The Nation (review date 1868)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 800
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 difference having existed from the days of Hecuba and Hector; of the women crowding within the gates with streaming eyes and praying hands; of the men without on the plain (we quote only from recollection) "quenching memory in the stronger light of purpose, and losing the sense of battle and even of wounds in the hurrying ardor of action." Elsewhere, in Romola, she speaks of the purifying influence of public confession, springing from the fact that "by it the hope in lies is for ever swept away, and the soul recovers the noble attitude of simplicity." In these two sentences, if we are not mistaken, there is a certain poetic light, a poetic ring. The qualities are not intense—they gleam, tremble, and vanish; but they indicate the manner in which a brilliant mind, when reason and sense guard the helm and direct the course, may yet, without effort, touch and hover upon the verge of poetry. The Spanish Gypsy contains far finer things than either of these simple specimens—things, indeed, marvellously fine; but they have been gathered, inour opinion, upon this cold outer verge—they are not the glowing, scented fruit that ripens beneath the meridian.
The poem was composed, the author intimates, while Spain was yet known to her only by descriptions and recitals; it was then, after a visit to the country, rewritten and enlarged. These facts correspond somehow to an impression made upon the reader's mind. The work is primarily—like the author's other productions, we think—an eminently intellectual performance; not the result of experience, or of moral and sensuous impressions. In this circumstance reside at once its strength and its weakness; its want of heat, of a quickening central flame; and its admirable perfection of manner, its densely wrought, richly embroidered garment of thought and language. Never, assuredly, was a somewhat inefficient spirit so richly supplied with the outward organs and faculties of maturity and manhood. George Eliot has nothing in common, either in her merits or her defects, with the late Mrs. Browning. The critic is certainly not at his case with Mrs. Browning until he has admitted, once for all, that she is a born poet. But she is without tact and without taste; her faults of detail are unceasing. George Eliot is not a born poet; but, on the other hand, her intellectual tact is equally delicate and vigorous, her taste is infallible, she is never guilty of errors or excesses. In the whole length of the volume before us we have not observed a single slovenly line, a single sentence unpolished or unfinished. And of strong and beautiful lines what a number; of thoughts deep and clear, of images vivid and complete, of heavily-burdened sentences happily delivered of their meaning, what an endless variety! The whole poem is a tissue of the most elegant, most intelligent rhetoric.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 740
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.
Henry James (review date 1868)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4630
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 her; now she will prove herself what we have all along affirmed her to be,—not a serene, self-directing genius of the first order, knowing her powers and respecting them, and content to leave well enough alone, but a mere showy rhetorician, possessed and prompted, not by the humble spirit of truth, but by an insatiable longing for applause." Suppose Mr. Tennyson were to come out with a novel, or Madame George Sand were to produce a tragedy in French alexandrines. The reader will agree with me, that these are hard suppositions; yet the world has seen stranger things, and been reconciled to them. Nevertheless, with the best possible will toward our illustrious novelist, it is easy to put ourselves in the shoes of these hypothetical detractors. No one, assuredly, but George Eliot could mar George Eliot's reputation; but there was room for the fear that she might do it. This reputation was essentially prosebuilt, and in the attempt to insert a figment of verse of the magnitude of The Spanish Gypsy, it was quite possible that she might injure its fair proportions.
In consulting her past works, for approval of their hopes and their fears, I think both her friends and her foes would have found sufficient ground for their arguments. Of all our English prose-writers of the present day I think I may say, that, as a writer simply, a mistress of style, I have been very near preferring the author of Silas Marner and of Romola,—the author, too, of Felix Holt. The motive of my great regard for her style I take to have been that I fancied it such perfect solid prose. Brilliant and lax as it was in tissue, it seemed to contain very few of the silken threads of poetry; it lay on the ground like a carpet, instead of floating in the air like a banner. If my impression was correct, The Spanish Gypsy is not a genuine poem. And yet, looking over the author's novels in memory, looking over them in the light of her unexpected assumption of the poetical function, I find it hard at times not to mistrust my impression. I like George Eliot well enough, in fact, to admit, for the time, that I might have been in the wrong. If I had liked her less, if I had rated lower the quality of her prose, I should have estimated coldly the possibilities of her verse. Of course, therefore, if, as I am told many persons do in England, who consider carpenters and weavers and millers' daughters no legitimate subject for reputable fiction, I had denied her novels any qualities at all, I should have made haste, on reading the announcement of her poem, to speak of her as the world speaks of a lady, who, having reached a comfortable middle age, with her shoulders decently covered, "for reasons deep below the reach of thought," (to quote our author,) begins to go out to dinner in a low-necked dress "of the period," and say in fine, in three words, that she was going to make a fool of herself.
But here, meanwhile, is the book before me, to arrest all this a priori argumentation. Time enough has elapsed since its appearance for most readers to have uttered their opinons, and for the general verdict of criticism to have been formed. In looking over several of the published reviews, I am struck with the fact that those immediately issued are full of the warmest delight and approval, and that, as the work ceases to be a novelty, objections, exceptions, and protests multiply. This is quite logical. Not only does it take a much longer time than the reviewer on a weekly journal has at his command to properly appreciate a work of the importance of The Spanish Gypsy, but the poem was actually much more of a poem than was to be expected. The foremost feeling of many readers must have been—it was certainly my own—that we had hitherto only half known George Eliot. Adding this dazzling new half to the old one, readers constructed for the moment a really splendid literary figure. But gradually the old half began to absorb the new, and to assimilate its virtues and failings, and critics finally remembered that the cleverest writer in the world is after all nothing and no one but himself.
The most striking quality in The Spanish Gypsy, on a first reading, I think, is its extraordinary rhetorical energy and elegance. The richness of the author's style in her novels gives but an inadequate idea of the splendid generosity of diction displayed in the poem. She is so much of a thinker and an observer that she draws very heavily on her powers of expression, and one may certainly say that they not only never fail her, but that verbal utterance almost always bestows upon her ideas a peculiar beauty and fulness, apart from their significance. The result produced in this manner, the reader will see, may come very near being poetry; it is assuredly eloquence. The faults in the present work are very seldom faults of weakness, except in so far as it is weak to lack an absolute mastery of one's powers: they arise rather from an excess of rhetorical energy, from a desire to attain to perfect fulness and roundness of utterance; they are faults of overstatement….
I may say in general, that the author's admirers must have found in The Spanish Gypsy a presentment of her various special gifts stronger and fuller, on the whole, than any to be found in her novels. Those who valued her chiefly for her humor—the gentle humor which provokes a smile, but deprecates a laugh—will recognize that delightful gift in Blasco, and Lorenzo, and Roldan, and Juan,—slighter in quantity than in her prose-writings, but quite equal, I think, in quality. Those who prize most her descriptive powers will see them wondrously well embodied in these pages. As for those who have felt compelled to declare that she possesses the Shakespearian touch, they must consent, with what grace they may, to be disappointed. I have never thought our author a great dramatist, nor even a particularly dramatic writer. A real dramatist, I imagine, could never have reconciled himself to the odd mixture of the narrative and dramatic forms by which the present work is distinguished; and that George Eliot's genius should have needed to work under these conditions seems to me strong evidence of the partial and incomplete character of her dramatic instincts. An English critic lately described her, with much correctness, as a critic rather than a creator of characters. She puts her figures into action very successfully, but on the whole she thinks for them more than they think for themselves. She thinks, however, to wonderfully good purpose. In none of her works, are there two more distinctly human representations than the characters of Silva and Juan. The latter, indeed, if I am not mistaken, ranks with Tito Melema and Hetty Sorrel, as one of her very best conceptions….
But now to reach the real substance of the poem, and to allow the reader to appreciate the author's treatment of human character and passion, I must speak briefly of the story. I shall hardly misrepresent it, when I say that it is a very old one, and that it illustrates that very common occurrence in human affairs,—the conflict of love and duty. Such, at least, is the general impression made by the poem as it stands. It is very possible that the author's primary intention may have had a breadth which has been curtailed in the execution of the work,—that it was her wish to present a struggle between nature and culture, between education and the instinct of race. You can detect in such a theme the stuff of a very good drama,—a somewhat stouter stuff, however, than The Spanish Gypsy is made of. George Eliot, true to that didactic tendency for which she has hitherto been remarkable, has preferred to make her heroine's predicament a problem in morals, and has thereby, I think, given herself hard work to reach a satisfactory solution. She has, indeed, committed herself to a signal error, in a psychological sense,—that of making a Gypsy girl with a conscience. Either Fedalma was a perfect Zincala in temper and instinct,—in which case her adhesion to her father and her race was a blind, passionate, sensuous movement which is almost expressly contradicted,—or else she was a pure and intelligent Catholic, in which case nothing in the nature of a struggle can bepredicted. The character of Fedalma, I may say, comes very near being a failure,—a very beautiful one; but in point of fact it misses it.
It misses it, I think, thanks to that circumstance which in reading and criticising The Spanish Gypsy we must not cease to bear in mind, the fact that the work is emphatically a romance. We may contest its being a poem, but we must admit that it is a romance in the fullest sense of the word. Whether the term may be absolutely defined I know not; but we may say of it, comparing it with the novel, that it carries much farther that compromise with reality which is the basis of all imaginative writing. In the romance this principle of compromise pervades the superstructure as well as the basis. The most that we exact is that the fable be consistent with itself. Fedalma is not a real Gypsy maiden. The conviction is strong in the reader's mind that a genuine Spanish Zincala would have somehow contrived both to follow her tribe and to keep her lover. If Fedalma is not real, Zarca is even less so. He is interesting, imposing, picturesque; but he is very far, I take it, from being a genuine Gypsy chieftain. They are both ideal figures,—the offspring of a strong mental desire for creatures well rounded in their elevation and heroism,—creatures who should illustrate the nobleness of human nature divorced from its smallness. Don Silva has decidedly more of the common stuff of human feeling, more charming natural passion and weakness. But he, too, is largely a vision of the intellect; his constitution is adapted to the atmosphere and the climate of romance. Juan, indeed, has one foot well planted on the lower earth; but Juan is only an accessory figure. I have said enough to lead the reader to perceive that the poem should not be regarded as a rigid transcript of actual or possible fact,—that the action goes on in an artificial world, and that properly to comprehend it he must regard it with a generous mind.
Viewed in this manner, as efficient figures in an essentially ideal and romantic drama, Fedalma and Zarca seem to gain vastly, and to shine with a brilliant radiance. If we reduce Fedalma to the level of the heroines of our modern novels, in which the interest aroused by a young girl is in proportion to the similarity of her circumstances to those of the reader, and in which none but the commonest feelings are required, provided they be expressed with energy, we shall be tempted to call her a solemn and cold-blooded jilt. In a novel it would have been next to impossible for the author to make the heroine renounce her lover. In novels we not only forgive that weakness which is common and familiar and human, but we actually demand it. But in poetry, although we are compelled to adhere to the few elementary passions of our nature, we do our best to dress them in a new and exquisite garb. Men and women in a poetical drama are nothing, if not distinguished.
Our dear young love,—its breath was happiness!
But it had grown upon a larger life,
Which tore its roots asunder.
These words are uttered by Fedalma at the close of the poem, and in them she emphatically claims the distinction of having her own private interests invaded by those of a people. The manner of her kinship with the Zincali is in fact very much "larger life" than her marriage with Don Silva. We may, indeed, challenge the probability of her relationship to her tribe impressing her mind with a force equal to that of her love,—her "dear young love." We may declare that this is an unnatural and violent result. For my part, I think it is very far from violent; I think the author has employed art in reducing the apparently arbitrary quality of her preference for her tribe. I say reducing; I do not say effacing; because it seems to me, as I have intimated, that just at this point her art has been wanting, and we are not sufficiently prepared for Fedalma's movement by a sense of her Gypsy temper and instincts. Still, we are in some degree prepared for it by various passages in the opening scenes of the book,—by all the magnificent description of her dance in the Plaza….
We are better prepared for it, however, than by anything else, by the whole impression we receive of the exquisite refinement and elevation of the young girl's mind,—by all that makes her so bad a Gypsy. She possesses evidently a very high-strung intellect, and her whole conduct is in a higher key, as I may say, than that of ordinary women, or even ordinary heroines. She is natural, I think, in a poetical sense. She is consistent with her own prodigiously superfine character. From a lower point of view than that of the author, she lacks several of the desirable feminine qualities,—a certain womanly warmth and petulance, a graceful irrationality. Her mind is very much too lucid, and her aspirations too lofty. Her conscience, especially, is decidedly over-active. But this is a distinction which she shares with all the author's heroines,—Dinah Morris, Maggie Tulliver, Romola, and Esther Lyon,—a distinction, moreover, for which I should be very sorry to hold George Eliot to account. There are most assuredly women and women. While Messrs. Charles Reade and Wilkie Collins, and Miss Braddon and her school, tell one half the story, it is no more than fair that the author of The Spanish Gypsy should, all unassisted attempt to relate the other.
Whenever a story really interests one, he is very fond of paying it the compliment of imagining it otherwise constructed, and of capping it with a different termination. In the present case, one is irresistibly tempted to fancy The Spanish Gypsy in prose,—a compact, regular drama: not George Eliot's prose, however: in a diction much more nervous and heated and rapid, written with short speeches as well as long. (The reader will have observed the want of brevity, retort, interruption, rapid alternation, in the dialogue of the poem. The characters all talk, as it were, standing still.) In such a play as the one indicated one imagines a truly dramatic Fedalma,—a passionate, sensuous, irrational Bohemian, as elegant as good breeding and native good taste could make her, and as pure as her actual sister in the poem,—but rushing into her father's arms with a cry of joy, and losing the sense of her lover's sorrow in what the author has elsewhere described as "the hurrying ardor of action." Or in the way of a different termination, suppose that Fedalma should for the time value at once her own love and her lover's enough to make her prefer the latter's destiny to that represented by her father. Imagine, then, that, after marriage, the Gypsy blood and nature should begin to flow and throb in quicker pulsations,—and that the poor girl should sadly contrast the sunny freedom and lawless joy of her people's lot with the splendid rigidity and formalism of her own. You may conceive at this point that she should pass from sadness to despair, and from despair to revolt. Here the catastrophe may occur in a dozen different ways. Fedalma may die before her husband's eyes, of unsatisfied longing for the fate she has rejected; or she may make an attempt actually to recover her fate, by wandering off and seeking out her people. The cultivated mind, however, it seems to me, imperiously demands that, on finally overtaking them, she shall die of mingled weariness and shame, as neither a good Gypsy nor a good Christian, but simply a good figure for a tragedy. But there is a degree of levity which almost amounts to irreverence in fancying this admirable performance as anything other than it is.
After Fedalma comes Zarca, and here our imagination flags. Not so George Eliot's: for as simple imagination, I think that in the conception of this impressive and unreal figure it appears decidedly at its strongest. With Zarca, we stand at the very heart of the realm of romance. There is truly a grand simplicity, to my mind, in the outline of his character, and a remarkable air of majesty in his poise and attitude. He is a père noble in perfection. His speeches have an exquisite eloquence. In strictness, he is to the last degree unreal, illogical, and rhetorical; but a certain dramatic unity is diffused through his character by the depth and energy of the colors in which he is painted. With a little less simplicity, his figure would be decidedly modern. As it stands, it is neither modern nor mediaeval; it belongs to the world of intellectual dreams and visions. The reader will admit that it is a vision of no small beauty, the conception of a stalwart chieftain who distils the cold exaltation of his purpose from the utter loneliness and obloquy of his race….
Better than Fedalma or than Zarca is the remarkably beautiful and elaborate portrait of Don Silva, in whom the author has wished to present a young nobleman as splendid in person and in soul as the dawning splendor of his native country. In the composition of his figure, the real and the romantic, brilliancy and pathos, are equally commingled. He cannot be said to stand out in vivid relief. As a piece of painting, there is nothing commanding, aggressive, brutal, as I may say, in his lineaments. But they will bear close scrutiny. Place yourself within the circumscription of the work, breathe its atmosphere, and you will see that Don Silva is portrayed with a delicacy to which English story-tellers, whether in prose or verse, have not accustomed us. There are better portraits in Browning, but there are also worse; in Tennyson there are none as good; and in the other great poets of the present century there are no attempts, that I can remember, to which we may compare it. In spite of the poem being called in honor of his mistress, Don Silva is in fact the central figure in the work. Much more than Fedalma, he is the passive object of the converging blows of Fate. The young girl, after all, did what was easiest; but he is entangled in a network of agony, without choice or compliance of his own. It is an admirable subject admirably treated. I may describe it by saying that it exhibits a perfect aristocratic nature, (born and bred at a time when democratic aspirations were quite irrelevant to happiness), dragged down by no fault of its own into the vulgar mire of error and expiation. The interest which attaches to Don Silva's character revolves about its exquisite human weakness, its manly scepticism, its antipathy to the trenchant, the absolute, and arbitrary…. Throughout the poem, we are conscious, during the evolution of his character, of the presence of these high mystical influences, which, combined with his personal pride, his knightly temper, his delicate culture, form a splendid background for passionate dramatic action. The finest pages in the book, to my taste, are those which describe his lonely vigil in the Gypsy camp, after he has failed in winning back Fedalma, and has pledged his faith to Zarca. Placed under guard, and left to his own stern thoughts, his soul begins to react against the hideous disorder to which he has committed it, to proclaim its kinship with "customs and bonds and laws," and its sacred need of the light of human esteem…. To be appreciated at their worth, these pages should be attentively read. Nowhere has the author's marvellous power of expression, the mingled dignity and pliancy of her style, obtained a greater triumph. She has reproduced the expression of a mind with the same vigorous distinctness as that with which a great painter represents the expression of a countenance.
The character which accords best with my own taste is that of the minstrel Juan, an extremely generous conception. He fills no great part in the drama; he is by nature the reverse of a man of action; and, strictly, the story could very well dispense with him. Yet, for all that, I should be sorry to lose him, and lose thereby the various excellent things which are said of him and by him. I do not include his songs among the latter. Only two of the lyrics in the work strike me as good: the song of Pablo, "The world is great: the birds all fly from me"; and, in a lower degree, the chant of the Zincali, in the fourth book….
When Juan talks at his ease, he strikes the note of poetry much more surely than when he lifts his voice in song:—
Yet if your graciousness will not disdain
A poor plucked songster, shall he sing to you?
Some lay of afternoons,—some ballad strain
Of those who ached once, but are sleeping now
Under the sun-warmed flowers?
Juan's link of connection with the story is, in the first place, that he is in love with Fedalma, and, in the second, as a piece of local color….
In every human imbroglio, be it of a comic or a tragic nature, it is good to think of an observer standing aloof, the critic, the idle commentator of it all, taking notes, as we may say, in the interest of truth. The exercise of this function is the chief ground of our interest in Juan. Yet as a man of action, too, he once appeals most irresistibly to our sympathies: I mean in the admirable scene with Hinda, in which he wins back his stolen finery by his lute-playing. This scene, which is written in prose, has a simple, realistic power which renders it a truly remarkable composition.
Of the different parts of The Spanish Gypsy I have spoken with such fulness as my space allows: it remains to add a few remarks upon the work as a whole. Its great fault is simply that it is not a genuine poem. It lacks the hurrying quickness, the palpitating warmth, the bursting melody of such a creation. A genuine poem is a tree that breaks into blossom and shakes in the wind. George Eliot's elaborate composition is like a vast mural design in mosaic-work, where great slabs and delicate morsels of stone are laid together with wonderful art, where there are plenty of noble lines and generous hues, but where everything is rigid, measured, and cold,—nothing dazzling, magical, and vocal. The poem contains a number of faulty lines,—lines of twelve, of eleven, and of eight syllables,—of which it is easy to suppose that a more sacredly commissioned versifier would not have been guilty. Occasionally, in the search for poetic effect, the author decidedly misses her way:
A "leonine" wave is rather too much of a lion and too little of a wave. The work possesses imagination, I think, in no small measure. The description of Silva's feelings during the sojourn in the Gypsy camp is strongly pervaded by it; or if perchance the author achieved these passages without rising on the wings of fancy, her glory is all the greater. But the poem is wanting in passion. The reader is annoyed by a perpetual sense of effort and of intellectual tension. It is a characteristic of George Eliot, I imagine, to allow her impressions to linger a long time in her mind, so that by the time they are ready for use they have lost much of their original freshness and vigor. They have acquired, of course, a number of artificial charms but they have parted with their primal natural simplicity. In this poem, we see the landscape, the people, the manners of Spain as through a glass smoked by the flame of meditative vigils, just as we saw the outward aspect of Florence in Romola. The brightness of coloring is there, the artful chiaroscuro, and all the consecrated properties of the scene; but they gleam in an artificial light. The background of the action is admirable in spots, but is cold and mechanical as a whole. The immense rhetorical ingenuity and elegance of the work, which constitute its main distinction, interfere with the faithful uncompromising reflection of the primary elements of the subject.
The great merit of the characters is that they are marvelously well understood,—far better understood than in the ordinary picturesque romance of action, adventure and mystery. And yet they are not understood to the bottom; they retain an indefinably factitious air, which is not sufficiently justified by their position as ideal figures. The reader who has attentively read the closing scene of the poem will know what I mean. The scene shows remarkable talent; it is eloquent, it is beautiful; but it is arbitrary and fanciful, more than unreal,—untrue. The reader silently chafes and protests, and finally breaks forth and cries, "O for a blast from the outer world!" Silva and Fedalma have developed themselves so daintily and elaborately within the close-sealed precincts of the author's mind, that they strike us at last as acting not as simple human creatures, but as downright amateurs of the morally graceful and picturesque. To say that this is the ultimate impression of the poem is to say that it is not a great work. It is in fact not a great drama. It is, in the first place, an admirable study of character,—an essay, as they say, toward the solution of a given problem in conduct. In the second, it is a noble literary performance. It can be read neither without interest in the former respect, nor without profit for its signal merits of style,—and this in spite of the fact that the versification is, as the French say, as little réussi as was to be expected in a writer beginning at a bound with a kind of verse which is very much more difficult than even the best prose,—the author's own prose. I shall indicate most of its merits and defects, great and small, if I say it is a romance,—a romance written by one who is emphatically a thinker.
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The Spanish Gypsy: A Poem 1868
Brother and Sister 1869
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
London Quarterly Review (review date 1868)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4430
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 to blank verse would present no difficulty whatever, and would often be a great relief; but the great feat, when under the excitement of working prose artistically, is to keep it thoroughly true to prose principles; and, at the same time, it is absolutely essential that no effort be betrayed in keeping prose prose. Still, George Eliot has done this; and the grand outline and features of her art show nowhere any distortion of struggle or hard repression. At length, however, the rhythmic impulse has got the upper hand, and we have a work from George Eliot in verse….
Without entering upon a discussion of the minutia of morality involved in this story, we may remark that the philosophical resources of the plot are made use of to the utmost. The amount of discussion which finds utterance in the pages of The Spanish Gypsy, and the valuable series of analyses of mental phenomena which have been effected, are nothing less than startling; and there can be no question that a book of more noble intention or more lofty thought is hard to find, if it be at all discoverable. The highest poetical qualities George Eliot has not before failed of reaching—those qualities summed up under the the head of idealisation—she has here grasped with a hand strong as ever. But is the seeker after the technical beauties of poetry satisfied, when he comes to these pages, in a degree nearly approaching that in which the seeker for the technical beauties of high prose is satisfied in her former works? In this question, we but restate the problem whether The Spanish Gypsy is a new birth calling for congratulation, in respect of the method of its execution. To those who look critically at the external forms of poetry there is something not quite attractive, in the first place, in the composite form which the author has selected for this poem—or rather invented, for it is quite a new thing. The Spanish Gypsy opens with descriptive narration in blank verse, which passes into dialogue, interrupted by greater and smaller passages of description and explanation in blank verse, besides a copious supply of lyrics, and very elaborate stage directions in prose. One or two of the dramatic scenes, also, are entirely in prose. Now a first glance at the outline of this poem would lead one conversant with the author's works to the idea that the old method had been adopted—that the work had been produced on the same principles of procedure as her prose works, with the exception of the sense being conveyed rhythmically instead of unrhythmically. But it would be rash to come to such a conclusion without a thorough examination of the work page by page and line by line.
The characteristic of the modern novel method, in contradistinction to the dramatic method, is that the personages are not made to depend solely on their own utterances and reflective utterances of fellow-characters for the impression which the reader gets of them, but are constantly assisted by a running commentary analytical and explanatory. In a prose work of art, too, we get bits of landscape &c. which are left to the imagination in the drama, and the effects of this and that circumstance are constantly analysed and explained by the narrator, instead of being implied in the general action of the drama, or in subtly condensed touches of dialogue or monologue. Now, although we get all these prose characteristics in The Spanish Gypsy, they alone would not be sufficient to stamp the method as the prose method, unless minute examination lent its support to such an imputation. After making a minute examination of the work, we are of opinion that, taken as a whole, and notwithstanding the exquisite touches of true poetic expression scattered through it, it must be considered rather as a highly poetic work elaborated in the prose method, than as a production strictly poetical in all respects.
The Spanish Gypsy would be known anywhere for the production of George Eliot, by virtue of the ideas which go to furnish its fabric; but no distinct individual poetic manner is traceable from page to page, as is the case with Tennyson and Browning, or such poets of less perfection in manner as Mrs. Browning and Edgar Poe. In the following magnificent passage there is a wealth and breadth of thought, and a certain catholic and historic class of thought, that is but seldom to be found in the works of other artists than George Eliot; but what is there to distinguish the style as hers? Indeed, in the most exquisitely expressed passage, those which have been italicised might, with a shade less breadth of view, have passed for extract from some of the best works of Mrs. Browning:—
But other futures stir the world's great heart.
Europe is come to her majority,
And enters on the vast inheritance
Won from the tombs of mighty ancestors,
The seeds, the gold, the gems, the silent harps
That lay deep buried with the memories
Of old renown.
No more, as once in sunny Avignon,
The poet-scholar spreads the Homeric page,
And gazes sadly, like the deaf at song;
For now the old epic voices ring again
And vibrate with the beat and melody
Stirred by the warmth of old Ionian days.
The martyred sage, the Attic orator,
Immortally incarnate, like the gods,
In spiritual bodies, wingèd words
Holding a universe impalpable,
Find a new audience. For evermore,
With grander resurrection than was feigned
Of Attila's fierce Huns, the soul of Greece
Conquers the bulk of Persia. The maimed form
Of calmly-joyous beauty, marble-limbed,
Yet breathing with the thought that shaped its lips,
Looks mild reproach from out its opened grave
At creeds of terror; and the vine-wreathed god
Rising, a stifled question from the silence,
Fronts the pierced Image with the crown of thorns.
The soul of man is widening towards the past:
No longer hanging at the breast of life
Feeding in blindness to his parentage—
Quenching all wonder with Omnipotence,
Praising a name with indolent piety—
He spells the record of his long descent,
More largely conscious of the life that was.
And from the height that shows where morning shone
On far-off summits pale and gloomy now,
The horizon widens round him, and the west
Looks vast with untracked waves whereon his gaze
Follows the flight of the swift-vanished bird
That like the sunken sun is mirrored still
Upon the yearning soul within the eye.
We must not be misunderstood as insinuating that George Eliot has plagiarised in the slightest degree the expressions of Mrs. Browning, or of any other poet; but in judging whether a new poem is to be regarded as truly and unmistakably poetic in expression, it is necessary as a preliminary induction to bring together such passages as are most striking; and, having ranged them before him, the critic must decide whether they constitute a manner of expression original as well as beautiful. This method of procedure discovers in The Spanish Gypsy the fact that such distinctly poetic style as the author has developed has been the result of the unconsciously assimilative faculty. This is frequently the case with writers of intense poetic feeling, whose mode of expression is other than the poetic mode. A happy thought comes, and is happily expressed; but, when analysed technically, it is found to be expressed as A or B would have expressed it, had his mind been the fortunate nursing-ground of the idea:—not that the actual possessor of the idea has borrowed a single word from A or B; but that antecedent familiarity with A's or B's work has stamped certain forms or lines of speech on a mind which, if occupied by a poetic technical equipment of its own, would not have assimilated such forms or lines. And thus it is that we meet in The Spanish Gypsy passages which, without perhaps the slightest resemblance to any special passage by another poet, are so distinctly in the manner which we associate with some well-known name, that, had we met them as detached quotations, we should have said, "Tennyson," "Shakespeare," "Mrs. Browning," "Shelley," as the case might be. Who, for instance, would not take these exquisite lines for the product of the Laureate's mind:—
Not only does the ring of the words recall Tennyson, but there is that Tennysonian structure which gives an inevitable rhythmic flow, divide the words into lines how you will. Write the passage thus—
and you get scansion as distinct and pure as before, though not quite so stately. Here is a line suggestive of Shelley—
'Twas Pablo, like the wounded spirit of song.
And in the lines—
we have a remarkable expression, which has always struck us as peculiarly appropriate in Mr. Swinburne's rondel, Kissing her Hair. It was not in that rondel that the happy term "white Death" was first used, for it occurs in the Prometheus Unbound of Shelley, in whose Alastor we get also "black Death." The names most frequently forced on the mind in connection with matters of expression in The Spanish Gypsy are, however, Shakspeare and Mrs. Browning. The following lines are peculiarly suggestive of the great poetess:—
And when we read farther on—
One pulse of Time makes the base hollow—sends
The towering certainty we built so high
Toppling in fragments meaningless
we are forced by identity of metaphor to revert to some lines in Aurora Leigh, describing Romney (in far less elegant terms, truly) as a man who
Of Shakespearian cuttings from this poem by one of the most Shakespearian of our modern authors, it would be easy to give a long array. Here is one:—
This next, a lyrical one, is at least Elizabethan:—
And many more distinctly Shakespearian passages will suggest themselves to readers of the work, or of a more considerable extract which we give farther on. Even Milton is not unrepresented, as witness the line—
When with obliquely soaring bend altern.
An appraisal of the lyrics of The Spanish Gypsy yields a result similar to that obtained by examining the miscellaneous pieces of expression which are pointedly beautiful—that is to say, the lyrics do not support any claim to competency in the matter of individual technical expression. A lyric to be entirely satisfying should combine perfection of music with perfection of sense. In the short space of a lyric we expect to get this combination even from a poet who does not sustain it when working on a larger scale; but, charming as are many of the songs of this volume, hardly any come up to the standard of lyrical excellence which we should demand of a new poet as a diploma-condition. In one instance George Eliot has given us a song as thoroughly exquisite in sense and sound as anything can possibly be. It is this sad, sweet song of Pablo's:—
But in another of Pablo's songs, equally exquisite in thought, and perhaps fuller of pathos, there is a lack of music, rising partly from the somewhat unlyrical construction of the verse, and partly from the slightly stiff manner in which the division of sense involves a division of the lines:—
Two of the songs, to which attention is invited in the author's prefatory note, are written in trochaic assonant—a metre eminently unsuited for the purposes of an English lyrist. A line composed of four trochees does not in itself furnish a good basis for lyric utterance in our language, however well it may suit the sonorous tongue of the Spaniard. With all their spirit and vis, the following verses have no ring of music:—
The assonant quality is one which would not strike an English reader at first sight. He would look upon the metre as a blank-verse metre, unless near inspection perhaps revealed to him that in every couplet the two vowels of the final foot are identical in each line, while the consonants are independent. In the other trochaic assonant song (the final verse of which, by-the-bye, affords another sample of Elizabethan assimilation), this correspondence is in the quatrain instead of the couplet form: here is the last verse:—
There is one more lyric which we must not omit to quote here; it is this:—
Splendidly strong as these two verses are—great as is the historical keenness which prompted the thought—we cannot but think that even these bear out the charge of want of music; and indeed, in our opinion, the only song in the book which seriously opposes that charge is the first we quoted.
As great stress was laid, some pages back on the polarising of language as an element of poetic style, it may naturally be asked, what, in that respect, is elicited by searching the pages of The Spanish Gypsy, to help us to a conclusion on the style of the volume? To tell the truth, we have only discovered two instances in which any use has been made of this instrument of the poet. In one case, Don Silva is described as "too proudly special for obedience"—a happy term in which the force of the word special exceeds by a degree its usual value. In the other case, Prior Isidor, reproaching Don Silva, exclaims—
"O fallen knighthood, penitent of high vows!"
Here, the word penitent is placed in such unusual company as to convey an intensified sarcasm highly artistic in its propriety under the circumstances of the dialogue, throughout which the Prior has been working himself up to a higher and higher pitch of bitter invective.
However, setting aside the question of special polarisations of language, it would be absurd to say that The Spanish Gypsy is entirely devoid of individualities of expression such as would help to make up a style. Indeed, there are numerous minutiæ of utterance, scattered throughout it, which are unmistakably born and bred in the most original recesses of this most original mind. In this passage, for instance, the italicised words are unquestionably such as would be met in no other author:—
And in love's spring all good seems possible:
No threats, all promise, brooklets ripple full
And bathe the rushes, vicious crawling things
Are pretty eggs.
The same may be said of the following:—
And there are plenty of other instances. But, while those decorations are peculiarly individual and pointed, and would stand out as very attractive gems in the excellent setting of a page of George Eliot's high prose, it does not seem to us that they have sufficient intensity to grace the more exacting setting of verse; and, indeed, striking as the expressions are, they are a little below the dignity blank verse assumes with that inexpressible afflatus which we have already mentioned as the inevitable accompaniment of anything like a serious attempt at poetry strictly so called.
While on this subject, we must not fail to remark that at times the execution seems to fall more distinctly short of poetic dignity. Sometimes the incidents chosen for description are to blame for this, and at others the expressions. In the first scene on the Plaça, the tricks of the juggler seem unduly dwelt on—described at greater length than could be well afforded for such trivial matters; and the monkey's performances occupy a greater space than seems in keeping with the serious nature of the book.
We are aware that the minute observations we have been making stand a good chance of being included in the category of considerations referred to in Macmillan's Magazine, when the writer of the article on The Spanish Gypsy talks of peddling in the lesser things of criticism; but we must dare the consequences of our procedure, even should they take the form of an implied censure from so distinguished a pen as that of Mr. John Morley, who is obviously the "J. M." of that article.
A little more peddling, then, and we have done. The heterogeneity of method involved in brusque transitions from narration to dramatisation—from stage directions and descriptions in verse, to stage directions and descriptions in prose—the heterogeneity which, while never coming near the soul of the work, has been shown to have entered so far into its flesh and blood, as to show itself in a variety of elements of style assimilated from other authors—may be traced farther in smaller details. We find it still when we examine the grammar. Bad grammar is a thing the most aspiring enemy could never hope to find in any composition of George Eliot; but heterogeneous grammar has come to anabundant crop in the work before us, no doubt through unfamiliarity with this class of composition. We find change of person and tense in the dialogues and descriptions coming upon us with unanticipated rapidity, and without apparent reason. In one instance, Fedalma says to Hinda:—
"You would obey then? Part from him for ever?"
And after receiving Hinda's answer, she resumes:—
In the next dialogue, Don Silva first addresses Fedalma in the plural, then in the singular, then again in the plural, thus:—
An instance of sudden change of tense—transition from the past to the historic present—may be found quite close to the opening of the book:—
"I said the souls were five,—besides the dog,
But there was still a sixth, with wrinkled face,
Grave and disgusted with all merriment
Not less than Roldan. It is Annibal,
The experienced monkey who performs the tricks."
These last few quotations are but specimens of what occurs frequently throughout the volume.
There is yet one symptom of minute heterogeneity that we have to name—the excessive variations in length and style to which the blank verse is subjected. The type of the metrical stock of The Spanish Gypsy is the blank line of five iambuses; but with so little strictness is this type adhered to that, making every deduction for legitimate and easy elision, there is an immense residue of irregular lines. Some have six distinct iambuses, some only four, some few less; and many have no distinct form at all. The lines that have caught our attention and arrested us by virtue of their obvious irregularity amount to about seventy; and this without including many that, though they may be scanned by difficult elision, are not such as have an inherent conformity to the type selected. These small irregularities may be defended; but to our thinking they are blemishes of greater importance than they would at first sight appear to be—simply because they frequently arrest attention by their eccentricity at points where there is no other reason for halting. But when all has been said about these minute faults, it must be admitted that it is not on them that the strongest attack on the execution of the work could be mainly based, but on the larger outlines of the method.
To tell a tale in verse in the prose method is fatal in one respect. Few authors are sufficiently temerarious to carry a work in verse to as great a length as a work in prose; and in reducing to the necessary limits a work in verse which is not thoroughly poetic in method—not thoroughly condensed in expression—the danger is that much will be left out which, if told out in prose, would save the characters from the great fault of shadowiness. Some such fatal error has, we venture to submit, attended the production of The Spanish Gypsy, in which the characters are too vague, too mere embodiments of noble thoughts and sentiments: they do not take a living and active place in our minds as do the Marners and Maggies, the Dodsons and Tullivers, and all the persons of George Eliot's other books. Juan is the only character here who is personally much more than a ghost—because in the treatment of him the method is more fully dramatic than elsewhere. In the other characters we feel more that we are listening to the noble oratory of the author than that we are in the presence of a group of variously-endowed human beings.
Juan, however, lives distinctly before us, and better recalls the dramatic breadth of Shakspeare than anything in the book: whatever he says is thoroughly characteristic; his various figurings before us furnish a homogeneous series of aspects which make up an evident man—and that a very noble one. His nobility, we may observe in passing, consists chiefly in a pure and disinterested devotion to Fedalma, and a genial kindliness to everyone, together with a cheerful acceptance of the position in life which places him out of all possibility of reward for his devotedness. But it is with the drawing of him, not the nobility, we are now concerned; and this we have described as more truly dramatic than that of the other personages. The work is evidently framed with a view to being as unsuitable for the stage as possible; and it is very intelligible that an artist of a high class should wish to avoid the remote contingency of being made to figure on a degenerate stage such as ours. Still, the drama and the stage are subjectively so intimate in relationship, that a fine drama is usually found to meet the exigencies of the stage. So with Juan—the scenes in which he is introduced are not only fuller of dramatic portraiture, but also more instinct with dramatic life, and that most difficult thing to treat in the drama, motion. Take, for instance, the beautiful scene in which he is among the gypsies, and in which he has been robbed of his various articles of finery by the wild girls. How full it is of motion, as well as deep thought and exquisite portraiture….
Our final quotation shall be one of the finest passages in the book; it is from the last speech of the unhappy Duke Silva, as he takes farewell of Fedalma, about to start for Africa with her Zincali:—
"I will not leave my name in infamy,
I will not be perpetual rottenness
Upon the Spaniard's air. If I must sink
At last to hell, I will not take my stand
Among the coward crew who could not bear
The harm themselves had done, which others bore.
My young life still may fill a breach,
And I will take no pardon, not my own,
Not God's—no pardon idly on my knees;
But it shall come to me upon my feet
And in the thick of action, and each deed
That carried shame and wrong shall be the sting
That drives me higher up the steep of honour
In deeds of duteous service to that Spain
Who nourished me on her expectant breast,
The heir of highest gifts. I will not fling
My earthly being down for carrion
To fill the air with loathing: I will be
The living prey of some fierce noble death
That leaps upon me while I move."
To students, and those who have assimilated the code of morality implied in George Eliot's works, this last production must ever be dear for intimate companionship, as affording innumerable new renderings of the great sentiments of the author; but by the dilettante, the seeker after technical beauty in poetry, and the stickler for unity of form, it will not be greatly loved. Here and there the dilettante will get, if he tries, exquisite touches of true poetry, in the truly poetic method; but even if that method, in its essence of condensation, were closely followed throughout the poem, the fact that narration and dramatisation, verse and prose, are indiscriminately used for similar purposes, constitutes too grave a rupture of what the generality of readers require in respect of form, for the poem to be popular. It is, of course, not desired to erect popularity as the final criterion of excellence in judging of a work of art of such high feeling and subtle intellectuality as The Spanish Gypsy; but we may safely say that, had the subject been treated in prose, a large and intelligent class of readers now unappealed to would have come readily within the influence of the work. The subject of The Spanish Gypsy could never have been worked into a tale as popular (and therefore wide in influence for good) as Adam Bede; but it might easily have extended its influence as far as that of Romola has extended, and the circuit of that influence is no mean one. Had The Spanish Gypsy, in fine, been perfect, which it must have been in prose, so complete is the author's mastery over that her special method, its production would have been a matter of widespread gratitude; but being, as it is, imperfect, the general public will probably forget it far sooner than it deserves to be forgotten, and while it is still treasured up in the hearts of those who thoroughly sympathise with the author. Looking at the work in this light, we cannot but call it, on the whole, a failure; yet, so high a value do we set upon it, that we should certainly restrain ourselves from using so harsh an expression, but for one consideration:—we look of course that George Eliot shall produce us many more books yet: in The Spanish Gypsy we see no promise of perfection in this lately-assumed method; while in the other method, perfection is at her command: every sincere critic who sees the shortcomings of the present work is therefore bound to protest against the use of the instruments which have been employed in its elaboration. For our own part, we cannot but express the opinion that the abandonment by George Eliot of her own walk of art for the continued production of works in the manner of The Spanish Gypsy would be a national calamity.
The Spectator (review date 1874)
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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 because it shows where the great novelist seemed to feel most the need for recourse to poetry, and the kind of poetry to which, under these circumstances, she has recourse,—and this we could hardly have learnt from a long poem like The Spanish Gipsy, where she was committed to the poetic form throughout the story. Nevertheless, one feels in reading the volume that remarkable as these poems would be from any unknown hand, they are not the most impressive, though they may be the most characteristic expressions of the great mind that produced them,—nay, that they are only in one sense even the most characteristic, namely, in Mr. Browning's sense, that their author here deliberately prefers, instead of blowing "thro' brass," "to breathe thro' silver,"—deliberately chooses the new medium for expressing this most individual and intense kind of thought and feeling.
What one notices specially in these minor poems, as in The Spanish Gipsy, is that George Eliot's marvellous dramatic power seems to fade away in great measure in the delicate medium of verse, that the ideal ends which draw her to verse absorb her while she is occupied in it, and prevent her from moulding her characters with anything like the force we expect from her. Jubal, Agatha, Armgart and her friends (Leo partly excepted), and Lisa, are all more or less the dreams of ideal reverie. George Eliot's brooding fancies and her moral enthusiasms are expressed in them, but not her living imagination. We get fine lines, exquisite passages, great imaginative expressions here and there, which she could hardly have used in prose, but only one really perfect poem, and that a study, of the idyllic kind, of the relations of a sister and brother. "Jubal," the poem in praise of death, the poem which expresses the idea that death in life is the great cause of life in death, that the good which the fear of death drives into the soul is the origin of that creative power which enables individual genius to live again in the blessings it confers on the world, is a reverie full of delicate touches and of a sedate melancholy; but the oftener we read it, the more the close of it, which is of course its peroration and its moral, strikes us as unworthy, even in a merely artistic sense, of the conception of the poem. A death-vision, in which the first inventor of music sees the face of his "loved Past," and hears, from that somewhat strange impersonation, a Positivist lecture on the glory of living again in the souls of all the other men whom music is to bless, certainly makes a feeble ending to the melodious but rather monotonous poem which delineates so pathetically the origin of music and of song. All that contains what we may fairly regard as artistic autobiography is exceedingly fine and instructive….
But when we pass beyond those beautiful passages in the poem which describe the secrets of the writer's own imaginative experience, to the delineation of the moral,—that death is no evil, but a good, and that an impersonal immortality is better than a personal,—we get sweet and fluent didactic verse, without either that keen psychological truth which arrests the attention as all vivid portraiture arrests it, or that bold flight of imagination which carries us with it into a purer and sublimer region. Such passages … have neither the ease nor the force which mark a great poem. The effort in them is visible. They are verse, not poetry, and they throw their air of tremulous endeavour over the whole poem of which they form so important an element….
"Agatha" and "Armgart" seem to us less imperfect than the "Legend of Jubal," partly because they do not aim so high, and partly because there is more of the dramatic form and less of the purely poetic form in them. "Agatha," indeed, is little more than an effort to paint a 'beautiful soul' of the humbler South-German kind, in its old-fashioned piety and mystic, but not the less beneficent, saintliness; and the picture is very beautiful, though rather slight. It gains a certain idyllic grace from its poetic form; and the little village night-song with which it concludes is full of simple beauty. But it seems to us that it is a success mainly because it passes so little beyond the idyllic aims of many of the author's sketches in prose. We see a very delicate picture framed in melodious verse, but the poem hardly attempts to give expression to anything deeper than George Eliot's always sensitive appreciation of moral simplicity and loveliness. That which chiefly drives her into poetry, the desire for a fitter medium of intense feeling than any which prose can afford, is hardly perceivable here. In "Armgart," however, the moral yearning is uppermost again. On the whole, it seems to us the most successful of those of George Eliot's poems which she would not have thought of giving us in any shape if she could not have given them in verse. It contains sentences of extraordinary grandeur,—again, in all probability, sentences representing the author's own personal experience of the artistic life,—and it paints the necessary limitation and apparent selfishness of genius, and the exorbitant claim of right divine which exclusive gifts are apt to breed in the minds of those who possess them, with marvellous force. No one has ever shown so powerfully how even a genius which delights in itself merely for the joy it diffuses amongst mankind, thinks not of mankind, but of itself, as the great loser, when the gift is withdrawn; and no one has ever enforced so earnestly the lesson of disinterested sympathy with those "toiling millions of men" who are "sunk in labour and pain." What a fine expression is this of the inborn feeling of power! (Armgart, we need hardly say, by way of explanation, is a great singer):—
And what, again, can be more Shakespearian than this reply to Leo's remark, that a great artist in the moment of success knows not "pain from pleasure in such joy"?—
O, pleasure has cramped dwelling in our souls,
And when full Being comes must call on pain
To lend it liberal space.
And here, again, is another such terse saying, in which we hardly know whether the form or the thought is the finer:—
Still even in "Armgart," the nearest, we think, to a poetic whole of all the poems not purely idyllic, there is a sense of defect, of fragmentariness, and baldness at the end, which tells one that the poetic form is not the form which is the most appropriate to its author's genius. What remains in the mind of the reader as he looks back on it, is not form and thought fused perfectly together, but the thought glimmering somewhat vaguely through an imperfect form. "Lisa" is the least good of all the longer poems. It is eloquent verse and tender narrative, and nothing more.
The most complete and successful of the poems is the series of twelve Shakespearian sonnets called "Brother and Sister." This is indeed the "soul of a dead past" revisiting the world with a true imaginative beauty. But it is a poem of the idyllic order,—an exalted form of some of the pure idylls in the Mill on the Floss, hardly a poem written from the depth of ideal emotions which could choose no form but poetry. No picture of a sister's childish delight in common joys with her brother was ever more delicate; but what is more beautful still is the air of dreamy wonder, partly, no doubt, a feeling reflected back from a later age, but partly remembered, in which the first recollections of natural beauty are steeped….
On the whole, it seems to us that this little volume of poems is strongest where it keeps to realistic pictures steeped in emotion, and weakest where it springs into the ardour of the ideal life. The verse is too sedate, and almost too tame for the language of passion, and adequate to the thought only when it is the reflection of deeply felt experience. There is a want of ease and swiftness and motion in it, whenever it tries to soar. While the author invests her real self-knowledge or memories in a liquid cloud of soft external beauty, she is truly poetical, though in a modest region of poetry. But when she embodies an impassioned faith of her own in an imaginative form, she seems to us to show how far her visionary power lags behind her imaginative insight. In meditative melancholy, in tender recollection, she can reach a point of true poetic beauty; but she is too self-conscious, too intrinsically sober-minded, too sensible of the urgent limits upon her thought, too true to the world she knows, for those flights of genius beyond the region of experience in which only the higher kind of poets succeed. George Eliot's poems will add great interest to her novels. But her name and genius will always be identified with her delineations of life.
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Haight, Gordon S. George Eliot: A Biography. London: Clarendon Press, 1968, 616 p.
Regarded by many as the definitive biography of Eliot.
May, J. Lewis. George Eliot. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1930, 359 p.
Early biography of Eliot which aims to revive interest in the author and her works.
Redinger, Ruby V. George Eliot: The Emergent Self. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975, 540 p.
Approaches Eliot's life and work from a psychoanalytical point of view.
Bloom, Harold, ed. George Eliot. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986, 260 p.
Collection of essays on Eliot's novels by well-known critics such as F. R. Leavis, Dorothy Van Ghent, Barbara Hardy, and J. Hillis Miller.
Ermarth, Elizabeth Deeds. George Eliot. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1985, 163 p.
Brief overview of Eliot's life, followed by analyses of the themes and aesthetics which dominate her work, particularly her novels.
Godwin, Gail. "Would We Have Heard of Marian Evans?" Ms. 3, No. 3 (September 1974): 72-5.
Examines the characters in George Eliot's novels in relation to the author's own life, gender, and physical appearance.
Haight, Gordon S., ed. The George Eliot Letters: Volume VIII: 1840-1870. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1978.
Includes a letter from Anthony Trollope to Eliot's companion, George Henry Lewes, critiquing Eliot's The Spanish Gypsy.
Holmstrom, John, and Lerner, Laurence, eds. George Eliot and Her Readers. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1966, 190 p.
Anthology of contemporary reviews, mainly of Eliot's novels; meant to demonstrate the opinions of Eliot's readers during her lifetime.
Pangallo, Karen L., ed. The Critical Response To George Eliot. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994, 233 p.
Provides a representative selection of essays on and reviews of Eliot's novels.
Speirs, John. "Poetry into Novel." In his Poetry towards Novel, pp. 283-333. London: Faber and Faber, 1971.
Argues that there is a strong relationship between Eliot's novels and the works of poets such as Shakespeare.
Wade, Rosalind. "George Eliot and Her Poetry." Contemporary Review 204 (July 1963): 38-42.
Briefly examines the concern with human emotions revealed in Eliot's poetry.
Additional coverage of Eliot's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vols. 4,13, 23, 41, 49; DisCovering Authors; World Literature Criticism; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 21, 35, 55; and Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography..
Rose Elizabeth Cleveland (essay date 1885)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2116
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, it is diffcult to be exact. I ask myself, Is it her prosody? and am obliged to find it faultless as Pope's. There is never in her metres a syllable too much or too little. Mrs. Browning's metre is often slovenly, her rhymes are often false. Yet, explain it who will, Elizabeth Browning's verse has always poetry and music, which George Eliot's lacks.
What was work to write is work to read. Ruskin's dictum—"No great intellectual thing was ever done by great effort"—I suspect to be wholly true, and that it is pre-eminently true in the production of poetry. Poetry must be the natural manner of the poet, and can never be assumed. I do not mean by this to ignore the aids which study gives to genius; I only mean to say that no mere labor and culture can simulate poetic fire, or atone for its absence. George Eliot puts her wealth of message into the mould of poetic form by continuous effort. No secret of hydraulics could cause a dewdrop to hang upon a rose-leaf in a cube. Her torrents of thought were predestined to a cubical deliverance. Never was the Calvinistic dilemma more intrusive. Her free will cannot squeeze them spherical.
George Eliot's prose carries easily its enormous burdens of concentrated gift. It is like the incomparable trained elephants of Eastern monarchs, which bear at once every treasure—the iron of agriculture, the gem of royalty; and in its cumbrous momentum it out-distances all competitors. But poesy should betray no burdens. Its rider should sit lightly, with no hint of spur. It should sport along its course and reach its goal unwearied.
The born poet has no agony in the deliverance of his song. The uttering is to him that soothing balm which the utterance is to his reader. Burns said, "My passions when once lighted raged like so many devils till they got vent in rhyme; and then the conning over my verses, like a spell, soothed all into quiet." But where will one find a lullaby in George Eliot's verses?
Poets do, indeed, learn in suffering what they teach in song; but the singing quiets the suffering. It is the weeping, not the tear wept, that gives relief. Mrs. Browning makes no secret of the headache.
If heads that hold a rhythmic thought must ache perforce,
Then I, for one, choose headaches.
In a private letter she writes: "I have not shrunk from any amount of labor where labor could do anything." Where labor could do anything! There it is!
George Eliot has been said to possess Shakespearian qualities. Perhaps just here, in the relation of manner to matter, is seen her greatest resemblance and greatest difference. No writer, all concede, ever carried and delivered so much as Shakespeare. Never was human utterance so packed with wealthy meaning, so loaded with all things that can be thought or felt, inferred or dreamed, as his. And it all comes with gush and rush, or with gentle, murmuring flow, just as it can come, just as it must come. He takes no trouble, and he gives none. From one of his plays, replete with his incomparable wit, wisdom, and conceit, you emerge as from an ocean bath, exhilarated by the tossing of billows whose rough embrace dissolves to tenderest caress, yet carries in itself hints of central fire, of utmost horizon, of contact with things in heaven and earth undreamt of in our philosophy. You come from one of George Eliot's poems as from a Turkish bath of latest science and refinement,—appreciative of benefit, but so battered, beaten, and disjointed as to need repose before you can be conscious of refreshment.
The irony of fate spares not one shining mark. George Eliot cared most to have the name of poet. But her gait betrays her in the borrowed robe. It is as if the parish priest should insist on wearing in his desk my lady's evening costume. It is too much and not enough. He cannot achieve my lady's trick which causes the queenly train to float behind her like the smoke-plume of a gliding engine. He steps on it and stumbles. You step on it and fall….
A second quality which George Eliot's poetry lacks is internal and intrinsic, pertaining to matter rather than manner, though, as will be suggested later on, standing, perhaps, in the relation to manner of cause to effect. It is that, indeed, which all her works lack, but which prose, as prose, can get along without; call it what you will, faith or transcendentalism; I prefer to define it negatively as the antipode of agnosticism.
No capable student of her works but must admit the existence of this deficiency. Everywhere and in all things it is apparent. Between all her lines is written the stern, self-imposed thus far and no farther. Her noblest characters move, majestic and sad, up to a—stone-wall! There is no need that argument be brought to establish this proposition. It demands—nay, admits of, no proof, for it is self-evident.
The question which concerns us here is simply, What has this fact to do with George Eliot's poetry?
I answer, Much, every way. Herein, indeed, is matter. But my suspicions must not be disclosed in their full heterodoxy. I venture, however, to affirm that agnosticism can never exist in true poetry. Let verse have every quality which delights sense, captivates intellect, and stirs the heart, yet lack that ray which, coming from a sun beyond our system, reaches, blends with, vivifies, and assures the intimation of and longing for immortality in man—lacking this, you have not poetry.
It is the necessity of the poet, his raison d'être, to meet and join the moving of men's minds toward the hereafter. For all minds tend thither. The dullest mortal spirit must at times grope restlessly and expectantly in the outer darkness for something beyond; and this something must exist, will exist, in a true poem. It need not be defined as Heaven, or Paradise, or Hades, or Nirvâna; but we must not be confronted with silence; there must be in some way recognition of and sympathy with this deepest yearning of the soul. Many a one, not knowing what, not seeing where, but trusting in somewhat and trusting in somewhere, has been a poet and an inspiration to his race. The simplest bead-telling Margaret is appeased with the creedless faith of her Faust, though it be told in "phrases slightly different" from the parish priest's. Faust, the lore-crammed, the knowledge-sated, yet feels the unseen, and longs and trusts. His proud will brings no cold, impenetrable extinguisher to place upon this leaping flame of spirit, which sends its groping ray far beyond his finite horizon, ever moving, moving in its search; because he feels assurance of the existence of the something toward which it moves.
George Eliot, confronted by Margaret's question, answers sadly, with submission born of a proud ignorance, "I do not know. My feeling that there is something somewhere is, itself, unaccountable, and proves nothing. I simply do—not—know. I will not conjecture. It is idle and impertinent to guess. There is that of which you and I both do know, because we have experience of it. Of this only will I speak. All else is but verbiage. We stop here."
And she stops here, before a great stone-wall, higher than we can see over, thicker than we can measure, so cold that we recoil at the touch. There is no getting any farther. It is the very end.
Now, this can never be poetry; for the poet must ever open and widen our horizon. He need not be on the wing, but his wings must be in sight. He need not—nay, he must not, deal with man-made creeds and dogmas. He need not deal with ethics even. Homer knows nothing of most of George Eliot's sweet humanities, and confuses shockingly all things which, since his poor day, have come to be catalogued under the heads of virtue and vice….
George Eliot, with brain surcharged with richest thought and choicest, carefulest culture; with heart to hold all humanity, if that could save; with tongue of men and angels to tell the knowledge of her intellect, the charity of her heart—yet, having not faith, becomes, for all of satisfaction that she gives the soul, but sounding brass and tinkling cymbal! She will not bid me hope when she herself has no assurance of the thing hoped for. She must not speak of faith in the unknown. She cannot be cruel, but she can be dumb; and so her long procession of glorious thoughts, and sweet humanities, and noblest ethics, and stern renunciations, and gracious common lots, and lofty ideal lives, with their scalding tears, and bursting laughter, and flaming passion—all that enters into mortal life and time's story-—makes its matchless march before our captured vision up to—the stone-wall. "And here," she says, "is the end!" We may accept her dictum and be brave, silent, undeceived, and undeceiving agnostics; but, as such, we must say to her (of The Spanish Gypsy, for instance), "This is not poetry! It is the richest realism, presenting indubitable phenomena from which you draw, with strictest science, best deduction and inference concerning the known or the knowable. But, by virtue of all this, it is not poetry. The flattering lies and pretty guesses are not there, and will be missed. You must put them in as do the Christians, the transcendentalists, and the fools generally. The 'poet' comes from these ranks. If you will persist in this sheer stop when you reach the confines of the known, you must not attempt to pass your work off as poetry. Even pagans will not be attracted by such verse. They want and will have predication. It is not so much that you do not know—nobody knows—as that you will not guess, or dream, or fancy, to their whim; that you will be so plainly, simply silent concerning the hereafter. Your readers will not endure that in poetry. There was John Milton, his learning as great as yours, his metres not more exact, yet nothing saves his Paradises from being theological treatises except the imagination in them, which stops not with the seen, but invades and appropriates the unseen. This blind old Titan sees and interprets the heavens by his inner vision. His sublime audacity of faith aërates the ponderous craft of his verse and keeps it from sinking into the abyss of théologie pedantry….
George Eliot herself says, in a private letter lately given to the public, referring to the evolution of her Dinah from the germ sown in her mind years before by the person of an aunt, and speaking of the unlikeness of the two, as well as the likeness, "The difference was not merely physical. No difference is."
No one knows better than George Eliot knew how the spiritual body gives curve, and feature, and expression to the material body. Mrs. Browning herself did not more keenly realize and everywhere acknowledge the truth that spirit makes the form.
No one bows with profounder recognition to the dictum "it is the spirit which quickeneth" than does the author of Adam Bede and The Spanish Gypsy. It is this which she thinks it worth while to teach, without which she would have no heart to teach at all. But her teaching takes its shape from the attitude of her own soul.
To epitomize, then. George Eliot's pages are a labyrinth of wonder and beauty; crowded with ethics lofty and pure as Plato's; with human natures fine and fresh as Shakespeare's; but a labyrinth in which you lose the guiding cord! With the attitude and utterance of her spirit confronting me, I cannot allow her verse to be poetry. She is the raconteur, not the vates; the scientist, not the seer.
Miriam Allott (essay date 1961)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1465
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 tragedy," she wrote during the summer of 1866, when she was brooding over her unfinished tragic drama, The Spanish Gypsy. It was sometime during this period that she put together her "Notes on The Spanish Gypsy and Tragedy in General," a short essay which provides a valuable guide to her thoughts and feelings during these years.
She explains in this document that the original inspiration for her poem came from an Annunciation seen in the Scuola di San Rocco at Venice. This was probably in June 1860, and it seems appropriate that she should open this decade by finding even in so familiar a theme—she "had seen numerous pictures of this subject before"—-still further evidence of the intransigence of the individual human lot. Here was a young, hopeful girl who had suddenly to learn that she must "fulfil a great destiny, entailing a terribly different experience from that of ordinary womanhood," and who had no choice at all in the matter because everything in life "is the result of foregoing hereditary conditions." Presented with "a great dramatic motive of the same class as those used by the Greek dramatists," George Eliot hunted for "a suitable set of historical and local conditions" with which "to give the motive a clothing."
She chose her subject, then, because it was representative of "the part played in the general lot by hereditary conditions in the largest sense, and of the fact that what we call duty is entirely made up of such conditions; for even in cases of just antagonism to the narrow view of hereditary claims, the whole background of the particular struggle is made up of our inherited nature." The true nature of the tragic situation consists in "the terrible difficulty" of
adjustment of our individual needs to the dire necessities of our lot, partly as to our natural constitution, partly as sharers of life with our fellow-beings—
… the dire strife
Of poor Humanity's afflicted will
Struggling in vain with ruthless destiny.
Looking at individual lots, I seem to see in each the same story, wrought out with more or less of tragedy, and I determined the elements of my drama under the influence of these ideas.
The tragic subject, then, "must represent irreparable collision between the individual and the general … It is the individual with whom we sympathise and the general of which we recognise the irresistible power." This is true of Greek tragedy, where the collision takes place between "hereditary entailed Nemesis, and the peculiar individual lot, awaking our sympathy, of the particular man or woman whom the Nemesis is shown to grasp with terriffic force." She discovers nothing "artificial" or "erroneous" in this mode of writing for it reflects the permanent truths of ordinary human experience. The Greeks "had the same essential elements of life presented to them as we have, and their art symbolized these in grand schematic terms." The Prometheus story is characteristic because it "represents the ineffectual struggle to redeem the small and miserable race of man against the stronger adverse ordinances that govern the frame of things with a triumphant power."
Because her interpretation of life is now penetrated by this preternaturally acute sense of heredity as one of the strongest of our "adverse ordinances" she experiences little difficulty in relating to the Greek conception of tragedy the "modern" or Shakespearian kind. Othello is "a great tragic subject" because "this story of a jealous husband is elevated into a most pathetic tragedy by the hereditary conditions of Othello's lot, which give him a subjective ground for distrust." She notes as relevant to her discussion here, "Faust, Rigoletto (Le Roi s'Amuse), Brutus."
At this point she is compelled to face the moral implications of her argument and in her final paragraphs we find her doing her utmost to see that her humanist beliefs remain firmly in control. She recognises that tragedy "has not to expound why the individual must give way to the general: it has to show that it is compelled to give way, the tragedy consisting in the struggle involved, and often in the entirely calamitous issue in spite of a grand submission." The only "moral 'solution'," in fact, is the inward impulse stimulated by "an imagination actively interested in the lot of mankind generally." This impulse is towards feelings of "love, pity, constituting sympathy, and generous joy" for the lot of our fellow-creatures, feelings which in effect "become piety—i.e. loving willing submission, and heroic Promethean effort towards high possibilities, which may result from our individual life." So "the will of God is the same thing as the will of other men," compelling us to avoid "what they have seen as harmful to social existence." Any other notion of the divine will "comes from the supposition of arbitrary revelation"—a supposition which she had, of course, long ago rejected. Finally, returning to the particularities of her own work, she explains that "the two convictions or sentiments" which, in The Spanish Gypsy, are the "very warp on which the whole action is woven," are "(1) The importance of individual deeds; (2) The all sufficiency of the soul's passions in determining sympathetic action."…
By the logic of her own arguments…, as well as her natural emotional bias, she is drawn towards pure tragedy—that is, an art which expresses a sense of the total arbitrariness of human destiny, akin let us say to Hardy's or to that of some twentieth-century French writers who are concerned, as Camus is for example, with the "absurd" in human experience. In George Eliot's case, however, moral scruples intervene. "The art which leaves the soul in despair is laming to the soul," she writes at the close of her "Notes on The Spanish Gypsy and Tragedy in General" and all the evidence shows that her sense of responsibility for the spiritual comfort of her readers increased with her sales. This aspect of her Victorianism (we find it again in Tennyson) distinguishes her sharply from her successors in the next generation, most of whom defend "that absolute loyalty towards his feelings and sensations" which, as Conrad says and as Hardy and Henry James would agree, "an author should keep hold of in his most exalted moments of creation. Not so many years after the 1860's people reading The Return of the Native or Jude the Obscure would find themselves exposed with no protection from the author—apart, that is, from the imaginative vitality fostered by his artistic truth—to a vision of "adverse ordinances that govern the frame of things with a triumphant power." But however compelling her own vision of such ordinances might be, George Eliot protected herreaders from any "laming" effects by continuing to preach her meliorism with all that survived of her indestructible Evangelicalism.
The staunchness of her moral purpose reminds us how closely she clung to Christian ethics while rejecting Christian dogma. For a temperament like hers, hyper-sensitive, easily discouraged, continually responsive to the universal plight of "struggling, erring human creatures" and always deeply conscientious, it was imperative to discover even in the darkest experiences the unmistakable working of a firm moral order. In the 1860's, then, it was more than ever her task to "convince her nerves" not, as Keats says, "of the existence of Pain and Sickness and Heartbreak"—they were already sensitive to these things—nor indeed of "the balance of good and evil"—she had always been able to see that some things in human experience could produce admiration and delight—but of the meaningfulness of the total human condition. In other words it was herself as much as her readers whom she now needed to convince of the truth of her meliorist beliefs.
The cost of this effort was high. There was an incalculable toll in health, energy, and artistic vitality as she toiled on, trying to ennoble her readers by her teachings in Romola and The Spanish Gypsy and Felix Holt while the "horrible scepticism about all things" paralyzed her mind and imagination. It is more than coincidence that what still emerges in her novels with occasional flashes of imaginative power is the experience of hidden personal anguish.
K. M. Newton (essay date 1973)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5104
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 nineteenth-century literature and was used by numerous writers to signify revolt or egoistic aspiration. Perhaps the fundamental attribute of the Byronic egoist is that he refuses to recognize any external source of authority which can define him. He either defies all sources of authority which try to assert their superiority over the self, like Byron's Manfred, or else he thinks he can create his own values by an act of will quite independently of all generally accepted moral sanctions. A reading of the novels alone might suggest that George Eliot was not greatly interested in Byronic egoism, though there are several characters who possess some Byronic attributes, notably the Princess Halm-Eberstein in Daniel Deronda. But Byronic characters emerge clearly in her poetry, particularly in the character of Armgart in the poem of the same name, and in The Spanish Gypsy, in the figure of Don Silva, and it is arguable that this is a feature of her work which deserves some attention from critics. George Eliot was, of course, very much opposed to Byronic egoism, but it is important to try tosuggest why she was interested in the subject as late as the 1860's and 1870's, and took the trouble to attack it.
In the early Romantic period, the Byronic egoist can be seen as symbolizing the revolt against a universe which was, as Carlyle put it in Sartor Resartus, "all void of Life, of Purpose, of Volition, even of Hostility: it was one huge, dead, immeasurable Steam-engine, rolling on, in its dead indifference, to grind me limb from limb" (Book II, Chap. vii). Against this the egoist had asserted his "Everlasting No". The early Romantics and Carlyle were subsequently able to transcend such egoistic defiance, most closely associated with Byron's heroes, primarily by discovering the presence of God in an organic universe. But in the later nineteenth century, with developments in philosophy and science, culminating in Darwin, the concept of a mechanical, amoral, Godless universe was more powerfully present than it had ever been. Was the Byronic egoist's stance of defiance and revolt not still a valid one? Also, in the course of the nineteenth century, there were expressions of egoism which went much further than Byron or the early Romantics. George Eliot's concern with this was perhaps heightened by the fact that in Germany the work of David Strauss and especially Feuerbach, both of whom she had translated, had been used to justify the most extreme egoistic views. According to F. A. Lange [in History of Materialism, 1880] "intelligent opponents have often urged it against Feuerbach that his system must morally lead to pure Egoism". George Eliot, who was very familiar with German intellectual life, may have been aware of this. It is interesting that the most uncompromising expression of egoism in the nineteenth century was strongly influenced by Feuerbach's philosophy….
George Eliot, who said she completely agreed with Feuerbach, would surely have been worried at this development of ideas she accepted, and which led Stirner to assert that all values stemmed from the self: "I decide whether it is the right thing in me; there is no right outside me. If it is right for me, it is right" [The Ego and His Own, 1912]. Similar views can be found in Nietzsche, an admirer of Byron's Manfred: "The distinguished type of human being feels himself as value-determining; … he knows that he is the something which gives honor to objects; he creates values" [Beyond Good and Evil, 1967].
George Eliot, who had rejected all belief in a transcendent reality, cannot refute the Byronic egoist's claim that in an amoral universe the individual is free to rebel or assert his own chosen values by proclaiming like Carlyle in Sartor Resartus that nature is the "Living Garment of God". Though she recognized the value of religion when she praised church assemblies because their very nature expressed "the recognition of a binding belief or spiritual law which is to lift us into willing obedience and save us from the slavery of unregulated passion or impulse" [The George Eliot Letters, 1954-56], she herself could not argue that the truth of religion supported Christian morality and refuted the egoist's claim that there is no moral order which can define the self. For her, the moral order to which the self must submit must first of all be discovered within the self as feeling. This could then lead to a larger social and moral vision. Even if the universe was amoral and Godless, the egoist could not simply dismiss all moral and religious sanctions and adhere to his own chosen value.
The above discussion helps, I think, towards an understanding of The Spanish Gypsy, a work George Eliot regarded highly, and perhaps explains why she was interested in a character like Don Silva. In the notes on tragedy she left regarding the poem she wrote:
A tragedy has not to expound why the individual must give way to the general: it has to show that it is compelled to give way, the tragedy consisting in the struggle involved, and often in the entirely calamitious issue in spite of a grand submission. Silva represents the tragedy of entire rebellion: Fedalma of a grand submission, which is rendered vain by the effects of Silva's rebellion: Zarca, the struggle for a great end, rendered vain by the surrounding conditions of life. [George Eliot's Life as Narrated in Her Letters and Journals, n.d.]
Though no one would make great claims for the poem as a work of art, The Spanish Gypsy is important because it gives considerable insight into George Eliot's ideas and shows that her interests extended to areas not commonly associated with her. In the following analysis I shall concentrate mainly on Don Silva, her clearest portrait of a Byronic egoist.
Silva is a Spanish knight who is disillusioned with his Spanish heritage, primarily because of the nature of the war against the Moors and the activities of the Inquisition. He is contemptuous of Spanish policies. Because of this he feels that his heritage has no claim on his respect and that he is justified in rebelling against it. Yet he has no alternative plan of action in mind. He still serves the Spanish cause though he regards himself as being free to do as he likes. His rebellion only manifests itself as negative defiance. He is opposed and reproached by his uncle, the Prior, the personification of the Spanish aristocrat and an eager Inquisitor. Silva's resolve to marry the non-Spanish Fedalma is seen by the Prior as an implicit rejection of his duty to Spain. Silva replies with defiance, a key word of the Byronic rebel:
'Tis you, not I, will gibbet our great name
To rot in infamy. If I am strong
In patience now, trust me, I can be strong
Then in defiance.
But the Prior makes the prophetic statement that if he utterly rejects the claims of the past for his own selfchosen value he will never find a stable identity:
Brought up in a tradition he can no longer accept, unable to feel any allegiance to a Christianity perverted into persecution, Silva has created his own personal value out of love. He literally worships Fedalma. She is his substitute for the values he has lost: in her "Silva found a heaven / Where faith and hope were drowned as stars in day". Even if this blasphemy will damn him, he will choose her and reject his former God:
In the extremes to which Silva takes it, love is largely a projection onto Fedalma of his own inner needs. It is an attempt at a purely subjective creation of value to overcome his despair. He has come to believe that the world is meaningless and valueless, for both the world of nature and man revolts him:
Death is the king of this world; 'tis his park
Where he breeds life to feed him. Cries of pain
Are music for his banquet; and the masque—
The last grand masque for his diversion, is
The Holy Inquisition.
Love for him is a desperate effort to choose consciously his own value in order that the self can transcend the amorality of life. A later speech makes particularly clear the despair which underlies it:
I meant, all life is but poor mockery:
Action, place, power, the visible wide world
Are tattered masquerading of this self,
This pulse of conscious mystery: all change,
Whether to high or low, is change of rags.
But for her love, I would not take a good
Save to burn out in battle, in a flame
Of madness that would feel no mangled limbs,
And die not knowing death, but passing straight
—Well, well, to other flames—in purgatory.
Given this vision of life, with love his only protection against despair, Silva cannot give up Fedalma when she decides to honour her Gypsy heritage. He thinks that his chosen value of love is superior to the claims of his past and all his former allegiances. It justifies the breaking of all bonds or duties, and he is prepared to commit any action, no matter how immoral in traditional terms, to retain it: "I will sin, / If sin I must, to win my life again". To lose her is to lose his own self: "that lost self my life is aching with". He declares that his love for her, his means of realizing his selfhood, "Makes highest law, must be the voice of God".
Silva's rejection of his Spanish past and his adoption of the Gypsy cause in order to marry Fedalma is an assertion that he can choose his own identity and values by an act of will. He dismisses any authority superior to the self:
I will elect my deeds, and be the liege
Not of my birth, but of that good alone
I have discerned and chosen.
Anything that threatens to deprive him of her or places itself above his own will "Is what I last will bend to—most defy". This is an extreme expression of Byronic egoism. There is nothing esternai to the self that can define it, and all past claims or present obstacles must be crushed by the will. Since the mind can recognize no values beyond the self as valid, then it must create its own value. George Eliot tests this philosophy against experience in the poem.
But though Silva has rebelled against his Spanish past, he has not liberated himself from it. His identity is still basically defined by the fact that he is a Spanish Knight. The way of life and the attitudes of the latter are an inherent part of him which he does not even think of rejecting. It is an important part of George Eliot's treatment of Byronic egoism to show that social factors are among its most important causes. Byron and the Romantics in general tend to treat the egoist's defiance and creation of his own values at the level of a purely personal choice. But George Eliot, with her knowledge of sociology and psychology, places the egoist in a social situation. His attitudes and behaviour cannot be considered in isolation, but only in relation to the particular society of which he is a product. For example, Silva unquestioningly adopts the attitudes of one who has been brought up as an aristocrat. When he learns of Fedalma's flight and Gypsy birth, he regards these as "momentary crosses, hindrances / A Spanish noble might despise". He is quite confident he can regain her:
What could a Spanish noble not command?
He only helped the Queen, because he chose;
Could war on Spaniards, and could spare the Moor;
Buy justice, or defeat it—if he would:
Was loyal, not from weakness but from strength
Of high resolve to use his birthright well.
The will which he celebrates is the product of the aristocratic background he professes to despise. Thus his assertion of personal will to defy the demands of the tradition in which he has been brought up is only a negative expression of the social domination inherent in that tradition, as the following passage illustrates:
Don Silva had been suckled in that creed
(A high-taught speculative noble else),
Held it absurd as foolish argument
If any failed in deference, was too proud
Not to be courteous to so poor a knave
As one who knew not necessary truths
Of birth and dues of rank; but cross his will,
The miracle-working will, his rage leapt out
As by a right divine to rage more fatal
Than a mere mortal man's.
His claim, then, that one can create one's own value by the power of the will is fatally flawed. Instead of discovering a new basis for his identity, he is merely exploiting Spanish aristocratic values in his personal interests. The following assertion of his will-philosophy and of Byronic egoism is thus undermined by its implicit assumptions.
George Eliot attacks this philosophy by showing that it is not a freely chosen position, the only possible response to a world without acceptable values. In Silva's case, it is rather the product of his alienation from his social background and the negative assertion of the social attitudes in which he has been brought up. He is another variation on the comment in Felix Holt that "there is no private life which has not been determined by a wider public life…". The narrator also acknowledges that underlying his outward will-assertion and defiance, he felt "Murmurs of doubt, the weakness of a self / That is not one…". But this insecurity only makes him rebel the more against the Prior, who possesses an absolutely stable identity:
Even his rebellion, then, is not freely chosen but is the outcome of the psychological strain which results from his social alienation.
One of the most important debates in the poem, in which George Eliot's alternative to Silva's Byronic egoism becomes plain, is that between Silva and his Jewish servant Sephardo, clearly the representative of the author's point of view. To Silva's assertion that "Death is the king of this world", Sephardo replies that even if this were so, the good would still exist as human feeling in the hearts of men. A physician would know that mercy existed within himself even if all the angles in heaven denied it. This expresses George Eliot's own view that even if God does not exist and the world is as Silva describes it, which Sephardo makes no attempt to deny, the good would still exist as a purely human construct based on human feeling. The individual was therefore not justified in creating his own personal values by an act of will. He was inextricably a part of mankind and could never achieve complete cultural transcendence. The ego itself was in a large degree a cultural product. It was an illusion, then, to believe that the egoist could completely separate himself from his fellow-men and feel totally self-sufficient.
Silva goes on to proclaim the need for "naked manhood", for men who are unattached to any beliefs or systems and can stand alone. Sephardo replies that there is no such thing. We all owe allegiance to something larger than ourselves, in his case to his Jewish heritage. It is monstrous to consider all things without preferences; we are compelled to have certain priorities: "My father is first father and then man". But Silva is prepared to cast aside all claims in choosing to marry Fedalma:
That I'm a Christian knight and Spanish duke!
The consequence? Why, that I know. It lies
In my own hands and not on raven tongues.
But the hollowness of his view that these characteristics are mere accidental features has already been made apparent. Sephardo, in contrast, refers "to the brand / Of brotherhood that limits every pledge." We need some law that is superior to the will in order to define the self:
Our law must be without us or within.
The Highest speaks through all our people's voice,
Custom, tradition, and old sanctities;
Or he reveals himself by new decrees
Of inward certitude.
For George Eliot, the self's inner need for a sense of meaning and value is projected outwardly in customs and traditions, but if these become outdated and moribund, their essential content, which corresponds to this need within the self, must be reformulated. Silva makes no attempt to do this. The Spanish society he is a part of has become decadent since it strives to maintain itself through domination and persecution of other races and religious groups. Silva therefore finds it valueless and thinks he can reject it. Instead of trying to find a new form for the valuable content of his heritage or acting against corrupt forces within it, he constructs a self-created philosophy of the will. George Eliot tests this philosophy against experience and shows that it offers no possibility of a stable identity. One cannot choose to reject the past completely without fragmenting the self.
Silva soon discovers this. The town of Bedmár is taken by the Gypsies, and many of his former friends are killed and the Prior is executed. This crushingly brings home to him how deep-rooted is his connection with the heritage he thinks he can reject: his own acts against his former stronghold are felt as self-inflicted wounds. In this crisis, he realizes that his Spanish past is a fundamental part of his being, and his inner life becomes "cancerous":
Silva had but rebelled—he was not free;
And all the subtle cords that bound his soul
Were tightened by the strain of one rash leap
Made in defiance.
He is unable to escape from "his past-created, unchanged self. The self cannot totally deny continuity of being, and any rejection of the defining elements in his past by an act of will must inflict terrible psychological wounds. He even realizes that the Prior embodies certain values which are an integral part of his selfhood. He repudiates the role he has chosen: "I am a Catholic knight, / A Spaniard who will die a Spaniard's death!" and kills Zarca.
The consequence of rejecting his past is an intolerable sense of self-division. This leads to a severe identity crisis which makes him commit murder. The valuable content of his past life must be the basis for any unified sense of selfhood. Even in a Spain ruled by the Inquisition this is so; he cannot simply reject Christianity and the Spanish tradition and worship a God of his own. At the end of the poem he realizes this and commits himself to serving
It is the misfortune of both Silva and Fedalma that neither of them can wholeheartedly accept the tradition they belong to. Fedalma, though she adopts the opposite position to Silva, and chooses to obey her father and accept her Gypsy origin, derives no happiness from this choice. It is probably George Eliot's intention to suggest that their dissociation from their respective traditions represents the alienated response of the modern consciousness to the claims of the past. In contrast, both the Prior and Zarca, in different ways, possess utterly stable identities. The Prior believes totally in the objective truth of his religion, and Zarca has identified himself with the ideal of Gypsy nationhood. But Silva is naturally alienated from a Spain dominated by the Inquisition, and Fedalma has been brought up outside the Gypsy tradition and can thus only make a conscious decision to accept it. She cannot respond to it with an undivided consciousness.
The Prior and Zarca, being certain of their commitments, are free from the sense of self-division created by excess of self-consciousness. Even the prospect of death cannot undermine the Prior's absolutely secure sense of identity. He possessed "The strength of resolute undivided souls / Who, owning law, obey it." For Fedalma and Silva, such certainty is impossible: their situations have necessarily made them self-conscious and self-divided. Silva is "Doom-gifted with long resonant consciousness / And perilous heightening of the sentient soul," and after his desertion suffers from the "tortured double self the Prior had prophesied.
Fedalma's self-division is also evident though she does not suffer the same identity crisis as Silva. Her acceptance of her Gypsy role and rejection of love means she must choose sorrow, the "sublimer pain", for her choice "cut her heart with smiles beneath the knife, / Like a sweet babe foredoomed by prophecy". Though she makes a conscious decision to adopt the Gypsy way of life, she feels emotionally detached from it. She contrasts her own condition with that of her Gypsy servant, Hinda:
She knows no struggles, sees no double path:
Here fate is freedom, for her will is one
With her own people's law, the only law
She ever knew. For me—I have fire within,
But on my will there falls the chilling snow
Of thoughts that come as subtly as soft flakes,
Yet press at last with hard and icy weight.
Fedalma's situation, and surely George Eliot regards it as symbolic of the modern or post-Romantic situation, has deprived her of the stability and certainty of her servant. She is cut off from such a sense of tribal consciousness. She is an example of the isolated, self-conscious ego, detached from those traditional beliefs, those "cosmic syntaxes", which could integrate the self within a single world-view that was accepted as true.
Fedalma's adoption of Gypsy life only makes her more aware of her divided consciousness. When she feels the power of Zarca's vision, she thinks she can "walk erect, hiding my life-long wound". At such times she feels strong in her resolve. But this feeling is only temporary: self-consciousness returns and the sense that "There's nought but chill grey silence, or the hum / And fitful discord of a vulgar world". Love for both Silva and Fedalma had been an attempt to heal the division they felt in themselves. It was a substitute for the lack of a heritage or a belief with which they could identify completely.
Silva's position is the more difficult since the tradition he is a part of has clearly become corrupt and decadent. Fedalma can at least assent intellectually and with part of her feelings to the Gypsy purpose. Silva's Byronic rebellion is a logical response to his situation. He employs self-conscious thought to try to create an identity for himself which will give him a sense of meaning in what he regards as a meaningless world:
But he discovers that there are deeper forces in the self that cannot be rejected by the will. He yearns for the memories and associations of the past, for human contact. The alienation and isolation involved in rejecting his roots and confronting the indifferent universe alone proves too much:
He could not grasp Night's black blank mystery
And wear it for a spiritual garb
Creed-proof: he shuddered at its passionless touch.
The strain his rebellion places on his inner self is intolerable. Though among his people "he had played / In sceptic ease with saints and litanies" he now comes to realize their symbolic value. The religious and ancestral symbols connected with Spanish life are forms which express a meaning which is inextricably a part of himself; they even supported him while he scorned them:
Sustaining him even when he idly played
With rules, beliefs, charges, and ceremonies
As arbitrary fooling.
For George Eliot, such symbols express an essentially human meaning which possesses a human truth. By means of self-conscious thought, Silva can consider these symbols as "arbitrary fooling", but in his moment of crisis he comes to realize how much the essential human content manifested in them means to him. The religious and social forms he has tried to reject are not mere outward symbols of an evil system: they express the fundamental human values of the way of life in which he has been brought up, and more than that, they symbolize the human truths created by feeling in its encounter with external reality. Silva's ordeal makes him accept this. The essential identity of Spain still exists even if it has been corrupted by the Inquisition, and it is this he must serve. He discovers by experience that the philosophy of the ego and the will is an intolerable violation of his inner self which cannot be borne. Any valid sense of identity must be rooted in his past experience. To try to reject this utterly leads at best to alienation and at worst to a psychological crisis in which the self seems to become infected by disease:
Forcing each pulse to feed its anguish, turning
All sweetest residues of healthy life
To fibrous clutches of slow misery.
But George Eliot's intention is not simply to attack egoism. Despite his rebellion, Silva is clearly a man of heroic qualities and it is his egoism and strength of will that are central to these. She does not believe that these should be suppressed, but only that the energies generated by the ego be properly directed. This is apparent in her characterization of Zarca, in many ways as supreme an egoist as Silva. But Zarca commits all his egoistic energies to furthering the best interests of his people, in creating for them a valid nationhood.
His vision resembles that of a religious prophet. Fedalma implicitly compares him to Moses, Christ, and Mahomet. He is treated in the poem like a Carlylean hero who creates history by the force of his vision. For him it is a valuecreating act. He knows that there is nothing beyond it, no providence, that guarantees its success:
No good is certain, but the steadfast mind,
The undivided will to seek the good:
'Tis that compels the elements, and wrings
A human music from the indifferent air.
The greatest gift the hero leaves his race
Is to have been a hero.
The good does not exist external to man, it must be created by him. In contrast to Silva, Zarca does not regard the lack of immanent meaning and value in the world as a justification for Byronic egoism, but rather as urging man himself to create value through a social vision.
But it might appear that Zarca's vision is questionable because it seems to be characterized by the same dangerous idealism that underlies the Prior's beliefs. Both men are prepared to commit acts of evil to achieve what they regard as the good. This is a recurrent problem in George Eliot's works. The Prior's belief in the absolute truth of his religion convinces him that acts of evil cease to be evil if they favour what he regards as God's purpose: "'Tis so God governs, using wicked men—/ Nay, scheming fiends, to work his purposes". In this way he can justify the Inquisition.
This kind of reasoning is the consequence of identifying his beliefs with an objective truth beyond the human realm. If the good is seen as something external to man, whatever helps to achieve it is regarded as right. Good and evil are not defined in relation to humanity but in terms of a rigid doctrine which is more important than the human, and has become separated from it. But for Zarca, evil is always evil. It cannot be redeemed even if it furthers his concept of the good. No good that will be achieved will ever lift the burden of evil. It may serve as grounds to defend an act of evil but it can never, as the Prior believes, change its nature.
Since the Zíncali have no philosophy or religion which will allow them to come to terms with problems of this kind, Zarca must heroically elect to bear this burden for them. In this he again greatly resembles the Carlylean hero who identifies his deepest insight with the divine, and uses his possession of it to justify his authority over his people. Cruel acts are necessary if the Gypsies are to survive:
He knows that killing the Spaniards is evil, but there is no alternative. Yet his essential humanity is shown in his sympathy with the dead of Bedmár. This act was initiated before Silva joined the Gypsies. Even the execution of the Prior shows humanity. He decrees that he should not be burned as an act of vengeance, though the Prior is one of those "human fiends / Who carry hell for pattern in their souls". Instead he is executed with due ceremony.
But though George Eliot sympathizes with Zarca's aim, external reality remains indifferent to human aspirations. Moral good must be projected onto a valueless world, but the amoral development of events can frustrate this. With Zarca's death, the only force that could hold the Gypsies together disintegrates and results in a kind of Gypsy diaspora.
Zarca is the exemplification of Carlyle's view that the Byronic egoist must convert his rebellion and will-assertion into devotion to the best interests of his society. This was one means of socially transforming Romantic egoism. But possibly George Eliot regarded the transcendentalism underlying Zarca's certainty in his vision as a less modern position than the state of alienated self-consciousness that afflicts both Silva and Fedalma. Though both Silva and Fedalma are finally true to their respective traditions, this does not heal their self-division, and it also deprives them of love. Their commitment is a tragic one.
George Eliot's dissatisfaction with the pessimistic conclusion is perhaps shown by her return to the central ideas of The Spanish Gypsy in her last novel. In Daniel Deronda, George Eliot used certain features of the poem as the basis of her novel. There are obvious similarities between Zarca and the Gypsies and Mordecai and the Jews; Deronda's situation is very similar to Fedalma's; and the problem of Byronic egoism re-emerges in the characterization of Gwendolen and the Princess. In the novel George Eliot attempts to find a non-tragic solution to the problems the poem had raised: to suggest that the vision of a Zarca or a Mordecai can be realized and that the modern consciousness can recover from its self-division.
William Baker (essay date 1975)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4502
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 with values and desires which are to find their fictional fruition in Daniel Deronda. An examination of the sources of the poem helps in an assessment of George Eliot's Jewish knowledge after 1864, illuminates it, and provides background material for a discussion of her last novel.
The philosophical and moral basis of the poem have not gone unnoticed. G. W. Cooke in his George Eliot: A Critical Study of her Life, Writings and Philosophy (1883) writes that George Eliot's "faith in tradition, as giving the basis of all our best life, is perhaps nowhere so expressively set forth … as in The Spanish Gypsy." He points to the works of Comte as an important source for George Eliot's ideas and believes that in the poem George Eliot shows her awareness that "true wisdom is always social, always grows out of the experience of the race, and not out of any personal inspiration or enlightenment." In a similar way, a modern critic B. J. Paris in his account of The Spanish Gypsy in Experiments in Life (1965) stresses its moral elements. To Paris the tragedy in the poem is a result of "Don Silva's rebellion against the unalterable conditions of his lot, … [he] feels that love and reason are superior to hereditary bonds." Alfred Abraham Möller in his George Eliots Beschäftigung mit dem Judentum concentrates upon the poem as representing "den Konflikt zwischen Egoismus und Altruismus, Recht des Individuums und der Gemeinschaft," and indicates the firm psychological and sociological basis of George Eliot's presentation of her characters in The Spanish Gypsy.
Henry James, reviewing the poem in The North America Review, CVII (October 1868), praises George Eliot's humour, and considers that Juan ranks "with Tito Melema and Hetty Sorrel, as one of [George Eliot's] very best conceptions." He has, however, the sense that George Eliot's "primary intention … her wish to present a struggle between nature and culture, between education and the instinct of race" result in her overlooking realistic details of presentation. The poem, he believes, "is emphatically a romance" and its two central characters, Fedalma and Zarca, are unreal: "Fedalma is not a real Gypsy maiden" and Zarca is "very far … from being a genuine Gypsy chieftain." This kind of criticism has found a modern adherent in F. R. Leavis, who in The Great Tradition has written of The Spanish Gypsy that "the essential function of the quasihistorical setting is one with that of the verse form: it is to evade any serious test for reality." Discussion of some of the literary and historical sources of The Spanish Gypsy shows that George Eliot paid close attention to problems of historical veracity and that she placed her characters and chosen historical environment upon sound foundations.
Before turning to these sources it is worthwhile noting that there are German literary parallels in setting, structure, theme, and general intention to The Spanish Gypsy, which George Eliot would have known, and which point forward to Daniel Deronda…. [By] 1856 George Eliot knew Heinrich Heine's tragic play Almansor which is set at the time of the conflict between the Moors and the Spanish in fifteenth-century Spain. Both lovers in Almansor are Moors although the heroine Zuleima has been converted to Christianity. Heine's play ends tragically with Zuleima and her lover Almansor flinging themselves from a rock in defiance of their Spanish pursuers. George Eliot's summary of the preoccupations of Heine's play would serve equally well for her own poem. Of Almansor she wrote in her review "German Wit: Heinrich Heine": "The tragic collision lies in in the conflict between natural affection and the deadly hatred of religion and of race in the sacrifice of youthful lovers to the strife between Moor and Spaniard, Moslem and Christian," (Westminster Review, LXV, January, 1856, 11). It would seem that George Eliot had Almansor in mind during the composition of The Spanish Gypsy. In a letter to John Blackwood of 21 April 1868, George Eliot tells him that "The Poem will be less tragic than I threatened," and G. S. Haight notes that "At one time [George Eliot] apparently contemplated the death of both Fedalma and Silva" (Letters, IV, 431 and fn. 4).
Another play which prefigures the poem is Augustin Daly's adaptation of S. H. Mosenthal's Deborah,—Leah the Forsaken, which George Henry Lewes and George Eliot saw performed at the Adelphi Theatre on 10 February 1864. Lewes wonders in his Journal "at the badness of the piece and the success it has" [Letters, IV, 10 February 1864]. Daly's drama is set in an Austro-Hungarian border village in the early eighteenth-century. Like Almansor and The Spanish Gypsy, it deals with the theme of love and conflict between members of different religions and races. A Jewish maiden, Leah, is rescued from death by a Christian youth, Rudolf, who immediately falls in love with her. Their relationship and mistrust of one another, a result of their different backgrounds, forms the material for the dramatic action. Daly's intention is to impress upon his audience his sense of a common humanity. Leah treats Rudolf as a rescuer and as a saviour. She is no longer merely a persecuted animal but a human worthy of attention and love. She says to Rudolf: "Had you not stopped by the brink—not looked down in pity on my wistful eyes, but gone your way and heeded me no more—perchance you might have been happy and I content … You placed me in the revivifying sunlight of love … You have shown me the sun, and it has fired me with pride." Daly suggests that outside of Europe the Jew will be able to regain his pride. In Act II Leah and Rudolf plot to escape from a Europe of suffering. Leah pleads with her lover, "Let us leave this old Mizriam, and wander through the desert into the promised land." Rudolf and Leah "will plough the soil, and on it rear the altar of a new religion, that shall teach love and brotherhood to all men." Leah concludes with a description of "an emigrant Jewish tribe with all their goods on their way to America." And in the final words of the drama Leah says that she "shall wander into the far-off-the promised land!"—America.
To return to the historical sources for The Spanish Gypsy, George Eliot in her Journal, 14-18 November 1864, recorded that she "read Prescott again and made notes" (Letters, IV). W. H. Prescott in his History of Ferdinand and Isabella lays the blame for the initiation of, and the excesses of the Inquisition, upon Queen Isabella's confessor, the Dominican Monk, Thomas de Torquemada. Prescott wrote of Torquemada that he
concealed more pride under his monastic weeds than might have furnished forth a convent of his order, was one of that class with whom zeal passes for religion, and who testify their zeal by a fiery persecution of those whose creed differs from their own; who compensate for their abstinence from sensual indulgence, by giving scope to those deadlier vices of the heart, pride, bigotry and intolerance, which are no less opposed to virtue, and are far more extensively mischievous to society.
In The Spanish Gypsy, George Eliot's Prior is not the Grand Inquisitor but a relatively minor member of the Inquisition, a state functionary enacting a prescribed task at a border town. The Host describes the "monk within our city walls," as "A holy, high born, stern Dominican." According to Juan's description which compliments Prescott's:
… he seems less a man
With struggling aims, than pure incarnate Will,
Fit to subdue rebellious nations, nay,
That human Flesh he breathes in, charged with passion
Which quivers in his nostril and his lip,
But disciplined by long-indwelling will
To silent labour in the yoke of law.
During his lengthy soliloquies the Prior admits to temptations and that he has had human desires. However, in his function as Inquisitor enacting holy orders, he must not give way to pity. Hence mercy
Sees that to save is greatly to destroy.
'Tis so the Holy Inquisition sees; its wrath
Is fed from the strong heart of wisest love.
For love must needs make hatred.
His hatred becomes a vehicle for repressed passions.
The background George Eliot chose for The Spanish Gypsy was "that moment in Spanish history when the struggle within the Moors was attaining its climax." ["Notes on The Spanish Gypsy and Tragedy in General," J. W. Cross, George Eliot's Life, 1885]. W. H. Prescott's Ferdinand and Isabella contains a "Review of the Political and Intellectual Condition of the Spanish Arabs Previous to the War of Granada," and in his second volume, a detailed account of Ferdinand's Granada campaign. Prescott relates how in order to defend the frontier of Eaja from Moorish attack, one Don Alonso de Cardena, an entrusted servant of Ferdinand, levies local support from "the principal chiefs on the borders; amongst others, … Don Pedro Henriquez, adelantado of Andalusia, Don Juan de Silva, count of Cifuentes, Don Alonso de Aguilar, and the Marquis of Cadiz." In The Spanish Gypsy George Eliot retains the name of the Moorish leader El Zagal. She transforms an insignificant border potentate, Don Juan de Silva, into the tragic protagonist of her poetic drama. She uses this technique of populating her work with actual human beings to great effect. J. C. Pratt, in "A Middlemarch Miscellany," after a discussion of the impact upon George Eliot of the ideas of the German historian Wilhelm Becker, writes that
Perhaps refusing to depend completely even on fictional antiquity, she created her novel's Middlemarch's people as composites of literary, historical, contemporary and mythical persons, striving always to echo the lesser known, the lower ranked, the patently unheroic. It was not the Byronic hero which appealed to her, but the Bekkerian, a figure whose insignificant actions assured his historical obscurity.
In other words she took Don Juan de Silva out of the "unvisited tombs" [Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life, edited W. J. Harvey, 1965] of Iberian history and transformed him into Byronic dimensions.
Prescott gives information on Spanish Hebrew culture in his section "a general survey of the History of the Jews in Spain, their institutions, customs, poetry, achievements, etc.," and in this section he refers to "the golden age of modern Jewish literature" in medieval Spain. However, for Jewish information George Eliot would also have made use of George Ticknor's, History of Spanish Literature (1863), which according to her journal she was reading on 20 November, 1866. Ticknor emphasises Jewish cultural attainments in Spain and it is these achievements which are presented in The Spanish Gypsy. I quote Ticknor's summary of the Jewish Spanish cultural heritage:
The Jews … down to the time of their expulsion from Spain, in 1492 and even later, often appear in the history of Spanish literature. This was natural, for the Jews of Spain, from the appearance in 962 of four learned Talmudists, who were carried there by pirates, down to the fifteenth century, were more strongly marked by elegant culture than were their countrymen at the same period in any other part of Europe. Of Hebrew poetry in the Hebrew language,—which begins in Spain with the Rabbi Salomo ben Jehudah Gabirol, who died in 1064,—a history has been written entitled Die Religiöse Poesie der Juden in Spanien, von Dr. Michael Sachs (Berlin, 1845). But the great repository of everything relating to the culture of the Spanish Jews is the Biblioteca of Rodriquez de Castro, Tom. I…. It may be worth while to add that during the Moorish occupation of Spain, the Jews partook often of the Arabic culture, then so prevalent and brilliant;—a striking instance of which may be found in the case of the Castilian Jew, Juda ha-Levi, who took also the Arabic cognomen of Abu'I' Hussan, and whose poems were translated into German, and published by A. Geiger, at Breslau, in a very small neat volume, in 1851. Juda was born about 1080, and died, probably, soon after 1140.
George Eliot's knowledge of Spanish Jewish life in the poem is shown through the differing responses of Gentiles to Jews and through the reaction of Jews to their own situation and both these methods of presentation cohere in her finely drawn study of the astronomer Salomo Sephardo. Young Don Silva confides his secrets to his teacher Sephardo whom he begs not to betray him: "Kings of Spain / Like me have found their refuge in a Jew / and trusted in his counsel. You will help me?" Don Silva's appeal demonstrates George Eliot's awareness of the high position Jewish advisers had in Spanish Court Life. Prescott informs us that "we find eminent Jews residing in the courts of the Christian princes, directing their studies, attending them as physicians, or more frequently administering their finances…. Their astronomical science recommended them in a special manner to Alfonso the Wise." Ticknor tells us that it was not only in King Alfonso's court that Jews held high positions. He cites the example of Salomo Halevi, who "in 1330, when he was forty years old, was baptised as Pablo da Santa Maria, and rose subsequently … to … highest places in the Spanish church." It is noticeable that Salomo Sephardo ('Sephardo' literally meaning Spanish Jew) refuses to become a Christian and asserts his Judaism. His apparel reveals the practising orthodox Jew. He is dressed "In skullcap bordered close with crisp grey curls." When Don Silva appeals to him in very personal terms: "I have a double want / First a confessor—not a Catholic; / A heart without a livery—naked manhood," Sephardo's reply
there's no such thing
As naked manhood….
While my heart beats, it shall wear livery—
My people's livery, whose yellow badge
Marks them for Christian scorn
reinforces the moral of the drama. The claims of race, memory and tradition, are stronger than those of affection. Sephardo clearly states his uncompromising position, I am no Catholic / but Salomo Sephardo, a born Jew, / willing to serve Don Silva. Sephardo is, of course, fortunate in receiving the protection of an influential person—Don Silva. Others were not so fortunate. Sephardo tells Don Silva that he will not adopt the position of "the rich marranos" or converted Jews who take the attitude that "Man is first man" to them rather than "Jew or Gentile." But George Eliot presents her readers not with a wealthy convert but with a man who wants to survive. Her host, unlike Sephardo, has no access to the court. His motives are shown with sly humour,
His father was a convert, chose the chrism
As men choose physic, kept his chimney warm
With smokiest wood upon a Saturday,
Counted his gains and grudges on a chaplet,
And crossed himself asleep for fear of spies;
Trusting the Gods of Israel would see
'Twas Christian tyranny that made him base.
There is here a delightful set of juxtapositions: "chrism" and "physic"; the Jewish Sabbath and work; monetary concern and the use of Christian ritual objects. Underlying all is the sense ofliving a fugitive existence, of the continual fear of being found out, of the double life being exploded—that "fear of spies."
George Eliot's portrait of Sephardo is a complicated one. The dichotomies in Sephardo's views represent not only his own internal struggles but wider ones. Sephardo's concern is whether man is capable of controlling his own destiny? This question obsessed Jewish and Arabic medieval metaphysicians, for if man had some control over his future then God was not completely in command. The area in which this problem was most debated was that of astrology. If by reading the stars man could foresee his future, God's omnipotence was in question. Don Silva believes in a fate told by the stars. His tutor cannot be as certain as his pupil, and tells Don Silva that he believes that the stars "are not absolute, And tell no fortunes." Sephardo relies on tradition and reason rather than the results of man's discoveries: "we walk evermore / To higher paths, by brightening Reason's lamp / Still we are purblind, tottering." Sephardo explains the basis of his belief by an appeal to traditional Judaic discussion. He tells Don Silva that
Two angels guide
The path of man, both aged and yet young,
As angels are, ripening through endless years.
On one he leans: some call her Memory,
And some, Tradition;
In order to place Sephardo's difficulties within a specific historical context George Eliot deliberately introduces the name of "the best known and most admired Jewish author in the [medieval] Christian world" [S. W. Baron, Λ A Social and Religious History of the Jews, 1937-], Rabbi Abraham Aben-Ezra (c. 1092-c. 1167). Sephardo tells Don Silva,
I hold less
Than Aben-Ezra, of that aged lore
Brought by long centuries from Chaldaean plains,
The Jew-taught Florentine rejects it all.
For still the light is measured by the eye,
And the weak organ fails. I may see ill;
But over all belief is faithfulness,
Which fulfils vision with obedience.
Long before nineteenth-century Biblical scholarship and the work of Spinoza, the wandering scholar and poet Aben-Ezra in his Biblical Exegesis questioned the authenticity of the Old Testament texts, showing that many verses in the Torah had originated at a period later than the Mosaic events which they described. Aben-Ezra wrote several works of an astrological nature and argued that the influence of the stars on human destiny was unalterable.
Sephardo's affirmation of belief in memory and tradition, and his rejection of Aben-Ezra's philosophy has affinities with the response of some Victorian thinkers to their own spiritual doubts and uncertainties when confronted with Biblical criticism and the results of scientific and biological research. As George Eliot writes to John Blackwood on 21 March 1867, her poem "is not historic, but has merely historic connections" (Letters, IV). Similarly Matthew Arnold in Literature and Dogma (1873), found some relief from his overwhelming sense of isolation in the universe by arguing that science and art, the domain that constitutes "Hellenism," make up between them but one-fourth of life, the remaining three-fourths being allotted to conduct. Arnold emphasised ethical behaviour—"Hebraism"—and like Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, and G. H. Lewes, based his attitudes upon a belief in man's relationship with past wisdom, memory and tradition. For Arnold, as for the younger Samuel Butler and many Victorians, the past irrevocably shaped a man's present and affected his attitudes and conduct. Butler went as far as to write in his Unconscious Memory (1880) that all life is "the being possessed of a memory—the life of a thing at any moment is the memories which at the moment it retains."
In The Spanish Gypsy Sephardo continually appeals to his sense of a long Judaic tradition and affirms his belief in the traditional Judaic conception of God. His pupil Don Silva believes not only in the results of star-gazing but in the permanence of his passion for Fedalma for whom he is prepared to sacrifice home, religion and throne, and to become a fellow-gypsy. The past is too great for Fedalma, who returns to her people to seek an ancestral home, the ancient centre of Gypsy civilisation. Don Silva, at the conclusion of the poems, when he realises that his passion is no longer a reality, undertakes a pilgrimage to Rome in order to return to the centre of wisdom, memory and tradition of his Spanish European world.
In her Notes on "The Spanish Gypsy and Tragedy in general" George Eliot wrote that she "could not use the Jews … because the facts of their history were too conspicuously opposed to the working out of my catastrophe" [George Eliot's Life as Related in Her Letters and Journals, 1885]. George Eliot chose the Gypsies, a nomadic oppressed race who had rarely intermingled within the countries in which they lived. They had little in the way of sophisticated cultural traditions and highly developed institutions as cohering communal focal points. One of the main sources for George Eliot's knowledge of the Gypsies was, according to her "Commonplace Book," George Borrow's, The Zincali; or, An Account of the Gypsies of Spain (1841). Borrow relates how the Inquisition and the Spanish treated the Gypsy as "Gente burrat y despreciable." George Eliot noted how "Jews and even Moorish families—could much less have any scruples than the Spanish monarchs in laying hands on the Gypsy. The edict for their extermination was published in the year 1492. But, instead of passing the boundaries, they slunk into hiding-places, and shortly after appeared everywhere in as great numbers as before." Borrow stressed how, as a result of persecution, despite their internal differences, there was a highly developed feeling of racial affinity amongst Gypsies. He found in Spain of the 1830's "much of that fellow-feeling which springs from a consciousness of proceeding from one common origin, or, as they love to term it, 'blood'" (The Zincali).
Borrow's explanation of the differences between the Jews and the Gypsies, illustrates George Eliot's choice of the Gypsies for her poem. Borrow writes "Both have had an exodus, both as exiles and dispersed among the Gentiles … both, though speaking the language of the Gentiles, possess a peculiar tongue … and both possess a peculiar cast of countenance." Fedalma looking at the captured Gypsy leader—whom she does not know to be her father—seems to see in his eyes
the sadness of the world
Rebuking her, the great bell's hidden thought
Now first unveiled—the sorrows unredeemed
Of races outcast, scorned, and wandering.
For Borrow the Gypsies have no real religion whilst the Jews have one "to which they are fanatically attached" (The Zincali). The Jews, unlike the Gypsies, possess a great tradition of learning and historical memory, rooted in an actual and historical homeland. The Gypsies do not really "know the name of their original country, and the only tradition which they possess, that of their Egyptian origin is a false one" (The Zincali). George Eliot notes in her "Commonplace Book" that "One story (said to be told by the Gypsies themselves) was that their wandering from Egypt was inflicted on them as a punishment for the sin of their ancestors in refusing an asylum to the Infant Jesus."
Zarca tells his daughter Fedalma of his dream of leading a return of his people to Africa:
They have a promised land beyond the sea:
There I may lead them, raise my standard, call
The wandering Zincali to that home,
And make a nation—bring light, order, law,
Instead of chaos.
The concrete nouns reinforce, in order of dominance, national virtues as Zarca sees them. Pre-eminent is "light" which will replace the darkness of Gypsy diaspora life. Zarca tells his daughter that the Gypsy people have "no home in memory / No dimmest lore of giant ancestors / To make a common hearth for piety." Fedalma too has few illusions and is less idealistic. Her reaction to her father indicates a fierce internal struggle between the claims of race and duty and the influence of her Spanish upbringing. She speaks of the Gypsies as
A race that lives on prey as foxes do
With stealthy, petty rapine: so despised,
It is not persecuted, only spurned,
Crushed underfoot, warred on by chance like rats.
Such self-humiliation and lack of national pride serves as a reflection of the low state into which her people have fallen. Fedalma is seeing the Gypsies from a double vision: as an outside educated in Christian society; and as one born a Gypsy. At the conclusion of the poems she understands her renunciation of her past life and her lover in terms of duty to her father rather than as the product of a blind passionate ideal. Fedalma tells Don Silva in their final interview that she will "plant" her father's "sacred hope within the sanctuary and die its priestess." Even at the end she is not blinded with false hope.
Fedalma has blood ties which finally entrap her. In the poem, "race" as applied to a specific group of people who have a strong sense of kinship, becomes evident. The use of the idea thus differs from its usage by W. H. Riehl and later developments of volk ideology. G. L. Mosse explains in The Crisis of German Ideology (1966) that " Volk was limited to a particular national unit…. The term 'rooted' was constantly invoked by Volkish thinkers" and it implied those who had lived in the same rural environment for centuries. The Jews and the Gypsies were neither from the small town, the village or peasants, but were restless and rootless, had no home and occupied no specific territory. It is significant that George Eliot extolls no specific 'rooted' kind of life but in this poem dealing with kin-ship, history and tradition, she uses the Gypsies, a group of people without a definite ancestral tradition and cohering communal institutions, and the Jews who possess tradition and institutions but are dispersed and exiled. She does not choose the volk of contemporary and later German thought: the idyllic Medieval volk, or those of the remote Germanic past celebrated for instance in Wagner's opera, Nibelungen, which George Eliot and George Henry Lewes saw in Dresden on 18 September 1867. Lewes comments in his Journal that this opera "Interested us very much, though it is a subject ill suited to the opera, better left in the twilight of Mythology."
In her "Notes on The Spanish Gypsy and Tragedy in General" George Eliot wrote of the universal significance of the local conflict between the Moors, Jews, Gypsies and Christians in late medieval Spain and of the need to renounce "the expectation of marriage." The subject "might be taken as a symbol of the part which is played in the general human lot by hereditary conditions in the largest sense, and of the fact that what we call duty is entirely made up of such conditions." Individual desires, such as that of wishing to marry a person from a different ethnic background, should be resisted. It is necessary to adjust
Two months after the publication of The Spanish Gypsy George Eliot wrote to Clifford Allbutt that "the inspiring principle which alone gives me courage to write is, that of so presenting our human life as to help my readers in getting a clearer conception and a more active admiration of those vital elements which bind men together and give a higher worthiness to their existence." In The Spanish Gypsy "those vital elements" are the tremendous influences of memory and tradition amongst persecuted people and an aspiration which gives a "higher worthiness to their existence" (Letters, IV, August 1868) to—in Zarca's case—to return to the country where he believes his people's roots lie.
Kathleen Blake (essay date 1980)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1363
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 like Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda (1871-72, 1876) poses the incompatibility of love and art for the artist who is a woman….
"Armgart" is … very divided about the female artist who is "not a loving woman." The poem is quite resolute in supporting Armgart against the threats posed by men and motherhood, but it introduces another version of the conflict of love and art for a woman, one even more foundering, and fascinating.
"Armgart" is a dramatic poem that Henry James thought the best of the four long poems in the Jubal collection but that, like the rest of Eliot's verse, is almost completely unrecognized by criticism. As James says, it is difficult not to overrate or underrate the poetry by measure of the fiction. The latter impulse has dominated. Swinburne says it would be unmanly to treat the poetry critically at all [A Note on Charlotte Brontë, 1877]. A recent article called "George Eliot's Great Poetry" is practically the only one to be found that promises to treat the subject, and it turns out to concern The Mill on the Floss [John Freeman, 1970].
If "Armgart" is not great, it surely has great interest in respect to the double dilemma into which it plunges its laureled prima donna. One develops from a proposal of marriage from Graf Dornberg, the other from the loss of voice in illness. Armgart rejects the Graf's addresses because he separates her art from herself as expendable. She disdains his various wooing arguments. One is that unlike men, women are what they are, not what they achieve:
Men rise the higher as their task is high,
The task being well achieved. A woman's rank
Lies in the fullness of her womanhood.
Therein alone she is royal.
Armgart receives this with irony:
The Graf's second argument is that a woman not only suffers less but achieves more without her art, in "home delights / Which penetrate and purify the world." Armgart's rejecting irony is again bitter: should she sing in her chimney corner to inspire her husband at his newspaper?
The Graf has attempted to set her artistry off against her womanhood, as if it were unnatural. The art of singing offers a fine riposte because a soprano voice comes from nature and is not furnishable by a man. Armgart refuses to recognize a conflict, except as one made by men:
I am an artist by my birth—
By the same warrant that I am a woman:
… if a conflict comes,
Perish, no, not the woman, but the joys
Which men make narrow by their narrowness.
The joys that must perish are those of love. Eliot dramatizes the conflict through a convoluted and convincing route of motivation. The Graf does not overtly demand that Armgart renounce her art to marry him, but she feels the pressure anyway from a man who grudgingly tolerates instead of rejoicing in her singing. The interdiction of art by love would come from within herself, "My love would be accomplice of your will." So she will repress love and transform the pain into art.
It turns out that for Armgart to sacrifice her art is essential to her appeal to the Graf, though he doesn't say so outright. Armgart holds that his affection depends on all she has to give up for him: "my charm / Was half that I could win fame yet renounce!" He fancies "a wife with glory possible absorbed / Into her husband's actual." When she loses her voice he does not return to renew his suit. This vouches for Armgart's blame to men for setting love and art at odds for a woman. The poem seems to be with her.
I think it is with her in recognizing the intensity and ambition that the world so little credits in a woman. Some of the best passages of the poem concern Armgart's exaltation of celebrity. She revels in fame and impact on the multitude. She needs their applause and flowers and jewels to register her powerful self to herself: "splendours which flash out the glow I make." Her ambition is treated seriously as a source of artistic identity and energy. The poem gives a deeply felt case for the artist's overweening pride. In the end it does turn out to be overweening, however, and sympathy for Armgart becomes divided.
Again the issue is love versus art, but recast into new terms. When Armgart loses her voice she cannot bear to live within the mediocrity that she sees as the common fate of women. She feels suicidal rebellion against "woman's penury." Her cousin and attendant, the plain, self-effacing, hitherto almost unheeded Walpurga, now replaces Graf Dornberg in the argument over love and art. Walpurga contends that Armgart's glory as an artist had so removed her from the common lot that she despised it, so that the communication with the audience on which the singer exalted herself was at base factitious and cynical: natures like hers perform "in mere mock knowledge of their fellows' woe, / Thinking their smiles may heal it." Walpurga tasks Armgart with egotistical lack of care for others, of the same sort that made her oblivious to Walpurga's own care for her; she dismisses that unobtrusive tenderness as petty, mere "thwarted life," "woman's penury." Eliot gives vent in Walpurga to the anger of the ordinary woman at being the measure of everything escaped by the extraordinary one. Walpurga defines one of the escapes as a loss: the loss of love. Walpurga has found a meaning for her monotone life in loving Armgart. She is impatient with Armgart's despair because it pridefully rejects as worthless what Walpurga has based her life on.
Therefore the poem presents a double critique of the conflict of love and art for a woman. It expresses indignation at the unnecessary sacrifices demanded by men of women in marriage. Armgart is right not to marry the Graf. But it also deepens the conflict until vindication is harder to come by. It seems that glory saps loving-kindness. This constitutes a particular liability for a woman artist because her glory is so exceptional in a world which devalues women's achievements (as the poem shows) that it exaggerates the gap between herself and her sex. Armgart is wrong to recoil utterly from the lot to which she is reduced because it is no better than the lots of millions of women like Walpurga.
The conclusion of the poem takes careful sorting. Marriage offers no compensation for a lost voice. Singing versus marriage was a falsely imposed set of alternatives to begin with. Armgart ends up teaching music in a small town. She thereby remains true to her art. She refuses to denigrate it by becoming a poor actress; instead she will help to form other fine singers. She also shows care for Walpurga because the small town is the home that Walpurga had left in order to serve Armgart. Love and art are here in some sense reconciled. The poem appears to say that this reconciliation is necessary for true art, and that for a woman artist love and art are destructively divided, but not so importantly in the relation one first thinks of, between the sexes. There the division must be suffered, because anything else means capitulation to the unfair demands of men. Rather the poem identifies the more dangerous result of the division of art and love as the woman artist's contempt for her own sex. This becomes a species of suicidal self-hatred when she suffers the common feminine lot herself, and it provides no basis for the best in art, because communication must be communion.
Karen B. Mann (essay date 1980)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4296
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 and George Eliot share a similar conception of imagination as the crucial faculty of mind…. [The] Romantic conception of imagination as the central faculty of mind is not so much negated by George Eliot as re-examined in the light of a different aesthetic form, with its own, new perception of the importance of imagination. Wordsworth is the figure who is most important for George Eliot here, although sufficient evidence of the influence of Coleridge and Shelley is apparent. After a general discussion of the similarities between Wordsworth and George Eliot concerning the nature and results of "the power of mind," I will indicate how a single, dominant metaphor for that power—sound—is transferred by George Eliot from the work of the poet into her fiction. The full implications of that transference will be most apparent in George Eliot's poem "The Legend of Jubal," which underlines both her kinship with and her difference from the Romantic conceptions of William Wordsworth….
The final books of The Prelude detail the poet's sense of the importance of imagination as a faculty which allows man to infuse his own spirit into the alien world, thereby comprehending directly the nature of life for the non-self. But this conception of the imagination is inherent as well in the poems composed during the same period as The Prelude, which were published and therefore available to Mary Ann Evans before 1850. For instance, in "Tintern Abbey" Wordsworth writes of an essentially imaginative perception which transcends ordinary or natural vision and yet brings about the poet's commitment to such "natural" vision:
In the works of George Eliot, this acquisition of knowledge through a process essentially aesthetic is an inherent activity in both the narrator's loving attention to his story and the imaginative vision necessary for the full maturity of the characters. It is the imagination which, for Words-worth and for Eliot, grasps and accepts the idea of the world as a concrete whole in which individual and milieu function as one unit. Moral and rational judgments can thus only be drawn from the sympathetic perception of a situation in its totality.
Wordsworth and George Eliot express this metaphysical insight in essentially similar ways. The "Elegiac Stanzas," a later poem which shows Wordsworth's own domestication of imagination in a more Victorian world, might stand as a sufficient guide to the central problem of George Eliot's novels. The timeless, serene image of Peele Castle which Wordsworth fashions in his youth dissolves with the intrusion of death into his life. But the changed outlook of the soul thus "humanized" by "deep distress" is no less imaginative; for the poet grasps anew the image of Peele Castle as painted by Beaumont and sympathizes with its passion and sublimity. George Eliot echoes the terms of "Elegiac Stanzas" closely in Felix Holt the Radical, when Esther discerns the difference between the earlier "Elysian" picture of wealthy life and her new interpretation of that vision after a closer view of the world of Transome Court. Even the word "Elysian" occurs in both works. For both Wordsworth and George Eliot the earlier vision has been replaced by the understanding of a larger relation between the image in the mind and an external world of suffering.
There is also a great deal of similarity between the conception of maturation as it is portrayed in the works of Wordsworth and George Eliot. As the "Ode: Intimations of Immortality" implies, the child's unthinking, imaginative appropriation of the outer world as food for the self is gradually dissolved by a sense of both outward menace and inward difference. Eliot echoes, in fragmentary form, this aspect of growing up, which Wordsworth narrates most completely in the first books of The Prelude. Little Maggie Tulliver experiences the natural world as a playground for body and mind in which she reigns supreme; and Gwendolen Harleth in girlhood is subject to those feelings of separation from and menace in nature which occasionally overtook the young poet (cf. The Prelude, I, 425-63). What this sense of menace indicates in both Wordsworth and, by implication, in George Eliot, is a fear of separation from the natural world, of "traumatic breaks: Natura non facit saltus." Wordsworth evades these breaks or moments of separateness by recommitting himself to nature in poetry; George Eliot finds her connection with the world through the acceptance of a pervasive network of physical and psychological law.
Let me move from the abstract assertion of likeness between Wordsworth and George Eliot to an examination of the specific and vital similarities in their usage of certain metaphors for the power of mind. A passage from one of George Eliot's letters written on June 4, 1848, is doubly useful since it is often quoted by critics to exemplify the "realistic" or anti-imaginative qualities of her work, whereas in actuality it offers a direct example of the degree to which George Eliot is a "Romantic" believer in the imagination:
Alas for the fate of poor mortals which condemns them to wake up some fine morning and find all the poetry in which their world was bathed only the evening before utterly gone—the hard angular world of chairs and tables and looking-glasses staring at them in all its naked prose. It is so in all stages of life—the poetry of girlhood goes—the poetry of love and marriage—the poetry of maternity—and at last the very poetry of duty forsakes us for a season and we see ourselves and all about us as nothing more than miserable agglomerations of atoms—poor tentative efforts of the Nature Princip to mould a personality. This is the state of prostration—the self-abnegation through which the soul must go, and to which perhaps it must again and again return, that its poetry or religion, which is the same thing, may be a real ever-flowing river fresh from the windows of heaven and the fountains of the great deep—not an artificial basin with grotto work and gold fish.
The George Eliot Letters
The influence of Wordsworth's many streams and fountains is apparent here, and it is the exact nature of Wordsworth's influence which is revealing for George Eliot's fiction. In the first place, the passage implies that poetry and religion are not systems of rules but forces—rivers. It also implies that such forces have access to a realm beyond this world of tables and chairs, whether envisioned as a heaven above or a deep below everyday human experience. The unnamed link between such a realm and the everyday world is imagination, conceived as the "power" of mind. It is this faculty—the common term between art and morality, or, in George Eliot's words, poetry and religion—which George Eliot wishes to examine through the medium of fiction, not simply to point up its dangers, but also to establish its necessity, so that human life will indeed not become an "artificial basin with grotto work and gold fish."
It is important that George Eliot turned to the metaphoric heritage of the Romantic poets to express her conception of this power of mind. Metaphor itself is the paradigm of the imagination in its blending of inner and outer. And while the image of the river in the above passage takes us far in our understanding of the imagination as a power, it is not so revelatory of the nature of that power as is the equally if not more predominant metaphor of sound in the works of both Wordsworth and George Eliot. There is, of course, an interesting transition from the one metaphor to the other, in that the rivers and fountains of Wordsworth's poetry are preeminently vocal. But beyond this, sound has certain significant characteristics as a phenomenon which suits it peculiarly to the needs of both poet and novelist. Like smell, with which it is sometimes combined, hearing is an "intangible" sense, one which indicates how man can be touched by the invisible and the subtle. Further, sound's effect upon the mind is a function of time or duration rather than space, and so it becomes a means for unification both of past and present self, and of self and world, by a means less immediately mechanical than mere sight. Linked with this last, and perhaps central to the preoccupation with sound in both Wordsworth and George Eliot, is the power of sound to create a sense of spiritual life in the world surrounding man speaking to him.
Thus, in George Eliot's novels, metaphors of sound and music operate to characterize the qualities of mind of her characters and even of her narrator. When with these metaphors are included references to that fruitfully ambiguous term "harmony," a sense of how George Eliot values an imaginative response to the outer world emerges.
Wordsworth's "On the Power of Sound" (pub. 1835) and George Eliot's "The Legend of Jubal" (pub. 1870) help exemplify the significance each writer attaches to the nature of sound. Their common subject—the power of sound as an expression of the power of mind—is reinforced by the fact that George Eliot recorded her admiration of Wordsworth's poem in a letter to Maria Lewis on 1 October 1840 (Letters). That she should choose the same topic some 29 years later for one of her few efforts at poetry suggests the degree to which Wordsworth's complex metaphor had meaning for her own conception of the mind as a power. Repeatedly in her novels, her characters and her narrator reveal their imaginative powers through their unconscious susceptibilities to sounds and music and their conscious responses to such sounds as expressions of harmony and order. But before discussing this issue, I need to explain more fully what place sound has in Wordsworth's own canon.
The list of lines containing the various forms of the word "sound" in the Concordance of Wordsworth's poetry occupies three and a half columns; references to music and harmony lengthen that list. Decidedly represented are The Prelude and The Excursion, as well as the "Poems of the Imagination" in the collected Works; but, of course, anything so central to the concept of poetry as sound and song is present virtually everywhere in Wordsworth's poems. Briefly stated, the usage of sound suggests two important, connected processes: the power of mind to hear the living world speaking to man, and the subsequent power of mind to answer that external voice. The sounds of importance to the first of these reciprocal processes are, of course, natural ones. These sounds are for Wordsworth a "ghostly language of the ancient earth" (The Prelude, II, 309). Appropriately, the most predominant earth sounds arise from streams and torrents, and quickly become identified with the parallel streams of verse over-flowing from the poet's imagination:
In The Excursion, this external voice has become "the mighty stream of tendency / Uttering, for elevation of our thought, / A clear sonorous voice". Sensitivity to such a voice from nature is a sign of awakening imaginative power. From the boy of Winander to Peter Bell, Wordsworth's characters exhibit the reciprocal powers of outer and inner life through the presence of and response to portentous sounds…. [Much] the same thing occurs with George Eliot's fictional characters. These sounds or voices help to exhibit the mind's awareness of the spirit alive in the external world to which the imagination must give answer. That answer in Wordsworth is frequently the sound of music, an expression of perceived and created harmony which becomes a hymn of praise. The full statement of this two-fold process is contained in the poem which, appropriately enough, climaxes Wordsworth's "Poems of the Imagination": "On the Power of Sound."
Wordsworth's poem begins with the conception of a spirit which inhabits the organ of the ear, to whom the sounds of the world are subservient. Yet the relationship between mind and sound is not really so simple, as the subsequent verses show. Certain sounds, particularly measured sounds or songs, appear to influence and even dominate the mind, sometimes making inroads for man's "dangerous Passions." But at the same time, such domination allows the mind in turn to conquer external circumstance:
For the tired slave, Song lifts the languid oar,
And bids it aptly fall, with chime
That beautifies the fairest shore,
And mitigates the harshest clime.
In terms sometimes used by critics of George Eliot's fiction, such an imaginative avoidance of harsh reality might be a sign of moral torpor. But for Wordsworth (and, in "The Legend of Jubal," for George Eliot), this response to external power by the assertion of inner power is a hint of transcendent order, or harmony between mind and universe:
As Conscience, to the centre
Of being, smites with irresistible pain,
So shall a solemn cadence, if it enter
The mouldy vaults of the dull idiot's brain,
Transmute him to a wretch from quiet hurled—
Convulsed as by a jarring din;
And then aghast, as at the world
Of reason partially let in
By concords winding with a sway
Terrible for sense and soul!
Or awed he weeps, struggling to quell dismay.
Point not these mysteries to an Art
Lodged above the starry pole;
Pure modulations flowing from the heart
Of divine Love, where Wisdom, Beauty, Truth
With Order dwell, in endless youth?
By implication, the movement of mind under the power of measured sound corresponds to a letting in of divine or transcendent reason, to a momentary touch with the infinite.
In the succeeding stanzas of the poem, Wordsworth seems to assert, through the myths of Orpheus, Amphion, and Pan, how the power of the mind's response to music becomes a means to conquer time, space, and death. George Eliot attempts much the same task in her myth of Jubal. But when Wordsworth—aware that such myths belong to the "rapt imagination" of earlier times—tries to express the awakening of the mind through more ordinary external sounds, his examples become peculiarly ominous. The portentous sounds he chooses from everyday life offer a striking contrast to the gaiety of the satyrs under the influence of Pan's music, for he details the echo of dirt upon the coffinlid, the bell which rings the convict's knell, and the final note of the sinking ship's distress gun.
As a countermovement to this lapse into the world of death, where sound may be "heard, and heard no more," Wordsworth again prays for an order to make the power of sound a guarantee of universal order:
Ye wandering Utterances, has earth no scheme,
No scale of moral music—to unite
Powers that survive but in the faintest dream
Of memory?—O that ye might stoop to bear
Chains, such precious chains of sight
As laboured minstrelsies through ages wear!
O for a balance fit the truth to tell
Of the Unsubstantial, pondered well!
What Wordsworth desired to accomplish as minstrel in this poem is an assertion of the reciprocal and benevolent connection between mind and world accomplished by means of sound. The power of the mind to respond to outer harmony—apparent not only in sounds themselves but also in the "music" of the heavens, the ocean, and the seasons—triggers a second power: the power to give out again an answering hymn of thanksgiving which asserts a recognition of the world's order, and the Being to whom such order is due. Significantly, the poem ends with the recollection that the outer world itself came into being through sound, through the Word; and the Word, according to Wordsworth, alone is immortal.
Like "On the Power of Sound," George Eliot's "The Legend of Jubal" focuses upon power, order, and the transcendence through harmony of time and death. What is immediately different about George Eliot's treatment—and this is revelatory of her own imaginative bent—is her choice of a narrative for her exploration of the subject. While at first this would appear to suggest that George Eliot localizes her assertions about harmony within the particular beliefs of a person bound by time and space, the workings of the poem as a whole indicate that she perceives the legend to be a form of parable which perhaps gives the potentials of sound more necessary relevance to man's worldly condition than the less immediately time-bound meditations of Wordsworth.
The frame story of the invention of music by Jubal implies that music becomes necessary as a counterbalance to the actual existence of time and death, although time itself is ironically made known through sound as the measure of duration: "Time, vague as air before, new terrors stirred, / With measured wing now audibly arose / Throbbing through all things to some unknown close." In fact, it is the presence of time itself which calls for a means to transmute its pulsations from perpetual reminders of death into expressions of man's immortal power. In the terms of the narrative, with the recognition of death in the image of Lamech's son, the children of Cain feel the need for a means to obliterate or transmute the sense of passing time and to reach by that means immortality. Thus the greater portion of the poem, after this awakening shock of personal mortality common to all of George Eliot's fiction, is focused upon the resurgence of mental power by means of music. This pattern corresponds directly to the pattern in Wordsworth's poem, where the poet reaches after a larger harmony which will allay the fears of eternal silence. The keys to such immortality in "The Legend of Jubal" are action and sound:
Then while the soul its way with sound can cleave,
And while the arm is strong to strike and heave,
Let soul and arm give shape that will abide
And rule above our graves, and power divide
With that great god of day, whose rays must bend
As we shall make the moving shadows tend.
Most of George Eliot's fictional characters try to assert power through the "arm," that is, through action, through the molding of events. Tubal-Cain in this poem represents the most exemplary form of this assertion, for he is the plastic artist whose shapes, the outward results of "inspiring vision," provide useful tools for man. But such creation, linked as it is with materialthings, has "mixed ends," unlike the "invisible" creation of Jubal. Yet Jubal's first stirrings of power are an imaginative response to his brother's industry with outward things:
Jubal, too, watched the hammer, till his eyes,
No longer following its fall or rise,
Seemed glad with something that they could not see,
But only listened to—some melody,
Wherein dumb longings inward speech had found,
Won from the common store of struggling sound.
Then, as the metal shapes more various grew,
And, hurled upon each other, resonance drew,
Each gave new tones, the revelations dim
Of some external soul that spoke for him:
The hollow vessel's clang, the clash, the boom,
Like light that makes wide spiritual room
And skyey spaces in the spaceless thought,
To Jubal such enlarged passion brought
That love, hope, rage, and all experience,
Were fused in vaster being, fetching thence
Concords and discords, cadences and cries
That seemed from some world-shrouded soul to rise,
Some rapture more intense, some mightier rage,
Some living sea that burst the bounds of man's brief age.
What Jubal wakens to is the power of his imagination discovering a means for expressing itself in response to external stimuli, and finding eternity in the expression. The blankness of space around him is filled with "tremors" arising from the "giant soul of earth." Indeed, what had been empty space is filled by the presence of Jubal and his music, and the result is not only a filling of that vacuum with sound, but a binding of those listening to that sound into a unity of time past and to come, for the old remember their youth and the young look to their futures. The completed union in time and space occurs as all arise and begin to dance with "ringèd feet swayed by each close-linked palm."
It seems apparent from the passage describing Jubal's intentions and success that Eliot means for music to symbolize mental power of a particular sort. Music brings order or form to brute matter, where the super-abundance of artistry itself "informs the sense / With fuller union, finer difference." This balance of opposing drives toward wholeness and distinctness is echoed in the description of Jubal's first invention, the lyre:
He made it, and from out its measured frame
Drew the harmonic soul, whose answers came
With guidance sweet and lessons of delight
Teaching to ear and hand the blissful Right,
Where strictest law is gladness to the sense,
And all desire bends toward obedience.
What is crucial for Eliot, both here and in her fiction, is the union of desire and obedience: order in this case is no stern taskmaster who requires the bending of the will away from all that is joyful. Joy itself arises from the perception of an order which pleases both the outward sense and the inward soul. What Jubal has found is a "heart of music in the might of sound"—that is, a center and source of potent feeling within the raw power of outward "noise." Thus Eliot, like Wordsworth, finds in the correlation between sound and music a metaphor for the power of imaginative perception and the harnessing of that power.
Having had his imaginative insight and his outward proof of its potency in the response of his people, Jubal goes out in confidence to bless the world with harmony and bring more and more of life's disparate materials under his command. In this regard he is a kind of prototype of all of George Eliot's "imaginative" characters, from Hetty Sorrel to Mordecai Cohen. Like them, his first expectation of ever higher personal success, exemplified in the poem in the climbing of higher and higher mountains which will eventually allow him to hear the true music of the spheres, is frustrated. Instead of one final solid peak to stand upon, Jubal finds the sea: "this main—/ Myriads of maddened horses thundering o'er the plain." Jubal's sense of the largeness of the world embodied in the roaring of the sea, and the growing weakness of his personal power to order what that sea speaks to him, brings a crippling paralysis.
When Jubal, like Wordsworth in "On the Power of Sound," feels the pull of death foreshadowed in his growing imaginative inadequacy, he chooses to return to his place of origin, to find in his past that successful creativity which now eludes him. What Jubal does meet on his return is not that past itself, but his own powers of mind made visible in the stream of singing people:
Brought like fulfilment of forgotten prayer;
As if his soul, breathed out upon the air,
Had held the invisible seeds of harmony
Quick with the various strains of life to be.
As a kind of gloss on Wordsworth's own immortal Word, the divine word which is being sung, "The common need, love, joy, that knits them in one whole," is "Jubal," the name "For glorious power untouched by that slow death / Which creeps with creeping time."
The man Jubal, a poor "remnant" of mortality, is, in comparison to this invisible power, but a feeble bell in a lake of silence, and the hope of immortality which the poem offers is certainly not a personal one. What Jubal is given as an answer to his coming physical dissolution is the same sort of transcendent consolation which Wordsworth offers at the close of "On the Power of Sound." It is the eternal presence of "power" itself, released into the world of inert matter, which connects man with the infinite. Ironically, that power first makes itself recognized as a hunger after the "senses' beauteous Right." From that hunger Jubal had created the music which then feeds his soul; and further, that music feeds the souls of others:
But thy expanding joy was still to give,
And with the generous air in song to live,
Feeding the wave of ever-widening bliss
Where fellowship means equal perfectness.
Jubal then dies amid a symphony of sound and sight corresponding to the mighty harmonies hidden in the vastness of space. Appropriately, George Eliot's last metaphor for him is "a quenched sun-wave." The "power" which is a common denominator between the two poems by Wordsworth and Eliot, then, is an essentially two-fold one: the power to be moved and the power to move. Both are an expression of the perception of harmony or order. In Wordsworth's poetry as a whole, the world calls forth song as the poet is stimulated by his milieu, and gives forth song, which the poet recognizes as an answer to his need for harmony. What George Eliot details in the career of Jubal is an essentially similar duality: Jubal's yearning is awakened by a "resonance" which confirms the difference yet likeness between inner mind and outward nature. To bring that resonance into full, conscious existence and to express it for others, he must create music, which itself is a praise of that resonance. The final resting place of poetic music for Wordsworth and for Eliot, then, is hymn.
F. B. Pinion (essay date 1981)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3649
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 loyalties; with Fedalma and Don Silva it turns on hereditary obligations. 'Silva presents the tragedy of entire rebellion: Fedalma of a grand submission, which is rendered vain by the effects of Silva's rebellion', George Eliot writes. Although she finds tragedy in Zarca's 'struggle for a great end, rendered vain by the surrounding conditions of life', it makes little dramatic impact on the reader; he is an inspiring and intractable power which Fedalma finds irresistible in his presence, but which she can hardly sustain when he is dead. Yet, in conjunction with symbolism, the struggle between the individual and the general creates the most dramatic tragic scene in the whole work. Fedalma, whose gipsy instinct makes her yearn for the open air and join in the dancing, is stirred by 'old imperious memories' when, ignorant of her origin, she is fascinated by her father's necklace. Late on the eve of her expected marriage, a bird falls dead at her feet; it carries the message that her father comes. When he reveals himself, it is clear that the gold necklace symbolizes the fate which binds her to Zarca and to her past and future. He snatches the circlet of rubies from her brow, and asks her, as he grasps her hand and shoulder, if she chooses to be forgetful. She believes she can show her loyalty to him by securing his freedom after her marriage; she has divided loyalties and memories:
Look at these hands! You say when they were little
They played about the gold upon your neck.
I do believe it, for their tiny pulse
Made record of it in the inmost coil
Of growing memory. But see them now!
Oh, they have made fresh record; twined themselves
With other throbbing hands whose pulses feed
Not memories only but a blended life—
Life that will bleed to death if it be severed.
Zarca insists that she has a higher compulsion; hers is no ordinary lot. As his successor, queen of the gipsies, she is expected to perform royally. She consents unwillingly, 'an unslain sacrifice', removes her bridal gems, and accepts her fate, to wed her people. Her 'young joy' dies like the bird which announced Zarca's coming.
Don Silva's conflict is not externalized. It occurs in the black solitude of night after he has joined the Zincali unconditionally. In this inner drama thought is weaker and less trustworthy than feeling; he defends his action reflectively but 'the universe / Looks down inhospitable' and 'the human heart / Finds nowhere shelter but in human kind'. There are no specifically Positivist overtones here or elsewhere in the work, although Dr Congreve ascribed 'a mass of Positivism' to it, and Edmund Gosse more than half a century later described it as 'a Comtist tragedy'. Silva's 'larger soul' cannot scorn those memories from ancestral homes, that 'hereditary right' which troubles his conscience as if it were 'the voice divine of human loyalty'. The great trust he has broken turns reproach on him from those human and divine faces which had witnessed his knightly pledges as a champion of the Cross. Such is the revenge 'wrought by the long travail of mankind / On him who scorns it, and would shape his life / Without obedience'. Significantly, at the end, when Silva is intent on redeeming his honour with his 'knightly sword', the blackness he sees with Fedalma's departure is 'overhung by stars'. Taking her cue perhaps from Matthew Arnold's preface to the 1853 edition of his poems, George Eliot expressed the view that 'art which leaves the soul in despair is laming to the soul', and attributed the fostering of nobler sentiments in her tragedy to individual deeds and 'the all-sufficiency of the soul's passions in determining sympathetic action'. The critical weakness of The Spanish Gypsy is that, although the tragic conflict is clear in Fedalma and Silva, it rarely succeeds in lifting the passions to tragic heights.
The introduction is leisurely; like the proem of Romola it begins with a descriptive approach which is cinematic in technique, taking the reader by stages from an aerial view of Spain 'leaning with equal love / On the Mid Sea that moans with memories, / And on the untravelled Ocean's restless tides' (before Columbus's voyage to America) to Bedrnár and a tavern courtyard. Here a group of characters provides a chorus, commenting on events which introduce the main action. The individualization of this group in description and action is justified by the sequel, for all play minor stage roles, none more importantly than the minstrel Juan and the juggler Roldan, with the lame boy Pablo (another singer). The first dramatic note is sounded by the booming bell which calls to prayer and ends the dancing in the plaza, where Fedalma's joy is quelled by the rebuking gaze of the prisoner gipsy chief. With the confrontation between the prior Isidor and Silva, and events leading to Zarca's winning of Fedalma, the remainder of the first book (which comprises almost half the work) reaches a level of dramatic tension which is rarely equalled and never long sustained in the sequel. The most imaginative of the incidents and episodes which follow occurs in the third book, and acquires its power when a brief climactic action is almost suspended with tableau effect to give symbolic concentration to the tragic dilemma at the heart of the work. Silva has found Fedalma; they embrace; she starts back with a look of terror, still holding him by the hand, and says:
Silva, if now between us came a sword,
Severed my arm, and left our two hands clasped,
This poor maimed arm would feel the clasp till death.
What parts us is a sword…
Her speech is cut short: Zarca, after approaching from the background, has drawn his sword and thrust the naked blade between them.
George Eliot recognised the supremacy of the feelings in making great moral decisions but, unlike Emily Brontë, lacked the imaginative power to express feelings with sustained dramatic life and intensity. She shows that she can engineer dramatic situations, and indeed achieve some lively vigour in dramatic scenes; but thought and noble sentiments tend to predominate over feeling. Even so, it would be a mistake to regard the verse as a failure. The songs, however, are not inherently lyrical, and seem to have been composed to imaginary music, Juan's 'Day is dying! Float, O song' (which conveys an admirable picture) and his song to Pepita are two of the more successful. With the exception of two short lighter scenes in prose, the remainder of the work is in blank verse, which everywhere bears the mark of careful composition, even in such detail as the astrologer Sephardo's mouth:
The monkey Annibal, left with Pablo in Sephardo's care, while his master, the juggler Roldan, seeks Fedalma for Silva,
The style suits the action in movement, as in the description of Roldan's juggling or of Silva's hurried search for Fedalma, after hearing that she has been seen dancing in the plaza. As she dances, the admiring tension of the spectators finds relief which is exquisitely expressed in 'Sighs of delight, applausive murmurs low, / And stirrings gentle as of earéd corn / Or seed-bent grasses, when the ocean's breath / Spreads landward'. Pictorial effects are equally fine. The verse is often dramatic and clearcut; elsewhere (deliberately with the minstrel Juan), without being lavishly rich or superfluous, it is over-poetic in texture, tending to express thought in imagery. It is no wonder that Henry James found The Spanish Gypsy 'much more of a poem than was to be expected', though his admiration of 'its extraordinary rhetorical energy and elegance', 'its splendid generosity of diction', and 'its marvellous power of expression' is probably rather over-pitched. By comparison, however, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh seems improvized, prolix, and prosaic.
Unable to make progress with her first version of The Spanish Gypsy, George Eliot continued the writing of verse in 'My Vegetarian Friend' (which she had sketched in prose three or four years earlier) and in 'Utopias', both being completed in January 1865. They were combined, it seems, to form Ά Minor Prophet' as it appeared in The Legend of Jubai and Other Poems (1874). The first part, the prophecy of Elias Baptist Butterworth, is satirical and witty, the opening lines resembling a parody of Wordsworthian matter-of-factness; it glances at contemporary spiritualism, and entertains the idea that rappings come from the Thought-atmosphere, to which people will have unimpeded recourse in the vegetarian era, when all will be ideal. The poet, however, prefers an imperfect world where amelioration is bought with sacrifice. In a world that moves to smiles and tears, the 'twists and cracks in our poor earthenware' (an allusion to the main image of Browning's 'Rabbi Ben Ezra', which had appeared in 1864) touch her to 'more conscious fellowship' with her coevals. She believes in progress towards the ideal, but her faith springs from the past, from noble and gentle deeds, heroic love, and even (a Browning thought) from failure and yearning. When she adds that it comes from 'every force that stirs our souls / To admiration, self-renouncing love', her Positivist sympathies are clear.
'Two Lovers', a lyric composed in September 1866, communicates deep feeling in excellent form, rounded to give a sense of life's wholeness. O May I Join the Choir Invisible' expresses a Positivist view of immortality, the hope that the author's 'better self will always be remembered and become a source of strength to others. For many it is the only poem by which George Eliot is remembered as a poet. It was written in Germany during the summer of 1867.
The following summer, after completing The Spanish Gypsy, she made a further study of English verse. It had been a principle with her, which she found supported in practice by 'all the finest writers', occasionally to use lines of irregular length, especially of twelve syllables, in blank verse. She was impressed by Milton's example ('such listening for new melodies and harmonies with instructed ears'); and it is significant that her August reading included Samson Agonistes and Guest's English Rhythms. Among the projects she listed for 1869 were Middlemarch, a long poem on Timoleon, and several shorter ones, including '(Tubalcain) Vision of Jubal', 'Agatha', 'Stradivarius', and 'Arion'.
'Agatha' was finished in January. It is a sketch based on recollections of a visit George Eliot and Lewes made the previous July with the Gräfin von Baudissin (the countess) and her daughter to a peasant's cottage among the mountains of southwestern Germany. Description of the scenery is followed by the dialogue of Countess Linda and Agatha ('sweet antiphony of young and old'); and the poem concludes with a song, purportedly by Hans the tailor in honour of Agatha and her cousins Kate and Nell, whom she houses because, though younger, they are 'feeble, with small withered wits'. The influence of Agatha's piety, even on the young, makes her a link between 'faulty folk and God'. Tennyson did this sort of thing better, Swinburne wrote; he also did worse. The subject has no pretensions to profundity, but it is tactfully observed and gracefully composed. The Atlantic Monthly paid £300 for it, and the author probably never made money more easily.
Three weeks later she had finished 'How Lisa Loved the King', a greater achievement which alone would make George Eliot worthy to be remembered. It is an amplification of a Boccaccio story (Il Decamerone, X. vii), and its rhymed verse suggests the influence of The Canterbury Tales, familiarity with which is to be seen among the epigraphs of Middlemarch. With excellent judgment she frequently uses alexandrines to bring paragraphs to a close. It is creative work, a free translation, notable as much for the originality and delicacy of its imagery as for the technical mastery which is often displayed in variety and ease of movement within the regular insistencies of its medium.
The last of the 'Brother and Sister' sonnets was written at the end of July, just before the original opening of Middlemarch was begun. Initially entitled 'Sonnets on Childhood', they suggest that incidents in The Mill on the Floss which are commonly regarded as autobiographical have been modified for fictional ends. The recollections have a twofold significance. Like Wordsworth's 'spots of time' they record memories which have enriching or renovating virtues:
The firmaments of daisies since to me
Have had those mornings in their opening eyes,
The bunchèd cowslip's pale transparency
Carries that sunshine of sweet memories.
George Eliot's soul, like Wordsworth's, had its 'fair seed-time'; those early hours were 'seed' to all her 'after good', and she ascribes her moral development to childhood experiences fostering love and fear, 'the primal passionate store, / Whose shaping impulses make manhood whole'. They were her 'root of piety'. The sonnets also show how brother and sister helped to enlarge each other's world, the author describing them as 'little descriptive bits on the mutual influences in their small lives'. Through him she became more aware of reality, and found less satisfaction in the world of dreams. With school their shared life came to an end. The subsequent rift between Mrs Lewes and her brother Isaac is alluded to in the 'Change' that is 'pitiless'. Another Shakespearian sonnet, written subsequently as an epigraph does not belong to this sequence; it is made to fit the fiction but it recalls the author's love of Scott's Waverley in her childhood, and how she wrote out the story when the book had to be returned before she could finish it.
'The Legend of Jubal' was begun when Middlemarch was interrupted by Thornton Lewes's fatal illness, and finished 'about Christmas' (1869). The passage on Death was written under the shadow of great grief when he passed away, Lewes told Alexander Main. The thought that life must end imparts 'new dearness' to everything, 'finer tenderness' to love, and ambition to achieve something that will abide:
Come, let us fashion acts that are to be,
When we shall lie in darkness silently,
As our young brother doth, whom yet we see
Fallen and slain, but reigning in our will
By that one image of him pale and still.
The poem returns to the rhymed couplet form of 'How Lisa Loved the King' with occasional alexandrine variations. The legend is imaginary, starting from Genesis and Paradise Lost. After inventing the lyre and discovering the power of music over his own race, Jubal seeks inspiration in new lands. When from a mountain peak he sees the ocean, and hears 'its multitudinous roar, / Its plunge and hiss upon the pebbled shore', he can no longer respond to new voices, and turns back to rejoin his brethren, hoping that 'fresh-voiced youth' will express all that is in his soul. He travels far, losing his way and his ancient lyre. When at length he returns white-haired, 'the rune-writ story of a man', he sees 'dread Change' around. Utterly exhausted and near death, he lies watching an approaching procession and hears it chanting to many instruments in praise of Jubal. At this his joy revives, giving him strength to run and meet them. When he tells them that he is Jubal, the inventor of the lyre, he is greeted with derision, beaten, and left to find refuge among thorny thickets. 'The immortal name of Jubal filled the sky, / While Jubal lonely laid him down to die.' He feels shadowy wings enclose him, sees the loving face of his dedication in the past, and hears praise of the glorious heritage he has left melt into symphony as he is upborne. There is a Positivist inspiration in this heroic theme, but the poem, like so much of George Eliot's poetry, though it contains much that is impressive and exquisite, suggests a finished composition rather than the living voice and passion of the highest art.
'Armgart' is a rather slight dramatic sketch in five scenes which was begun 'under much depression' in August 1870; the subject had engaged George Eliot's interest a few weeks earlier at Harrogate. In one respect she was like the singer Armgart, who is asked how she can bear 'the poise of eminence' with 'dread of sliding'; in another, she was more fortunate, for Armgart is expected to renounce her art when she marries. She refuses, but a year later loses her voice, and vents her bitterness in proud anger. Her outbursts bring the verse to life, but her haughty egoism is pricked with surprising suddenness by the lame cousin who has waited on her for years:
Armgart admits that she has been blind, and that true vision comes only, it seems, with sorrow. She will make amends to her cousin, and become a teacher of music and singing (a career she has despised). She is confirmed in her resolution when she learns that her master had suffered the same disappointment.
Two shorter poems belong to 1873. 'Arion', written in the stanza of Marvell's Horatian ode on Cromwell's return from Ireland, is a splendid composition until it falters at the very end. 'Stradivarius' is admirable from start to finish. Mainly a duologue, it is dramatic throughout and influenced by Browning's style. The painter Naldo, a believer in the inspiration derived from 'drinking, gambling, talk turned wild' or 'moody misery and lack of food', with 'every dithyrambic fine excess', speaks slightingly of the 'painful nicety' with which Stradivari works. Stradivari contends that he will be appreciated by master violinists of the future, that the 'fullest good' one gives is God, and that 'not God Himself can make man's best / Without best men to help Him'. Naldo ends his excuses for not finishing his latest picture with 'A great idea is an eagle's egg, / Craves time for hatching'; and the poem closes with Stradivari's rejoinder:
'A College Breakfast-Party' provides very different fare. Written in April 1874, it developed from talks with Trinity men during George Eliot's visit to Cambridge the previous May. A metaphysician may enjoy it, but most readers probably wish the author had persisted in her intention never to publish it. Lewes arranged for its publication in Macmillan's Magazine for a £250 fee, and it was added to the Legend of Jubal volume when Blackwood asked if she had more poems to 'swell it out to the required length' in the Cabinet Edition. To satirize without tedium the prolixity, non sequiturs, and inconclusiveness of philosophical discussion presents an artistic dilemma which was beyond George Eliot's invention. The verse copes admirably with the eloquence of academic sophistry, but such a subject needs either a structural idea which can quintessentialize it or the continual relief of witty comment and amusing incident. The device of a dialogue between selected Hamlet characters, with the indecisive prince left to form his own conclusions, is promising; but a long succession of argument in which 'None said, "Let Darkness be", but Darkness was' is inevitably tedious. The high debate oscillates from abstract to real, from absolute to relative, and from the scientifically explicable to the unknown of religion. After hearing that analogies in reasoning have as much significance as a crow and a bar to a crowbar, the priest, trying to supply an imperative to Hamlet's thronging doubts, discourses learnedly and, after proving by analogy to his own satisfaction that everything said supports belief in a Presence, leaves for another appointment. Discussion on the relative leads to taste, and taste to the ideal beauty which is seen in art and poetry, and which exists independently of all human turmoil and philosophical change. Guildenstern insists that beauty and taste develop in accordance with human evolution, but Hamlet, uncertain to the last, thinks that poetry could belong to 'a transfigured realm' which is free from our grosser world.
And then he dreamed a dream so luminous
He woke (he says) convinced; but what it taught
Withholds as yet. Perhaps those graver shades
Admonished him that visions told in haste
Part with their virtues to the squandering lips
And leave the soul in wider emptiness.
No uncertainty on George Eliot's attitude to transcendentalism in philosophy and aesthetic theory can remain after this conclusion.
'Stradivarius' suggests that George Eliot's poetic gifts were not inconsiderable. With Daniel Deronda in hand she could do no more in verse than continue the practice she had begun in Felix Holt of supplying her own chapter epigraphs where nothing more suitable came to mind. They can be lyrical or humorous; but the gravely philosophical tend to be more impressive, as when Gwendolen Harleth, her murderous thought making her feel guilty of her husband's death, experiences 'that new terrible life lying on the other side of the deed which fulfils a criminal desire':
Deeds are the pulse of Time, his beating life,
And righteous or unrighteous, being done,
Must throb in after-throbs till Time itself
Be laid in stillness, and the universe
Quiver and breathe upon no mirror more.
They are often dramatic, one of the most apt and poetical referring to that 'moment of naturalness' between Lydgate and Rosamond which 'shook flirtation into love':
How will you know the pitch of that great bell
Too large for you to stir? Let but a flute
Play 'neath the fine-mixed metal: listen close
Till the right note flows forth, a silvery rill:
Then shall the huge bell tremble—then the mass
With myriad waves concurrent shall respond
In low soft unison.
Victor A. Neufeldt (essay date 1983)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2628
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 woman—I finished it an old woman'" [George Eliot's Life as Related in Her Letters and Journals, ed. by J. W. Cross, 1885]. I would argue, however, that in at least one respect her next work, The Spanish Gypsy marked an equally significant turning point for Eliot. Romola ends with the heroine finding fulfillment in the role of a Madonna; Middlemarch ends with a would-be Madonna finding fulfillment as a wife and mother. In between Eliot depicts a heroine, variously denominated as angel, goddess, and priestess, who finds only frustration and futility. The progression denotes Eliot's growing realization that the claims of public duty and responsibility must not be satisfied at the expense of personal fulfillment and happiness….
In The Spanish Gypsy Eliot portrays a heroine who sacrifices the joys of "ordinary womanhood" to dedicate her life to her father's dream of creating a new nation, of instructing and liberating her people, only to announce at the end that the dream she has dedicated herself to at great cost is an illusion.
Eliot began her drama of renunciation in the summer of 1864, and evidence of her difficulty with it began to appear almost immediately: "Horrible scepticism about all things—paralyzing my mind. Shall I ever be good for anything again?—ever do anything again?" [Gordon S. Haight, George Eliot: A Biography, 1968]. By February of 1865, while struggling with the fourth act, Eliot recorded: "George has taken my drama away from me." Her complaints were of headaches, feebleness of mind and body; yet one cannot help wonder (even after acknowledging that she was working with a new form) whether these were not the physical symptoms of much more deep-seated difficulties she was having with her subject matter, for within five weeks she was at work on Felix Holt, having witnessed with much joy the marriage of Charles Lewes and Gertrude Hill in the interval. Only after she had finished Felix Holt, had seen its enthusiastic reception, had nostalgically retraced with Lewes part of the first trip they had made together the descriptions of which are filled with a sense of health, ease, relaxation, and a delight that was "immense—greatly from old recollections," and had seen a steady increase in her fame, her circle of staunch friends, and her social acceptability, could she return to The Spanish Gypsy in March of 1867. Yet she had never lost interest in the unfinished work. In August 1866 (not long after the completion of Felix Holt), she wrote to Frederic Harrison: "Now when I read it again, I find it impossible to abandon it: the conceptions move me deeply, and they have never been wrought out before. There is not a thought or a symbol that I do not long to use: but the whole thing requires recasting, and as I never recast anything before, I think of the issue very doubtfully" (Letters, IV). The recasting she spoke of involved the change from a drama in verse to the form in which we know the poem, but what more, one wonders, did she have to recast? Was the writing of Felix Holt important to the completion of The Spanish Gypsy? I believe it was.
Significantly, there is no suggestion in Felix Holt of Esther Lyon seeking her happiness outside "the ordinary lot of womanhood." The renunciation of marriage is not one of the possibilities offered her. At the end of Chapter 44, the narrator says, "In the ages since Adam's marriage, it has been good for some men to be alone, and for some women also. But Esther was not one of these women; she was intensely of the feminine type, verging neither towards the saint nor the angel. She was 'a fair divided excellence, whose fulness of perfection' must be in marriage." In short she was no Romola, nor, like her Biblical name-sake or Fedalma, could she sacrifice herself for her people. In choosing between Harold and Felix, Esther had to choose between the claims of her hereditary past and the claims of her personal history. She was saved from the tragic consequences of an involvement in the Transome history because she gave precedence to the claims of her personal past, which involved both her duty to her foster father and her emotional ties to Felix. After Esther testified at Felix's trial, the narrator comments: "In this, at least, her woman's lot was perfect: that the man she loved was her hero; that her woman's passion and her reverence for rarest goodness rushed together in an undivided current." It is precisely this fusion of public and private good that enables the narrator to say in the Epilogue that Esther never repented her decision.
The Spanish Gypsy again sets up for the heroine the conflict between hereditary claims and personal history, between duty and personal fulfillment, but for Fedalma there is no happy fusion of publicand private good. At the beginning, love seems to her such an easy bliss, yet one has only to recall the statement in Felix Holt that "it is not true that love makes all things easy; it makes us choose what is difficult" to realize how naive she is. When Zarca places before Fedalma her duty to renounce Silva and take up "the heirship of a gypsy's child"
To be the angel of a homeless tribe;
To help me bless a race taught by no prophet
And make their name, now but a badge of scorn,
A glorious banner floating in their midst.
and to help him found the new gypsy nation, Fedalma sees no reason why she cannot have it both ways; she will marry the Duke, then declare her heritage and enlist the Duke's aid for his new father-in-law. Zarca rejects such a scheme as unheroic—"A woman's dream—who thinks by smiling well / To ripen figs in frost." When Fedalma counters that the love she has pledged "is nature too, / Issuing a fresher law than laws of birth." Zarca replies scathingly:
Round your proud eyes to foolish kitten looks;
Walk mincingly, and smirk, and twitch your robe;
Unmake yourself—doff all the eagle plumes
And be a parrot, chained to a ring that slips
Upon a Spaniard's thumb.
Because Zarca is obsessed with his dream, he sees things in overly simple black and white terms. He can state without a moment's hesitation that Fedalma was born not to the slavery of marriage, but to reign. "You belong," he says, "Not to the petty round of circumstance / That makes a woman's lot, but to your tribe." Later, in Book Three, he tells Silva that Fedalma's destiny is to
… live a goddess, sanctifying oaths,
Enforcing right, and ruling consciences,
By law deep-graven in exalting deeds,
Through the long ages of her people's life.
If she can leave that lot for silken shame,
Then let her go!
When he says to Fedalma in Book One, "Now choose your deed: to save or to destroy." Fedalma and the reader both know that things are not that simple. In fact, such over-simplification with its concomitant lack of awareness of the consequences involved is the fatal weakness of both Zarca and Silva. While Zarca understands well what the consequences of Fedalma's marriage would be for him, he has little understanding of the price she will have to pay to obey him:
And, for your sadness—you are young—the bruise
Will leave no mark.
It is the woman, one should note, who quickly comes to understand the full implications of the choices being offered. When Zarca calls Fedalma to "feed the high tradition of the world." he calls on her to accept the "higher" demands of civilization and society, of the collective will of which the fathers are the guardians, and to renounce the "lower" pleasures of passion, instinct, and sexual desire, of the natural world of regeneration, birth and growth associated with the mother. He calls on her, in other words, to renounce her personal history and her desire for individual love and fulfillment. Fedalma's response is that she has pledged to Silva "A woman's truth," and such a love for another person takes precedence over abstract ideals of duty and honor. Thus she is faced with the choice of betraying her father or the man she loves, and will have to pay a high price whatever choice she makes. She chooses to obey her father, but as she does so, she asks:
O father, will the women of our tribe
Suffer as I do, in the years to come
When you have made them great in Africa?
Redeemed from ignorant ills only to feel
A conscious woe? Then—is it worth the pains?
"I will take / This yearning self of mine and strangle it," she says to Zarca, "Die, my young joy—die, all my hungry hopes." She closes Book One with the words:
O love, you were my crown. No other crown
Is aught but thorns on my poor woman's brow.
It is clear from the beginning, then, that public duty and personal happiness cannot be reconciled. Fedalma, by the end of Book One, has committed herself to public duty, yet the tragic outcome of that commitment is foreshadowed when she says of Zarca,
The foreshadowing leads one to suspect that Eliot's recasting of this work after the completion of Felix Holt involved much more than just the form.
Despite her commitment, Fedalma's ambivalence continues in the books that follow. In Book Three she yearns for Silva, then reproaches herself for her infirmity—for being "clogged with self." When Zarca asks her, "Are you aught less than a true Zincala?" she replies, "No; but I am more. The Spaniards fostered me." In the middle of Book Three, after testing the primitive animal-like Hinda on what she would do if she had to choose between love and loyalty to the tribe (Hinda chooses loyalty to the tribe), Fedalma utters perhaps the most poignant description of her situation, a description one cannot help but feel the author identifies with strongly;
For her, good, right, and law are all summed up
In what is possible….
She knows no struggles, sees no double path:
Her fate is freedom, for her will is one
With her own people's law, the only law
She ever knew. For me—I have a fire within,
But on my will there falls the chilling snow
Of thoughts that come as subtly as soft flakes,
Yet press at last with hard and icy weight.
I could be firm, could give myself the wrench
And walk erect, hiding my life-long wound,
If I but saw the fruit of all my pain
With that strong vision which commands the soul,
And makes great awe the monarch of desire.
But now I totter, seeing no far goal.
Precisely because she can see the "double path," Fedalma knows that Silva, like Zarca, oversimplifies the situation, that he is unaware of the tragic consequences inherent in his decisions and actions. It is she who tells Silva that once one has made a decision there can be no return to what once was:
To her clear-eyed perceptions, Silva can only reply with sentimental, romantic platitudes:
Like Esther, Fedalma and Silva are given a choice of renunciations. Unlike Esther, both deny their personal past. In contrast to Felix Holt, however, the choices here carry far more serious consequences. Renunciation carried out with clear-eyed understanding is painful indeed; but renunciation carried out blindly and naively, as in Silva's case, will have disastrous consequences. Because of his tragic blindness, Silva kills Zarca, and in so doing forces Fedalma to commit herself irrevocably to the fulfillment of her father's dream, thus assuring the separation Silva sought to avoid. As a result, Silva's soul, in Zarca's words, "is locked 'twixt two opposing crimes," and Fedalma is committed to a dream she knows she can never bring into reality:
"Father," she says, "I renounced the joy; / You must forgive the sorrow." For her, there is only the ironic realization that she must share with Silva "each deed / Our love was root of." We are left at the end with a broken man, and a woman following a dream she knows to be an illusion, both gazing into the gathering darkness. It is a bitterly ironic ending for a woman who has been hailed an angel, a goddess, and a priestess. There is about her a terrible sense of futility and sterility, which, when taken together with the ending of Felix Holt, denies emphatically the supposed happiness of Romola in the role of Madonna. Her future, Fedalma says to Silva in their final meeting, is to keep her father's trust:
My life shall be its temple. I will plant
His sacred hope within the sanctuary
And die its priestess—though I die alone,
A hoary woman on the altar-step,
Cold 'mid cold ashes. That is my chief good.
That might be Fedalma's good, but as Middlemarch makes clear, it could never be Eliot's. The complete subjugation of personal passion in the name of duty is for her an untenable ideal.
At the end of The Mill on the Floss, Maggie is prepared to renounce all personal happiness….
But Eliot cannot condemn young Maggie to such a bleak future, to such a life of self-abnegation, so she puts her into a boat and mercifully allows her the oblivion of death. When Romola reaches a point of absolute self-despair after the death of her godfather, she too launches out in a boat, in this case hoping for the oblivion of death. Eliot cannot oblige her, but neither can she condemn Romola to a bleak future of self-despair, so she transforms her most unconvincingly into a Madonna, a practitioner of the Religion of Humanity. Only in The Spanish Gypsy, does Eliot finally have her young heroine confront fully the emptiness and bleakness, the nothingness of a future based on a denial of personal happiness. Here, as Fedalma is about to board her boat to cross to North Africa, there is no moment of tragic insight, no moment of consolation in memory, no oblivion of death. One experiences only the sense of a useless sacrifice produced by her total self-abnegation.
Eliot was able to have Fedalma face what she could not require either Maggie or Romola to confront because she had by now found an antidote to such a vision of existence in her personal happiness as wife and foster mother, and in the growing sense of security her ever-increasing fame was giving her, especially from 1866 on. Her return from the Continent in that year was a homecoming, Redinger suggests, "in harmony with the adult life she had created for herself." [Rudy Redinger, George Eliot: The Emergent Self, 1975]. In the killing of Zarca, I believe Eliot finally purged the sense of guilt she had felt over having betrayed her father. She had demonstrated what the consequence of following his code of morality would have been, and had asserted her right to the personal happiness she had found with Lewes. After The Spanish Gypsy, therefore, Eliot's gaze, as the ending of Middlemarch shows, turned outward and forward.
Sylvia Kasey Marks (essay date 1983)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2318
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 race during the Moorish struggles in Spain, [which] now seems virtually unreadable." Yet The Spanish Gypsy appears less of an oddity when viewed in the context of George Eliot's total canon, particularly when we see its kinship to the themes, situations, and characters found in the novels, where most of the scholarly attention has been directed….
In its time, The Spanish Gypsy was successful. The reviews were not unfavorable and several editions were published, including one in the United States; by 1878, Eliot had earned £1000 from its sales. It is difficult to account for the lack of popularity of the poem today. One possible reason is that it is a hybrid work which does not successfully blend the various forms contained in it. Thus, while it is subtitled, "A Poem," Henry James declared that it was "not a genuine poem." Indeed, Eliot had originally intended to write a play, and the five parts of the poem, the authorial comments, and even stage directions in the text are possibly remnants of this idea. The marks of the epic and medieval romance are evident as well. Don Silva, for example, is described as "Born of a goddess with a mortal sire," while the poet in the poem, Juan, a character who mingles comfortably in tavern, Spanish court, and gypsy camp, is identified with the messenger Mercury. In epic simile fashion reminiscent of Milton's resonating similes Fedalma's dancing in the Plaça Santiago
Moved as, in dance religious, Miriam,
When on the Red Sea shore she raised her voice,
And led the chorus of her people's joy;
Or as the Trojan maids that reverent sang
Watching the sorrow-crownéd Hecuba.
Fedalma, of course, will accompany her people to a new homeland in Africa, though she and the Zincali are less triumphant than Miriam and the Israelites after escaping the Egyptians. Fedalma will also sorrow after the murder of her father, much as Hecuba mourned the sacrifice of herdaughter Polyxena and the murder of her son Polydorus. In epics, too, the gods takes sides in battles, and Zarca, Fedalma's father, observes, "The Catholics, / Arabs, and Hebrews have their god apiece / To fight and conquer for them." There is even a necklace and a child's dress which identify the grown-up Fedalma as Zarca's kidnapped infant daughter, a typical convention of the romance genre. The lack of psychological character development associated with epic and medieval romance may also account for the modern reader's shying away from the poem; we do not see enough of the internal struggle of Fedalma and Don Silva as they come to terms with the conflicts confronting them. Yet, even if we regard this dramatic poem as artistically less successful than George Eliot's novels, from a thematic perspective it is certainly an important reference point from which to reflect on her earlier novels, as well as to anticipate those which follow the poem.
First of all, at a very fundamental level, there are the glimmers of the typical situations and characters found in Eliot's novels. The action occurs, as it does in Romola and the other novels, in a generation different from Eliot's. The opening scene at Lorenzo's inn reminds us of Silas Marner at the Rainbow, the dinner at the Poyser's in Adam Bede, and the cronies congregating at Nello's barbershop in Romola. When Fedalma's father Zarca, his true identity unknown to her, first catches her eye, "As if the meeting light between their eyes / Made permanent union," we recall Tito's first accidental meeting with his father, Baldassare, in Romola. Fedalma, like Esther Lyon in Felix Holt, finds herself at odds with her adoptive home. She is mistrusted by Father Isidor, who warns his nephew Don Silva, "That maiden's blood / Is as unchristian as the leopard's." She also joins George Eliot's other characters who are estranged from their real parents: Esther Lyon, Harold Transome in Felix Holt, Tito Melema, Daniel Deronda, and Eppie in Silas Marner. Among the secondary characters in The Spanish Gypsy, Blasco functions as a male counterpart to sharp-tongued, yet perceptive, female characters in the novels such as Jane Dodson Glegg in The Mill on the Floss, Dolly Winthrop in Silas Marner, Mrs. Cadwallader in Middlemarch, Mrs. Poyser, and Mrs. Holt. A silversmith, Blasco shrewdly recognizes that war and weddings are good for business. Finally, Seneca, that "solemn mastiff," Annibal, a very human monkey, as well as Bavieca, Don Silva's black charger that "Thrills with the zeal to bear him royally" take their places alongside George Eliot's other animals who often have human feelings ascribed to them.
Most important, however, is the dilemma of the heroes and heroines of the novels. In his discussion of the characters in George Eliot's works, D. R. Carroll traces a movement "from illusion through disenchantment to regeneration" ["An Image of Disenchantment in the Novels of George Eliot," RES II, 1960]; Barbara Hardy also identifies a change or metamorphosis experienced by the characters ["The Moment of Disenchantment in George Eliot's Novels, George Eliot, 1970]. With minor variations, the circumstances in the novels and The Spanish Gypsy are markedly similar. To begin with, in the novels, the reader meets one or two characters who suffer from a myopic view of their immediate world. Surveying their circumstances through rose-colored glasses, they may be selfish and harbor misplaced idealism. Middlemarch's Dorothea Brooke, Maggie Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss, Esther Lyon, and Romola are examples of this. In the case of Fedalma and Don Silva, both unrealistically view their marriage as feasible in spite of Father Isidor's objections to Fedalma's parentage and her own independent spirit. Sympathizing with the gypsy prisoners she reveals
Even the wedding jewels Don Silva presents to her provoke a similar reflection:
Their prisoned souls are throbbing like my own.
Perchance they loved once, were ambitious, proud;
Or do they only dream of wider life,
Ache from intenseness, yearn to burst the wall
Compact of crystal splendor, and to flood
Some wider space with glory? Poor, poor gems!
We must be patient in our prison-house,
And find our space in loving.
Don Silva, too, is committed to fight for his country's cause against the Moors. The tavern folk are amused by his decision "to wait a siege / Instead of laying one. Therefore—meantime—/ He will be married straightway." Father Isidor responds angrily to Don Silva's marital intentions and scornfully rebukes him, "You, a Spanish duke, / Christ's general, would marry like a clown."
Returning to the pattern of Eliot's works, we find that the state of illusion is followed by a crisis which shatters the misperception; suddenly, in Pauline fashion, the scales fall from the eyes. The illusion is seen for what it really is, and the characters correspondingly realize that they can no longer depend on the narcotic effect of that illusion. In Felix Holt, for example, this occurs when Esther realizes what life would really be like at Transome Court. This phase of recognition is accompanied by the necessity of making a choice. George Eliot elaborates on the dilemma posed by this choice in her "Notes on the Spanish Gypsy and Tragedy in general," identifying the alternatives of personal happiness and the good of others as the "two irreconcilable 'oughts.'" Eliot prepares the reader for Fedalma's awakening early in the poem. Raised in sheltered circumstances, Fedalma decides to "see the town, / The people, everything" and cajoles her old nurse Iñez to accompany her to the Plaça, where she is moved to dance before the crowd. During her brief excursion the sight of the gypsy prisoners arrests her, and when she returns to the castle she confides to Don Silva, "I seemed new-waked / To life in unison with a multitude." She adds, "We were out four hours. / I feel so wise." Fedalma's crisis occurs when her marriage plans are suddenly halted by the appearance of Zarca, her father, who confronts her with her gypsy heritage. She is forced to choose between her love for the Spaniard and the role her father expects her to play as a ruler's daughter: "You, my only heir, / Are called to reign for me when I am gone." When he further argues against her plan to marry first and then use her new position as the wife of a Spanish duke to free the imprisoned Zincali, she reluctantly concedes that she must cast her lot with the gypsies. But she longs to tell Don Silva that "The chain that dragged me from him could [never] be aught / But scorching iron entering in my soul." Eliot's title for the poem further underscores Fedalma's dilemma. Nothing can erase the gypsy part of her background. Zarca firmly admonishes that her Zincala blood is "Unmixed as virgin wine-juice." Yet her Spanish upbringing desperately argues with her father, "But I am more [than a Zincala]. The Spaniards fostered me." The Spanish and the gypsy in her are truly irreconcilable—Fedalma cannot choose both.
Don Silva, interestingly, makes two choices. His crisis arises when he realizes that Fedalma remains firm in her commitment to her father and the Zincali. This prompts him to reject the Spanish cause, to join Fedalma and her father, and to swear to become a gypsy. To Zarca he insists, "She shall be my people, / And where she gives her life I will give mine." But in Eliot's terms, such a decision is an aberration. The narrator comments that "Silva had but rebelled,—He was not free." And Father Isidor, the determined Spanish inquisitor, affirms even more strongly that Don Silva's turning traitor against his people makes him "Fouler than Cain who struck his brother down / In jealous rage." The Prior's judgment is echoed by Zarca, whose devotion to the Zincali brotherhood is equally strong and whose standard for a correct choice applies to all characters: "Our poor faith / Allows not rightful choice, save of the right / Our birth has made for us." Silva returns to Bed már as a member of the gypsy clan only to find his three best friends executed by Zarca's orders. Stirred, too, by the mute accusatory figure of Father Isidor after he is hanged by the triumphant gypsies, Don Silva mortally wounds Zarca and makes a second choice: he discards the gypsy badge for the cross of the Spanish side, resolving not to receive "pardon idly on my knees; / But it shall come to me upon my feet / And in the thick of action." He, like Fedalma, renounces his own happiness in favor of his heritage, as well as in favor of spending himself for the good of his people. What makes The Spanish Gypsy particularly intriguing is that all the novels up to and including Felix Holt portray a character who opts for the past of his experience, or his adopted past. In The Spanish Gypsy, and in Daniel Deronda which follows it, the character determines in favor of his hereditary or racial past.
Once a decision has been made, the characters are, in a sense, reborn. Putting their own interests aside, they respond to the call of duty. Maggie Tulliver and Esther are but two instances of this in the novels. Significantly, Tito Melema in Romola is always serving himself and never achieves the resigned kind of satisfaction that Romola and the other characters do. In The Spanish Gypsy, Fedalma assumes the leadership of the gypsies after her father's death. Early in the poem she had reservations about the cause:
I could be firm, could give myself the wrench
And walk erect, hiding my life-long wound,
If I but saw the fruit of all my pain
But now I totter, seeing no far goal.
As her father's heir she
Lacking her father's charisma, "the constant stress / Of his command" and faced in the first week with defections, she nevertheless carries on. Don Silva, living with the consequences of his second decision to return to the Spanish cause, fits this pattern, too. He loves Fedalma, sorrows because it is her father he has killed, but resolves to go to Rome "to be absolved, to have my life / Washed into fitness for an offering / To injured Spain." Both individuals now see with clarity. They have gained insight. At their final parting, Fedalma asks Don Silva to think of her "as one who sees / A light serene and strong on one sole path / Which she will tread till death." George Eliot once wrote that "the highest 'calling and election' is to do without opium and live through all our pain with conscious, clear-eyed endurance" (Letters, III). Fedalma echoes this as she says to Silva before boarding the boat to Africa, "We must walk / Apart unto the end. Our marriage rite / Is our resolve that we will each be true / To high allegiance, higher than our love."
The journey of George Eliot's characters from blindness to insight manifested in service is captured in the first lines of another Eliot poem, "O May I join the Choir Invisible":
O may I join the choir invisible
Of those immortal dead who live again
In minds made better by their presence: live
In pulses stirred to generosity,
In deeds of daring rectitude, in scorn
For miserable aims that end with self,
In thoughts sublime that pierce the night like stars,
And with their mild persistence urge man's search
To vaster issues.
Bonnie J. Lisle (essay date 1984)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5573
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 collections" [The George Eliot Letters, 1954-78]. Whatever their dubious merits as verse, the poems embody "ideas" that afford us insight into the writer and her fiction.
George Eliot's poetry can help us particularly to understand her troublesome insistence on marriage as the only happy ending available to her heroines. Perhaps the most obvious alternative to the "home epic" is the one George Eliot herself chose—the life of the artist. Art offers the ardent spirit a way of connecting with others, of transcending the limitations and obscurity of domesticity, yet the novelist refuses to allow her heroines this privilege. For all their passionate sensibility, women like Dorothea Brooke and Maggie Tulliver possess no artistic skill or ambition. The denial seems particularly deliberate in Middlemarch, where Dorothea condemns "the simpering pictures in the drawing-room" as a falsification of social reality. This conscious rejection of art is even more striking because George Eliot seems to have been preoccupied with questions of art and artists at the time she began the novel: of five poems written after The Spanish Gypsy and before the publication of Middlemarch, the two longest—The Legend of Jubal (1869) and "Armgart" (1870)—explore the origins, nature, and responsibilities of artistry. In order to understand why George Eliot's heroines cannot follow her own example, we need to look more closely at these two poems.
The Legend of Jubal is George Eliot's original myth about the birth of music. Written "under the shadow of a great grief," the death of her stepson (Letters, V), the poem examines the relationship of human mortality to the eternal life of art. In this tale, George Eliot imagines art arising as a response to the consciousness of death. Cain, "driven from Jehovah's land," resolves to found a race that shall never know the meaning of death: "My happy offspring shall not know / That the red life from out a man may flow / When smitten by his brother." Generations grow and thrive in a timeless world until a youth is accidentally killed during athletic play. Cain finds that he cannot flee the knowledge of death, as the idyllic world he has created begins to change:
The consciousness of mortality acts as a spur to sympathy and love: "No form, no shadow, but new dearness took / From the one thought that life must have an end." Memory becomes precious for its ability to recall the dead. But the greatest change is a new sense of urgency to work, to achieve while there is yet time, for
Like George Eliot's aspiring heroines, Cain's progeny hope to leave a mark, to transcend personal mortality: "Come, let us fashion acts that are to be, / When we shall lie in darkness silently." From this desire culture is born.
Three brothers, "heroes of their race," devise the major forms of human endeavor. Calm Jubal domesticates animals and initiates pastoral life. The more restless Tubal-Cain harnesses fire and creates the tools of agriculture, industry, commerce, and war. Their work prospers, assuring collective immortality through the continuity of culture:
The home of Cain with industry was rife,
And glimpses of a strong persistent life,
Panting through generations as one breath,
And filling with its soul the blank of death.
But Jubal accomplishes a greater task by creating music, humanity's "larger soul." Jubal wanders the earth for many ages, imparting the gift of music wherever he goes, but at last he resolves to return to his own tribe.
Nearing his home, Jubal encounters a musical procession—a religious celebration honoring his creation. Jubal feels "the burning need / To claim his fuller self," to enjoy this moment of personal glory, so he identifies himself to the crowd. But he is now old and frail, whereas in the people's memory he has attained mythic proportions: "Jubal was but a name in each man's faith / For glorious power untouched by that slow death / Which creeps with creeping time." Scorned as a madman and driven away by the angry worshippers, "The immortal name of Jubal filled the sky, / While Jubal lonely laid him down to die." As he expires, Jubal's incorporate past arises to comfort him. She quenches the "little pulse of self that had demanded recognition and shows him the higher glory that lives on in his music:
"Thy limbs shall lie dark, tombless on this sod,
Because thou shinest in man's soul, a god,
Who found and gave new passion and new joy
That naught but Earth's destruction can destroy."
Jubal attains what others are denied—personal immortality; ironically, the price of this apotheosis is complete loss of individual identity. Jubal the man has been subsumed by his greater art; thus the crowd that sings his praises spurns him for being merely human. Great art is an act of purely disinterested giving. The voice of the Past concludes with these curious words:
"Thy gifts to give was thine of men alone:
'Twas but in giving that thou couldst atone
For too much wealth amid their poverty."
The artist's high privilege, George Eliot suggests, must be redeemed by suffering and self-annihilation. Relinquishing self-consciousness, winning "a moment's freedom … / From in and outer," Jubal dies. Perfect transcendence of self coincides with death; now purified of mortal weakness, Jubal becomes part of the very spirit of creation, "Quitting mortality, a quenched sun-wave, / The All-creating Presence for his grave."
The Legend of Jubal celebrates the artist's ideal mission and glory; however, the ideal rests upon an essential contradiction. Death is the stimulus to creation. The reward art holds out is immortality. Even Jubal dreams of undying fame when he invents the lyre: '"So shall men call me sire of harmony, / And where great Song is, there my life shall be.'" Yet the true artist must at the same time be purely selfless, willing to sacrifice his life utterly to art. Self-annihilation is at once a debt he owes humanity and, paradoxically, the only way to attain the immortality he seeks. Thus, an unresolved tension between severely pure and selfish motives, between the ideal duty and real feelings of the artist informs the poem. The same tension underlies George Eliot's attitude toward her work.
Thoughts of mortality urged her, like Jubal, to produce something lasting. When Marian Evans and George Lewes decided not to have children, authorship promised another means of self-perpetuation—of living on in future generations. As John Blackwood remarked, "Certainly she does seem to feel that in producing her books she is producing a living thing, and no doubt her books will live longer than is given to children of the flesh" (Letters, IX). Even as an established novelist, George Eliot felt the pressure of time; an 1868 journal entry laments, "I am not yet engaged in any work that makes a higher life for me—a life that is young and grows, though in my other life I am getting old and decaying" (Letters, IV). Yet to pursue authorship for personal immortality is to fall into the conceit, if not the futility, of an Edward Casaubon, for whom "the consolations of the Christian hope in immortality seemed to lean on the immortality of the still unwritten Key to all Mythologies" (Middlemarch, Ch. 29). Indeed, George Eliot admitted, "I feat that the Casaubontints are not quite foreign to my own mental complexion" (Letters, V), and when asked who served as the vain scholar's model, she "pointed to her own heart" (Biography). She perpetually suspected her motives as an author, castigating herself for "strong egoism" and "a fastidious yet hungry ambition" (Letters, V). Such moments of candor alternate with defensive denials of self-interest; she writes to Alexander Main about the success of Middlemarch: "I am … too fearful lest the impression which it might make (I mean for the good of those who read) should turn to nought" (Letters, V). The hasty parenthesis betrays George Eliot's fear of revealing—especially to an admirer—the egoism of which she was so conscious.
Convinced of her own weakness, George Eliot nevertheless maintained a rigorous, almost impossible standard for her art and her responsibility as an artist. According to her relentlessly moral aesthetic, any art that fails to benefit others is mere self-indulgence. In an unpublished essay on authorship, she condemns "that troublesome disposition to authorship … which turns a growing rush of vanity and ambition into this current." Selfish motives produce trifling, inferior work which, because it does no social good, becomes actively pernicious—a kind of "spiritual gin" ["Authorship," Essays of George Eliot, 1963]. In effect, writing cannot be morally neutral. It would require supreme self-confidence to face this prospect without misgivings, and George Eliot felt keen doubts about the value of her fiction: "I have read my own books hardly at all after once giving them forth—dreading to find them other than I wish…. Every one who contributes to the 'too much' of literature is doing grave social injury. And that thought naturally makes one anxious" (Letters, V). The threat of failure was so palpable that the mere sight of artistic incompetence shook her deeply: "Great art, in any kind, inspirits me and makes me feel the worth of devoted effort, but from bad pictures, bad books, vulgar music, I come away with a paralyzing depression" (Letters, VI). She could justify her work only by its effect on others.
A wide, sympathetic response to her novels offered reassurance that her efforts and ambitions were more than egoistic delusions; signs that her work was misunderstood or ineffective tended to confirm her worst fears. Mere popularity she dismissed as ephemeral, demanding proof of a deeper, more lasting influence: "Even success needs its consolation. Wide effects are rarely other than superficial and would breed a miserable scepticism about one's work if it were not now and then for an earnest assurance … that there are lives in which the work has done something to 'strengthen the good andmitigate the evil'" (Letters VI). Ironically, the fear of egoism was indirectly responsible for George Eliot's susceptibility to the bald flattery of admirers like Alexander Main (whom Blackwood aptly nicknamed "the Gusher") and her dependence on the sometimes embarrassing adoration of devotees like Edith Simcox. In their uncritical ardor she could read her influence and feel that her work had the moral power she demanded of true art.
Evidence that she did genuinely affect her readers raised another kind of conflict for this self-divided artist. On the one hand, Lewes writes, "The deep feelings she creates in others react upon herself and make her prize her power" (Letters, VI). On the other, confirmation of her gift rendered her sense of responsibility more imperative. Like Jubal, she owed her art to humanity; she must "atone" by giving of herself. To fall short of her abilities thus induced not merely disappointment but guilt: Lewes reports that George Eliot "was horribly depressed on Saturday, feeling as she said 'quite guilty and that every one would be despising her feeble performance'" (Letters, VI). The words are both revealing and typical in their conjunction of selfless duty and egoism—guilt at failing to perform her work well and fear of being despised for it.
These conflicting impulses find expression in the widely different stories of Jubal and Armgart. If Jubal, rising above mortal weakness to merge with the "All-creating Presence," represents George Eliot's vision of the ideal, Armgart with her all-too-human frailties reflects the dilemma of the real artist. Jubal's apotheosis is pure fantasy, and George Eliot accordingly distances the action by setting it in the remote, mythic past, and by maintaining the dispassionate third person narration of a fable. "Armgart" strikes closer to home emotionally, so its presentation is more immediate, with an identifiable contemporary setting and a dramatic structure that allows the heroine to speak directly to us.
Armgart, despite her singularly unmelodious name, is a young opera singer just reaching the peak of her powers. She has the voice and the sensibility of a great artist and ambition to equal her talent: "I triumph or I fail. / I never strove for any second prize." Armgart's aspirations create conflict when she rejects the marriage proposal of a longtime suitor, Graf Dornberg. The Graf charges that "Too much ambition has unwomaned her," but Armgart insists that she cannot "divide her will" between husband and art; she asserts, moreover, that the latter claim is the more imperative:
Kathleen Blake reads this debate on womanhood and art as a sign of George Eliot's preoccupation with "an antagonism that she herself almost totally evaded." Rightly pointing to Lewes' unfailing support of his wife's artistic career, Blake argues that "Armgart" nevertheless "expresses indignation at the unnecessary sacrifices demanded by men of women in marriage. Armgart is right not to marry the Graf." This reading misses the essence of Armgart's—and George Eliot's—dilemma.
Armgart fears that succumbing to the Graf would "divide her will" and threaten her devotion to art; she fails to recognize that her own character poses a more serious threat to her integrity, both as an artist and as a woman, than does the Graf's proposal. While Armgart is prepared to sacrifice love for art, she cannot fully give herself to either. Her will is divided not by masculine demands but by egoism. Ambition and desire for glory inspire Armgart to strive for the highest achievement:
Yet among these mixed motives, egoism dominates the impersonal love of excellence, and she values her artistry most because it sets her apart from the common herd:
I cannot bear to think what life would be
With high hope shrunk to endurance,
A self sunk down to look with level eyes
At low achievement.
She defends her ambition, emphasizing the joy her singing gives others ("For what is fame / But the benignant strength of One, transformed / To joy of Many?"), but no purely selfless love of art sustains Armgart. She nearly achieves loss of self-consciousness as she sings Gluck's music, feeling that "every linkéd note / Was his immortal pulse that stirred in mine"; however, even in this moment of near-transcendence, she indulges in an ill-judged trill that wins popular applause at the expense of artistic integrity. Her devotion to art remains inseparable from her egoistic need to taste personal triumph. This self-centeredness not only trivializes but falsifies her artistry. Armgart's pride in her own achievement distorts her view of life, and she mistakes "A strain of lyric passion for a life / Which in the spending is a chronicle / With ugly pages." Art that remains unconscious of human reality lacks the essential value of truth; Armgart's understanding of the artist's role is thus exposed as vain, morally bankrupt: she is one of those "who can live / In mere mock knowledge of their fellows' woe, / Thinking their smiles may heal it." Armgart represents the attitude to which Dorothea objects when she criticizes "simpering pictures" that take no account of "how hard the truth is for [our] neighbors."
Graf Dornberg understands Armgart's precarious position: with no source of impersonal delight in her life, she is at the mercy of "the very fate / Of human powers, which tread at every step / On possible verges." As Armgart's egoism threatens to debase her art, it also unfits her for ordinary life: the Graf tells her, "Ambition exquisite as yours which soars / Towards something quintessential you call fame, / Is not robust enough for this gross world." The Graf's premonitions are confirmed when Armgart loses her purity of voice after a serious illness. Her "human powers" having failed her vaunting ambition, she sees no reason to live: "Oh, I had meaning once / Like day and sweetest air. What am I now? / The millionth woman in superfluous herds." Indeed, when Armgart discovers that it was not the illness but the doctor's "strong remedies" that have ruined her voice, she assails himfor not allowing her "To die a singer, lightning-struck, unmaimed" rather than live on as an ordinary woman.
Armgart's conflict arises less from external than from internal pressures, for egoistic ambition divides her from both her art and her humanity. The question of marriage to Graf Dornberg is not the central issue of the poem; George Eliot presents both sides of the question fully and never clearly endorses either position. The unambiguous message, the real significance of the Graf's proposal and rejection, lies in Armgart's incapacity to love anything (man or art) selflessly. Her companion, Walpurga, points out that what Armgart had thought was supreme devotion to art was in fact supreme egoism: "you claimed the universe; naught less / Than all existence working in sure tracks / Toward your supremacy." It is only her loss of voice that jolts Armgart out of self-absorption. Then she sees her own failure thrown into relief by two people who have successfully subdued egoism through love and art.
Before her illness, Armgart treats these people as subordinate players in her personal drama: Walpurga, her humble cousin/attendant, merely serves as an appreciative audience; old Leo, the voice master, helps her to satisfy her ambitions as a singer. Both find their happiness in her reflected glory—and both represent the kind of undistinguished life that Armgart disdainfully rejects. But suddenly bereft of her ambition, she begins to see that their common lives have a solid center of value that hers lacks. Walpurga finds fulfillment in "Love nurtured even with that strength of self / Which found no room save in another's life." Leo is sustained by an impersonal devotion to art. A composer, he too once dreamed of fame, but now he teaches and practices his art without hope of recognition: "The time was, I drank that home-brewed wine / And found it heady, while my blood was young: / Now it scarce warms me". Armgart's new perception is, as Walpurga says, "new birth—birth from that monstrous Self which had possessed her. She resolves to teach music in the small town where Walpurga was born, thus returning her companion's devotion and serving art selflessly (for George Eliot makes it clear that teaching is a more purely generous act than performing). Armgart explains her choice to Leo: "I would take humble work and do it well—/ Teach music, singing … pass your gift / To others who can use it for delight." Armgart follows the example of both her friends: she embraces a life of service, the subordination of self to others.
Significantly, though, Armgart's sacrifice is not voluntary. Only the loss of creative power enables her to transcend egoism; the death of the artist allows her to become fully human. While "Jubal" and "Armgart" depict very different aspects of the creative mind, they concur on one point: to choose the life of the artist is in some sense to choose death. Jubal dies for the glory of art, and Armgart lives only because her art perishes; when the life-giving cure destroys her voice, she mourns the "little corpse" of her "dead joy." If on the one hand, the consciousness of mortality and the quest for something undying provide the impetus to create, on the other, the high demands of art prove incompatible with mortal life. There is an inherent conflict between life and art that is fully resolved only by death, either of the artist or of her creativity.
Another George Eliot poem, "Arion," presents the conjunction of art and death even more dramatically than the longer tales of Jubal and Armgart. Arion, a poet-minstrel of ancient Corinth who has won wealth and fame in another land, sets sail for home as the poem begins:
The rough sailors set upon Arion, intending to murder him for his gold, but he persuades them to allow him one final song before he dies. The power of his music strikes awe into these "wolfish men": "They said, with mutual stare, / Some god was present there." While the sailors appear moved by the song to grant him a reprieve, Arion refuses to degrade his art by using it for a purely personal end, even to save his life. Before the sailors can respond to the song, he leaps into the sea:
As in "Jubal," George Eliot depicts the artist as ideal, as mythic hero; again, death proves the heroism and offers escape from a less glorious reality that threatens the artist.
Like George Eliot's verse generally, these poems reveal the writer's tensions more directly than does the carefully controlled public voice of the novels. On one level, the consistent association of art with death reflects the completeness with which she assumed her authorial role: the birth of "George Eliot" in a sense signalled the death of her former self, as Marian Evans was subsumed by the persona of the novelist. The association of art and death also points to a deep division within the artist….
The public persona "George Eliot" was intended, at least in part, to compensate for the social transgressions of Marian Evans; as Alexander Welsh observes, "The adoption of the literary pseudonym … substituted one secret for another, but a secret that would be potentially triumphant rather than embarrassing" ["The Secrets of George Eliot," YR 68, 1979]. The strategy worked: the carefully cultivated image of the great novelist and wise moralist obscured the "immoral" woman who lived openly with a married man. Whereas plain Marian Evans Lewes had been pointedly ostracized, the "Madonna," as Lewes called her, was courted by polite company and quoted approvingly in sermons. (Biography).
The weapon proved double-edged. Fame brought wider public acceptance, but at least initially, it alienated some of George Eliot's oldest friends. Sara Hennell lamented—in verse that unconsciously proved her point—the distance her friend's triumphant authorship had put between them:
Dear Friend, when all thy greatness suddenly
Burst out, and thou wert other than I thought,
At first I wept—for Marian, whom I sought,
Now passed beyond herself, seemed lost to me.
Herbert Spencer's jealousy was so ill-disguised that it hurt her deeply; she welcomed a new pug puppy as a comforting presence "to fill up the void left by false and narrowhearted friends. I see already that he is without envy, hatred, or malice" (Biography). Fame failed, moreover, to placate George Eliot's puritanical and unforgiving brother Isaac. After enduring twelve years of his obdurate silence, she remarked, "I cling strongly to kith and kin, even though they reject me" (Letters, V). Continued rejection in the quarter where she most wanted acceptance impelled George Eliot to cling to and reaffirm the ideal image she had created for herself. The portraits of Jubal and Arion can be read as self-justifying fantasies of this ideal self. Both protagonists are artists who have won renown far from home; when they attempt to return, they are prevented, either by outright repudiation or by envious greed. Yet by sacrificing their lives for art, they rise above those who deny or injure them, and even become godlike. In these poems, art is the best revenge. "Jubal" and "Arion" exalt the artist and thereby shed reflected glory on their creator.
But if the ideal self redeemed, it also reproved its weaker counterpart. As George Levine observes, George Eliot's public persona "was, we know, a deliberate fiction … it was an hypothesis testing the possibility of the abolition of the common self ["George Eliot's Hypothesis of Reality," NCF 35, 1980]. Of course, such an experiment can never completely succeed: the flawed human reality inevitably fails to live up to the grander image and rebels against its imposition. George Eliot took the role of Madonna seriously, but as Edith Simcox reports, she felt "the difficulty, after living an ideal life—thinking of things and people as they might be—to come back into the real world and exercise the virtues one had been dreaming about" (Letters, IX). George Eliot seems to have felt this tension particularly in her relationship to John Cross, who, like most of her later acquaintances, had initially been drawn to the famous novelist. She writes to "Nephew Johnny" that "It is a precious thought to me that you care for that part of me which will live when the 'Auntship' is gone—'Non omnis moriar' is a keen hope with me. Yet I like to be loved in this faulty, frail (yet venerable) flesh" (Letters, IX). The words echo the description of Jubal in his moment of weakness; like him, George Eliot found adulation gratifying, but no substitute for personal affection:
Also like Jubal, she had been claimed by the public and no longer belonged entirely to herself. She worried how her readers would respond to her marrying the much-younger Cross: "She had twice broken it off as impossible—had thought of all the difficulties—the effect upon her influence and all the rest" (Letters, IX). But unlike her idealized poet, George Eliot was not rescued by death at the crucial moment; instead of being rapt into eternity as a god, she submitted to her "frail flesh" and went ahead with the marriage.
As the letters show George Eliot was extremely self-conscious about her failures to live up to the public image she had assumed. Egoistic needs helped to fuel her artistic aspirations yet were incompatible with that selfless ideal. In "Armgart" she seems to play out the guilt that arises from this discrepancy. George Eliot allows her ambition to speak freely through Armgart, deliberately abandoning the wise narrative voice and giving us unmediated dialogue; she then absolves her higher responsibility by punishing the singer for egoism. Guilt over not working hard enough, fear of failing to accomplish anything significant made creation a difficult and painful process. A journal entry critically reviews her efforts:
We found the cold here more severe than at Ryde, and the papers tell of still harder weather about Paris where our fellow-men are suffering and inflicting horrors. Am I doing anything that will add the weight of a sandgrain against the persistence of such evil?
Here is the last day of 1870. I have written only 100 pages—good printed pages—of a story which I began about the opening of November, and at present mean to call "Miss Brooke." Poetry halts just now.
In my private lot I am unspeakably happy, loving and beloved. But I am doing little for others. (Letters, V)
The sense of failure clearly dominates the accomplishment; even counting the blessings of private life calls forth a cry of unworthiness.
Personal happiness, while it made creative life possible for George Eliot, also appears to have complicated matters. One senses that both love and a successful creative life burdened her with a consciousness of excessive wealth. She did not have to face the test of supreme self-sacrifice that she imposes on her artistic protagonists. Therefore, the only "atonement" available was self-punishment, "For when one's outward lot is perfect, the sense of inward imperfection is the more pressing" (Letters, V). Indeed, George Eliot evidences some of Dorothea's "fanaticism of sympathy" when a simple report of domestic comfort calls up an apologetic reflection on the misery in the world: "We are in our usual train of home procedures—thinking, reading, talking much en tête-à-tête, and hoping that there are many others … who are as happy as we are. One is too sure of the many who are not at all happy" (Letters, V). The shift from first person to third signals the intrusion of the public voice, carefully editing even these private expressions to avoid appearing self-indulgent. Other references to private happiness are guarded by irony: "We are alarmingly happy"; "We are dangerously happy"; "I hope we are not the happiest people in the world, but we must be among the happiest" (Letters, V). Perhaps she suspected that personal contentment verged perilously on egoistic complacency.
Although her life seems to represent an instance of love and art successfully combined, George Eliot remained uneasy about the conjunction. The two were deeply interdependent—love had called forth the art and art in turn had justified the love—yet in a more subtle way they remained divided in George Eliot's mind and work. Writing to Harriet Beecher Stowe, she alludes to "the peculiar struggles of a nature which is made twofold in its demands by the yearnings of the author as well as of the woman" (Letters, V). The words point, like "Armgart," to a purely internal division. It is not the external demands of husband versus career that disturb George Eliot, but the yearnings of the authoras distinct from the yearnings of the woman.
How do these yearnings differ? If George Eliot's novels have one dominant theme, it is that all human beings yearn for love. Love is a unifying power: it subdues egoism and joins us to the human community; it binds our present to our past; it can give us a single, unambiguous purpose in the midst of life's uncertainties. But love is not enough for the artist, who also longs for fame and applause. Thus, as George Eliot's own experience had shown her, the life of the artist was deeply divisive and indissolubly mingled with egoism. Love and art stand opposed in another way as well. Love reconciles us to living, as we see in the verse dialogue "Self and Life." Self challenges Life to acquit itself before death: "Ere I lose my hold of thee / Justify thyself to me." Rejecting Life's proffered gifts—the joy of childhood, the excitement of growth and discovery, the wisdom of maturity—Self complains that each good is vitiated by pain and sorrow. But when love appears, Self gratefully embraces Life:
George Eliot's disbelief in an afterlife allowed her no comforting illusion of reunion beyond the grave, so for her love necessarily clung to mortal existence. Only the threat of separation marred her calm acceptance of death: "The idea of dying has no melancholy for me, except in the parting and leaving behind which Love makes so hard to contemplate" (Letters, V). But this one thought held terrors she could not suppress: "Sometimes in the midst of happiness I cry suddenly at the thought that there must come a parting" (Letters, V). An unpublished verse fragment [found in Bernard J. Paris, "George Eliot's Unpublished Poetry," SP 56, 1959] expresses the conflict between love and death most poignantly:
By contrast, art finds its perfection in death. "Oh May I Join the Choir Invisible" expresses a longing to die out of the imperfect self and "inherit that sweet purity / For which we struggled, failed, and agonized"; the poem imagines the "discords" of "rebellious flesh" dissolving into harmony. George Eliot must have recognized that death promised to resolve her own struggle in a very literal way. Her fame and influence now assured, she could die knowing that the books she called "that best part of me," "the seed of one's soul" (Letters, V), would perpetuate the ideal self she could never fully claim in her lifetime. Death meant freedom to the novelist, loss of love to the wife: in this way, too, George Eliot's yearnings as author and as woman remained divided.
A number of strong motives are therefore at work in George Eliot's refusal to allow her heroines to become artists as well as wives. On the most conscious and practical level, she did not want to encourage the production of mediocre and thus morally degrading art; the world suffered from more than enough silly lady novelists already. Artistry for her was fraught with unresolved conflicts and would hardly provide a satisfactory solution for her self-divided heroines. The artist cannot escape egoism, yet the moral purpose of her fiction demanded that the pattern of her heroines' growth must be away from self. Love, though, represented unity and selflessness; it provided the kind of morally satisfying resolution she sought in her novels and also pleased the reading public with a conventionally happy ending. Finally, love and art pull in opposite directions—love toward life, and art toward death. Since the novels address the problem of living in this world, they naturally endorse love, which reconciles us to life, rather than art, which seduces us from it.
This last point requires some clarification. In both "Jubal" and "Armgart," George Eliot speaks of art as one of life's greatest gifts; like love, it can unify experience: in Jubal's song "love, hope, rage, and all experience, / Were fused in vaster being," and "Joy took the air, and took each breathing soul, / Embracing them in one entranced whole." Yet this joyous act of creation is an unalloyed good only for the auditors, not for Jubal himself. While art enriches the lives of others, it saps the strength of the artist and ultimately demands his life as the price of vision. Jubal, foreseeing his future as an artist, confronts
Similarly, the unpublished ode "Erinna" depicts the poet-heroine winning artistic insight only at the expense of great suffering and early death. In the case of art, it appears more blessed (or at least less traumatic) to receive than to give.
James Krasner (essay date 1994)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7299
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 unhappily) to take into account [The George Eliot Letters, 1955].
While it seems rather self-defeating for an author to warn a publisher that her new work will never sell, it is typical of George Eliot's attempt, at this point in her career, to distance herself from the fame and publicity surrounding her literary success. Much of George Eliot's poetry deals with the tension between fame and artistry, and The Spanish Gypsy offers a particularly trenchant portrayal of her attempt to absolve herself of the guilt she associated with public exposure. In the character of Fedalma, George Eliot offers us a public heroine who deplores publicity, a celebrated artist who retreats from her celebrity, and a political spokesperson who eloquently denies the significance of her words.
Recent critical attention to George Eliot's poetry has focused on "Armgart" and "The Legend of Jubal" as demonstrations of George Eliot's personal conflicts about being a woman artist. Bonnie J. Lisle and Rosemarie Bodenheimer identify Armgart and Daniel Deronda's Alcharisi as women who must choose between patriarchal standards and their own artistic ambitions [Lisle, "Art and Egoism in George Eliot's Poetry," 1984; Bodenheimer, "Ambition and its Audiences: George Eliot's Performing Figures, 1990]. Lisle considers Armgart's final abandonment of her singing for a life of service a "selfless" act; through her character George Eliot voices her own ambition and then "absolves her higher responsibility by punishing the singer for egoism." Bodenheimer's more satisfying analysis shows Armgart rejecting both her ambitions for public performance and the patriarchal mold of marriage to Graf Dorn to dedicate herself selflessly to artistry. Both critics read "The Legend of Jubal," in which the artist is destroyed by his followers, as suggestive of George Eliot's anxiety about living in the public eye while maintaining an unscrutinized private life.
The Spanish Gypsy offers a rather unusual angle on the plight of the ambitious woman. Fedalma has ambition thrust upon her by an external patriarchal figure; pursuing her ambition amounts to being selfless and fulfilling social expectations. Fedalma herself can vigorously reject ambition and complain against it, while at the same time being lauded as a queen and national inspiration. This suggests George Eliot's own desire to fulfill her ambition while at the same time rejecting it as vanity. While Armgart and Alcharisi offer clearer versions of the problems involved for an ambitious woman, Fedalma embodies a resolution to these problems. She cannot be blamed for her fame and manages to maintain a private identity in a public context. In The Spanish Gypsy George Eliot portrays artists who achieve popular success without being tained by it.
I would thus call into question the typical reading of The Spanish Gypsy as another demonstration of George Eliot's belief in the importance of social duty over personal desire. Sylvia Kasey Marks finds it fits the "pattern" of George Eliot's novels in which characters who are "selfish and harbor misplaced idealism" lose their illusions and putting "their own interests aside, … respond to the call of duty" ["A Brief Glance at George Eliot's Poetry," VP 22, 1984]. In Fedalma's case this means relinquishing her love for Don Silva and accepting the duty of her Gypsy heritage by joining her father, Zarca, in his military campaign against the Spanish. George Eliot herself supports this reading in "Notes on the Spanish Gypsy and Tragedy in General":
A good tragic subject must represent … irreparable collision between the individual and the general…. Silva presents the tragedy of entire rebellion: Fedalma of a grand submission … Zarca, the straggle for a great end [George Eliot's Life, 1884]
But as Bodenheimer so effectively demonstrates in George Eliot's letters, and as becomes apparent on a close reading of Gypsy and "Notes," such a choice between ambition and submissionis belied by George Eliot's desire to have both. Through Fedalma, George Eliot manages to resolve this conflict by presenting a character who retains her private vision in her public life and remains unambitious in the midst of widespread fame.
George Eliot creates this grafting of common and extraordinary experience through what she describes as a uniquely feminine kind of tragedy. Intertwining the myths of Iphigenia and the Virgin Mary, she presents Fedalma as a tragic heroine who is violently compelled to humiliating and painful public sacrifice but who establishes her own identity by focusing on that very pain and humiliation. George Eliot also applies the imagery of compelled public sacrifice to artistic practice. Fedalma and the minstrel Juan remove themselves from the world of economic exchange and popular success through an artistic self-sacrifice in which they abandon their wills to the crowd and voices to a common voice.
George Eliot begins her "Notes on the Spanish Gypsy and Tragedy in General" with the following provocative passage:
The subject of "The Spanish Gypsy" was originally suggested to me by a picture which hangs in the Scuola di San Rocco at Venice, over the door of the large Sala containing Tintoretto's frescoes. It is an Annunciation, said to be by Titian…. It occurred to me that here was a great dramatic motive of the same class as those used by the Greek dramatists, yet specifically differing from them. A young maiden, believing herself to be on the eve of the chief event of her life—marriage—about to share in the ordinary lot of womanhood, full of young hope, has suddenly announced to her that she is chosen to fulfil a great destiny, entailing a terribly different experience from that of ordinary womanhood. She is chosen, not by any momentary arbitrariness, but as a result of foregoing hereditary conditions: she obeys. "Behold the handmaid of the Lord." Here, I thought, is a subject grander than that of Iphigenia, and it has never been used (Life).
The relevant questions here are: Why is Mary's fate "tragic"? What does the link between Mary and Iphigenia suggest? What "subject" is George Eliot referring to when she claims that "it has never been used"?
The "annunciation" scene in The Spanish Gypsy comes at the end of the first act when Zarca, king of the Gypsies and Fedalma's father, announces his presence and her true identity. In Titian's Annunciation Mary sits in a palatial room, beyond which is seen a garden by moonlight; she is working at a desk. A partridge walks across the ground toward her, symbolizing both her fertility and, as birds often do in annunciation scenes, the Holy Spirit. The angel, arrayed in military regalia, hovers above the balustrade. In The Spanish Gypsy Fedalma sits in a "large chamber richly furnished opening on a terrace-garden, the trees visible through the window in faint moon-light" looking at a casket of jewels. A "little bird falls softly on the floor"; picking it up, she finds that the bird has been killed and, on a slip around its broken wing, a message has been written in its blood. Zarca, in military apparel, appears at the window.
The parallels are obvious enough, but the variations are disturbing. That Zarca's first dramatic act should be to kill a small creature that could easily have been spared makes him seem repellant; the jarring contrast between dead bird and Holy Spirit makes him seem infernal. Fedalma says that the bird "was seeking sanctuary, / And died, perhaps of fright, at the altar foot." But if her room is an altar where the human meets the divine, then the paternal god entering is, in fact, the destroyer from which the bird has fled.
Throughout the work, Zarca is portrayed as a cruel father, imposing a "terrible" destiny on his daughter. These elements of terror suggest that the individual daughter's compulsion to follow the destiny determined by her father (as embodiment of "the general") may be something more sinister than an announcement followed by meek obedience. If Mary is Iphigenia then God must be Agamemnon. Fedalma responds to her father's request in words strongly reminiscent of Iphigenia:
This is a far cry from "Behold, the handmaid of the Lord," and makes the violence implicit in George Eliot's elision of Mary and Iphigenia explicit. When Fedalma chooses her father over Silva in section III, the narrator smoothly combines imagery of Mary's annunciation and Iphigenia's sacrifice, linking divine authority to brutal torture:
Diane Sadoff has described how, in the novels written after Romola, fathers or father-figures are portrayed as "failed and apparently illegitimate authorit[ies]" who are idealized by foolish heroines [Monsters of Affection: Dickens, Eliot and Bronte on Fatherhood, 1982]. The imagery of The Spanish Gypsy presents Zarca not only as an illegitimate authority, but as a brutal and sadistic one. Fedalma is described as bound with chains, submerged in lava, strangled, tortured, and dismembered by her father's sword; nowhere else in George Eliot's work do we see familial power dynamics enunciated in such violent imagery. Here allegiance to the father is not only foolish but terribly dangerous.
In "Notes on the Spanish Gypsy and Tragedy in General," George Eliot's choice of tragic models points towards a preoccupation with male familial brutality. She focuses on Othello and Euripides' Iphigenia, mentioning the Oresteia (with reference to Orestes' predicament but not Clytemnestra's), and the stories of Faust and Rigoletto. This is rather an odd selection for a discussion of "Tragedy in General"; one wonders why Oedipus does not make the list while Rigoletto does, except that Rigoletto involves a father killing a daughter while Oedipus involves a son killing a father. Fear of violent compulsion intertwines imagistically with the submission to social and hereditary duty in George Eliot's conception of Fedalma's tragedy.
Yet this portrayal of compelled ambition is consistent with what Bodenheimer describes as George Eliot's strategy for avoiding the "Victorian stigma of 'the public woman' with its automatic associations of self-display":
This representation of ambition as a form of impotent suffering … had its strategic uses as well as its truth. By separating her ambition from her achievement and transforming it into suffering, George Eliot could feminize and conceal it, both to her own satisfaction and for the benefit of her audiences and admirers.
While Bodenheimer is referring to George Eliot's own psychological suffering, expressed in her letters and journals, we see the same psychological mechanism made physical and violent in Fedalma. Fedalma confronts ambition as an impotent sufferer; this sacrificial victim seems to be just the opposite of the ambitious woman courting public fame. Bodenheimer goes on to suggest that George Eliot created her public persona as a disembodied narrative voice in an attempt to avoid "the public display of the performing or performed body." Like George Eliot, Fedalma wishes to avoid the public eye, to remain invisible and bodiless, but Zarca insists that heroism and sacrifice must be public acts. His insistence that she should "save" her people by abandoning her love for Don Silva is predicated on the understanding of her identity as public. "You belong / Not to the petty round of circumstance / That makes a woman's lot, but to your tribe," he tells her. Her elevation to the public role of queen of the Gypsies occurred at birth and parallels the sacrificial violation of Iphigenia's body or the public sanctification of Mary's womb:
The moment of sacrifice is the moment of exposure, when the private body becomes public. Fedalma's good wishes, or good words, are not enough; her "naked bleeding feet," her body itself, has been promised—"bound" in both senses of the word—as a public sacrifice. The father holding his newborn child up to his people imagistically echoes the father holding his daughter up as a sacrificial offering.
Fedalma also describes her future through images of public display, and again public display of the body is elided with public violation:
On the close-thronged spaces of the earth
A battle rages: Fate has carried me
'Mid the thick arrows: I will keep my stand,—
Not shrink and let the shaft pass by my breast
To pierce another.
Die, my young joy,—die, all my hungry hopes,—
The saints were cowards who stood by to see
Christ crucified: they should have flung themselves
Upon the Roman spears…
That death shall be my bridegroom. I will wed
The curse of the Zincali.
Fedalma's descriptions of her sacrifice betray George Eliot's fear of public exposure. Her death will be both public ritual and festival; the battle, the public execution, civic martyrdom, and wedding feast are the social events to which she compares her acceptance of her public role. Death and marriage are elided, for both involve the loss of a private body through public, patriarchal ritual.
In her poem "Oh May I Join the Choir Invisible," written in the same year as the final revisions of The Spanish Gypsy, George Eliot describes a different kind of martyrdom, one that balances fame and anonymity, and that avoids the public exposure of the victim's body. She wishes to join "the choir invisible / Of those immortal dead who live again / In minds made better by their presence." These great souls manage to serve as examples of goodness while remaining nameless and faceless:
This poem points to George Eliot's desire to retain the moral influence of fame while allowing the body to be "diffused" rather than objectified. While martyrdom serves humanity, it serves it more effectively, becomes "ever more intense" if it is not accompanied by celebrity.
In Fedalma, George Eliot offers us the example of a martyr who seeks, like the narrator of the poem, to diffuse her public fame and maintain a private identity. Despite the "close-thronged" crowd of her audience, Fedelma is able rhetorically to transform her public sacrifice and public suffering into a private, even lonely, misery and reclaim her private body by emphasizing the personal pain caused by this public violation. Several times she distinguishes between her father's ambitious vision and her awareness of her own immediate suffering:
Father, my soul is weak, the mist of tears
Still rises to my eyes, and hides the goal
Which to your undimmed sight is clear and changeless
If it were needed, this poor trembling hand
Should grasp the torch,—strive not to let it fall
Though it were burning down close to my flesh,
No beacon lighted yet: through the damp dark
I should still hear the cry of gasping swimmers.
But on my will there falls the chilling snow
Of thoughts that come as subtly as soft flakes,
Yet press at last with hard and icy weight.
I could be firm, could give myself the wrench
And walk erect, hiding my life-long wound
If I but saw the fruit of all my pain
With that strong vision which commands the soul,
But now I totter, seeing no far goal;
I tread the rocky pass, and pause and grasp,
Guided by flashes.
Fedalma compares herself unfavorably to her father. He has a grand historical vision; she does not. He understands his pain to be necessary and redemptive; she perceives it only as pain. But in dwelling on this pain, she undercuts Zarca's grandiose rhetoric and returns the reader to an awareness of her private pain. Fedalma's singed fingers, like her bound hands, arrow-pierced breast, iceencrusted scalp, all attest to the ultimately private nature of her suffering. She may be a public figure, but when she is pricked, or sacrificed, she bleeds.
At the end of the poem, Zarca's death leaves Fedalma queen and sole ruler, allowing her to perfect her persona as a lonely sufferer:
Fedalma rewrites public service as an act of private contrition; the leader becomes a priestess; the nation becomes a "sanctuary." Like the "rocky pass" or the "damp dark," this claustrophobic temple limits and encloses Zarca's grand nationalistic vision. Fedalma's portrayal of herself as a solitary priestess calls to mind Mary's solitude in Titian's Annunciation. The Tintoretto frescoes on the walls of the Scuola di San Rocco, which George Eliot directs her gaze away from in order to concentrate on Titian's Annunciation, portray the life of Christ in a series of panoramic crowd scenes. Christ, at his birth, preaching, crucifixion, is a small figure surrounded by multitudes—a public savior. This panoramic portrayal of self-sacrifice does not impress George Eliot. Rather, she is drawn to the much more intimate painting representing the moment before Mary becomes a public figure, the moment when she realizes "the irreparable collision between the individual and the general." Tintoretto's frescoes seem of a piece with Zarca's heroic rhetoric, which sets the national hero above the throngs of his followers in a fantastic, Utopian landscape:
The impulse toward public display, from which George Eliot shrinks in horror, characterizes Zarca's conception of sacrifice. Titian's Annunciation is far less theatrical than Tintoretto's frescoes, his version of sacrifice more private and secluded. George Eliot chooses the second as Fedalma's.
In "A Minor Prophet" George Eliot sets up a similar contrast between the "victorious world-hero" and "the patched and plodding citizen." Ultimately, she rejects the idea that the world is made better by heroes with panoramic vision:
Like Fedalma, the narrator of this poem compares herself to another, more theatrical prophet, and finds her vision narrow and confined. But in this narrowness lies its humanity. Unlike Elias Baptist Butterworth, the fanatical vegetarian satirized in "A Minor Prophet," the narrator has a link to the common citizen who can not see "in bird's eye view a perfect world," but "from that dazzling curtain of bright hues / [turns] to the familiar face of fields." Such private sacrifice serves humanity in infinite small ways, "As patriots who seem to die in vain." Anonymous, painful, and apparently purposeless sacrifice emerges as George Eliot's vision of true heroism.
George Eliot's choice of Titian over Tintoretto suggests also that she considers Mary's sacrifice preferable to Christ's. Unlike the son of God, she is an ordinary woman who must have "a terribly different experience from that of ordinary womanhood." In the "tragic relations of the individual and general" the element of hereditary and historical compulsion defines Mary's experience. Unlike Christ, she does not choose: "she is chosen"; she "is compelled to give way." George Eliot's "tragic subject" that "has never been used" culminates in obedience rather than death: "she obeys." While the common woman obeys her husband in marriage, the tragic heroine obeys hereditary compulsion, or male society, in a more visible, although equally subservient, condition. Mary is elevated from the handmaid of her husband to the "handmaid of the Lord." When Zarca tells Fedalma that she is "called to reign for me when I am gone…. You, woman and Zincala, fortunate, / Above your fellows," he clearly echoes the angel's words to Mary, "blessed art thou among women" (Luke 1.28). In both cases, however, the "blessing" consists of suffering, and the subsequent position as "queen" is chosen for the woman by an irresistible patriarch. The crucial difference between Mary and Christ, George Eliot suggests, is that while Christ's obedience to God's plan makes him a hero and a savior, Mary's makes her a "handmaid." Fedalma, in becoming a queen, becomes only a different kind of slave:
The "terribly different" experience of being a famous woman is, then, simply a making general, or making public, of her experience as a common woman; she must obey a national will rather than an individual one. The famous woman suffers the exposure of publicity without gaining power from it; she thus has more in common with the common woman than would Zarca, or Christ, with the common man. Where Christ and Zarca stand for their people symbolically, their public power differentiates their lives from the lives of individual people. Fedalma serves as a better representative of common experience, and a better sacrifice, because her fame can not lift from her a crucial connection to those she represents; she serves both as a symbol of her people and as a demonstration of their suffering, particularly the suffering of women.
This drawing together of public and private experience is George Eliot's model for the female tragic hero. Titian's Annunciation shows Mary before she becomes a public figure, but it continues to be the image through which she is portrayed 1900 years after her elevation into the public eye; she will always be alone with the angel. Mary succeeds in remaining always a private figure in the midst of universal publicity, and George Eliot finds in the bridging of public and private a model for a heroine who can be at once publicly sacrificed and privately self-determined.
Through Fedalma's response to Zarca George Eliot manages to rewrite personal ambition as social sacrifice. Fedalma and Juan, her minstrel and confidante, serve a similar function for George Eliot's anxieties about popular and financial success. During the period in which The Spanish Gypsy was being written, George Eliot's fame and financial success made her anxious to justify the originality and social value of her art. Bodenheimer describes how in order "to defend herself against the idea that she wrote only for fame and fortune" George Eliot had to establish that her audience "needed her ideas". In Fedalma and Juan she presents artist figures who, rather than foisting unwanted and egoistic works on the public, perform by public acclamation in a way that meets a strong social need. Far from being self-indulgent or mercenary, these artists empty themselves of ego in order to speak for others, receiving no reward for their self-effacing acts.
In a letter to Frederic Harrison, written in August 1866, George Eliot announces that she is "taking up again" The Spanish Gypsy, which she had put aside in February of 1865, "precisely because it was in that stage of Creation or 'Werden,' in which the idea of the characters predominates over the incarnation." Such artistry fails because it "lapses … from the picture to the diagram," teaching through a "scientific and expository" mode, rather than an aesthetic one. Throughout the letter, George Eliot describes the difficulty of the artistic task as a mediation between spirit and flesh:
[I] have gone through again and again the severe effort of trying to make certain ideas thoroughly incarnate, as if they had revealed themselves to me first in the flesh and not in the spirit…. Well, then, consider the sort of agonizing labour to an English-fed imagination to make art a sufficiently real back-ground, for the desired picture, to get breathing, individual forms, and group them in the needful relations, so that the presentation will lay hold on the emotions as human experience—will, as you say, "flash" conviction on the world by means of aroused sympathy…. When one has to work out the dramatic action for one's self under the inspiration of an idea, instead of having a grand myth or an Italian novel ready to one's hand, one feels anything but omnipotent.
Given George Eliot's location of Mary as inspiration for The Spanish Gypsy, the terms she uses to describe the artistic process here are quite provocative. The artist must "incarnate … in the flesh" what was "revealed" to her "in the spirit." The process is a "sort of agonizing labour" and makes her feel "anything but omnipotent." Rather than God omnipotently creating a universe, the artist must be Mary, translating idea into flesh, and experiencing great pain in doing so. The artist takes upon herself the "severe effort" of artistic incarnation in order to "teach" the truth.
As an example, she cites her process of writing Romola for which she "took unspeakable pains" and which brought her to the edge of a complete breakdown. Her labor of making idea into incarnate art involved exhaustive research into Florentine history because "I felt that the necessary idealization could only be attained by adopting the clothing of the past." The "agonizing labour" of aesthetic translation involves opening one's mind to another frame of reference. For Romola the "English-fed imagination" had to adopt "the 'Idiom' of Florence, in the largest sense one could stretch the word." Whether or not the artist is dealing in historical material, however, the artistic process involves the adoption of an "Idiom" that allows the artist to speak for human experience, a voice that can "lay hold on the emotions" and thus "'flash' conviction on the world."
In Fedalma's one moment of pure artistry in The Spanish Gypsy, her dance in the Plaça Santiago that reveals her Gypsy blood, she literally incarnates her art, moving her body in such a way that a message is "flashed" to those who behold her:
George Eliot wants to make her ideas "thoroughly incarnate, as if they had revealed themselves to me first in the flesh." This moment of pure, physical, sympathetic artistry seems like one such fleshly revelation; Fedalma communicates immediately to the crowd in a "flash" of emotion. The reference to Miriam emphasizes both the political and the aesthetic significance of Fedalma's artistry. In Exodus 15 Moses sings a discursive, political song, celebrating Israel's victory over Egypt. Miriam's dance, which follows, expresses the same ideas aesthetically; it bears the same relationship to Moses' song that, in George Eliot's terms, the picture bears to the diagram. Fedalma's dance serves as an "Idiom" through which she can communicate directly, and like that adopted by George Eliot in writing Romola, it nearly destroys her, as the "self's poor gates open to rushing power / That blends the inward ebb and outward vast."
Even in this most self-displaying moment, however, Fedalma avoids the stigma of the performing woman. By eliding the compulsion of "foregoing hereditary conditions" with the compulsion of the audience, George Eliot exonerates Fedalma of any charges of undue ambition or inappropriate display. Like the violent images described earlier, the images in the dance sequence emphasize the intense compulsion of an outward force that overcomes "the self's poor gates." Fedalma only dances after her audience cries out, not simply to be entertained, but to be instructed by an artist capable of putting ideas into breathing, individual form:
All long in common for the expressive act
Yet wait for it; as in the olden time.
Men waited for the bard to tell their thought.
"The dance! the dance!" is shouted all around.
Artistic expression emerges as a social obligation for Fedalma; the display of her body remains innocent because she is simply answering the call of the people for a translator and representative, one who can speak to them in sympathetic terms. Like Miriam, who "led the chorus of her people's joy," Fedalma becomes a representative of the crowd, translating Moses' words into terms that "flash conviction on the world by aroused sympathy." George Eliot's belief in more descriptive political and artistic representation, which Catherine Gallagher has discussed in relation to Felix Holt, emerges in The Spanish Gypsy as a way of justifying popular success ["George Eliot and Daniel Deronda: The Prostitute and the Jewish Question," Sex, Politics and Science in the Nineteenth-Century Novel, 1986]. "Men waited for the bard to tell their thought"; the bard not only speaks in a way the audience can understand, she actually voices the audience's thoughts; they "possess" her:
Fedalma slips from an assertion of personal desire "I longed" to an assertion of will-less acquiescence to "a common joy," for which "there was no longing." The defined edges of the self that distinguish interior from exterior blend: "Soon I lost / All sense of separateness."
The conception of the artist as an egoless representative of others, a vessel through which others speak, recurs throughout the poem. Juan describes his art as a way of speaking through other voices:
Juan is not a living man all by himself:
His life is breathed in him by other men,
And they speak out of him. He is their voice.
We old, old poets, if we kept our hearts,
Should hardly know them from another man's.
They shrink to make room for the many more
We keep within us.
Rather than inspiration from the Muse, the artist receives it from other men who literally inspire ("breath into") him. Juan's artistry involves emptying out the self and "telling" the "thought" of others. As [Catherine] Gallagher points out, George Eliot yearned to "become the medium of the collective project of culture" but was much too cynical about the operation of artistic representation to accept such a direct translation from people to artist as Juan suggests. The naiveté of Juan's aesthetic overstates, rather than expresses, George Eliot's ideas, thus putting this artist beyond blame. Like the unnecessarily violent intensity of Zarca's rhetoric of social sacrifice, Juan's intense idealism suggests how far George Eliot will go to rid her art of any appearance of egoism. The letter to Harrison, with all its talk of pain and suffering, suggests how tightly George Eliot was putting the screws to her ambition, trying to transform an omnipotent creator into a meek and willing handmaid of the truth. Clearly, George Eliot is more comfortable with omnipotence, and throughout The Spanish Gypsy we see a vigorous disavowal of poetic and personal power. In Fedalma's relationship with Zarca, this disavowal emerges as a violent assault on her will. In an artistic context we find a spontaneous and complete jettisoning of the ego that George Eliot herself could never achieve. "I am a thing of rhythm and redondillas," says Juan, "The momentary rainbow on the spray / Made by the thundering torrent of men's lives." The artist must be insubstantial, ephemeral, having no "substantial self that holds a weight," having life breathed into him by others, something carried on the tide or rolled by "larger things." During the dance, Fedalma experiences "life in unison with a multitude … Soon I lost / All sense of separateness: Fedalma died / As a star dies, and melts into the light." Like the narrator of "Oh May I Join the Choir Invisible," the artist dissolves like light or spray or the ebbing tide, into the multitude. Juan and Fedalma become utterly selfless in the artistic process, capable of speaking only for others, voluntarily sacrificing their egos.
Within George Eliot's elision of Mary / Iphigenia / Fedalma, moreover, the social worth of art is grounded on its ability to give voice to the voiceless populace, particularly women. George Eliot does seem to hold out hope for descriptive representation in the context of gender issues. In a letter to Mrs. Nassau Senior, she describes Iphigenia as a sacrificial victim who gives voice to her countrywomen's suffering:
The influence of one woman's life on the lot of other women is getting greater and greater with the quickening spread of all influences. One likes to think, though, that two thousand years ago Euripides made Iphigenia count it a reason for facing her sacrifice bravely that thereby she might help to save Greek women (from a wrong like Helen's) in times to come. There is no knife at your throat, happily.
George Eliot is referring to Iphigenia's last speech, in which she states that "Because of me, never more will / Barbarians wrong and ravish Greek women, / Drag them from happiness and their homes / In Hellas." George Eliot interprets the lines with more of an eye to gender than to country, as she admits. The crucial connection between Mrs. Nassau Senior (who had just been appointed inspector of workhouses) and Iphigenia, is not that both are sacrificed (Mrs. Nassau Senior does not have a knife at her throat), but that both further the "quickening spread of all influences" whereby women's wrongs are made public; both serve as social representatives. This is also the crucial similarity between Iphigenia and Fedalma, who conceives of her sacrifice to Zarca as a way of making women's wrongs visible:
O father, will the women of our tribe
Suffer as I do, in the years to come
When you have made them great in Africa?
Redeemed from ignorant ills only to feel
A conscious woe? Then,—is it worth the pains?
Were it not better when we reach that shore
To raise a funeral-pile and perish all?
So closing up a myriad avenues
To misery yet unwrought? My soul is faint,
Will these sharp pangs buy any certain good?
As before, Fedalma differentiates between the "sharp pangs" of her own private, painful vision and her father's nationalistic pride, but here she explicitly takes up the cause of those who, like herself, are subjected to "ignorant ills." Like Mrs. Nassau Senior she considers herself an intercessor between her countrywomen and her leader. Like Iphigenia, she identifies herself as a representative of her countrywomen, not just her country.
While this representative aesthetic is consistent with George Eliot's description of the artist opening to a new idiom, it seems to undercut her firm belief that the artist must have something original to teach. Worse, it invokes George Eliot's other main anxiety about literary success—that she was pandering to the crowd for fame and fortune. In "Armgart" Leo claims that Armgart's attention to her audience grows out of her immoral, egoistic artistry: "Will you ask the house / To teach you singing? … lift your audience / To see your vision, not trick forth a show / To please the grossest taste of grossest numbers." Yet, in The Spanish Gypsy Fedalma comes very close to being the mere instrument of the crowd.
Partly this inconsistency demonstrates George Eliot's psychological bind. By escaping the egoism of "scientific and expository" thought and incarnating her art, she indulges in the egoism of populism. But there are significant differences between Armgart's crowd-pleasing and Fedalma's. The dance in the square and Juan's minstrelsy are the epitome of popular art, but they are still "expressive acts." Fedalma and Juan faithfully translate the crowd's ideas ("tell their thought") rather than just tickling their fancy. Armgart revels in the control over the crowd her art gives her. "For what is fame / But the benignant strength of One, transformed / To joy of Many?" For Fedalma, on the other hand, the strength of the many, the "common joy," transforms the one artist. Armgart, like Zarca, portrays herself elevated from the crowd; she is a "spiritual star" pouring forth "glory wide-diffused," but not diffusing herself. Fedalma's star is dying "As a star dies, and melts into the light. / I was not, but joy was."
George Eliot goes out of her way to show that Juan and Fedalma's denial of self removes their art and their sacrifices from the world of social and financial exchange. In this The Spanish Gypsy differs from George Eliot's novels which, as Catherine Gallagher has convincingly demonstrated, George Eliot conceived of as necessarily marketable commodities. Her descriptions of The Spanish Gypsy to her publisher John Blackwood and to George Smith, publisher of the Cornhill, continually sound these themes:
I need not tell you that I am not hopeful—but I am quite sure the subject is fine…. The plot was wrought out entirely as an incorporation of my own ideas.
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 unhappily) to take into account.
As to the matter of pounds and shillings I had not, before I received your letter, formed any definite idea beyond this: that I was to be paid only for the number of copies sold. You appear to offer me £300 unconditionally for 2000 copies printed. This I do not wish.
The message is clear. She does not write to be popular. Her art is based on ideas beyond mere entertainment. She is not interested in money. While she justifies popular art within the text, she retreats from it outside the text, casting the poem as sublime work, well beyond the comprehension of her audience. Her description of her agonizing struggle to incarnate her ideas, and flash conviction on her audience, must be balanced against her denial of any fit audience or any audience at all. Both claims, however, remove her work from the realm of exchange. Whether she writes only for herself or annihilates herself in writing, she does not sell her art for gold or applause.
George Eliot responds to her concerns about egoism by presenting Juan and Fedalma as self-sacrificing, egoless artists, as we have seen. But she does not stop there. She makes sure that even self-sacrifice can not be interpreted as a hidden bargain for fame and wealth. Bonnie J. Lisle has pointed out how, in "The Legend of Jubal," the artist strikes a bargain, whereby the loss of identity brings fame: "The artist's high privilege, George Eliot suggests, must be redeemed by suffering and self-annihilation…. Self-annihilation is at once a debt he owes humanity and, paradoxically, the only way to attain the immortality he seeks." In The Spanish Gypsy, however, self-annihilation does not bring immortality, only silence. Fedalma celebrates Juan's sacrifice because he so fully, and so permanently, erases his own identity:
Good Juan, I could have no nobler friend.
You'd ope your veins and let your life-blood out
To save another's pain, yet hide the deed
With jesting,—say, 't was merest accident,
And die content with men's slight thought of you,
Finding your glory in another's joy.
Like Dorothea Brooke, Juan will die without fame and rest in an unvisited grave. Lisle's conception of the artist losing his identity to achieve the "reward" of immortality operates through the same logic of self-interested exchange that Fedalma praises Juan for surpassing. If the artist does not desire fame, her suffering does not serve as a "debt [s]he owes" for this fame, but is an expression of pure love for others.
Juan also explicitly removes his artistry from the realm of exchange, describing it as a form of "service" and, again, sacrifice. He explains to Fedalma that one must lose oneself wholly, without attention to how much value can be placed on one's love:
To be purged of the earthly taint of the marketplace, sacrifice must be performed freely. This poet does not bargain his identity for fame but relinquishes his identity so as to perfect his artistic obligation of speaking for others. The act of giving oneself to the crowd, of dissolving into light or ebbing into the ocean, can not be conceived of as a bargain, for once it is done no self is left to reap the reward. Just as Juan whimsically pours his life's blood out, Fedalma thoughtlessly squanders her identity; the crowd "possesses" Fedalma because she has given herself away. Her dance is imaged as an anarchic redistribution of wealth: "now the crowd / Exultant shouts, forgetting poverty / In the rich moment of possessing her." The artistic dissolution of self is elided with the scattering of coins or jewels, like Fedalma's subsequent abandonment of Silva's royal jewelry.
In her poem "Arion" George Eliot also enacts the jettisoning of mercantile artistry. Arion is a financially successful artist who is "weighted with his glorious name / And bags of gold." Set upon by thieves aboard ship, he tries to trade the gold for his life, but is refused. Having sold his art for gold, he now discovers the gold is valueless, and his art degraded. He then proposes to give the thieves "a song unsung before," that had never been marketed to "men who paid their gold / For what a poet sold." Pouring forth the song "for naught," he inspires the thieves to call him a god, then suddenly, leaps over the side to his death.
By choosing such an extreme surprise ending, George Eliot shows her intention not to compromise the artist in any way. Arion is clearly a true artist, but he has been "weighted" by years of fame and fortune; both drag him to earth. By moving beyond the buying and selling of poetry he achieves a kind of "liberty" and "lofty passion." But were he to accept the acclamations of the thieves and remain alive, he would simply be weighted with more fame. Moreover, if they allow him to redeem his life through song, he will once again be participating in artistic exchange, as Lisle has noted. His suicide registers both George Eliot's determination to find a selfless aesthetic and her frustration at being unable to do so.
Fedalma's expression of concern for the Gypsy women also raises the question of exchange value, with reference to Fedalma's sacrifice. The question is phrased in terms of exchange. Will the suffering be "worth the pains"? Will the sacrifice "buy" anything of value? The "redemption" of the people will be paid with the coin of Fedalma's suffering. Zarca has consistently portrayed Fedalma using the language of exchange value. "I lost you as a man may lose a diamond / Wherein he has compressed his total wealth," he tells her, and having found her, "I come to claim you." Fedalma recognizes that she is expected to participate in this historical bargain: "Even in the womb you vowed me to the fire … And pledged me to redeem!—I'll pay the debt."
Fedalma ultimately rejects a model of sacrifice based on financial redemption, however. In the last few lines of this passage Fedalma answers the question she poses at first—yes, the women will suffer then as she does now, regardless of how great Zarca or his armies become. Women who are "Redeemed from ignorant ills only to feel / A conscious woe" are not "redeemed" in any true sense. Fedalma chooses to describe her sacrifice as an act of pure selflessness, not as a bargain. She has no illusions that the debt can ever fully be paid, or that the process of redemption will be successful. Her sacrifice will consist of pure suffering, and through it, she will embody the suffering of others:
Yes, say that we shall fail! I will not count
On aught but being faithful. I will take
This yearning self of mine and strangle it.
The grandest death, to die in vain, for love
Greater than sways the forces of the world.
The "forces of the world," such as Zarca and his armies, are swayed by political motives; they are willing to sacrifice if they will get something in return; her sacrifice is "greater" because her motive is "love."
If we look again at George Eliot's letter announcing her recommitment to The Spanish Gypsy in comparison with "Notes on The Spanish Gypsy and Tragedy in General," some striking similarities emerge. The tragic heroine is caught in the "irreparable collision between the individual and the general … of which we recognize the irresistible power." The artist is caught between her own individual ideas and their incarnation in a work of art that will appeal to the general public. The submission to the general, in both cases, involves "unspeakable pains" and "severe effort." Fedalma, George Eliot tells us, represents "the tragedy of a grand submission." Both as a political figure and as an artist, Fedalma submits herself to the irresistible power of the general. In making her work accessible, in incarnating her ideas in a sympathetic idiom, the artist has done the right thing, but George Eliot still imagines it as a "tragedy." We have seen how Fedalma serves to resolve, rather than highlight, George Eliot's conflicts as a female artist; George Eliot constructs characters and circumstances that will guarantee this artist will be blameless of all the charges George Eliot leveled against herself. But ultimately, George Eliot can not accept her as her own. Even as she writes to Harrison asserting the necessity of agonizingly denying the artistic ego, she considers Fedalma's self-denial tragic.
Michael Ragussis (essay date 1995)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2923
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, as a representation of a specifically female action. The project began with Eliot's meditation on a painting of the Annunciation, as she records in her "Notes on the Spanish Gypsy and Tragedy in General":
It occurred to me that here was a great dramatic motive of the same class as those used by the Greek dramatists, yet specifically differing from them. A young maiden, believing herself to be on the eve of the chief event of her life—marriage—about to share in the ordinary lot of womanhood, full of young hope, has suddenly announced to her that she is chosen to fulfil a great destiny, entailing a terribly different experience from that of ordinary womanhood. She is chosen, not by any momentary arbitrariness, but as a result of foregoing hereditary conditions: she obeys. "Behold the handmaid of the Lord." Here, I thought, is a subject grander than that of Iphigenia, and it has never been used.
Eliot's example of the Annunciation invites us to see the way in which the mortal father becomes transformed into a kind of god for whom the daughter functions as the obedient handmaid or sacrificial victim…. [In] The Spanish Gypsy the daughter is sacrificed to the father as God. Hence Fedalma "knelt, / Clinging with piety and awed resolve / Beside this altar of her father's life, where she obediently sacrifices her own life while taking the pledge of worship: "He trusted me, and I will keep his trust: / My life shall be its temple. I will plant / His sacred hope within the sanctuary / And die its priestess."
While Eliot defined the function of "hereditary conditions" in tragic plots in a variety of ways, more and more she came to mean racial conditions: "A story simply of a jealous husband is elevated into a most pathetic tragedy by the hereditary conditions of Othello's lot, which give him a subjective ground for distrust"; "a woman, say, finds herself on the earth with an inherited organization; she may be lame, she may inherit a disease, or what is tantamount to a disease; she may be a negress, or have other marks of race repulsive in the community where she is born" [George Eliot's Life as Related in Her Letters and Journals, 1885]. Even in the central paradigms of Iphigenia and Mary, Eliot represents woman's tragic hereditary function as the sacrifice of the daughter either to preserve or to found a people. In the tradition of historical romance within which The Spanish Gypsy is written, such a function becomes concentrated in the notion of woman as the daughter of a race—Rebecca, "the daughter of Israel," or Leila, the "daughter of the great Hebrew race." Once the nineteenth-century concept of race became the medium through which Eliot would realize the tragic circumstances of her own version of the Annunciation, fifteenth-century Spain seemed the inevitable choice for the "set of historical and local conditions" that would embody her idea: "My reflections brought me nothing that would serve me except that moment in Spanish history when the struggle with the Moors was attaining its climax, and when there was the gypsy race present under such conditions as would enable me to get my heroine and the hereditary claim on her among the gypsies. I required the opposition of race to give the need for renouncing the expectation of marriage" [George Eliot's Life]
In choosing fifteenth-century Spain, Eliot selected what had become for the nineteenth century a kind of historical laboratory in which experiments on the question of race could be performed. Moreover, her growing concern over national and racial injustices climaxed in her decision to record the Gypsies' historic plight and to represent through it, at least at one level, the persecution of more than one racial minority. As early as 1856, Eliot was praising Harriet Beecher Stowe for the invention of "the Negro novel" and was comparing Stowe with Scott in the use of "that grand element—conflict of races [Essays of George Eliot, 1963] So, in The Spanish Gypsy, the chief of the Gypsies encourages the other persecuted minorities of fifteenth-century Spain, "Whether of Moorish or of Hebrew blood, / Who, being galled by the hard Spaniard's yoke," to become allies of the Gypsies. He addresses the Moors and the Jews as "Our kindred by the warmth of Eastern blood" and thereby begins a series of oppositions that pit the "white Castilian" against "the dark men." When the Gypsy chief mocks the conversion of the Gypsies by taunting, "Take holy water, cross your dark skin white," Eliot alludes to both the historic Spanish missions to the Americas and the contemporary English missions to Africa and India.
At the center of Eliot's text is the question of the heroine's identity, or how she is to be named. Fedalma is raised a Christian, rumored to be a Jew, dressed as a Moor at one point, and claimed by the chief of the Zincali as a Gypsy. While Father Isidor, cast in the conventional role of the fanatical Dominican Inquisitor, contemplates Fedalma's torture and death, Zarca, the chief of the Zincali, arrives to save her from the Inquisition. Zarca explains to Fedalma that he is her father and that she was stolen from him by a band of Spaniards when she was a young child. In requiring that she not marry Silva, her Spanish lover, the father asks his daughter to sacrifice herself in the name of the father, or the name of race, and thereby to exchange her individual identity for a corporate identity: "Fedalma dies / In leaving Silva: all that lives henceforth / Is the poor Zincala," the Spanish Gypsy of the title. This is the moment of the daughter's obedience. Zarca explains that as the sole offspring of her widowed father, she is the "Chief woman of her tribe" and that after his death she will be the tribe's leader. In prohibiting the marriage with Silva, the father offers the daughter a different kind of marriage, and Fedalma accepts: "I will wed / The curse that blights my people," and "Father, now I go / To wed my people's lot." The conventional marriage plot is reconfigured here as the means by which the daughter serves her father as the bride of his people. Intermarriage with the racial other is canceled in a figure: marriage with the entire body of one's own race.
With the death of the father, the text ends with the daughter's journey to Africa in an attempt to realize his plans to establish his people's national identity. Fedalma's journey is represented as the kind of exile we associate with Scott's Rebecca—an exile based in the sacrifice of the erotic. Moreover, Eliot makes clear the hopelessness of Fedalma's political ambitions. With the death of her father, "the tribe / That was to be the ensign of the race, … would still disperse / And propagate forgetfulness," in a diaspora in which Fedalma's relinquishment of marriage and childbirth turns into a bitterly ironic form of propagation, the engendering not of ancestral continuity but of forgetfulness. Fedalma's procreative function is reinvented through a tragic pun: "I am but as the funeral urn that bears the ashes of a leader." The daughter's body becomes no more than a kind of grave for the memorialization of the dead father.
But this kind of tragic irony does not finally displace the central ideology of the text, voiced in the father's scathing denunciation of intermarriage and conversion:
Such love is common: I have seen it oft—
Seen many women rend the sacred ties
That bind them in high fellowship with men,
Making them mothers of a people's virtue:
Seen them so levelled to a handsome steed
That yesterday was Moorish property,
To-day is Christian—wears new-fashioned gear,
Neighs to new feeders, and will prance alike
Under all banners, so the banner be
A master's who caresses. Such light change
You call conversion; but we Zincali call
In recording the procedures by which women of a minority race or religion are absorbed by the men of the more powerful group, Zarca adds conversion to the crimes of rapine and murder by which the systematic genocide of a people proceeds. And Eliot, however she might sympathize with the tragic loss and suffering of her title character, upholds the paternal critique of conversion.
Eliot uses the specific example of the "hurry to convert the Jews" in fifteenth-century Spain to ground historically what often appears to be her text's exaggerated horror of apostasy. While the main characters of The Spanish Gypsy are Catholics (Silva and Isidor) and Gypsies (Fedalma and Zarca), it is in her depiction of a converted Jew (Lorenzo) and a practicing Jew (Sephardo) that she attempts to provide the historical basis for her study of conversion. Even the portrait of her Gypsy heroine takes as its model the more well-known example of the converted Jewish woman; while Silva points to Fedalma's baptism, Father Isidor protests: "Ay, as a thousand Jewesses, who yet / Are brides of Satan." But Eliot fails to represent the historical complexities of the issue of conversion in Spain. Instead, she is quick to make an example of the Jews to advance her argument against conversion. This results in making the converted Jew no more than the kind of opportunist Zarca warns Fedalma of becoming—the man or woman who would convert to "win / The prize of renegades":
Thus baptism seemed to him [Lorenzo] a merry game
Not tried before, all sacraments a mode
Of doing homage for one's property,
And all religions a queer human whim
Or else a vice, according to degrees.
Because Eliot focuses on the converted Jew who easily quits his Judaism to assume a new religion for self-advantage, as in the case of the "fathanded" Lorenzo, her Jewish convert never seems to be the product of the fierce religious intolerance and racism that periodically erupted in Spain, especially in the pogroms of 1391, when masses of Jews were converted on threat of death. Instead, her portrait of the converted Jew seems to function as an indictment of Jewish hypocrisy and opportunism.
This was the prevalent picture of the Jewish conversos in general, and the crypto-Jews in particular, throughout the nineteenth century, as Aguilar well knew: "The fact that the most Catholic kingdom of Spain was literally peopled with secret Jews brands this unhappy people with a degree of hypocrisy, in addition to the various other evil propensities with which they have been so plentifully charged. Nay, even amongst themselves in modern times this charge has gained ascendency." During the nineteenth century the growth of European nationalism and incipient Zionism had this effect on the historiography of the Spanish Jews: those who became martyrs for their religion and race were praised as heroes, while those who converted were vilified as cowardly opportunists and hypocrites. The Jewish historian Heinrich Graetz, an important spokesperson for Jewish rights and a major source of Eliot's knowledge of Jewish history [William Baker, George Eliot and Judaism, 1975], cast Spanish Jews in the opposing roles of martyrs versus cowards, those who "remained true to their faith" versus the "weaklings." Even in the midst of acknowledging the "violent assaults" suffered by the Jews, Graetz spoke of "the weak and lukewarm among them, the comfort-loving and worldly-minded, [who] succumbed to the temptation, and saved themselves by baptism" [Graetz, History of the Jews, 1891-98].
Eliot makes her most scathing critique of the converted Jew through the words of Sephardo, the Jew who takes his entire identity, including his name, from his Jewish ancestry and belief. Sephardo argues against Silva's universal humanism:
… there's no such thing
As naked manhood….
While my heart beats, it shall wear livery—
My people's livery, whose yellow badge
Marks them for Christian scorn. I will not say
Man is first man to me, then Jew or Gentile:
That suits the rich marranos; but to me
My father is first father, and then man.
Sephardo declares his desire to wear the garment of his race—no disguises, and no conversion, for him. But Sephardo's representation of the Marranos as opportunists who reject their fathers and their faith—"I am a Jew, and not that infamous life / That takes on bastardy, will know no father"—is historically inaccurate. In a note to Sephardo's speech, Eliot defines "Marrano" as a name for the converted Jew, but she does not designate by it the more specific meaning, the converted Jew who secretly practices Judaism—as represented, for example, in Aguilar's work, in which Marranism is shown as a way of honoring one's father—by handing down through the generations a faith that was threatened and eventually outlawed in Spain. Eliot's depiction of the converted Jew therefore is one-sided, neglecting both those conversos who converted out of genuine conviction, to worship devoutly and sincerely as Catholics, and those crypto-Jews who converted to Catholicism (sometimes on the threat of death) while secretly practicing Judaism.
This kind of flattening out of difference, this use of a single name to characterize a complicated and diverse population, was the means by which religious affiliation became overwritten in Spain by racial genealogy. I mean here that the creation of various estatutos de limpieza de sangre in thefifteenth century, prohibiting conversos from holding various offices and titles, in effect "reconverted" all New Christians to Jews, despite the fact that some were sincere Catholics and others were Marranos or crypto-Jews. All New Christians were suspected of relapsing into Judaism, and thereby all were conceived as members of a special race against which legislation was enacted. This meant that, on the basis of their Jewish ancestry, the New Christians could be prevented from assimilating into Spanish Catholic life and enjoying its privileges. In short, when those Christians who had Jewish ancestors, even as far back as several generations, began to reach the highest positions of power, in the Church, the military, and the government, the doctrine of blood was used to supersede the institution of conversion and to reinstate against Christians—of Jewish ancestry—the old laws against the Jews. "The Old Christians" were divided from "the New Christians," so that Christianity became based on family line and race, and a Christian's authenticity depended less on the sincerity of his religious convictions and practices than on how many Jewish ancestors, how many generations ago, "polluted" his blood. Father Isidor complains about Fedalma, "That maiden's blood / Is as unchristian as the leopard's"—despite her Christian education, and despite Silva's insistence that "Fedalma is a daughter of the Church—/ Has been baptized and nurtured in the faith."
The Spanish Gypsy does contain some version of this history, including, as part of the conventional English attack on the Catholic Inquisition, the odor of burning flesh, of "flames that, fed on heretics, still gape, / And must have heretics made to feed them still." But Eliot fails to make clear the conditions of crypto-Judaic life in the fifteenth century, including the dangers that crypto-Jews suffered to preserve their ancestral faith and heritage when the Inquisition made returning to the faith of Judaism virtually impossible. The Inquisition initially was aimed at those converted Jews who were suspected of secretly performing Judaic rituals; from 1485 until 1500, more than 99 percent of the cases that came before the Spanish Inquisition concerned converted Jews. The institution of the Inquisition crystallized the dilemma of the ideology of conversion by seeking to destroy what the missionary effort had produced. Eliot understood the historical reasons behind this system of destruction, including the economic ones, so that The Spanish Gypsy depicts characters callously arguing over whether a live Jew or "a well-burnt Jew" would most benefit the pocket of the Church's bishops or the nation's merchants. Indeed, she even recognizes that the term "Marrano" became a slur by which all conversos were stigmatized as Jews, and thereby she understands how sincere converts were libeled by the slanderous epithet "Jew": "The 'old Christians' learned to use the word [Marrano] as a term of contempt for the 'new Christians,' or converted Jews and their descendants; but not too monotonously, for they often interchanged it with the fine old crusted opprobrium of the name Jew." But such an apparently philo-Semitic view is part of a traditional argument that in effect did not sympathize with Jewish persecution but with sincere converts to Christianity who were stigmatized as Jews. In The Spanish Gypsy, then, we have a late development in the historiography of the Spanish Inquisition in England: an anti-Catholic attack that in fact includes the representation of the Jews under the Inquisition, but that understands the Jewish convert in an entirely unsympathetic light. The Spanish Gypsy's horror of conversion (at least in part fueled by Eliot's knowledge of the consequences of Christian proselytism in fifteenth-century Spain) contributes to the anti-Semitic stereotype of the Jewish convert as hypocrite and opportunist, a figure reborn in the pages of Trollope's novels and in the anti-Semitic attack aimed at English converts like Disraeli.