George Meredith 1828-1909
English poet, novelist, and essayist.
George Meredith holds a remarkable place as both one of the most undervalued Victorian authors and one of the most overvalued. Critics from his own time to the present have judged him a brilliant innovator, even as they found his poetry at times obscure and inept. Few, however, have disputed the merits of his major achievement, the sonnet cycle Modern Love (1862), which documents in painful detail the failure of a marriage and the disintegration of the individuals involved. Though a commercially successful novelist, Meredith held poetry to be the highest of the arts and labored throughout his life to express his worldview in poems describing the ideal relationship of humanity to nature. However, it has been his acute psychological realism, as exemplified in Modern Love, rather than the moral philosophy expressed in his nature poems, that has obtained for Meredith a place among the major Victorian poets.
Meredith developed a reputation during his lifetime as a private man, and he succeeded in keeping many of the details of his early life obscured from both his contemporaries and his later biographers. He was born in Portsmouth on February 12, 1828, the son of a tailor. His mother died when he was only five years old, and his father declared bankruptcy when George was nine. Discerning autobiographical hints in his fiction, scholars suggest that Meredith was ashamed of his lower-middle-class upbringing and disappointed in his father's inability to support him in his education and career. From 1842 to 1844 Meredith studied at the Moravian school in Neuwied, Germany. The Moravian brothers were known for their liberal humanism, a school of thought that shaped Meredith's own worldview. In 1845 he began an apprenticeship with Richard Charnock, a solicitor in London, who provided Meredith with his early introduction to literary society. He concluded his apprenticeship in 1849, the same year he published his first poem, “Chillianwallah.” That same year he married Mary Ellen Peacock Nicolls, the daughter of the poet and critic Thomas Love Peacock and the widow of a naval officer; they had one son, Arthur Gryffydh Meredith, in 1853. The couple lived initially with Meredith's father-in-law, since Meredith was unable to support them as an author. They were not a happy couple, and their limited finances made the situation worse. In 1858 Mary Ellen eloped with the painter Henry Wallis, and Meredith never saw her again. She died in three years later. Meredith's difficult first marriage is generally considered the inspiration for Modern Love. In the decade the couple was together, Meredith published three early works: his collected Poems of 1851, and the fictions The Shaving of Shagpat (1856) and Farina: A Legend of Cologne (1857). While the works were not universally acclaimed, they were recognized as inventive works by a talented writer. He next wrote two novels, The Ordeal of Richard Feveral (1859) and Evan Harrington (1860), but they did not attract as much interest as his earlier works. He began working as a reader for the London publisher Chapman and Hall in 1860, a post he held for thirty-five years, during which time he helped launch the careers of novelists George Gissing and Thomas Hardy. The publication of Modern Love and Poems of the English Roadside in 1862 brought Meredith back into the center of critical attention, although the initial reaction to the work was mixed. The forthright treatment of such taboo themes as sexuality, infidelity, and suicide drew the censure even of those critics inclined to praise Meredith's technical skills. Meredith remarried in 1864 to Marie Vulliamy, and began publishing novels again. Biographers suggest that while his first wife was Meredith's great love, Vulliamy was the supportive wife that enabled him to focus on his writing. He published a string of novels that achieved minimal success before returning to critical favor with the novel Beauchamp's Career in 1876. The publication of his most acclaimed novel, The Egoist, in 1879 finally established Meredith—now thirty years into his writing career—as an important author. In 1885 he achieved his greatest commercial success with the novel Diana of the Crossways. While he was making his name as a novelist, Meredith had continued to write poetry, publishing in periodicals. In 1883 he released his first volume of poetry in twenty years, Poems and Lyrics of the Joy of the Earth. Although forced to finance his verse publications with his own money, he persisted in his efforts to become recognized as a poet, publishing Ballads and Poems of Tragic Life (1887), A Reading of Earth (1888), Jump-to-Glory Jane (1889), The Empty Purse (1892), Odes in Contribution to the Song of French History (1898), A Reading of Life (1901), and Last Poems (1909). Although much of his later poetry was considered uneven and inferior to his best work of the 1860s and 1870s, by the time of his death Meredith had become a leading man of English letters. His home in Box Hill was a site of pilgrimage for younger British authors, including J. M. Barrie and Robert Louis Stevenson, and in 1892 Meredith followed Alfred, Lord Tennyson as president of the Society of Authors. In 1905 he was awarded the Order of Merit. He died May 18, 1909; his final poetic work, Celt and Saxon (1910), remained unfinished.
Major Poetic Works
Meredith's body of poetry does not lend itself to ready classification: throughout his career he wrote in different styles and moods, and with varying quality. In his first collection, Poems, Meredith closely followed his predecessors, especially Tennyson and the Romantics Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Wordsworth, and John Keats. By the time he published Modern Love in 1862, Meredith was ashamed of his first volume of poetry, but some critics maintain that Poems does contain a few of Meredith's best poems, including the original version of “Love in the Valley” and “South-West Wind in the Woodland.” Such poems point toward the respect for nature that in his later works would grow into a loose philosophy placing nature at the center of morality and meaning in the universe. Modern Love is in many ways a unique work in Meredith's poetic oeuvre, in its length, its theme, and its attention to psychological realism. The poem tells the story of a failed marriage in a fifty-sonnet cycle, employing Meredith's own sixteen-line form of the sonnet, consisting of four quatrains rather than the traditional fourteen-line form of three quatrains and a concluding couplet. The story of Modern Love is narrated by the husband. He discovers his wife has been writing to another man, but he feels compelled to conceal his jealousy and disappointment in order to present a socially acceptable image of his marriage to the outside world. To spite his wife, he has an affair, and then attempts to reconcile, but neither relationship seems able to fulfill the husband, or to counter the sense of doom surrounding both husband and wife. Misunderstanding her husband's desires, the wife commits suicide, confirming the inevitable tragedy of modern love. Meredith wrote Modern Love with a level of sexual and emotional frankness that was entirely new in Victorian literature, and it is considered by many the most autobiographical of his works. The long pause between Modern Love and the Poems and Lyrics of the Joy of Earth gave Meredith ample time to develop his philosophy of literature and his views of nature. In his return to poetry after making his name as a novelist, Meredith set for himself the task of transcribing the spiritual essence of Earth in order to describe the potential for humankind's communion with nature. In such poems as “The Woods of Westermain,” “Earth and Man,” and “The Day of the Daughter of Hades,” Meredith emphasizes the strong connections between imagination, poetry, humanity, and nature through detailed observations of flora and fauna, and explorations of classical mythology. Poems and Lyrics of the Joy of Earth also contains a revised version of “Love in the Valley,” the Paradise Lost-inspired “Lucifer in Starlight,” and another of Meredith's most praised works, “Lark Ascending,” which inspired a 1914 orchestral work of the same name by the great British composer Vaughn Williams. The volume published following the death of his second wife, Ballads and Poems of Tragic Life, contains darker explorations of human nature, but with A Reading of Earth Meredith returned to the theme of nature, although the poems are still touched by sadness. “A Faith on Trial” in this collection alludes to the death of his second wife, and “Dirge in Woods” was written on the occasion of his father-in-law's death. “Hymn to Colour,” “Inner and Outer,” “The Thrush in February,” and “The South-Wester” are also considered to be among the best poems in A Reading of Earth, and are representative of Meredith's blending of poetry, nature, and concern for the nature of the self.
Meredith is best known as a novelist, but his career suggests that he considered poetry a higher art form than prose, and he hoped that later readers would appreciate his experiments and innovations more than his contemporaries did. The variety of his output, however, and the variability of its quality have made critical evaluation of his talents as a poet difficult. The first major study to address Meredith's poetry came from George Macaulay Trevelyan, who introduced themes that continue to be important in scholarship on Meredith's poetry: the difficulty in establishing a relevant standard by which to judge his poetry, given its uniqueness; the intellectual challenge presented by Meredith's philosophy; and the poet's tendency to be obscure. Trevelyan found that in some poems Meredith sacrificed technique for the sake of compression. John Lucas similarly observed in Meredith's works a mix of faults—including bad rhyming and awkward syntax—and strengths—especially Meredith's clear and unflinching view of the darker side of love, as exemplified in Modern Love. It is this work that dominates most later studies of Meredith's poetry. Critics have often speculated about the autobiographical aspects of Modern Love and the extent to which Meredith drew from his failed first marriage, an approach Lucas cautioned against. Some scholars have focused on the psychological aspects of the poem, noting that the characters of the husband and the wife lend themselves to analysis through modern psychiatric concepts, such as neurosis, narcissism, and Oedipal desire. Dorothy Mermin observed, however, that Modern Love is not only a psychological drama of individuals, but also an exploration of the nature of self and, in turn, a study of the position of the narrator in the evolution of Victorian fiction. Other critics have emphasized Modern Love's strong connections to other developments and transitions in Victorian culture, not only in terms of marriage and gender relations, but also the belief in God as the center of meaning and morality. Such approaches to Modern Love suggest Meredith's success in expressing his uniquely Victorian worldview as well as the nature of a universal and timeless human experience.