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George Meredith by George Frederic Watts

George Meredith (1828-1909. Portrait by George Frederic Watts (1817-1904), 1893. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

George Meredith
Born February 12, 1828
Portsmouth, England
Died May 18, 1909 (aged 77)
Box Hill, Surrey, England
Nationality United Kingdom English

George Meredith OM (12 February 1828 - 18 May 1909) was an English poet and novelist.

Life Edit

OverviewEdit

Meredith was born at Portsmouth, son of Augustus Meredith (a naval outfitter, who afterwards went to Cape Town), and educated at Portsmouth and Neuwied in Germany. Owing to the neglect of a trustee, what means he had inherited were lost, and he was in his early days very poor. Articled to a lawyer in London, he had no taste for law, which he soon exchanged for journalism, and at 21 he was writing poetry for magazines, his 1st printed work, a poem on the Battle of Chillianwallah, appearing in Chambers's Journal. 2 years later he published Poems (1851), containing "Love in the Valley." Meantime he had been editing a small provincial newspaper, and in 1866 he was war correspondent in Italy for the Morning Post, and he also acted for many years as literary adviser to Chapman and Hall. By this time, however, he had produced several of his novels. In poetry he had produced Modern Love and Poems of the English Roadside (1862), generally regarded as his best poetical work. These were followed by the novels The Adventures of Harry Richmond (1871), Beauchamp's Career (1875), said to be the author's favorite, The Egoist (1879), which marks the beginning of a change in style characterised by an even greater fastidiousness in the choice of words, phrases, and condensation of thought than its predecessors, The Tragic Comedians (1880), and Diana of the Crossways, the 1st of the author's novels to attain anything approaching general popularity. The same period yielded in poetry, Poems and Lyrics of the Joy of Earth (1883), Ballads and Poems of Tragic Life (1887), and A Reading of Earth (1888). His later novels exhibit a tendency to accentuate those qualities of style which denied general popularity to all of Meredith's works, and they did little to add to his reputation. The contemporary poems include "The Empty Purse"and "Jump to Glory Jane" (1892). In 1905 he received the Order of Merit, and he died on May 19, 1909. He was twice married, his 1st wife (died 1860) being a daughtr of Thomas Love Peacock. This union did not prove in all respects happy. His 2nd wife was Miss Vulliamy (died 1885). In his earlier life he was vigorous and athletic, and a great walker; latterly he lost all power of locomotion.[1]

Though the writings of Meredith never were and probably never will be generally popular, his genius was, from the very 1st, recognised by the best judges. All through he wrote for the reader who brought something of mind, thought, and attention, not for him who read merely to be amused without trouble; and it is therefore futile to attribute failure to him because he did not achieve what he did not aim at. Nevertheless, the long delay in receiving even the kind of recognition which he sought was a disappointment to him. Few writers have striven to charge sentences and even words so heavily with meaning, or to attain so great a degree of condensation, with page the result that links in the chain of thought are not seldom omitted and left for the careful reader to supply. There is also a tendency to adopt unusual words and forms of expression where plainness and simplicity would have served as well, and these features taken together give reason for the charges of obscurity and affectation so often made. Moreover, the discussion of motive and feeling is often out of proportion to the narrative of the events and circumstances to which they stand related. But to compensate us for these defects he offers humor (often, indeed, whimsical, but keen and sparkling), close observation of and exquisite feeling for nature, a marvellous power of word-painting, the most delicate and penetrating analysis of character, and an invincible optimism which, while not blind to the darker aspects of life, triumphs over the depression which they might induce in a weaker nature. In matters of faith and dogma his standpoint was distinctly negative.[1]

YouthEdit

Meredith was born at 73 High Street, Portsmouth (the Lymport of his novel Evan Harrington).[2] His 1st 10 or 12 years were spent at Portsmouth, where he enjoyed the hospitality of his aunts, their friends and relatives. He went as a day boy to St. Paul's church school, Southsea; afterwards the trustees of his mother's small estate put him to a boarding school in the town, his chief recollections of which centred round the dreariness of the Sunday services and the reading of the Arabian Nights.[3]

Early in 1843 he was sent to the Moravian School at Neuwied on the Rhine, 10 miles north-west of Coblentz. He remained there until the close of 1844, when he returned home to be articled to a solicitor in London. He began to learn in earnest, though never very systematically, at Neuwied, and his ideas were much enlarged, but he was mainly self-educated. He studied Goethe and Richter. His sympathy with the German point of view in Farina, Harry Richmond, The Tragic Comedians, One of our Conquerors, and elsewhere is sometimes attributed to his sojourn upon the Rhine when he was 15; but his stay at Neuwied was brief and his allusions to it in later life were very limited and inconclusive. He read German with perfect ease, but spoke it indifferently, with less ease, indeed, than he spoke French, which he wrote with facility.[3]

In 1845 he was articled to Richard Stephen Charnock of 10 Godliman Street, lawyer and antiquary, who is thought to have combined certain of the traita of the 2 uncles in Richard Feveral. Charnock was a Bohemian and a "character" who, in 1847-8, when he became accessible to Meredith, was 1 of the "old boys" of the Arundel Club. Meredith's income during this period was very small and irregular, and he frequently lived on a single bowl of porridge a day. His recreation was walking out into Surrey.[4]

Early writing and marriageEdit

His patrimony had dwindled, and seeing no definite prospect in the law he turned instinctively to journalism. At or through the Arundel Club he obtained introductions to R.H. Home, Lord John Manners, and Charles Dickens, through whom he hoped to obtain work on the Standard, Household Words, and other papers. 24 of his earliest poems were contributed to Household Words, while he acted as "writing master" to a small circle of amateurs who sent other poems to the same periodical.[4]

In 1849 he began sending contributions, including a piece on Kossuth, to Chambers's Journal, and on 7 July a poem by him on "Chillianwallah" was printed there. He had already made the acquaintance of 'Ned' [Edward] Gryffydh, son of Thomas Love Peacock; had walked with him to Brighton, and afterwards met, at his rooms near the British Museum, his attractive if flighty sister, Mary Ellen, who had married, in Jan. 1844, Lieutenant Edward Nicolls (commander of H.M.S. Dwarf) and was left a widow within 4 months of the marriage.[4]

Extraordinarily gifted, young, poor, ambitious, Meredith was admitted into the intimacy of the Peacock circle. He played cricket with Mrs. Nicolls's little daughter, Edith, and took his place among Mrs. Nicolls's many admirers. In successive months he, young Peacock, Mrs. Nicolls, Chamock, and other friends, edited the manuscript periodical The Monthly Observer, which ran from March 1848 to July 1849.[4]

Mrs. Nicolls was at least 7 years older than Meredith, but they were married at St. George's, Hanover Square, in August 1848. They paid visits to Felixstowe and elsewhere, and then, depending chiefly upon a small Portsmouth legacy, spent a year or more abroad before taking up their residence at Weybridge. There they boarded at The Limes, the house of Mrs. Macirone, a highly cultured woman, where Meredith met among others, Sir Alexander Doff Gordon, his accomplished wife (Lucy), Eyre Crowe, Tom Taylor, and Samuel Lucas of The Times, whose "Mornings of the Recess" formed the literary causerie most valued by men of letters. 2 miles across the ferry stood Peacock's house at Lower Halliford.[4]

1850sEdit

Meredith's youthful admiration for Peacock bore fruit in a genuine though not very close influence. While still at Weybridge Meredith dedicated his Poems of 1851 to "Thomas Love Peacock, Esq. . . . with the profound admiration and affectionate respect of his son-in-law, Weybridge, May 1851." In all probability Peacock had assisted in the publication of the volume, which was issued by Peacock's friends, J.W. Parker & Son of West Strand, and which cost the poor author about £60 (a single copy has since fetched as much as £30).[4]

Parker & Son also published Fraser's Magazine, to the pages of which Peacock's daughter and son-in-law were early contributors. An "Essay on Gastronomy and Civilisation" (December 1851) is signed M[ary] M[eredith]; it was subsequently expanded into a little book. 2 among George Meredith's earnest identified single poems, "Invitation to the Country" and "Sweet of the Year," also appeared in Fraser (Aug. 1851, June 1852).[4]

While still at Weybridge, with "duns knocking at the door," Meredith began working at The Shaving of Shagpat, much of it being read aloud to his little step-daughter, and many passages declaimed to Janet Duff Gordon, his literary Egeria of a few years later. In 1853 Peacock invited Meredith and his wife, whose struggle with poverty threatened to overwhelm them, to live in his house. There Arthur Gryffydh (1853-90), the only child of the union, was born on 11 June 1853. Soon after Peacock installed the young family in a cottage (still standing) at Lower Halliford.[4]

"No sun warmed my roof-tree," Meredith was said to have exclaimed in later years; "the marriage was a blunder." The course of estrangement, though not its cause, is traced implicitly in Modern Love. Outwardly relations were amicable, and visits were paid to the FitzGeralds (nephews of the author of Omar) at Seaford, and were returned. In 1858 Mrs. Meredith went off to Capri with the artist Henry Wallis, eventually returning to Weybridge, where she died at Grotto Cottage in 1861. Meredith claimed his son, and for a time they lived together in London, nobody knows where, or upon what resources. Ned Peacock and his son, however, were still occasional visitors, as they continued to be for at least another ten years.[4]

Although Meredith often complained later of the lack of encouragement extended to his early efforts, his first volume, Poems, won much praise. W.M. Rossetti, then 22 years old, described it as Keatsian in the Critic (15 Nov.), and Charles Kingsley in Fraser (Dec. 1851) put the "Love Poems" above Herrick's. Tennyson also wrote that he found the verse of "Love in the Valley" very sweet upon his lips.[4]

Meredith's second venture, The Shaving of Shagpat : An Arabian entertainment, followed in 1855. George Eliot in The Leader (5 January 1856) described it as a work of genius — poetical genius, and as "an apple tree among the trees of the wood." Farina: A legend of Cologne, which followed the Arab tale in 1857, is a rather slighter burlesque or ironical sketch, something in the vein of Peacock, aimed at the mediæval and romantic tale. George Eliot praised it, though without very much emphasis, in the Westminster Review, October 1857.[4]

All 3 volumes had been easel-pieces from which the author could hardly with reason expect pecuniary return, and from 1856, when Meredith severed his connection with Halliford, down to the close of 1858, we can only conjecture his means of support. Extremely poor, he almost despaired of literature while doing a certain amount of hackwork and supplementing his slender income by occasional journalism. He may possibly have received some assistance from his father's sisters.[4]

His home was temporarily in London. There at 8 Hobury Street, Chelsea, The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, commenced at The Limes, was concluded with comparative rapidity, during 1858-1859. Published in 1859, it was reviewed with enthusiasm in Cope's Tobacco Plant by James Thomson in May, and favourably by the Athenæum on 9 July 1859; on 14 October The Times devoted 3 columns to it. Mudie, it seems, took 300 copies, but then lost nerve owing to suspicion of "low ethical tone" formulated by the Spectator.[4] 19 years would elapse before a second edition was called for.[5]

Meredith realized that he could not look to books for a living. He thereupon definitely accepted regular work for the Ipswich Journal (now the East Anglian Daily Times). The offer was due to connections formed in his early London days through Charnock with Foakes, proprietor of the Ipswich Journal,' and other newspaper men, among whom was Algernon Borthwick. Every Thursday or Friday he posted a leading article (occasionally 2, for the 2nd of which he was expressly paid) and 2 columns of news-notes, for which he received approximately £200 per annum. He spoke with feeling later of the Egyptian bondage of (tory) journalism; but the leaders and notes were admirably done.[5]

Indirectly Richard Feverel did Meredith service, for it brought him into nearer contact with Swinburne, Richard Monckton Milnes, and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. At a meeting with Swinburne during the summer of 1859 in the Isle of Wight, Swinburne at 1 sitting "composed before our eyes his poem 'Laus Veneris'," and in a letter to the Spectator of 7 June 1862 Swinburne protested with chivalrous eloquence against the freezing reception accorded to Modern Love in the Spectator.[5]

In 1859-1860 Meredith had returned to the sand and pines and river that he loved, and it was while he was lodging in High Street, Esher, that Janet Duff Gordon stumbled accidentally upon him and his son Arthur. The Duff Gordons' proximity, between Esher and Oxshott, determined his settlement at Copsham in a fit dwelling for a poet, on a breezy common, close to the humming pine woods, behind Claremont and the Black Pool — a small lake surrounded by tall dark trees and frequented by a stately heron (Janet Ross, Early Days Recalled, 1891). At the Duff Gordons, he was introduced to notable people, such as Mrs. Norton, Kinglake Millais, Sir F.B. Head, and G.F. Watts; and at Copeham he oontinued to live for 6 years.[5]

An epicure of aristocratic type in his zest for choice living and varied society, he was afflicted with a weak stomach and tormented by a flatulence which he sought to exorcise by many-sided activity; thence came conference with and observation of all sorts and conditions of men. He scoured the countryside by night and day with a hawk's eye for uncommon types; of sportsmen, cricketeers, prize-fighters, boxers, race meetings, and alehouse assemblies he was ever, as his books attest, a connoisseur.[5]

During the 2nd half of 1859 he contributed 6 poems to successive numbers of Once a Week, including "The Last Words of Juggling Jerry" (3 September), and on 11 February 1860, besides submitting 1 or 2 short stories, traces of which have since disappeared, he began in the same periodical the serial publication of Evan Harrington; or, He would be a Gentleman, which was illustrated by Charles Keene. Keene, Sandys, Millais, and Rossetti were among the illustrators of 'Once a Week,' and with these Meredith became familiar.[5]

Evan Harrington was much more remunerative than its predecessor, and was pirated in America before the year was out. But again it proved a disappointment. The Saturday Review, which had condemned Richard Feverel for its affectations, wearisome word-painting, and immorality, described Evan Barrington as a surprisingly good novel; the other papers either ignored it or damned it with vapid mouthings.[5]

1860sEdit

`The next 3 years (1861-4) were among the busiest in Meredith's life, although his novel-writing was temporarily interrupted. He wrote much poetry, publishing in 1862 an autobiographical commentary (now in the mood of Hamlet, now in that of Leontes) upon his 1st love and his disillusion in Modern Love and Poems of the English Roadside. The book included "Juggling Jerry," "The Old Chartist," and other poems reprinted from Once a Week, besides 12 new poems.[6]

He became a contributor to the Morning Post, and in 1862 began reading for the publishers Chapman & Hall, in addition to his editorial contributions to the Ipswich Journal.' His connection with Chapman & Hall was soon close. Batches of manuscripts were forwarded periodically, and on blank enclosed slips headed by the titles, Meredith inscribed crisp, sharp, and epigrammatic criticism. Once a week or thereabouts he interviewed authors in the firm's old office, 193 Piccadilly.[6]

By rejecting East Lynne it has been estimated that he lost the firm a round sum of money. He also declined works by Hugh Conway, Mrs. Lynn Linton, Mr. Baring Gould, Herman Merivale, Cuthbert Bede, Stepniak's Underground Russia, The Heavenly Twins, and Some Emotions and a Moral. Samuel Butler's Erewhon he dismissed with a "Will not do," and Shaw's Immaturity with a "No." On the other hand he encouraged William Blac, Sir Edwin Arnold, Thomas Hardy, Olive Schreiner, and George Gissing. Meredith was deeply interested in the work of his younger contemporaries; Gissing and Thomas Hardy confessed no small obligation to his encouragement. But he often vacillated in his opinions of both current and past literature.[6]

GEorge Meredith and son

George Meredith and son, Arthur; from The Letters of George Meredith, 1912. Courtesy Wellcome Images.

Meredith was now earning probably over £500 a year; the death of his wife in 1861 and of her mother-in-law, Lady Nicolls, within 2 years, meant the ultimate as well as the actual pecuniary responsibility for his son Arthur, to whom he had become perilously devoted. He was in Tirol and Italy with his son during the summer of 1861.[6]

Arthur was first sent in October 1862 to Norwich grammar school under Dr. Jessopp, who had become a close friend, and then to a Pestalozzi school near Berne (recommended by G.H. Lewes, suggestive in some ways of Weyburn's school in 'Lord Ormont'), and eventually to Stuttgart. A post was afterwards obtained for him in the De Koninck's firm at Havre and later (through Benecke) in a warehouse at Lille. He was provided for subsequently by a legacy from a great-aunt, and resided at Bergamo and Salo on Lake Guarda; he wrote some agreeable travel sketches (1, of a raft journey from Bale to Rotterdam, in Macmillan's Magazine). Meredith sent him many stimulating, sympathetic, and profoundly touching letters, rarely of reproof, more often of reconciliation and bracing exhortation.[6]

Spoiled in childhood, of a jealous, self-conscious temperament, suspicious, not without just cause, of a certain lack of consideration on the part of his father, Arthur became, in spite of welcome offered, an incompatible figure at his father's home; his health was ever declining, and he died at Woking at the house of his half-sister, Mrs. Clarke (Edith Nicolls).[6]

George Meredith was still in the early '60s living economically at Copsham, but his friendships were extending and his visitors were numerous. His intimate circle included William Hardman (later of the 'Morning Post'), Mr. H.M. Hyndman, Frederick Jameson, Frederic Chapman the publisher, J.A. Cotter Morison, Rossetti, Swinburne (who interchanged satires and squibs with him), William Tinsley, Lionel Robinson, and Frederic Maxse. He was known among them as "Robin," Hardman as "Friar Tuck," and Mr. Robinson as 'Poco.'[7]

To Frederick Augustus Maxse, a very close associate, he dedicated By the Rosanna (Oct. 1861), as well as Modern Love (1862); with him he sailed on a stormy voyage to Cherbourg in The Grebe, a cutter yacht, in 1858, and he took a brief walking tour round Godalming in July 1861; In May 1862 Meredith and Hardman tramped round Mickleham and Dorking. Entertainment was drawn from the associations of Burford Bridge (Keats), The Rookery (Malthus), and Albury (Tupper), and many aphorisms were read by "Robin" from his note-books. Soon after this Meredith paid a visit to his friend Hyndman at Trinity College, Cambridge, and made acquaintance with university life for the first time.[7]

He spent Christmas 1862 with the Hardmans. In the early summer of 1863 he was at Seaford with Bumand, Hjudman, and the FitzGeralds, and Hyndman relates how, after much fine open talk, a good deal of it monologue, upon the beach, Bumand exclaimed "Damn you, George, why don't you write as you talk?" In August, Meredith and Hyndman were at Paris together, reading Renan's Vie de Jesus, and visiting Vefour's, Versailles, Sevres, and admiring the ædileship of Napoleon III. On 23 August Meredith left to join his friend Mr. Lionel Robinson at Grenoble, trudging thence like a packman through Dauphiné and the Graian Alps. He went abroad upon several occasions with Mr. Robinson, and began to store up material for his marvellous Alpine effects, making a study of passes and visiting more than once the villa of friends on Lake Como.[7]

In January and again in October 1863 he went on a cruise in Cotter Morison's yacht, Irene, on the 2nd occasion to the Channel Islands. The acquaintance with Morison was begun some 3 years earlier, when Morison was fresh from Oxford, where he had formed an intimacy with John Morley. In 1862 Morison sought Meredith's counsel in correcting the proofs of his Life of St. Bernard (Meredith always called him "St. Bernard" afterwards). Meredith denounced him for writing in Carlylese, "a wind-in-the-orchard style," and Morison was eventually induced to re-write and simplify much of it.[7]

Through Morison, Meredith grew rapidly more intimate with John Morley, and this friendship proved of material importance to him. He meanwhile resisted pressing invitations to leave Copsham to settle in London with Rossetti and Swinburne at their "phalanstery," the Queen's House (Tudor House), Cheyne Walk, Chelsea. Meredith went so far as to take a room in their house in 1861-1862. But Rossetti's Bohemianisms were distasteful to him; he seldom went to the house, and after 3 months paid no more rent. About this time he joined the Garrick Club (elected 23 April 1864, resigned 1899), where he was soon to meet Frederick Greenwood and others, who admired and helloed him much.[7]

In 1863, while still at Copsham, Meredith reconcentrated upon fiction, and submitted to the gradual intensification of labour which the completion of a novel always involved. In April 1864 he brought out Emilia in England (afterwards rechristened Sandra Belloni), the only story which he furnished with a sequel (in Vittoria, 1866). The reception of the book was, however, meagre.[7]

In September 1864 Meredith married Marie, fourth daughter of Justin Vulliamy (diad 1870), of the Old Houae, Mickleham; her mother Elizabeth Boll came of an old Cheshire family. Meredith got to know the Vulhamys through his friend N.E.S.A. Hamilton of the British Museum, and first met his future wife in Norfolk After a few weeks at Pear Tree Cottage, Bursledon, Meredith and his wife took lodgings and then a lease of Kingston Lodge, Norbiton, almost opposite the gates of Norbiton Hall, where Hardman resided. Meredith was at the moment full of schemes, "laying traps for money." He had hopes of conducting a review, writing rambling remarks, an autobiography. He settled down in a chastened frame of mind to complete Rhoda Fleming, but in the meantime he had improved has position with Chapman & Hall.[8]

His enthusiasm for Norbiton, where his son, William Maxse, was born on 26 July 1865, cooled down as buildings began to close in his horizon, and at the end of 1867 he moved to Flint Cottage, facing Box Hill, near Burford Bridge, in Mickleham. There his opportunities of seeing and knowing people who were useful to him as types were ever enlarging. He became attached to the literary associations of the place, its connections with Keats, with Jane Austen, with the French exiles of Juniper Hall, and with the Bumeys. He knew mid-Surrey extraordinarily well, and, devoted to outdoor life, he acquired a detailed and intimate knowledge of the natural history of the countryside. He is probably the closest observer of nature among English novelists.[8]

At the top of the sloping garden, about 4 minutes' walk from Flint Cottage, he put up in 1875-1876 a Norwegian chalet where, in 1 of the 2 rooms, he slung his "hammock-cot," and could live alone with his characters for days together. On the terrace in front of the chalet, whence he descended to meals, he was often to be heard carrying on dialogues with his characters and singing with unrestrained voice. Whimsical and sometimes Rabelaisian fabrications accompanied the process of quickening the blood by a spin (a favourite word with him) over Surrey hills. There he wrote his master-works, Beauchamp's Career and The Egoist, and welcomed his friends, often reading aloud to them in magnificent, recitative, unpublished prose or verse.[8]

After his 2nd marriage Meredith mainly devoted himself to Vittoria, the sequel of Emilia, Marie, his 'capital wife' and 'help-meet,' copying the chapters. G.H. Lewes, editor of the Fortnightly, eventually offered 250l. for the serial rights, and 'Vittoria' in an abbreviated form ran through that Review (January-December 1865). Meanwhile he completed a new novel, Rhoda Fleming. It was adequately reviewed on 18 Oct. 1865 in the Morning Post, with whose proprietor Borthwick his relations were cordial, and hardly anywhere else.[8]

In May 1866 Meredith was sent out by the Morning Post as special correspondent with the Italian forces then in the last phase of the war with Austria. He stayed at the Hotel Cavour in Milan, and afterwards at the Hotel Vittoria in Venice, awaiting events and forgathering with the other special correspondents at the Cafe Florian. Hyndman was there, and Charles Brackenbury, and G.A. Sala, an antipathetic figure, with whom Meredith was nearly drawn into a serious quarrel. He saw something of the inconclusive operations in Italy and addressed 13 interesting and vivid letters in plain prose to the paper, the first dated Ferrara, 22 June 1866, and the last Marseilles, 24 July 1866. (privately printed as Correspondence from the Seat of War in Italy).[9]

For a time Meredith had some hopes of becoming correspondent for The Times in Italy, Paris, or elsewhere. As he went home over the Stelvio pass and then by way of Vienna, where he met Leslie Stephen for the first time, he collected fresh material for the revision and expansion of his Fortnightly novel, Vittoria (or Emilia in Italy), which was published on his return to England in 1866.[9]

In 1867 John Morley became editor of the Fortnightly Review, and Meredith's contributions to it, which included some reviews of new books, grew frequent. During part of 1867–1868 Morley was absent in America and Meredith was left in charge of the magazine. In 1868 Meredith made his single incursion into active politics by assisting his friend Maxse, who was standing as radical candidate for Southampton. His powers were now at their ripest, and during 1869 and 1870 he was engaged on the great first-person romance of The Adventures of Harry Richmond. Serial publication in the Cornhill was arranged on liberal terms (£500 for copyright and £100 on sale of 500 copies), and the first part appeared in September 1870. There were 15 illustrations by Du Maurier.[9]

1870sEdit

Meanwhile Meredith, whose sympathy with France was increasing in strength, though he admitted now that the war was chargeable on France and its emperor, wrote for the Fortnightly (Jan. 1871) a rather cryptic defensive poem — "France, 1870," which formed the nucleus of his Odes in Contribution to the Song of French History. French history and memoir (especially Napoleonic) and the fruitage of European travel remained his favourite pastime to the end. In 1872 his friend Leslie Stephen welcomed to the Cornhill his "Song of Theodolinda."[9]

Meredith spent short holiday seasons more than once in the early 1870's in the neighbourhood of Dreux at Nonancourt on the Avre, where his wife's brothers owned wool-spinning mills. His succeeding book, Beauchamp's Career, is enriched by local colour derived from observations made during this Norman sojourn as well as at the Café Florian in 1866.[9]

Meredith was at this time acquiring new friends, among whom were Moncure Conway, Robert Louis Stevenson, Russell Lowell, and William Ernest Henley; his books were becoming known among the younger generation at Oxford; he was seen in London, though never a familiar figure there, at picture exhibitions or concerts, or dining at Krehl's in Hanover Square. He was preparing to drop his work for the Ipswich paper, done as he said with his toes to leave room for serener operations above, but was still dependent pecuniarily to a considerable extent upon journalism and reading for Chapman & Hall.[9]

He managed to combine with his weekly expedition to London a reading engagement to Miss Wood, "the great lady of Eltham," a great-aunt of Sir Evelyn Wood, a woman of marked intelligence, with whom he often discussed contemporary topics. This brought in an appreciable addition to his income. After the reading he returned to the Garrick to dine and then by the 8.40 train from London Bridge to Box Hill.[9]

The cool reception accorded to his "favourite child," Beauchamp's Career (despite a highly favourable notice by Traill in the Pall Mall), chilled him. Mark Pattison spoke of his name on a book as a label to novel-readers, warning them not to touch. 2 short stories in the New Quarterly Magazine — "The House on the Beach" (January 1877) and 'The Case of General Ople and Lady Camper," a little masterpiece (July 1877) — added range to his repute.[9]

In a lecture on "The Idea of Comedy and the Uses of the Comic Spirit," which Meredith delivered at the London Institution on 1 February 1877, he defined 1 of his dominant conceptions of life — the destined triumph of comedy in its tireless conflict with sentimentalism. The lecture was printed with amendments in the New Quarterly Magazine and not separately until 1897. Meredith continued to harp upon the function of the Comic Spirit, notably in the prelude to The Egoist, in the Ode to the Comic Spirit, and in The Two Masks.[9]

After the lecture a new period in Meredith's career as a novelist opened. For a quarter of a century he had been producing novels of the 1st rank. Yet his best work was still addressed to empty benches. Henceforth he abandoned any idea of a compromise with his readers. He determined to write in his own way, upon his own themes uninterruptedly.[10]

The Egoist (3 vols. 1879) or "Sir Willoughby Patterne, The Egoist," as it was first called when it began to run through the Glasgow Weekly Herald in June 1879, was hastily written in 5 months, by night as well as by day, to the injury of health. It was the first among Meredith's novels to provoke a crossfire of criticism. Henley reviewed it 3 (or 4) times, frankly as regarded the ingrained peculiarities of the style, but with an almost reverential admiration for its analytic power. Mr. William Watson attacked (in National Review, October 1889) the plethoric mentality of the writer, his fantastic foppery of expression, oracular air of superiority, and sham profundity.[10]

The controversy did the author no harm. The 3 volumes of 1879 were followed by a 2nd, 1-volume edition in 1880. This fact, the reprints of Shagpat and Feverel and Love in the Valley, the appearance of Feverel and Beauchamp's Career in Tauchnitz editions, and the reproduction of several of the novels in America, all began to point to a rediscovery on the part of the public of the Meredith revealed by The Times in 1869 and then obscured for 20 years.[10]

Meredith next published "The Tale of Chloe," a short story of a singular and grievous pathos, in the New Quarterly Magazine (July 1879), and then began sketching in the first instance from newspaper reports, and from Meine Beziehungen zu Ferdinand Lassalle by Hélène von Racowitza (Breslau, 1879), a contemporary romance, the love story and death in a duel of Ferdinand Lassalle, the German socialist. Meredith called his dramatic recital The Tragic Comedians, and enriched it with some of his most brilliant and original epigrams. It first appeared in the Fortnightly(October 1880 - February 1881), and was enlarged for separate publication (by Kegan Paul) in December 1880. The book attracted attention, was taken over by Chapman & Hall in 1881, and was reprinted in America and in the Tauchnitz collection.[10]

1880sEdit

In 1879 he had by hard exertion carved out a good holiday, spent partly in Patterdale with Mr. John Morley, and partly in Dauphine and Normandy. But premonitions of advancing ill-health, a growing sense of neglect, and the necessities of unremitting labour saddened him. For a time he was estranged from his son Arthur, but news of Arthur's spitting blood in June 1881 awoke the old tenderness, and next year he made a Mediterranean excursion with him.[10]

Meanwhile the enthusiastic devotion of literary friends was increasing. In 1882 he joined Leslie Stephen's society of Sunday Tramps, which more than once made Box Hill a base for the ascent of Leith Hill. In 1882 the Stevensons visited him. In 1883 he met Sir Charles Dilke and Prof. R.C. Jebb for the first time. He was cheered by Browning's appreciation of his verse.[10]

In May 1883 he brought out his most notable poetic volume, Poems and Lyrics of the Joy of Earth, no testimony to his wisdom, he describes it.[10]

In 1884—18855 there ran through the Fortnightly Review chapters i.-xxvi. of Diana of the Crossways (so named after a beautiful old Surrey farm house, pictured in the memorial edition). The book (with a dedication to a Sunday Tramp friend, Sir Frederick Pollock) appeared in 1885, and 3 editions were exhausted during the year. At length the general public was captured. Diana was clearly modelled upon the brilliant Caroline Sheridan, the Hon. Mrs. Norton, whom he had met at the Duff Gordons before 1860, and who was long a favourite theme of society gossip. (Meredith was subsequently persuaded by the Dufferins to repudiate the popular identification of Mrs. Norton's career with that of his heroine).

The book was blessed by Henley in the Athenæum and the heroine celebrated as of the breed of Shakespeare and of Moliere. A parody appeared among Mr. Punch's Prize Novels, and society grew alive to the peculiar flash of the Meredithian epigram. Invitations from society and societies inundated him, and Box Hill became a place of pilgrimage. Collective editions of his works were arranged and proposals were made to dramatise Evan Harrington and The Egoist.[11]

The belated success coincided tragically with the insidious development of a spinal complaint and with the serious and soon hopeless malady of his wife. 2 operations proved ineffectual, and she died on 17 September 1885. Despite ebullitions of temper, which appeared at times almost uncontrollable, Meredith was devotedly attached to 1 who protected him not only from himself but also from adroit strangers, concerning whose claims upon his attention he was often far too sanguine. It was to the poetic mood that his mind reverted during this period of privation and suffering. The years 1887-18888 yielded 2 of his most characteristic volumes of verse, Ballads and Poems of Tragic Life and A Reading of Earth — the last containing "The South-Wester," "The Thrush in February," "Nature and Life," "Dirge in Woods," and above all the "Hymn to Colour," with the touching epitaph "M.M." The Nature Poems were collected with beautiful drawings by W. Hyde, 1898.[11]

His temper mellowed greatly during his last 20 years, and he became in a sense far more approachable. In 1887 he spent a month at St. Ives in Cornwall to be near his friends the Leslie Stephens. In July 1888 he dined at the Blue Posts tavern in Bond Street with (Lord) Haldane and Mr. Asquith, sitting between Mr. A. J. Balfour and Mr. John Morley. In August 1888 he paid a visit to his younger son William, who was interested in an eleotrical engineering firm with business in South Wales). In 1889 he was at Browning's funeral The Ring and the Book and Tennyson's Lucretius were among his favourite poems. Similarity of temperament with his elder son Arthur precluded equable relations but he was distressed and made despondent by the news of Arthur's death at Woking in March 1890, when he himself was shaken and ill. In 1892 he underwent the first of 3 operations for stone in the bladder.

1890sEdit

George Meredith Vanity Fair 24 September 1896

"Our first novelist" - George Meredith caricatured by Max Beerbohm in Vanity Fair, September 1896. Courtesy Wikipedia.

In 1889 Meredith returned to fiction. The most individual of the later novels, a new study of modern femininity, One of our Conquerors, ran simultaneously through the Fortnightly, Australasian, and New York Sun (October 1890.- May 1891). "When I was sixty,' Meredith wrote, 'and a small legacy had assured my pecuniary independence, I took it into my head to serve these gentlemen (the critics) a strong done of my most indigestible production. Nothing drove them so crazy as One of our Conquerors." In the prologue Meredith's mania for analogy, epigram, and metaphors runs riot.[12]

Lord Ormont and his Aminta, in which a similar motive — that of people rendered strangers to themselves by a false position — is reinvoked, first appeared in the Pall Mall Magazine (December 1893 - August 1894). Issued separately in 3 volumes by Chapman & Hall in 1894 (and by Scribners in America), it was gratefully inscribed to the surgeon who had operated on him, George Buckston Browne.[12]

Meredith still had several novels in solution in his mind, the names of which have partially survived, such as Sir Harry Firebrand of the Beacon, A Woman a Battle, and a novel dealing with the oareer of Lady Sarah Lennox, in addition to the half-finished Celt and Saxon (sketched on a great scale in 1890), the torso of which applied in the Fortnightly in 1910 and subsequently in the memorial edition (vol. XX.); but the last completed novel at which he travailed hard in 1894 was The Amazing Marriage The story had been begun and laid aside in 1879 ; it was resumed in 1894 at the urgent instance of his friend Frederick Jameson, to whom the work was dedicated.[12]

The work appeared serially in Scribner's Magazine (January - December 1895), and was published in 2 volumes in the same year by Constable & Co. His son William had recently joined this firm, which now assembled (under the author's direction) the copyrights of all his works and in 1896 commenced a collective edition de luxe in 36 volumes (completed 1910-1911).[12]

Meredith's life-work in prose fiction, which taxed his brain and health far more severely than his verse, was now completed. Henceforth he was regarded by the enlightened public as literary and political arbitrator and court of appeal, and in that capacity wrote during his later years various poems, platform letters, introductions, and the like, his opinions being cited in the newspapers in every form and context.[12]

His mental activity, though still formidable, was evidently more upon the surface than it had been during the harassing turmoil of the creative period. For the last 16 years, owing to paraplegia, he had to abandon the physical activities which had been such an important element in his life and thought.[12]

In 1894 he relinquished his long established relation as reader with Chapman & Hall. In 1895 his quiet routine was broken by visits from the Daudets and Mr. Henry James and in July by a visit of ceremony of the Omar Khayyam Club, upon which occasion Mr. Edward Clodd ("Sir Reynard") "discovered his brush" by eliciting a speech in answer to laudatory apostrophes by Thomas Hardy and George Gissing. Five years later he welcomed a similar visitation from the Whitefriars Club. In 1898 Leslie Stephen forwarded him a parchment bearing the felicitations of the authors of the day upon the attainment of his 70th birthday. A similar tribute was paid him ten years later on his 80th birthday.[12]

Personal descriptionsEdit

Meredith inherited a fine figure, and (strikingly good looking as a young man, when his abundant hair was chestnut red) his face grew handsomer as he grew older. He was in his heyday vividly and victoriously alive and had the optimism of high vitality. "When I ceased to walk briskly part of my life was ended."[13]

Of his personal appearance in the 1860's Meredith's friends have recorded ample impressions. Sir F. Bumand, who first saw him at Esher talking to his publisher, "Pater" Evans (of Bradbury & Evans), and was introduced by Maurice FitzGerald, nephew of Edward FitzGerald, wrote:

George strode towards us ... he never merely walked, never lounged; he strode, he took giant strides. He had on a soft, shapeless wide-awake, a sad-coloured flannel shirt, with low open collar turned over a brilliant scarlet neckerchief tied in a loose sailor's knot; no waistcoat; knickerbockers, grey stockings, and the most serviceable laced boots which evidently meant business in pedestrianism; crisp curly brownish hair, ignorant of parting; a fine brow, quick observant eyes, greyish, if I remember; beard and moustache a trifle lighter than the hair. A splendid head, a memorable personality. Then his sense of humour, his cynicism, and his absolutely boyish enjoyment of mere fun, of any pure and simple absurdity. His laugh was something to bear; it was of short duration, but it was a roar.[7]

A portrait of the same date ezists in the pen-drawing of Mary Magdalen at the Gate of Simon the Pharisee by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, in which the figure of Christ was George Meredith drawn from tho life. According to another friend, H.M. Hyndman. Meredith's physical strength in early manhood was great:

He was all wire and whipcord.... I shall never forget a playful struggle I had with him in the Dolphin Hotel at Chiohester, where we were staying with a party for Goodwood races. I was then strong and active and thought I was pretty good at a rough tumble, but he wore me down by all endurance.[7]

He was addicted to throwing in the air and catching a heavy iron weight at the end of a wooden shaft, which he called his "beetle exercise." Over-indulgence in this, it is thought, sowed the seeds of future spinal trouble. His robustness, never so great in reality as in appearance, was also impaired for a time about 1862 and (later) by a fanatical but generally short-lived ardour for vegetarianism, with which his friend Maxse infected him. From Hardman he imbibed a faith in homoeopathy. He was habitually fastidious and often difficult (to the utmost acerbity) about the quality and dressing of his food.[7]

He was devoted to English fare; a connoisseur of cigars, he glowed over a generous wine and was proud of his small cellar; his hospitality was exquisite. He had a delicate, untrained ear for good music, and could play well by ear. He talked rotundly and resonantly (and several good phonographic records of his reading voice are preserved) on every topic discussed in Burton's Anatomy. Many thought him greater in conversation than in any other art.[13]

Final YearsEdit

George Meredith.age72

Meredith, aged 72. Artist unknown, circa 1900. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In 1905 Meredith had the misfortune to break his leg, but he made an excellent recovery. Keenly alert and abreast of modern movements and interested in the work of the younger men, he envied only the power to be 1 of the active workers. On 13 April 1909 he wrote his last letter — an expression of condolence — to Theodore Watts-Dunton, on Swinburne's death.[12]

He insisted on being taken out in his bath-chair in all weathers. On 14 May 1909 he caught a slight chill; on the 16th he was taken ill. He died quietly on 18 May at Flint Cottage in the presence of his son, William Maxse, his daughter, Marie Eveleen ('Dearie'), wife of Henry Parkman Sturges, and his faithful nurse, Bessie Nicholls.[11]

A request from leading men of the day (and the expressed wish of Edward VII) for Meredith's burial in Westminster Abbey was refused by the dean. After cremation his ashes were laid beside his wife in Dorking cemetery (23 May), as he had himself arranged that they should be.[12]

WritingEdit

NovelsEdit

Meredith's novels are more like Platonic dialogues than works of fiction. His characters have as a rule singularly little volition or speech of their own. The voice of their creator can be heard perpetually prompting them from behind a screen. The poems fill the interstices of thought in the novels. Oscar Wilde said with some point that Meredith had mastered everything but language: as a novelist he could do anything except tell a story, as an artist he was everything except articulate.[13]

To this it might be replied that he sought commonly to adumbrate conceptions not susceptible to lucid or exact statement, that he did not wish to narrate a story but to exemplify projections of his individual imagination. He was articulate enough when he desired to be so. He never pretended to make or take things easy ; and the "pap and treacle" style in fiction or poetry was his special abhorrence.[13]

But the novel was more or less accidental to him. It was his object in the capacity of virtuoso to express a code of connoisseurship in life and conduct. He delineates character by a strange shorthand process of his own; his men, and especially his women, transcend ordinary human nature, yet his heroines, and chief among them his 'English roses,' can hardly be matched outside Shakespeare. His descriptive power and insight into the secret chambers of the brain were indeed superb. But description, character, plot were in the novels wholly subservient to the ideals of his imagination. Thoroughly tonic in quality, his writings are (as Lamb said of Shakespeare) essentially manly.[13]

The Shaving of Shaqpat (1855) is a fantasia on the subject-matter of The Arabian Nights, easily outstripping its forerunner, Beckford's Vathek, in the skill with which it catches the oriental spirit. Arabic students have indeed sought a lost original. The author expressly repudiated any elaborate allegorical intention. Farina (1857) is a rather slighter burlesque or ironical sketch, something in the vein of Peacock, aimed at the mediæval and romantic tale.[4]

The main idea of Richard Feverel, the victimisation of the Fairy Prince hero by a fond paternal system of education, was suggested by Herbert Spencer's famous article in the British Quarterly Review (April 1858), with occasional hints from Tristram Shandy, Émile, and the more recent The Caxtons. In this book Meredith first and successfully assumes the airily Olympian and omniscient manner which is the inspiration of his genius and is not explained by anything in his personal experience or training. But his power was little recognised.[5]

Evan Harrington is the most real, and perhaps the most generally entertaining, of all Meredith's novels. It describes in a sardonic vein the frantic attempts of Evan's sisters (and sidelights here are assumed to have been drawn from a whimsical observation of his own paternal aunts) to escape from the Demogorgon of Tailordom. The spirit of 'Great Mel,' who dies before the action begins, pervades the book. In so far as he ever drew his characters direct from life Janet Duff Gordon (Mrs. Janet Ross from 1800), who begins now to be a regular oorrespondent, was his model for Rose Jocelyn.[5]

Emilia's passion for Italy forms the central theme of Emilia and Vittoria. Her figure, the most beautiful and elaborate he had yet portrayed, dominates the 2 novels. Nowhere are the gems of his insight more lavishly scattered. There are admirable woodland scenes. At the same time he first formulates his anti-sentimental philosophy and his growing belief in the purifying flame of the Comic Spirit.[7]

He had promised upon his second marriage to "write now in a different manner," and Rhoda Fleming (originally The Dyke Farm), expanded and much altered in process of construction, yet written consistently against the grain, was the fruit of this conformity. Rhoda is, comparatively speaking, a plain tale, mostly about love, and concerned primarily with persons in humble life. He attempts the delicate task of describing the innate purity of a woman after a moral lapse.[8]

Vittoria (or Emilia in Italy), a novel of the revolution of 1848-1849, has a complex plot in which Charles Albert, Mazzini, and other historic persons figure; the opening scene on the summit of Monte Motterone (walked over in company with "Poco") ranks with that of Harry Richmond or The Amazing Marriage. On its publication the style of the book was complained of as that of prose trying to be poetry, and the author in essaying the novel of history was warned against handicapping himself by extra weight. Swinburne, however, overflowed with generous praise.[9]

In Harry Richmond, The father and son theme of Feverel is reanimated in an atmosphere at times dazzlingly operatic; Richmond Roy, on whose character Meredith lavished all his powers, stalks larger than life alongside of Wilkins Micawber and My Uncle Toby. None of the author's books rivals this in invention.[9]

Beauchamp's Career and The Egoist mark the summit of Meredith's power of concentration. The first, Beauchamp's Career (refused by ‘Cornhill’), began to appear in a painfully condensed form in the Fortnightly in August 1874. The book protests through the brains of Beauchamp, the young naval officer (a reflection of Maxse), on the 1 hand against lolling aristocrats who refuse to lead and against the false idols of Manchester on the other; the complex hero is hampered by apple-fever (as Meredith styles his prepossession for some of the fairest daughters of Eve) and at times by a species of megalomania. The construction keeps the interest intensely alive, and the book ends with the sting of the hero's death by drowning.[9]

In The Egoist he develops a new novel-formula consisting of a kind of fugue — innumerable variations upon a central theme, that of the fatuity of a pontifical egoism, mercilessly exposed by the search-lights of the Comic Spirit. 'I had no idea of the matter,' wrote Stevenson when rereading the novel, 'human red matter he has contrived to plug and pack into this strange and admirable book. Willoughby is of course a fine discovery, a complete set of nerves not heretofore examined, and yet running all over the human body — a suit of nerves ... I see more and more that Meredith is built for immortality.' The noble but 'coltish' Vernon Whitford is sketched after the author's friend Leslie Stephen.[10]

In The Tragic Comedians, in spite of his imperfect materials, Meredith accurately assessed the values of his hero and heroine, Alvan (Lassalle) a Titan, a sun-god, inured to success, of Jewish race, a revolutionary and a free-liver, and Clotilde (Hélène von Dönniges) a Christian girl from a noble and exclusive, demagogue-hating family of the Philistines.[10]

The basis of the story of Lord Olmont and his Aminta is to be found in the secret marriage of the famous Charles Mordaunt, earl of Peterborough, in 1735 with Anastasia Robinson. The novel, which reverts to an easier style of writing than One of our Conquerers, contains many of the writer's adroitest sayings.[12]

The Amazing Marriage, in which the character of Woodseer, the virtuoso of nature and style, was a long-promised sketch of 1 of his friends, in this case R.L. Stevenson, shows no declension of power — the style is less mannered than that of its 3 predecessors, but the subject-matter is almost extravagantly varied and complex. The arrangement affords the reader 2 peeps at English society of an almost Disraelian luxuriance, respectively in 1814 and 1839.[12]

PoetryEdit

In Meredith's earliest volume, Poems of 1851, there is nothing, perhaps, altogether 1st rate, for "Love in the Valley," as we know it, was rewritten in 1878. But the general level of accomplishment and beauty is high; there is daring in the young poet's rhythmical experiments without rhyme. The quinine, so distinctive of Meredith's later verse, was imported later.[4]

In Poems and Lyrics of the Joy of Earth we have, with a few personal poems, such as the verses to J[ohn] M[orley] and 'To a Friend Lost' (Tom Taylor, whose "Lady Clancarty" he had applauded), the finished version of "Love in the Valley," and lyrics such as "The Lark Ascending," "Earth and Man," "Melampus," and "The Woods of Westermain," which satisfactorily answer the complaint that Meredith's Philosophical Lyrics contain too much brain and too little music or magnetism. He urges the need of the mutual working of blood (the flesh, senses, bodily vigour) and brain, and the steering of a course between ascetic rocks and sensual whirlpools, in quest of spiritual exaltation.[10]

Posthumous worksEdit

Of posthumous works by Meredith the chief were

  1. the unfinished story of Celt and Saxon (Fortnightly Review, Jan.-Aug. 1910), containing an interesting resume of some of his frequent race speculations.
  2. The Sentimentalists, a conversation comedy (of 2 distinct periods) begun at the period of his conception of the Pole family in his most laboured work, Emilia in England. It was produced at the Duke of York's Theatre on 1 March 1910, and subsequently achieved a succ6s d'estime
  • Last Poems by George Meredith, including "Milton," "Trafalgar Day," "The Call," "The Crisis," "The Warning," and other poems emphasising England's need of a general defensive service.

Critical introductionEdit

by John Bailey

It is not likely that very much of George Meredith’s 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 Pope’s 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 3 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 3 at once. From Meredith, it must be sadly confessed, they get the 1st, the music of sound, very seldom: the 2nd oftener, but far from always: the 3rd almost always, though frequently presented in a manner and mood which belong rather to prose than to poetry. As to the 1st, 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 soft night-wind went laden to death
  With smell of the orange in flower;
The light leaves prattled to neighbour ears;
The bird of the passion sang over his tears:
  The night named hour by hour.
  
Sang loud, sang low the rapturous bird
  Till the yellow hour was nigh
Behind the folds of a darker cloud:
He chuckled, he sobbed, alow, aloud:
  The voice between earth and sky.”

But he more often chose to write in a kind of shorthand, neither poetry nor prose, which is often ugly and always obscure. What is to be said of such abominations of hideousness as –

“Love meet they who do not shove
Cravings in the van of Love,

– or –

“Melpomene among her livid people,
Ere stroke of lyre, upon Thaleia looks,”

– or of such contortions of obscurity as –:

“A woman who is wife despotic lords
Count faggot at the question, Shall she live:–

– except, what Meredith himself said of Walt Whitman that the Muse would “fain have taught” poets who treat their art in this reckless and insolent fashion:

“what fruitful things and dear
Must sink beneath the tidewaves, of their weight,
If in no vessel built for sea they swim.”

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 brain’s 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 Goldsmith’s Vicar and the immortal company of the Waverleys.

No novels ever had so much brains come to their making as Meredith’s; but the supreme work of art demands a harmony of qualities of which brains can only supply 1. And however high we place the novels, poetry is still more than prose and — what is our present point — has 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 Meredith’s 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 1 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:

  “strange
When it strikes to within is the known:
Richer than newness revealed.”

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. Nobody 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,

  “there, past mortal breath,
Life glistens on the river of the death.
It folds us, flesh and dust: and have we knelt,
Or never knelt, or eyed as kine the springs
Of radiance, yet the radiance enrings;
And this is the soul’s haven to have felt.”

Into that haven Meredith’s 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 1 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 2nd ode, that on Napoleon, contains perhaps the most penetrating analysis of his character ever written. The 3rd, 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.

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 1 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 Phœbus 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 Tennyson’s Princess.

Yet, fine as these and other strictly human poems are, in Meredith’s 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-dove’s cooings are not much in Meredith’s 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 action—in a word, of life. What he finds in Nature and Man he makes into a kind of creed or philosophy of life. The 2 are for him, more than for most poets, 1 subject seen from 2 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 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 Meredith’s 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.

  “Into the breast that gives the rose,
    Shall I with shuddering fall?
    Earth, the mother of all,
    Moves on her stedfast way,
    Gathering, flinging, sowing.
    Mortals, we live in her day,
    She in her children is growing.
  
She can lead us, only she,
    Unto God’s footstool, whither she reaches:
    Loved, enjoyed, her gifts must be,
    Reverenced the truths she teaches,
    Ere a man may hope that he
    Ever can attain the glee
    Of things without a destiny!”

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 poet’s spirit, and ours with his, is in Earth’s 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.

  “Take up thy song from woods and fields
Whilst thou hast heart, and living yields
  Delight: let that expire—
Let thy delight in living die,
Take thou thy song from star and sky,
  And join the silent quire.”

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:—

Love born of knowledge, love that gains
Vitality as Earth it mates,
The meaning of the Pleasures, Pains,
The Life, the Death, illuminates.
  
For love we Earth, then serve we all;
Her mystic secret then is ours:
We fall, or view our treasures fall,
Unclouded, as beholds her flowers
  
Earth, from a night of frosty wreck,
Enrobed in morning’s mounted fire,
When lowly, with a broken neck,
The crocus lays her cheek to mire.”

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,
To stature of the Gods will they attain.
They shall uplift their Earth to meet her Lord,
        Themselves the attuning chord!”

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 Meredith’s 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 poet’s 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 1 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.[14]

Recognition Edit

The Lark Ascending George Meredith & Ralph Vaughan Williams

The Lark Ascending George Meredith & Ralph Vaughan Williams

In 1892, upon the death of Tennyson, Meredith was elected president of the Society of Authors. Among other honours were the vice-presidency of the London Library in 1902 and the Order of Merit in 1905, together with the rarely bestowed gold medal of the Royal Society of Literature.

In 1909 the definitive memorial edition was begun, and was completed in 27 volumes (1909-11): it includes all Meredith's writings (letters only excluded), together with various reading and a bibliography. A collection of Meredith's Letters edited by his son appeared in 1912.[13]

5 of his poems ("Love in the Valley," "Phoebus with Admetus," "Tardy Spring," "Love's Grave," and "Lucifer in Starlight") were included in the Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1900.[15]

His poem "The Lark Ascending" was set to music by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

In popular cultureEdit

His contemporary Sir Arthur Conan Doyle paid him homage in the short-story "The Boscombe Valley Mystery", when Sherlock Holmes says to Dr. Watson during the discussion of the case: "And now let us talk about George Meredith, if you please, and we shall leave all minor matters until to-morrow."

Oscar Wilde, in his dialogue The Decay of Lying, implies that Meredith, along with Honoré de Balzac, is his favourite novelist, saying: "Ah, Meredith! Who can define him? His style is chaos illumined by flashes of lightning."

Publications Edit

Meredithsig

Poetry Edit

NovelsEdit

Non-fictionEdit

Collected editionsEdit

  • Works. 1909-1911
    • De Luxe Edition (39 volumes), London: Constable
    • Library Edition (18 volumes), London: Constable
    • Boxhill Edition (17 volumes), New York: Scribner
    • Memorial Edition (27 volumes). London: Constable; New York: Scribner.

EditedEdit

  • The Cruise of the Alabama and the Sumter: From the private journals and other papers of Commander R. Semmes (editor & author of introduction and concluding chapters). London: Saunders & Otley, 1864; Carleton, 1864.
  • Lady Lucie Duff-Gordon, Letters from Egypt.

LettersEdit

  • Letters: Collected and edited by his son. (2 volumes), London: Constable, 1912; New York: Scribner, 1912. Volume I: 1844-1881, Volume II: 1882-1909
  • Letters (edited by C.L. Cline). (3 volumes), Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1970.
  • Selected Letters (edited by Mohammad Shaheen). New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996.


Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy the Poetry Foundation.[18]

Modern Love by George Meredith

Modern Love by George Meredith

See alsoEdit

References Edit

NotesEdit

  1. 1.0 1.1 John William Cousin, "Meredith, George," A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature. London: Dent / New York: Dutton, 1910, 267-268. Wikisource, Web, Feb. 11, 2018.
  2. Seccombe, 604.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Seccombe, 605.
  4. 4.00 4.01 4.02 4.03 4.04 4.05 4.06 4.07 4.08 4.09 4.10 4.11 4.12 4.13 4.14 Seccombe, 606.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 5.6 5.7 5.8 Seccombe, 607.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 Seccombe, 608.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5 7.6 7.7 7.8 7.9 Seccombe, 609.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 Seccombe, 610.
  9. 9.00 9.01 9.02 9.03 9.04 9.05 9.06 9.07 9.08 9.09 9.10 9.11 Seccombe, 611.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 10.4 10.5 10.6 10.7 10.8 10.9 Seccombe, 612.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 Seccombe, 613.
  12. 12.00 12.01 12.02 12.03 12.04 12.05 12.06 12.07 12.08 12.09 12.10 Seccombe, 614.
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 13.4 13.5 Seccombe, 615.
  14. from John Bailey, "Critical Introduction: George Meredith (1828–1909)," The English Poets: Selections with critical introductions (edited by Thomas Humphry Ward). New York & London: Macmillan, 1880-1918. Web, Mar. 25, 2016.
  15. Alphabetical list of authors: Jago, Richard to Milton, John, Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1900 (edited by Arthur Quiller-Couch). Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1919. Bartleby.com, Web, May 19, 2012.
  16. Poems (1913), Internet Archive. Web, Sep. 30, 2013.
  17. Selected Poems (1919), Internet Archive. Web, Sep. 30, 2013.
  18. George Meredith 1828-1909, Poetry Foundation, Web, Nov. 10, 2012.

External linksEdit

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PD-icon.svg This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement​ (edited by Sidney Lee). London: Smith, Elder, 1912. Original article is at: Meredith, George

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