characters, whether he shows them caught in the snares of sentimentalism or in the tragic net of circumstance or escaping free of both, the rock of disaster is the love of self. The root of evil in Napoleon’s nature is the same as that of the Egoist, and the high soul of France is triumphant after bitter conflict for the same reason that the devoted spirit of Vittoria issued clear out of strife. Joan of Arc is greater than Napoleon and will outlive him because she had tossed her heart into the furnace pit for the sake of France, while he, the arbiter of circumstance, had lured her by the promise of order in the state and held her as his slave. When France in the Revolution rose to wed Liberty she had learned to embrace mankind. She had listened to the song of Earth, and its harmonies had taught her the laws of life. They had taught her the meaning of accord, which is the only true liberty. The voice of liberty was “the voice of Earth’s very soul.” Whenever she was fresh from nature’s breast her only concern was to plant good seed for the young generations. At the end the poet calls upon her to “wash from her eyes the Napoleonic glare” forever, to forfeit the desire of glory for the sake of Europe where war is fratricide, and to know that humanity is on trial in her and it is her task to lead the nations through troubled seas.  23
  Meredith saw in France a resurgency of light that makes her the hope of the age. But it was chiefly for the sake of England that he was holding up in a new light his ideal of reason and sacrifice. With all of his rapier thrusts at the faults of England, she was to him “our England of the ancient fortitude and the future incarnation.” He identified the cause of his country with the cause of humanity. He devoted a number of poems to English national affairs, but they are unimportant compared with the criticism of English society that permeates his work both as novelist and poet.  24
  In one of the memorable conversations of his later years Meredith said of his work that its aim had been to make John Bull understand himself. He said too that although his verse was little read it was for his verse that he cared most. “Chiefly,” he said, “by that in my verse which emphasizes the unity of life, the soul that breathes through the universe, do I wish to be remembered. For the spiritual is the eternal.”  25
  These words express the twofold aspect of his achievement. Neither aspect is limited to his poetry and neither to his prose. One represents its extensive value and covers his treatment of character. The other is intensive and indicates the attitude toward nature which is the basis of his philosophy. To understand them both is to know that he has not bequeathed us a “Sphinx to tease the world again,” as an American poet said of him. It is to know that the most remarkable quality of his genius is its unity in versatility, its simplicity in complexity. He who overpowers us at times with the cudgels of his intellect or dazzles us with the finely chiseled facets of his wit has in reality a philosophy so simple that it resolves itself into the essence of religion. Humility and reverence are its watchwords. Its fruit is a simple faith based on reality, asking for no special indulgences in this world or another, learning of nature the way of progress through patient fidelities toward an ideal of brotherhood. Its guiding lights are reason and sanity. Its temper is the “rapture of the forward view.”  26
  Meredith’s poetry has a vital and sustaining power. The energetic faith that “through disaster sings” and the temper that is able
  “To see in mold the rose unfold,
The soul through blood and tears,”
is imparted not by precept and persuasion but by the inspiration of poetry. Meredith was not an experimenter in verse who succeeded once or twice by chance. He proved himself a singer of simple melodies and a master of complex metres; a bard of lyrical ecstasies and a dispassionate seeker after truth. He said of his poems that they were “flints, not flowers.” But they are both. They “strike the spark out of our human clay” and they reproduce that exalted mood when, for the reader as for the poet,
  “Dead seasons quicken in one petal-spot
Of color unforgot.”

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