George Meredith (1828-1909) was never a popular writer; more often than not he had to pay the printer. But for many years he was a presence, if not a persuasive force, in the literary scene. “Meredith is not the great name he was twenty or thirty years ago,” E.M. Forster told his Cambridge audience in 1927, “when much of the universe and all Cambridge trembled.” But he did not indicate who trembled or why.
In Notes of a Son and Brother (1914) Henry James recalled the excitement with which, during a summer in Bonn in 1860, he received the periodicals his father sent him as a relief from the student’s servitude to the German language. The Cornhill gave him Trollope and a sense of the density of “constituted English matters.” Once a Week gave him “the prime of George Meredith and Charles Reade and J.E. Millais and George du Maurier.” “I rioted,” James reports, “all that season, on the supreme German classics and on [Meredith’s] Evan Harrington, with Charles Reade’s A Good Fight, the assured little prelude to The Cloister and the Hearth, thrown in.” James recalled the time as offering happy conditions for authors and readers. The conditions of authorship, until about 1860 but not for long thereafter, were such that
a given product of the press might have a situation and an aspect, a considerability, so to speak, a circumscription and an aura; room to breathe and to show in, margin for the casting of its nets.
By the end of the century, spaciousness and leisure were gone. The tenderness with which James recalls reading Meredith’s novel is warmed by his sense that the book found, on its first appearance in the periodical, an audience, generously spirited if not numerous, and ready with the leisure it required. The occasion at large, as James says, was doubtless shrinking, readers were beginning to run short of time and patience. That the conditions were becoming more difficult is the theme of several of his stories, including “The Lesson of the Master,” “The Death of the Lion,” and “The Next Time,” where James presents the creative imagination in the increasingly crippled conditions it had to meet. The situation is presented from several points of vantage, but they all amount to waste, frustration, and the wretchedness of writing for people more and more unable to bring their minds to the occasion. In “The Next Time,” a novelist, Ray Limbert, tries year by year to write a popular novel but is prevented by the fineness of his imagination, until at last he yields to that beautiful imperative. “He had merely waked up one morning again,” as James says, “in the country of the blue and had stayed there with a good conscience and a great idea” until he died.
Meredith, like other Victorian novelists who tried for popularity and only got fame, turned to poetry for his country of the blue. But the comparison with Ray Limbert is only an approximation. Limbert was one of those people “who can’t be vulgar for trying,” and, thus disabled, can only be fine. Meredith’s values were not as strict. He could be vulgar, if not vulgar enough for the multitude, but when he was not vulgar it was not because he had to be fine. His country of the blue was a place in which he made free with language, but freedom was not, as it turned out, the best condition for his art; it made him garrulous, repetitive, self-indulgent. Bad as it was to have to please the populace, his art was not well served merely by electing to please itself.
James does not allow for such a disability among the predicaments he assigns to the artist; he confines his care to the highest type of the artist, and therefore to the imagination when it is the writer’s best self. I do not recall any story by him in which the artist is ruined not by the conditions at large but by his own fault, an impurity of motive. James touched upon the impurity in The Question of Our Speech (1905) when he referred to novelists in whom the lyrical or poetical element is dominant; the reference implied that this dominance marked a limitation in their art. Balzac stood for everything that was wonderfully unlyrical, unpoetic, terrestrial, and for that reason James thought of him as the highest expression of the nature and effort of the novelist. The lyrical element, according to James,
is considerable in that bright particular genius of our own day, George Meredith, who so strikes us as hitching winged horses to the chariot of his prose—steeds who prance and dance and caracole, who strain the traces, attempt to quit the ground, and yearn for the upper air.
The description does not take the fault out of Meredith’s style: it is with a critical and denigrating intention that James points to the lyrical element, which amounts to a defect because it aspires to a degree of purity foreign to the novel. Meredith’s winged horses testify to divided purposes in an artist who should have been dogged in his sense of the novel and its natural relation to stories, scenes, images of life, the states and feelings of others. You can hardly say anything worse about Meredith than that he set his style prancing and dancing to make his novels lyrical; or, nearly as bad, that he would not stay quiet or subdue his lyricism in favor of his subject.
There are many reasons for disapproving of Meredith’s art, and many for disliking it, before you start liking it despite yourself. To keep on disliking it you have to apply yourself to the task. T.S. Eliot thought it important to dislike Meredith’s writing, which he evidently regarded as corrupt. He disapproved of Meredith for thinking, or for engaging in what he regarded as thought; Eliot construed it as mere doodling with the tokens of the day—evolution, creation, the consanguinity of blood, brain, and spirit, caracoling with Whither and Whence. Eliot distrusted anyone who proposed to think for himself; he disliked Meredith, Hardy, Lawrence, and Yeats for the same reason, spiritual vanity. But the dislike goes further. Eliot had no time for thought unless it was a delicate organization of feeling, he despised the process of thought which issued in ideas, bright at their worst but vain in any case. To set up as a thinker, a sage, was to commit the first of the deadly sins, pride as damaging to Meredith’s soul as to Chesterton’s.
Most of Eliot’s references to Meredith are nasty, with that excuse. But Meredith gave Eliot one of his best lines. In “Lucifer in Starlight” Meredith has the Prince daunted by evidence of God’s power in the stars:
Around the ancient track marched, rank on rank,
The army of unalterable law.
In Eliot’s “Cousin Nancy” Miss Nancy Ellicott dances undaunted by New England’s stars, Arnold and Emerson:
Upon the glazen shelves kept watch
Matthew and Waldo, guardians of the faith,
The army of unalterable law.
The allusion does not damage Meredith’s poem, or mock the awe which is, in any case, Meredith’s tribute to Paradise Lost as much as to Isaiah.
Forster picked up Meredith’s phrase, probably from “Cousin Nancy,” and quoted it in his Cambridge lectures, Aspects of the Novel, soon after his famous account of Meredith’s novels. His criticism is commonly thought to have put an end to Meredith, but it merely stopped the trembling. The gist of the criticism is that Meredith’s philosophy is dead, his vision of Nature has too much Surrey in it, his seriousness is strident, his social values faked, his tailors are not genuine tailors. “What with the faking,” Forster says, “what with the preaching, which was never agreeable and is now said to be hollow, and what with the home counties posing as the universe, it is no wonder Meredith now lies in the trough.”
But Forster still wanted to claim that Meredith was in some sense a great novelist, not only on the strength of his plots but because he had the intelligence to let plot win when it conflicted with character. This helped Forster’s distinction between flat and round characters: when characters are sacrificed to plot, they are likely to be flat rather than round.
They remain in the reader’s mind as unalterable for the reason that they were not changed by circumstances; they moved through circumstances, which gives them in retrospect a comforting quality and preserves them when the book that produced them may decay.
The nearest example of a flat character is the Countess de Saldar in Evan Harrington (1860), whom the reader recalls for the formula surrounding her, “Proud as we are of dear papa, we must conceal his memory.” There is more to the Countess than that, but it is more of the same.
I have glanced at these aspects of the reception of Meredith mainly to indicate the depth of his trough. It cannot be expected that he will ever be popular: no change of taste will raise him from the trough. It is edifying that Phyllis B. Bartlett was willing to devote many years to a definitive edition of Meredith’s poems; and very sad to think that she died while the volumes were still in the press. On the whole the good poems are the ones we have always known to be good, though John Bayley recently pointed to a relatively obscure poem, “Aimée,” which is superb.
The edition is welcome for several reasons: it prints many unpublished poems, early drafts of published poems, material from two notebooks in the Beinecke Library at Yale, variant readings, changes from periodical to book publication. A few textual questions still arise. In “The Three Singers to Young Blood” I assume that “Dearer dying that all sweets” should read “Dearer dying than all sweets.” The last line of “Grace and Love” sounds odd. In “A Faith on Trial” I deduce that “fresh,” at line 544, should be “flesh.” Editorial notes are not lavish; a reader interested in sources, for instance, must do most of the work for himself. But the main reason why the edition is welcome is that, despite everything said against him, Meredith refuses to be uninteresting.
Generally, readers of Meredith seem to begin with The Egoist, Diana of the Crossways, or The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, but Evan Harrington is more engaging than any of these, for autobiographical reasons. Meredith, like Evan, was the son of a tailor, so he had to decide whether and how he should raise himself out of his class. Evan Harrington bears upon that question just as interestingly as his poem Modern Love bears upon the circumstances in which Meredith’s first wife ran off with her lover Henry Wallis. The relation between fact and the compensations of fiction is as moving in the novel as in the poem. It is reasonable to think that Meredith’s styles, in fiction and verse, were designed to enable a tailor’s son to move into superior life and talk to the best people, minor aristocrats, literary editors, and such respected figures as John Morley and G.M. Trevelyan.
Evan Harrington explores the issue of social climbing and transposes it into social comedy. The “papa” whose memory the Countess de Saldar wants to conceal was the leading tailor of Lymport; this must not be known if her brother Evan is to make his way in the grand world. The Countess shows how absurd you become if you go too far to repudiate your class, but the advantage of making her define the limit is that you can justify yourself so long as you stay on one side of it; some degree of repudiation is all right so long as you don’t make an ass of yourself. The comedy shows that Meredith is in control of the situation, and therefore in control of his own: stability comes to mean a judicious move out of your class—but you must not do it precipitately or hide your origin. Such moves are supposed to be fairly easy in English society if you’re prepared to be sensible about them.
The interesting thing is that Meredith, in his poems, tries to avoid the issue of class by appealing to attitudes and feelings deemed to be universal. His first poetic themes were general invocations to human fellowship, “sweet sympathies for human kind.” “The Wild Rose and the Snowdrop” speaks of each flower “fulfilling nature’s law,” mortality is made to seem natural and beautiful. The poem was published in 1851 when it was still easy, following Gray and Wordsworth, to derive a fairly sanguine moral from meditation on flowers, the seasons, the wind, and mountains. Perfection is identified with being, and removed from the qualification you would have to impose if you let being take its chances with time and death.
Meredith’s early poems locate their country of the blue outside time, as if only space were the true dimension and perfect things were perfect forever. In The Egoist, written in 1879, Meredith invokes the Spirit of Comedy to exert pressure upon the ways of the world: the spirit is not at all spiritual, but worldly, directed upon psychological habits and foibles which stay funny while you have them in your sights. There is a late poem which celebrates this Spirit of Comedy in much the same terms as in Meredith’s essay on comedy and his prelude to The Egoist. But in the early poems the genius of the place is the Spirit of Pity, which reconciles the perfection of being to the more pressing natural law of time and decay. The Spirit of Pity works upon daily events by abstracting and mystifying them, drawing them into a deeper blue, the color of promise and prophecy:
From the snowdrop learn;
Not in her pale life lives she,
But in her blushing prophecy.
Thus be thy hopes, living but to yearn
Upwards to the hidden copes;—Even within the urn Let them burn!
When this mood prevails, Pity becomes Romance, as in “Pictures of the Rhine,” where the spirit of Romance assures us that “there glows / Above dead things a thing that cannot die.” The magnificence to which the poems aspire is the endlessness of communication between man and nature, change and rebirth, time and eternity. Clearly the novels could not accommodate this chorale, even if Meredith’s lyricism let his narratives yearn for the upper air. The cosmic ambition of the poetry rises from claims made for the grandeur of human feeling, universal and classless: the scene at hand merely provokes this feeling and receives it.
It follows that Meredith’s descriptive poems are more conceptual than sensory, the language serves not the eye but the mind’s eye, the spirit’s yearning and exaltation. In “South-West Wind in the Woodland,” one of Meredith’s many additions to Shelley, the comparison of the wind to a horseman on a fiery steed is entirely conceptual, what is represented is “the union of our earth and skies / Renewed,” and the horseman is the emblem of that renewal:
He comes upon the neck of night,
Like one that leaps a fiery steed
Whose keen black haunches quivering shine
With eagerness and haste, that needs
No spur to make the dark leagues fly!
This is acceptable because it is sustained by a tradition of romantic figures which do much the same work, but Meredith is not always as secure either in his relation to a tradition or in the possession of his own feelings. When he writes badly, he makes us think he’s trying to hide something or get away with a crime. Often he didn’t know how much feeling the situation warranted; and he set up a flurry on all sides of it, as if he wanted to avoid being held accountable for its claims. In 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War, he wrote a long Ode to France in which the zeal of propaganda is absurd enough to please the Countess de Saldar:
She sees what long seed sown, ripened of late,
Bears this fierce crop; and she discerns her fate
From origin to agony, and on
As far as the wave washes long and wan
Off one disastrous impulse: for of waves
Our life is, and our deeds are pregnant graves
Blown rolling to the sunset from the dawn.
It’s hard to find a feasible rhyme for “waves” which won’t get you into Meredith’s trouble with “graves.” The pregnancy doesn’t help, especially when it grossly becomes the blown and rolling figures of the last line; getting graves to roll is an empty achievement. Throughout the poem, Meredith forgets the lesson he teaches, if only in theory, in his fiction, that if you can only express a feeling by exceeding every reasonable limit of it, the feeling itself is probably vain. Forster spoke of the bullying element in Meredith’s seriousness, but I detect more insecurity than bullying, as if his feeling and his mind were estranged. Even in the novels, where he knew so much, he never knew when to stop. Here is a passage from The Egoist, where Meredith is presenting the relation between the conceited Sir Willoughby Patterne and poor, adoring Laetitia:
A clear approach to felicity had long been the portion of Sir Willoughby Patterne in his relations with Laetitia Dale. She belonged to him; he was quite unshackled by her. She was everything that is good in a parasite, nothing that is bad. His dedicated critic she was, reviewing him with a favour equal to perfect efficiency in her office; and whatever the world might say of him, to her the happy gentleman could constantly turn for his refreshing balsamic bath. She flew to the soul in him, pleasingly arousing sensations of that inhabitant; and he allowed her the right to fly, in the manner of kings, as we have heard, consenting to the privileges acted on by cats. These may not address their Majesties, but they may stare; nor will it be contested that the attentive circular eyes of the humble domestic creatures are an embellishment to Royal pomp and grandeur, such truly as should one day gain for them an inweaving and figurement—in the place of bees, ermine tufts, and their various present decorations—upon the august great robes back-flowing and foaming over the gaspy pageboys.
A cat may look at a king, said Alice; but she did not encourage anyone to think that a cat may simultaneously fly and stare. If Meredith had stopped before the balsamic bath, he would have saved himself from the nonsense of souls, cats, and robes. He was always at risk when left entirely to his own judgment: he needed to be held, at least in some measure, to a situation he had not invented. He could permit himself to yearn for the upper air only if he had one foot on the ground of fact.
Meredith’s best poems are “Love in the Valley,” Modern Love, “Lucifer in Starlight,” “Dirge in Woods,” and now, thanks to Bayley’s attention, “Aimée.” On April 14, 1894, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote to Yeats, recalling “Love in the Valley,” presumably the revised version published in Poems and Lyrics of the Joy of Earth (1883). “Some ten years ago,” he wrote, “a spell was cast upon me by Meredith’s ‘Love in the Valley’; the stanzas beginning ‘When her mother tends her’ haunted me and made me drunk like wine; and I remember waking with them all the echoes of the hills about Hyères.” Here is the beginning of the passage:
When her mother tends her before the laughing mirror, Tying up her laces, looping up her hair,
Often she thinks, were this wild thing wedded, More love should I have, and much less care.
When her mother tends her before the lighted mirror, Loosening her laces, combing down her curls,
Often she thinks, were this wild thing wedded,
I should miss but one for many boys and girls.
Phyllis Bartlett said that Meredith got the trochaic meter of this poem from George Darley’s “Serenade of a Loyal Martyr” (1836). If so, Meredith distinguished his poem from its source by quickening the tempo and getting rid of the tearful note which makes Darley kin to, say, Tom Moore. In any event the metrical problem was demanding enough to curb Meredith’s facility; it served instead of quotidian fact. “Dirge in Woods” has been compared to Goethe’s “Über allen Gipfeln,” the second of the “Wandrers Nachtlieder,” and the resemblance is striking; it is not a translation but an imitation or an allusion. I quote it entire:
A wind sways the pines,
Not a breath of wild air;
Still as the mosses that glow
On the flooring and over the lines
Of the roots here and there.
The pine-tree drops its dead;
They are quiet, as under the sea.
Rushes life in a race,
As the clouds the clouds chase;
And we go,
And we drop like the fruits of the tree,
Without the last two lines the comparison between our lives and the pine cones would be lugubrious, mortality too obviously underlined. The last lines turn the poem to music, prevent it from dropping into itself completely. The feeling is stabilized. Goethe’s poem uses a quite different range of tones, sounding between “Ruh” and “Hauch“:
Über allen Gipfeln
In allen Wipfeln
Kaum einen Hauch;
Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde.
Warte nur balde
Ruhest du auch.
But Meredith’s poem survives the comparison by virtue of its poise: it is perfectly phrased and composed.
Modern Love is extraordinary. It was right and honest of Meredith to make the situation not a triangle but a quadrilateral. When his wife left him, he did not, so far as we know, take up with another woman, but the poem would have been cast too much in his favor if he had presented himself as the faithful, wounded husband. In the poem the other woman has the effect of restraining the husband’s self-pity and letting the poem extend its range of feeling: recrimination, mainly, but tenderness, too, as well as envy, rage, and a sense of the price he pays for his superiority.
John Hollander mentioned recently the kinship between Meredith and Robert Frost, with Emerson as a common possession. The point is well taken. There are several passages in Modern Love which sound like Frost’s grim narratives; including one passage that Frost often quoted:
‘Tis morning: but no morning can restore
What we have forfeited. I see no sin:
The wrong is mixed. In tragic life, God wot,
No villain need be! Passions spin the plot:
We are betrayed by what is false within.
Can’t you hear Frost reciting those lines and making them sound like a poem by Robert Frost, to whom all wrongs were mixed?
It would be a pleasure to go through Modern Love, quoting: it is one of the few poems of 800 lines (fifty nearsonnets, each sixteen lines) I’ve ever wished longer. Meredith’s best novel? Yes, in the sense that he never again wrote a story as forceful and as controlled. Reading many of his poems, I find myself thinking of other poets who would have done them better; Hardy, in many cases, sometimes A.E. Housman. Reading Modern Love, I think of other poets who wrote, or might have written, this sort of thing, but without doing it better: Tennyson, in one respect, Frost in another, E.A. Robinson yet another. Of the fifty sonnets, my anthology would include numbers 15, 17, 25, 34, 35, 36, 47, and if I had to choose only one, I’d take the last. Meredith was not always strong in his endings: like Donne, he often started best and wavered thereafter. But the last poem of Modern Love is masterly. The erring wife has killed herself:
Thus piteously Love closed what he begat:
The union of this ever-diverse pair!
These two were rapid falcons in a snare,
Condemned to do the flitting of the bat.
Lovers beneath the singing sky of May,
They wandered once; clear as the dew on flowers:
But they fed not on the advancing hours;
Their hearts held cravings for the buried day.
Then each applied to each that fatal knife,
Deep questioning, which probes to endless dole.
Ah, what a dusty answer gets the soul
When hot for certainties in this our life!—
In tragic hints here see what ever- more
Moves dark as yonder midnight ocean’s force,
Thundering like ramping hosts of warrior horse,
To throw that faint thin line upon the shore!
The problem here was to end the poem in terms which manage to accommodate everything that has happened, in gist and essence and not merely in summary.
There must be a final sense of the range of feeling through which the poem has passed, from colloquial moments (“a dusty answer”) and flashes of mockery (“hot for certainties”) to a decently grand note stopping well short of taking pleasure in its grandeur. The genre implied by the images (falcon, bat, dew, the surgeon’s knife, the ocean’s horses) must be Jacobean rather than Shakespearean, because the experience must find in magniloquence a certain relief but not the final relief of certainty. The warrior horse of the ocean enforce a sense of disproportion between the flurry of events and the values to be derived from them. We are certainly not to feel, as in Shakespearean tragedy, that the cost of the experience is somehow just. Jacobean melodrama provides the decorum the situation needs, if we can somehow take melodrama as a genre not at all shamed by a comparison with tragedy. Tragedy and melodrama are each adequate to the feelings in the case: only the feelings are different. Meredith speaks of “tragic hints,” presumably to disclaim any ambition to present his story as a complete tragic action. The gaps between one hint and the next, like the gaps between one sonnet and the next, point to the things in experience which we have to leap across or take for granted or feign or forget or ignore, if we are to sustain ourselves at all on the advancing hours.
Some readers, like Frost and Joyce, value Meredith for a phrase, a line or two, a stanza. In Ulysses the telegram Stephen Dedalus sends Mulligan is a sentence inaccurately recalled from The Ordeal of Richard Feverel:
The sentimentalist is he who would enjoy without incurring the immense debtorship for a thing done.
It speaks well for Meredith that he could be quoted as a rebuke against the mocking Mulligan. I imagine that Frost respected Meredith for the tone, independent, if not defiant, in which the poet may negotiate his experience. Robert Lowell’s reading of Meredith seems to have had a more urgent cause. When he was writing “The Mills of the Kavanaughs” he took from Modern Love (“The first marriage-torture, marriage-strife poem,” he called it) not only the sixteen-line stanza but the technique of diverting a personal situation into ostensibly objective form; holding back as much of the marital situation as he could, short of keeping it secret. Lowell added the dream of the rape of Persephone and many other bits of mythology, which extend and obscure the personal situation from which the poem began. These seem designed to estrange the poem from its origin rather than to claim for it some enormous universal bearing. But Meredith showed Lowell what might be done, and the Jacobean rhetoric which would give the occasion the decorum it needed.
February 22, 1979