The Poetry of Meredith

by George Meredith

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1458

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 “Orion,” Meredith came under the influence of Swinburne, whose friend he was, and then, breaking away from aestheticism, developed his own, highly characteristic and often unique style which Douglas Bush has called “a bright, muscular idiom.” His style is very compressed, his thought often overly convoluted, even tangled. His metaphors, rich in visual observation and sly analogies, come thick and fast and do not normally form a single developing “conceit” or extended metaphor. For these reasons—complexity of thought, ambiguity of expression—Meredith’s poetry was greeted by the reading public with some acclaim but more bewilderment. In his verbal tricks, his syncopated rhythms, his compression of language and often confusing use of metaphor, Meredith’s poetry bears comparison to that of another contemporary who has been acclaimed as a great innovator, Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Carols nature, counsel men.Different notes as rook from wrenHear we when our steps begin,And the choice is cast within,Where a robber raven’s taleUrges passion’s nightingale.

Such a passage invites a certain amount of study and puzzling out; it will not become clear until the whole poem is studied, but the real point is to assess the immediate effect of the lines. The changing rhythms, the double alliteration, the close rhyming, are intended to produce a mysterious and somehow incantatory effect, as Meredith celebrates, and often preaches, the mysterious influence of nature on the inner man. Unlike Wordsworth, however, Meredith never really abstracts nature, does not perceive behind the concrete forms a quasi-platonic “idea” or ideal. Rather, he finds the deeper meaning within the forms of nature itself. It is in this sense that he has been called “pagan.”

The same strong cadence marks “Hard Weather,” in which Meredith sings of how storms serve to brace men, to force on them an awareness of nature’s vitality. “Contention is the vital force,” he chants, and he indicates how such a notion as “the survival of the fittest” can be viewed not with alarm but accepted as a principle of growth:

Earth yields the milk, but all her mindIs vowed to thresh for stouter stock.Her passion for old giantkind,That scaled the mount, uphurled therock,Devolves on them who read arightHer meaning and devoutly serve.

To “read aright” requires the use of brains, believes Meredith. He decries sentimentality as well as crass naturalistic groveling in the gutter. ]"More brains, more brains,” he once cried, testifying to his faith in man’s ability to perceive rationally his destiny and being in nature, and so to bring himself into accord with nature, unified then in “blood, brain and spirit.”

Meredith finds in Greek legend a character who symbolizes man’s communion with nature. Melampus, the physician, preserved some snakes from death, and so was granted the power to understand the language of birds. The theme is not unrelated to that of spiritual renewal in Coleridge’s THE RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER:

Of earth and sun they are wise, theynourish their broods,Weave, build, hive, burrow and bat-tle, take joy and painLike swimmers varying billows: neverin woodsRuns white insanity fleeing itself: allsaneThe woods revolve: as the tree its shad-owing limnsTo some resemblance in motion, therooted lifeRestrains disorder: you hear the primi-tive hymnsOf earth in woods issue wild of theweb of strife.

“The Day of the Daughter of Hades,” a remarkable poem which celebrates the renewal of spring, is based on the myth of Persephone’s return from Hades. Persephone’s daughter, Skiagenia, accompanies her mother, spends a day with an earthling, and chants of the joy of earth’s fecundity. She understands earth better than earthlings do because she is a daughter of Hades, of darkness. This mysterious linking of life and death, the earth and underground, is the poem’s deepest meaning, and again Meredith’s vision here is not unrelated to D. H. Lawrence’s belief in the deeply-rooted instinctual life.

To accept the good of nature, pain and death must also be accepted, and Meredith had to struggle to keep his faith in earth despite personal loss, ill health, and discouragement. “A Faith on Trial” records this struggle, but MODERN LOVE, published in 1862, is the key poem to an understanding of the tragic side of Meredith’s vision of life. This sequence is closer in kind to the other dramatic monologues which Meredith wrote, such as “Juggling Jerry” and “The Old Chartist.” His first wive, the daughter of Thomas Love Peacock, had deserted him in 1858 and died in 1861. MODERN LOVE dramatizes the bitter psychological warfare of a couple who lose their early romantic and somewhat illusory love and proceed to subtly cut up each other and themselves. The wife finally commits suicide. Meredith’s conclusion is typically philosophical and humane:

Then each applied to each that fatalknife,Deep questioning, which probes to end-less dole.Ah, what a dusty answer gets the soulWhen hot for certainties in this ourlife!—In tragic hints here see what evermoreMoves dark as yonder midnight ocean’sforce,Thundering like ramping hosts of warr-iar horse,To throw that faint thin line upon theshore!

And, again:

I see no sin:The wrong is mixed. In tragic life, Godwot,No villain need be! Passions spin theplot:We are betrayed by what is false within.

Nature can be harsh, but never wantonly cruel. Only men, in their illusions and pride, can be cruel. Nature, “read aright” disciplines the unruly passions, brings solace, gives strength. Meredith’s renewed faith in Earth is intensely felt and is conveyed not infrequently with great eloquence and energy in poems remarkable both for vigor of thought and compressed, rhythmically exciting verse.

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