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George Meredith - The Poet
Written by: Arthur Symons
Meredith has always suffered from the curse of too much ability. He has both genius and talent, but the talent, instead of acting as a counterpoise to the genius, blows it yet more windily about the air. He has almost all the qualities of a great writer, but some perverse spirit in his blood has mixed them to their mutual undoing. When he writes prose, the prose seems always about to burst into poetry; when he writes verse, the verse seems always about to sink into prose. He thinks in flashes, and writes in shorthand. He has an intellectual passion for words, but he has never been able to accustom his mind to the slowness of their service; he tosses them about the page in his anger, tearing them open and gutting them with a savage pleasure. He has so fastidious a fear of dirtying his hands with what other hands have touched that he makes the[Pg 142] language over again, so as to avoid writing a sentence or a line as any one else could have written it. His hatred of the commonplace becomes a mania, and it is by his head-long hunt after the best that he has lost by the way its useful enemy, good. In prose he would have every sentence shine, in verse he would have every line sparkle; like a lady who puts on all her jewellery at once, immediately after breakfast. As his own brain never rests, he does not realise that there are other brains which feel fatigue; and as his own taste is for what is hard, ringing, showy, drenched with light, he does not leave any cool shadows to be a home for gentle sounds, in the whole of his work. His books are like picture galleries, in which every inch of wall is covered, and picture screams at picture across its narrow division of frame. Almost every picture is good, but each suffers from its context. As time goes on, Meredith's mannerisms have grown rigid, like old bones. Exceptions have become rules, experiments have been accepted for solutions.
In Meredith's earliest verse there is a certain harshness, which seems to come from[Pg 143] a too urgent desire to be at once concise and explicit. Modern Love, published in 1862, remains Meredith's masterpiece in poetry, and it will always remain, beside certain things of Donne and of Browning, an astonishing feat in the vivisection of the heart in verse. It is packed with imagination, but with imagination of so nakedly human a kind that there is hardly an ornament, hardly an image, in the verse: it is like scraps of broken, of heart-broken, talk, overheard and jotted down at random, hardly suggesting a story, but burning into one like the touch of a corroding acid. These cruel and self-torturing lovers have no illusions, and their 'tragic hints' are like a fine, pained mockery of love itself, as they struggle open-eyed against the blindness of passion. The poem laughs while it cries, with a double-mindedness more constant than that of Heine; with, at times, an acuteness of sensation carried to the point of agony at which Othello sweats words like these:
O thou weed,
Who art so lovely fair, and smell'st so sweet
That the sense aches at thee, would thou hadst ne'er been born!
Meredith has written nothing more like Modern Love, and for twenty years after the publication of the volume containing it he published no other volume of verse. In 1883 appeared Poems and Lyrics of the Joy of Earth; in 1887 Poems and Ballads of Tragic Life; and, in 1888, A Reading of Earth, to which A Reading of Life is a sort of companion volume. The main part of this work is a kind of nature-poetry unlike any other nature-poetry; but there are several groups which must be distinguished from it. One group contains Cassandra, from the volume of 1862, The Nuptials of Attila, The Song of Theodolinda, from the volume of 1887. There is something fierce, savage, convulsive, in the passion which informs these poems; a note sounded in our days by no other poet. The words rush rattling on one another, like the clashing of spears or the ring of iron on iron in a day of old-world battle. The lines are javelins, consonanted lines full of force and fury, as if sung or played by a northern skald harping on a field of slain. There is another group of romantic ballads, containing the early Margaret's Bridal Eve, and the later [Pg 145]Arch-duchess Anne and The Young Princess. There are also the humorous and pathetic studies in Roadside Philosophers and the like, in which, forty years ago, Meredith anticipated, with the dignity of a poet, the vernacular studies of others. And, finally, there is a section containing poems of impassioned meditation, beginning with the lofty and sustained ode to France, December 1870, and ending with the volcanic volume of Odes in Contribution to the Song of French History, published in 1900.
But it is in the poems of nature that Meredith is most consistent to an attitude, most himself as he would have himself. There is in them an almost pagan sense of the nearness and intimacy of the awful and benignant powers of nature; but this sense, once sufficient for the making of poetry, is interpenetrated, in this modern poet, by an almost scientific consciousness of the processes of evolution. Earth seen through a brain, not a temperament, it might be defined; and it would be possible to gather a complete philosophy of life from these poems, in which, though 'the joy of earth' is sung, it is sung with the wise, collected ecstasy of[Pg 146] Melampus, not with the irresponsible ecstasy of the Mænads. It is not what Browning calls 'the wild joy of living,' but the strenuous joy of living in perfect accordance with nature, with the sanity of animals who have climbed to reason, and are content to be guided by it. It is a philosophy which may well be contrasted with the transcendental theories of one with whom Meredith may otherwise be compared, Emerson. Both, in different ways, have tried to make poetry out of the brain, forgetting that poetry draws nourishment from other soil, and dies in the brain as in a vacuum. Both have taken the abstract, not the concrete, for their province; both have tortured words in the cause of ideas, both have had so much to say that they have had little time left over for singing.
Meredith has never been a clear writer in verse; Modern Love requires reading and re-reading; but at one time he had a somewhat exasperating semblance of lucidity, which still lurks mockingly about his work. A freshman who heard Mallarmé lecture at Oxford said when he came away: 'I understood every word, but not a single sentence.' Meredith is sometimes equally tantalising.[Pg 147] The meaning seems to be there, just beyond one, clearly visible on the other side of some hard transparency through which there is no passage. Have you ever seen a cat pawing at the glass from the other side of a window? It paws and paws, turns its head to the right, turns its head to the left, walks to and fro, sniffing at the corner of every pane; its claws screech on the glass, in a helpless endeavour to get through to what it sees before it; it gives up at last, in an evident bewilderment. That is how one figures the reader of Meredith's later verse. It is not merely that Meredith's meaning is not obvious at a glance, it is, when obscure, ugly in its obscurity, not beautiful. There is not an uglier line in the English language than:
Or is't the widowed's dream of her new mate.
It is almost impossible to say it at all. Often Meredith wishes to be too concise, and squeezes his thoughts together like this:
and the totterer Earth detests,
Love shuns, grim logic screws in grasp, is he.
In his desire to cram a separate sentence into every line, he writes such lines as:
Look I once back, a broken pinion I,
He thinks differently from other people, and not only more quickly; and his mind works in a kind of double process. Take, for instance, this phrase:
Ravenous all the line for speed.
An image occurs to him, the image of a runner, who, as we say, 'devours' the ground. Thereupon he translates this image into his own dialect, where it becomes intensely vivid if it can be caught in passing; only, to catch it in passing, you must go through two mental processes at once. That is why he cannot be read aloud. In a poem where every line is on the pattern of the line I have quoted, every line has to be unriddled; and no brain works fast enough to catch so many separate meanings, and to translate as it goes.
Meredith has half the making of a great artist in verse. He has harmony without melody; he invents and executes marvellous variations upon verse; he has footed the tight-rope of the galliambic measure and the swaying planks of various trochaic experiments; but his resolve to astonish is stronger than his desire to charm, and he lets technical skill carry him into such excesses of[Pg 149] ugliness in verse as technical skill carried Liszt, and sometimes Berlioz, in music. Meredith has written lines which any poet who ever wrote in English would be proud of; he has also written lines as tuneless as a deal table and as rasping as a file. His ear for the sweep and texture of harmonies, for the building up of rhythmical structure, is not seconded by an ear for the delicacies of sound in words or in tunes. In one of the finest of his poems, the Hymn to Colour, he can begin one stanza with this ample magnificence:
Look now where Colour, the soul's bridegroom, makes
The house of heaven splendid for the bride;
and can end another stanza thus lumpishly:
With thee, O fount of the Untimed! to lead,
Drink they of thee, thee eyeing, they unaged
Shall on through brave wars waged.
Meredith is not satisfied with English verse as it is; he persists in trying to make it into something wholly different, and these eccentricities come partly from certain theories. He speaks in one place of
A soft compulsion on terrene
which is not English, but a misapplication of[Pg 150] the jargon of science. In another place he speaks of
The posts that named the swallowed mile,
which is a kind of pedantry. He chooses harsh words by preference, liking unusual or insoluble rhymes, like 'haps' and 'yaps,' 'thick' and 'sick,' 'skin' and 'kin,' 'banks' and 'thanks,' 'skims' and 'limbs.' Two lines from The Woods of Westermain, published in 1883 in the Poems and Lyrics of the Joy of Earth, sum up in themselves the whole theory:
Life, the small self-dragon ramped,
Thrill for service to be stamped.
Here every word is harsh, prickly, hard of sense; the rhymes come like buffets in the face. It is possible that Meredith has more or less consciously imitated the French practice in the matter of rhymes, for in France rarity of rhyme is sought as eagerly as in England it is avoided. Rhyme in French poetry is an important part of the art of verse; in English poetry, except to some extent at the time of Pope, it has been accepted as a thing rather to be disguised than accentuated. There is something a[Pg 151] little barbarous in rhyme itself, with its mnemonic click of emphasis, and the skill of the most skilful English poets has always been shown in the softening of that click, in reducing it to the inarticulate answer of an echo. Meredith hammers out his rhymes on the anvil on which he has forged his clanging and rigid-jointed words. His verse moves in plate-armour, 'terrible as an army with banners.'
To Meredith poetry has come to be a kind of imaginative logic, and almost the whole of his later work is a reasoning in verse. He reasons, not always clearly to the eye, and never satisfyingly to the ear, but with a fiery intelligence which has more passion than most other poets put into frankly emotional verse. He reasons in pictures, every line having its imagery, and he uses pictorial words to express abstract ideas. Disdaining the common subjects of poetry, as he disdains common rhythms, common rhymes, and common language, he does much by his enormous vitality to give human warmth to arguments concerning humanity. He does much, though he attempts the impossible. His poetry is always what Rossetti called[Pg 152] 'amusing'; it has, in other words, what Baudelaire called 'the supreme literary grace, energy'; but with what relief does one not lay down this Reading of Life and take up the Modern Love of forty years ago, in which life speaks! Meredith has always been in wholesome revolt against convention, against every deadening limitation of art, but he sometimes carries revolt to the point of anarchy. In finding new subjects and new forms for verse he is often throwing away the gold and gathering up the ore. In taking for his foundation the stone which the builders rejected he is sometimes only giving a proof of their wisdom in rejecting it.