Study Guide

George Eliot

George Eliot Essay - Eliot, George (Poetry Criticism)

Eliot, George (Poetry Criticism)

Introduction

George Eliot 1819–1880

(Pseudonym of Mary Ann, or Marian, Evans) English poet, novelist, essayist, editor, short story writer, and translator.

While George Eliot is remembered first and foremost for her insightful novels set in rural England, she also wrote several works of poetry, some of which have been compared favorably with the poems of her contemporary, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and even with Shakespeare's dramatic verse. Although considered inferior to her novels, Eliot's poetry shares with them the author's interest in moral and philosophical issues as well as her realistic and penetrating approach to character.

Biographical Information

Eliot was raised in Warwickshire, England, by her strict Methodist family, whose views she accepted until she befriended the skeptical philosophers Charles Bray and Charles Hennell. Eliot's association with these two men caused her to challenge and eventually to reject the rigid religious principles of her upbringing. This questioning of values also inspired her first published work, a translation of Das Leben Jesu (The Life of Jesus) by the German religious philosopher D. F. Strauss. The incident caused a rift with her father, but they later reconciled and she lived with him until his death in 1849.

After her father's death, Eliot moved to London and became acquainted with John Chapman, who hired her as an assistant editor on the Westminster Review and introduced her to his literary circle. This group included the philosopher Herbert Spencer, through whom Eliot met the versatile writer and intellectual, George Henry Lewes. Although Lewes was married (he refused to divorce his estranged wife), the two openly lived together until Lewes's death in 1878, defying the strict moral code of the Victorian era. Lewes's influence on Eliot's writing was great: it was he who first encouraged her to write fiction, and he acted as intermediary between the pseudonymous "George Eliot" and her first publisher, Blackwood's Magazine. Lewes also sheltered her from adverse criticism of her works, censoring letters and reviews from periodicals. Extremely sensitive to negative reactions to her writing, Eliot removed herself from any controversy surrounding her work.

Eliot's critical acclaim occurred early in her career, and by the end of her life she was regarded as one of the greatest English novelists of her time. Although her reputation declined shortly after her death, her works have been the focus of renewed interest and respect since the late 1940s.

Major Works

Like her novels, Eliot's poetry reflects a variety of influences: her rural English background and family life; her travels abroad (particularly to Spain); and her study of Jewish customs and religious beliefs.

Eliot's sonnet sequence, Brother and Sister, was based on affectionate memories of her childhood. Her first book of dramatic verse, The Spanish Gypsy, was influenced both by the works of the Romantic poet William Wordsworth and by Greek tragedy. Here, her aim was to find a "suitable set of historical and local conditions" with which to give this tragic poem "a clothing." The novelist Henry James praised The Spanish Gypsy for its "extraordinary rhetorical energy and elegance." Although the poem was ultimately considered flawed, the memorable characters of Zarca and Don Silva are often discussed in literary scholarship. "Armgart," thought to be the best poem from the collection The Legend of Jubai and Other Poems, has also been lauded for its understanding of the psychological aspect of human characters and their internal conflicts and desires. Like The Spanish Gypsy, "Armgart" is a dramatic poem. It has been described as capturing the personal and public divisions of the female artist as well as Eliot's personal concerns about the exposure of recognition. Taken as a whole, Eliot's poetry is thought to highlight her sensitivity to the sound of language and her preoccupation with the thematic concerns of religion and morality.

Critical Reception

Eliot's poetry has generally been assessed as significantly inferior to her novels. In fact, scholars have speculated that Eliot ultimately abandoned writing poetry as a result of unenthusiastic critical reception. Yet while her poetic career is most often deemed a "failure," The Spanish Gypsy has been praised for its authentic presentation of the struggles of the Jewish "gypsy" in Spain. This poem is thought to be fertile ground for her later novel, Daniel Deronda. The Legend of Jubal and Other Poems is similarly considered a necessary step toward Eliot's later novels and essays. Thus, study of her poems today is often undertaken to achieve a better understanding of her novels and the poetic qualities of her prose style.

Principal Works

Poetry

The Spanish Gypsy: A Poem 1868

Brother and Sister 1869

"Armgart" 1871

The Legend of Jubal and Other Poems 1874

Other Major Works

The Life of Jesus [translation] (essay) 1846

Scenes of Clerical Life (short stories) 1858

Adam Bede (novel) 1859

"The Lifted Veil" (short story) 1859

The Mill on the Floss (novel) 1860

Silas Marner (novel) 1861

Romola (novel) 1863

"Brother Jacob" (short story) 1864

Felix Holt (novel) 1866

Middlemarch (novel) 1872

Daniel Deronda (novel) 1876

Impressions of Theophrastus Such (essays) 1879

Criticism

The Nation (review date 1868)

SOURCE: Review of The Spanish Gypsy, in The Nation: A Weekly Journal, Vol. VII, No. 157, July 2, 1868, pp. 12-14.

[In the following excerpt, the critic considers The Spanish Gypsy unsuccessful as a poem.]

[George Eliot is] one of the best of English writers; she is, incidentally to this, an excellent story-teller—a real novelist, in fact—and she is, finally, an elegant moralist. In her novels she had never struck us as possessing the poetic character. But at last, to-day, late in her career, she surprises the world with a long poem, which, if it fails materially to deepen our esteem for her remarkable talents, will certainly not diminish it. We should have read George Eliot to but little purpose if we could still suppose her capable of doing anything inconsiderable. Her mind is of that superior quality that impresses its distinction even upon works misbegotten and abortive. The Spanish Gypsy is certainly very far from being such a work; but to those who have read the author's novels attentively it will possess no further novelty than that of outward form. It exhibits the delightful qualities of Romola, The Mill on the Floss, and even Silas Marner, applied to a new order of objects, and in a new fashion; but it exhibits, to our perception, no new qualities. George Eliot could not possess the large and rich intellect which shines in her writings without being something of a poet. We imagine that the poetic note could be not unfrequently detected by a delicate observer who should go through her novels in quest of it; but we believe, at the same time, that it would be found to sound neither very loud nor very long. There is a passage in the Mill on the Floss which may illustrate our meaning. The author is speaking of the eternal difference between the patient, drearily-vigilant lives of women, and the passionate, turbulent existence of men; of the...

(The entire section is 800 words.)

Henry James (review date 1868)

SOURCE: A review of The Spanish Gypsy, in A Century of George Eliot Criticism, edited by Gordon S. Haight, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1965, pp. 55-64.

[In the following review, which was originally published in The North American Review in October 1868, James comments on the inferiority of Eliot's poetry in comparison with her novels.]

I know not whether George Eliot has any enemies, nor why she should have any; but if perchance she has, I can imagine them to have hailed the announcement of a poem from her pen as a piece of particularly good news. "Now, finally," I fancy them saying, "this sadly overrated author will exhibit all the weakness that is in...

(The entire section is 4630 words.)

London Quarterly Review (review date 1868)

SOURCE: Review of The Spanish Gypsy, in London Quarterly Review, Vol. 31, No. LXI, 1868, pp. 160-88.

[In the following assessment of The Spanish Gypsy, the reviewer argues that the poem "must be considered rather as a highly poetic work elaborated in the prose method, than as a production strictly poetical in all respects."]

Hitherto she has kept just on the verge of verse, at the extreme pitch of poetry in prose; and this is, perhaps, one of her greatest merits in workmanship. In writing high-toned and intensely-poetic prose, a besetting difficulty is to avoid breaking into rhythm. To one with a thorough command of language, the mere transit from prose...

(The entire section is 4430 words.)

The Spectator (review date 1874)

Review of The Legend of Jubal and other Poems, in The Spectator, Vol. 47, No. 2395, May 23, 1874, pp. 660-61.

[In the excerpt below, the critic contends that the majority of poems in Eliot's collection The Legend of Jubal, and Other Poems, though eloquent, lack imagination.]

[Certainly] it is an even greater transposition from one to another province of the realm of Art, which our great novelist has experienced in writing these poems. Verse supplies her with a fresh, unhackneyed material in which to shape her more delicate conceptions, and lends to it the special fascinations proper to the new mould. The volume is, of course, a study in itself, if only...

(The entire section is 1633 words.)

Rose Elizabeth Cleveland (essay date 1885)

SOURCE: "George Eliot's Poetry," in George Eliot's Poetry and Other Studies, Funk and Wagnalls, 1885, pp. 9-23.

[In the following excerpt, Cleveland contends that Eliot's verses lack the lyricism and vision which, she argues, are marks of genuine poetry.]

I come at once to the consideration of George Eliot's verse in the mention of two qualities which it seems to me to lack, and which I hold to be essentials of poetry.

The first of these two qualities has to do with form, and is a property, if not the whole, of the outside, that which affects and (if anything could do this) stops with the senses. Yet here, as elsewhere in this department of criticism,...

(The entire section is 2116 words.)

Miriam Allott (essay date 1961)

SOURCE: "George Eliot in the 1860's," in Victorian Studies, Vol. 5, No. 2, December, 1961, pp. 93-108.

[In the following excerpt, Allott argues that Eliot's fascination with Greek tragedy is reflected in her poem The Spanish Gypsy.]

George Eliot's imagination … is from the first most at home in a region where the sense of tragic entanglement is acute and her "meliorism"—her philosophy of moral betterment—faces its stiffest challenge. By the mid-1860's she was sufficiently familiar with her own methods to recognise that the tragic mode was the one which came most naturally to her. "It is my way (rather too much so perhaps) to urge the human sanctities through...

(The entire section is 1465 words.)

K. M. Newton (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "Byronic Egoism and George Eliot's The Spanish Gypsy," in Neophilologus, Vol. LVII, No. 4, October, 1973, pp. 388-400.

[In the following excerpt, Newton asserts that Don Silva, a rebellious character in Eliot's The Spanish Gypsy, is a strong example of a Byronic egoist.]

Though almost all critics of George Eliot have recognized her concern with egoism, she is not generally considered among those nineteenth-century writers who were interested in the Byronic egoist, the character who had emerged from Gothic literature and the Sturm und Drang and who came to the greatest prominence in the works of Byron. This figure played an important part in...

(The entire section is 5104 words.)

William Baker (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "The Lifted Veil,' Romola and The Spanish Gypsy" in George Eliot and Judaism, Universität Salzburg, 1975, pp. 81-116.

[In the following excerpt, Baker considers the sources of Eliot's The Spanish Gypsy.]

Romola… provides evidence of the development of George Eliot's Jewish interests and knowledge of history, and her increasing readiness by comparison with "The Lifted Veil" to put them to fictional use. Her dramatic poem The Spanish Gypsy on which she began work in 1864, … a year after finishing her Italian novel, shows these developments at a further stage, and, in addition, provides further evidence of a thorough pre-occupation...

(The entire section is 4502 words.)

Kathleen Blake (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: " Armgart—George Eliot on the Woman Artist," in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 18, No. 1, Spring, 1980, pp. 75-80.

[In the following excerpt, Blake argues that the poem "Armgart" centers around the conflict between love and art that exists for female artists.]

A more indefatigable and psychologically adept husband-therapist of a woman's creative drive than George Henry Lewes cannot be imagined. George Eliot dedicated her Legend of Jubai and Other Poems (1871) "To my beloved Husband, George Henry Lewes, whose cherishing tenderness for twenty years has alone made my work possible to me." And yet Jubal contains the dramatic poem "Armgart," which...

(The entire section is 1363 words.)

Karen B. Mann (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "George Eliot and Wordsworth: The Power of Sound and the Power of Mind," in Studies in English Literature, Vol. 20, No. 4, Autumn, 1980, pp. 675-94.

[In the following excerpt, Mann examines the importance of Wordsworth's influence on George Eliot's poem "The Legend of Jubal, " and shows that both writers consider sound a powerful metaphor for the human imagination.]

George Eliot's appreciation for Wordsworth's poetry extends from her earliest evangelical years to the end of her life; and the simplified Wordsworth of nature and rural goodness has often been recognized as an influence upon her work. What is perhaps less noticed is the degree, to which Wordsworth...

(The entire section is 4296 words.)

F. B. Pinion (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "The Spanish Gypsy and Other Poems," in A George Eliot Companion, Barnes and Noble, 1981, pp. 166-78.

[In the following excerpt, Pinion closely examines The Spanish Gypsy as well as individual verses in The Legend of Jubal and Other Poems, observing that while much of Eliot's poetry is flawed, there are also those poems which display deep feeling and dramatic power.]

George Eliot's notes on The Spanish Gypsy stress the 'irreparable collision between the individual and the general' in tragedy. For Mrs Transome the 'general' is moral tradition; for Maggie Tulliver it is a conjunction of moral tradition, hereditary nature, and...

(The entire section is 3649 words.)

Victor A. Neufeldt (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "The Madonna and The Gypsy," in Studies in the Novel, Vol. 15, No. 1, Spring, 1983, pp. 44-54.

[In the following excerpt, Neufeldt compares The Spanish Gypsy with several of Eliot's novels in order to trace the emotional and spiritual progression of Eliot's heroines.]

It has been suggested that Romola marked a turning point in Eliot's development as a novelist. And indeed, Cross later recalled his wife's telling him that "the writing of Romola ploughed into her more than the writing of any of her other books. She told me she could put her finger on it as marking a well-defined transition in her life. In her own words, 'I began it as a young...

(The entire section is 2628 words.)

Sylvia Kasey Marks (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "A Brief Glance at George Eliot's The Spanish Gypsy," in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 21, No. 2, Summer, 1983, pp. 184-90.

[In the following excerpt, Marks argues that Eliot's novels and her poem The Spanish Gypsy explore similar themes and delineate similar characters.]

In a footnote to their discussion of George Eliot, the authors of A Literary History of England observe that her long dramatic poem The Spanish Gypsy "to which she devoted only too much labor and learning, has sunk out of sight under its own weight." Another modern critic called it "a long-winded narrative in pedestrian blank verse about the destiny of the gypsy...

(The entire section is 2318 words.)

Bonnie J. Lisle (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Art and Egoism in George Eliot's Poetry," in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 22, No. 3, Autumn, 1984, pp. 263-78.

[In the following excerpt, Lisle argues that while Eliot's poems are flawed, they are nevertheless worth pursuing as avenues to understanding George Eliot and her novels.]

One of the greatest English novelists, George Eliot remains at best a second-rate poet. That the poems are so pedestrain, in fact, may tempt us to overlook their real importance. George Eliot insisted that "every one … represents an idea which I care for strongly and wish to propagate as far as I can. Else I should forbid myself from adding to the mountainous heap of poetical...

(The entire section is 5573 words.)

James Krasner (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: '"Where No Man Praised': The Retreat from Fame in George Eliot's The Spanish Gypsy," in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 32, No. 1, Spring, 1994, pp. 55-74.

[In the following-essay, Krasner explores the personal costs of "exposure" as defined in George Eliot's poetry.]

As she was completing her long dramatic poem The Spanish Gypsy, George Eliot responded to an inquiring publisher by drawing attention to the difference between this work and her novels:

The book I am writing is not a novel, and is likely to be dead against the taste of that large public which a publisher is for the most part obliged (rather...

(The entire section is 7299 words.)

Michael Ragussis (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "Writing Spanish History: The Inquisition and 'the Secret Race'," in Figures of Conversion: "The Jewish Question" and English National Identity, Duke University Press, 1995, pp. 127-73.

[In the following excerpt, Ragussis explores the idea of woman as the daughter, or preserver, of a race, and the historical implications of Jewish culture in Eliot's The Spanish Gypsy.]

Fedalma in George Eliot's The Spanish Gypsy is a portrait of the heroism of the female heart. The entire project of The Spanish Gypsy was framed from the beginning by an attempt to understand in what ways the genre of tragedy could function as a category of the feminine—that is,...

(The entire section is 2923 words.)