Selected Writings, Vol. 3, William Sharp

GEORGE MEREDITH
AN ESTIMATE OF HIS WORK IN
PROSE AND VERSE

(1899)

AFTER many years of general indifference, George Meredith has come into his kingdom. To-day he stands foremost in English letters. None disputes his place as our keenest critic of social life ; admittedly he is a great writer, with a power over the wellsprings of tears and laughter, of irony and tragedy, beyond that of any contemporary. He has, moreover, that intimate sense of romance, which, striking as it does through the common ways and familiar routine of life, carries with it an air so convincing that none may gainsay its winsome charm. From first to last, his outlook is at once the most human and searching and the most spiritual and far reaching.
As romancist, he who disengages the living spirit of youth; as the realist, he who limns the intimate self as well as the mobile features, the mien and manner of actuality ; as the comedian, he who looks across the tragicomedy of life and smiles at its exquisite incongruities ; as the tragedian, he who looks across the same tragicomedy, and reflects, as a mirror reflecting shadows, the mystery and dark significance of the unknown, and that terror and despair and sadness of ours which are its ministers and as the poet of the Joy of Earth, of the triumphant Hope of the Spirit, George Meredith is not only a prince of letters, but exercises over the younger generation an influence as fortunate as it is profound.
True, there are the defects of his high qualities wherewith to reckon. His strength is often accompanied by an impetuosity which, with a great number of would-be readers, defeats its own end-not a reinless vehemence, still less a hurried habit of mind, but a controlled impetuosity whereby this magician of words bewilders less swift and agile minds, less nimble understandings. It is, perhaps, in his later poetry more than in his prose that overmuch he delivers himself to his delight in words and subtle but difficult diction-and in verse, as is obvious, any obscurity is more swiftly apparent, and more perilous. There are times when this wholly characteristic and native manner degenerates into mannerism ; but with all deference to those who plead, and in the main wisely, for a habitual simplicity, and who resent Meredith's peculiarities, it surely must be admitted that these difficulties and obscurities have been greatly exaggerated. It is ly not the case that they are due to certain wilful affectation. Any one who has the honour of knowing Meredith is aware that he writes as to the manner born; that his phrasings are as natural to him as the "Aye, aye, sir!" of the sailor or the "yes, m' lud!" of the barrister, and that, speaking generally, his work is but the reflex of his mind, of the subtlest, most distinguished and variegated literary temperament of our time. How far from arrogance, or the common conceit of the lesser scribe, George Meredith stands, is revealed in a noble sonnet, where even the subtle use of "we" and "I" is eminently indicative:

Assured of worthiness, we do not dread
Competitors ; we rather give them hail
And greeting in the lists where we may fail;
Must, if we bear an aim beyond the head
My betters are my masters : purely fed,
By their sustainment I likewise shall scale
Some rocky steps between the mount and vale;
Meantime the mark I have and I will wed,
So that I draw the breath of finer air,
Station is nought, nor footways laurel-strewn
Nor rivals tightly belted for the race,
Good speed to them!  My place is here or there;
My pride is that among them I have place ;
And thus I keep this instrument in tune.

From first to last, George Meredith has drawn this breath of finer air of which he speaks ; from first to last he has kept his instrument in tune.
It would be easy to dwell upon the unquestionable defects in style, upon the not infrequent lapses from that inward discretion which is the soul of style, of this great writer. But these lie apparent to one and all, if to some grotesquely exaggerated. It is more fitting to turn towards the infinitely greater measure of noble worth, of brilliant comedy, of illuminative insight, of exquisite romance, of intimate knowledge of men and women and a no less profound intimacy with nature, and to the ever varying revelation of an ever genial and catholic wisdom. It may, however, be as well to add that he or she who would begin the study of George Meredith's writings should certainly not in the first instance take up, say, One of Our Conquerors, or, in verse, the Odes in Contribution to the Song of French History.  These in due course.
George Meredith, born in Hampshire on February 12, 1828, began his literary career early. His first appearance in print was with a poem, Chillianwallah, in Chambers' Journal, in July 1849, and his first book the now exceedingly scarce Poems, appeared two years later. Nothing is more amazing than his maturity in prose. Before he was thirty he had written The Shaving of Shagpat, Farina, and (to this day his most popular, and by many considered his finest romance) The Ordeal of Richard Feverel. The first two are, perhaps, the most brilliant and finished works of their kind ever produced by a young writer : the third is a master-piece of fiction, already one of the classics of the English language, and admittedly the inspiration of much of the truest romance that has been written since. Robert Louis Stevenson was wont to speak of it as the finest expression of the-romantic spirit in contemporary fiction, meaning, of course, the romance of familiar life, not of perilous adventure and hair-breadth escapes.
If it be true what Coleridge says in his Aids to Reflection, that exclusive of the abstract sciences the largest and worthiest portion of our knowledge consists in aphorisms, and that the greatest of men is but an aphorism, then truly George Meredith, the prince of aphorists, is the greatest of contemporaries. These wonderful aphorisms of his, however, are not by any means merely jeux d'esprit, brilliant coruscations of an electric wit : they are that, but they are much more---for they are born of closest observation of life, profound meditation, and inward wisdom. A wisely made selection of "the wit and wisdom of George Meredith," would reveal him not only as the keenest observer but as the profoundest and sanest thinker of our time. He has ever had one aim, the impassioned quest of truth.

O sir, the truth, the truth! is't in the skies,
Or in the grass, or in this heart of ours ?
But O the truth, the truth! the many eyes
That look on it! the diverse things they see,
According to their thirst for fruit or flowers
                Pass on ; it is the truth seek we.

When we come to the difficult question as to which is the best, or even which are the best, of George Meredith's novels, each must answer only for himself. The present writer would have it that the three most masterly books are Rhoda Fleming, The Egoist, and Beauchamp's Career, and that those which at all times he can read with ever new delight, in a word his favourites, are The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, The Egoist, Diana of the Crossways, and, speaking personally rather than critically, The Amazing Marriage. There can be little question, I fancy, that The Egoist stands foremost in intellectual power. It is the most searchingly brilliant book in the language. It is equally easy to understand why The Ordeal of Richard Feverel and Diana of the Crossways are the most widely popular. In literary beauty, perhaps Vittoria is the most sustained in excellence of picturesque and vivid style. in every one of these books is a practically inexhaustible store of wisdom, poignant insight, illuminating wit, and the inexhaustible sanity of a supreme gift of humour.
I wonder how many marked copies of Diana of the Crossways are in existence. Every one I know who owns the book, has special passages marked for remembrance, suggestiveness, stimulus. For a readily understandable reason it appeals to women in particular; doubtless because here more luminously and continuously than in any other of his books, George Meredith shows his deep sympathy with, and comprehension of, the nature of women. Here are a few passages worthy of note:

"What a woman thinks of women is the test of her nature."
"He had by nature a tarnishing eye that cast discoloration."
"The young who avoid the region of romance escape the title of fool at the cost of a celestial crown."
"To have the sense of the eternal in life is a short flight for the soul. To have had it is the soul's vitality."
"Gossip is a beast of prey that does not wait for the death of the creature it devours."
"She was a lady of incisive features, bound in stale parchment.  Complexion she had none, but she had spotlessness of skin, and sons and daughters just resembling her, like cheaper editions of a precious quarto of a perished type."
"Why she married him she never told. Possibly in amazement at herself she forgot the specific reason."
And this pre-eminently characteristic phrase : "Philosophy bids us see that we are not so pretty as rose-pink, nor so repulsive as dirty-drab ; and that instead of everlastingly shifting those barren aspects, the sight of ourselves is wholesome, bearable, fructifying, finally a delight."
Everywhere there is the same convincing wisdom of insight and observation. Meredith has been called the supreme interpreter of women; he is not less notable as a true elder brother to all men who think as well as do. On that ever moot question of what women are to men, what wiser saying than this in The Egoist: "Women have us back to the condition of primitive man, or they shoot us higher than the topmost star. But it is as we please; the poet's Lesbia, the poet's Beatrice. They are to us what we hold of best or worst within."
It is not only in what are admittedly his greatest novels, that his intellectual wealth is distributed with the same royal largesse. In The Tragic Comedians, in the too laboured One of Our Conquerors, in the infinitely winsome Amazing Marriage, in a word in everything from Farina and The Shaving of Shagpat, to Lord Ormont and his Aminta and The House on the Beach, there is the ceaseless record of the keenest intelligence of our epoch. The strength in all is spiritual strength. As he says in The Tragic Comedians, "it is the soul which does things in life ; the rest is vapour."
As a poet Meredith appeals to two classes of readers ; to those who love poetry for its beauty, and to those who love it for its rarefied and difficult heights where only strong-winged intellects can soar or sustain their flight. But in all probability his most enduring work in verse will be that wherein the vision of beauty, or rather the faculty of seeing and saying in beauty what revelation or sudden glimpse of all beauty has been perceived, is the overmastering characteristic rather than those poems which are mainly an allure or appeal to the intellect. And here it is, it seems to me, as to others who love his earlier poetry, that he stands far higher than is commonly recognised. There is no more moving love-tragedy in verse in the language than his Modern Love; no more splendid and barbaric chant than the Nuptials of Attila ; and I know of no nature poems more beautiful and more convincing, both in music and in essential vision and atmosphere. What lovely music in that passionate lyrical rhapsody, Love in the Valley, something of whose magic retains in even a few severed lines:

Fairer than, the lily, than the wild white cherry
   Fair as in image my seraph love appears
Borne to me by dreams when dawn is at my eyelids
   Fair as in the flesh she swims to me on fears.
Could I find a place to be alone with heaven,
   I would speak my heart out : heaven is my need.
Every woodland free is flushing like the dogwood,
   Flashing like the whitebeam, swaying like the reed.
Flushing like the dogwood crimson in October;
   Streaming like the flag-reed South-West blown,
Flashing as in gusts the sudden-lighted whitebeam,
   All seem to know what is for heaven alone.

The Lark Ascending, The South-West Wind, Autumn Even-song, The Woods of Westermain, and a score other matchless lyrics and longer poems . . . are their names not familiar to all who love beautiful verse ? What living poet has written more exquisitely than in these lines from one of the lesser known poems (Grandfather Bridgeman):

The day was a van-bird of summer ; the robin still piped,
   but the blue
A warm and dreary palace with voices of larks
   ranging through,
Looked down as if wistfully eyeing the blossoms that
   fell from its lap;
A day to sweeten the juices, a day to quicken the sap.
All round the shadowy orchard sloped meadows
   in gold, and the dear
Shy violets breathed their hearts out---the maiden
   breath of the year.

Surely verse like this is the justification of his own fine saying: "the art of the pen is to arouse the inward vision, instead of labouring with a drop-scene brush, as if it were to the eye ; because our flying minds cannot contain a protracted description. That is why the poets who spring imagination with a word or a phrase, paint lasting pictures."
Although much of George Meredith's poetry, as most of his prose, is in the conventional sense impersonal, in so far as it reflects his spiritual and intellectual rather than his actual life of the day and hour, there are many glimpses of the latter. Perhaps none of his shorter poems is at once more pleasantly intimate and at the same time characteristically fine in individuality of observation and touch than the little lyric called Autumn Even-song, where the woodlands, "the yellow hill," the steel-gleaming river, the "valley-cottage" with its warm light, are those which are daily familiar to the eyes and heart of the great writer.

The long cloud edged with streaming gray
              Soars from the west;
The red leaf mounts with it away.
              Showing the nest
A blot among the branches bare :
There is a cry of. outcasts in the air.

Swift little breezes, darting chill,
              Part down the lake;
A crow flies from the yellow hill,
              And in its wake
A baffled line of labouring rooks;
Steel-surfaced to the light the river looks.

Pale the rain-rutted roadways shine
              In the green light,
Behind the cedar and the pine
              Come, thundering night !
Blacken broad earth with hoards of storm !
For me you valley-cottage beckons warm.

But it is probably by Modern Love that Meredith has won his way to the laurel-wreath of his fellows in poetry. "This great processional poem," as Mr. Swinbume has called it, tells in fifty stanzaic poems of a sonnet-kind (sonnets essentially, in compression, self-completeness, and unity of beauty, idea, and effect---though not technically so) the story or the tragic mischance of love that might have grown to finest issues but for the piteous inward fatality which incurred ruin on both sides. Modern Love was published at a memorable period in the history of English poetry : four years after William Morris' first and, in some ways, most remarkable volume, and one year later than Rossetti's first book (The Early Italian Poets) and Swinburne's first book. It is doubtful if there be any single modern poem which has had so profound an influence in moulding the spiritual temper of the strongest and finest minds among the younger generation. There must be many who concur with the present writer in ranking Modern Love and Rossetti's House of Life as among the very finest legacies of poetic genius left to us in the latter half of the nineteenth century.
For those who do not know Modern Love, I may quote two of the wonderful series : the first for its flawless beauty ; the second for its deep humanity, its profound indication of what is most characteristic in the genius of this fearless explorer into Earth's great venture, man." (Both are given as in the version of the Collected Edition.)

XLVII.

We saw the swallows gathering in the sky,
And in the osier-isle we heard them noise.
We had not to look back on summer joys,
Or forward to a summer of bright dye :
But in the largeness of the evening earth
Our spirits grew as we went side by side
The hour became hey husband and my bride.
Love that had robbed us so, thus blessed our dearth !
The Pilgrims of the year waxed very loud
In multitudinous chatterings, as the flood
Full brown came fyom the West, and like pale blood
Expanded to the upper crimson cloud.
Love that had robbed us of immortal things,
This little moment mercifully gave.
Where I have seen across the twilight wave . . .
The swan sail with her young beneath her wings.

XLIII.

Mark where the Pressing wind shoots javelin-like,
Its skeleton shadow on the broad-backed wave
Here is a fitting spot to dig Love's grave ;
Here when the ponderous breakers plunge and strike,
And dart their hissing tongues high up the sand:
In hearing of the ocean, and in sight
Of those ribb'd wind-streaks running into white.
If I the death of Love had deeply planned,
I never could have made it half so sure,
As by the unblest hisses which upbraid
The full-waked sense ; or, failing that, degrade !
'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.

Perhaps the finest of George Meredith's longer lyrical poems is the noble Hymn to Colour. It is the work of a poet of the highest imagination : it is alive in every line, in every image, in every uplifted thought : it has an austere beauty, a grave ecstasy, such as characterises Wordsworth's greatest poem, the Ode to Duty ; and in it is the concentrated knowledge and spiritual vision of a long and noble life. I may fittingly end this short appreciation with quotation of the last stanza, with its magnificent close, animate with the profoundest spiritual hope we have.

The song had ceased ; my vision with the song.
Then of those Shadows, which one made descent
Beside me I knew not ; but Life ere long
Came on me in the public ways and bent
Eyes deeper than of old : Death met I too.
And saw the down glow through.

 

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