Best known as the author of fourteen novels, most notably THE ORDEAL OF RICHARD FEVEREL and THE EGOIST, George Meredith may eventually find a securer place in literary history as a poet. MODERN LOVE, a sequence of poems depicting the breakdown of a marriage, is already acknowledged as a masterwork of late Victorian verse, but in addition Meredith’s mythological poems in praise of Earth are entirely worthy of more acclaim than they have received. A few critics, among them Douglas Bush and Siegfried Sassoon, have praised these poems, but in general, Meredith’s verse has been almost entirely overlooked. In six principal volumes published from 1862 to 1901, Meredith wrote about 130 poems which make up his main collection, exclusive of the very early poems, some translations, and numerous epitaphs and occasional poems. His best work was published in 1883 as POEMS AND LYRICS OF THE JOY OF EARTH, and in 1888, A READING OF EARTH. The poems of both volumes chiefly explain Meredith’s nearly pagan faith in man as a part of natural process, and celebrate, often in terms of regeneration myths, the natural vitality and renewal which comes to men when they forego selfishness and live at one with nature.
Enter these enchanted woods,You who dare.Nothing harms beneath the leavesMore than waves a swimmer cleaves.Toss your heart up with the lark,Foot at peace with mouse and worm,Fair you fare.Only at a dread of darkQuaver, and they quit their form:Thousand eyeballs under hoodsHave you by the hair.Enter these enchanted woods,You who dare.
This, the first stanza of “The Woods of Westermain,” expresses Meredith’s belief that nature is essentially mysterious “enchanted,” and beneficent. Nature becomes a source of terror only to the man who has lost a sense of his dependence on nature. The man who is guilty, of over-weening pride in intellect, who feels superior to nature, is cut off from Mother Earth and so conceives her to be brutish and even fearful. Meredith’s attitude toward nature is remarkably advanced for his time. He accepts natural process—both in the way it limits men and also as a creative, evolutionary force—not in the Darwinian sense, nor in the way Tennyson sometimes conceived of science as a possible saving force, but rather in a “mythological” or even “pagan” sense. Man’s scientific dominion over nature counts less for Meredith than man as being a part of nature. A man lives a single span of life, and nature provides him with that life. And though the individual dies, as each Spring “dies” in winter, man and nature are continually reborn and renewed within the great cycle of being. Because of this root belief, and because it provides a viewpoint which is essentially one of joy, and because according to it a man’s false pride and sense of superiority can be ridiculed, Meredith’s “philosophy” is profoundly comic. Indeed, he is one of the few truly comic writers in modern literature.
Influenced in his early poetry by the Keatsian tradition of Tennyson and even by the “Spasmodic School” of, notably, Richard H. Horne’s...
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