George Meredith Poetry: British Analysis

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

George Meredith, a gifted conversationalist, once provoked playwright F. C. Burnand to exclaim, “Damn you, George, why won’t you write the way you talk?” Meredith would not. In an age of conscious stylists, he was one of the most mannered, in both prose and poetry. He wrote a great deal of poetry, much of it flawed by strained, awkward, and overly elaborate figures of speech. His poems are sometimes frustratingly indirect in expression. The grammar of his lines can be extremely convoluted, often for the sake of rhyme. Many of his poems are rhythmically monotonous, and many are quite didactic. Meredith also wrote excellent poetry, however, pleasurable and rewarding to many readers, who may make happy discoveries, particularly among his lyrics. Among his most rewarding poems are “Love in the Valley,” “Lucifer in Starlight,” and “Modern Love.”

“Love in the Valley”

“Love in the Valley” is a much-admired long lyric, first published in 1851 and very extensively revised in 1878. The finished poem consists of twenty-six eight-line stanzas. The poem’s pentameter lines have a fluid, seemingly spontaneous rhythm, sometimes mimetic and consistently effective.

The poem’s narrator alternately celebrates the beauty, innocence, and freedom of his beloved and describes the rural valley that is her home. The descriptions of the valley are vivid and detailed, presenting images of moonlight, dusk, and dawn; of birds and the sky; of vegetation green and golden. The descriptions of the woman, “Pure from the night, and splendid for the day,” are less specific but no less intense. To the censorious, the woman is not faultless; to the narrator of the poem, she is innocent, sensual, changeable, and elusive.

The poem develops in a series of mirror images: A swallow’s wings are mirrored in the water, and the woman’s mother “tends her before the laughing mirror.” Throughout the poem the subject is mirrored metaphorically in nature, as nature is mirrored in her. When the lovers embrace, the narrator says, “our souls were in our names”—that is, each soul was mirrored in the name of the other.

In the last stanza the narrator says, “heaven is my need”—a heaven that is mirrored, by love, in the valley and in the woman. The poem is full of swift, elusive, mutable things: shy squirrels, swooping swallows and owls, winking minnows, the changing sky throughout the day, the cycle of the seasons, and the woman herself, “this wild thing.” In all this change, there is constancy; whatever the time of day, whatever the season, the valley—with all its swift, elusive creatures—is still itself. For all her changeableness, the beloved is still herself. In transience is treasured, timeless truth.

“The Lark Ascending”

“The Lark Ascending” (1883) is a poem of 120 lines. The generally regular iambic tetrameter lines rhyme in couplets. The poem describes and reflects on the prolonged and soaring song of the skylark, which sings as it flies, often so high that it is lost to the eye and can be followed only by the ear.

The first long stanza (sixty-four lines) describes the outpouring in song of a...

(The entire section is 1316 words.)