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.
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.
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.
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.