"George Meredith aet 72," from a dry-point etching by Mortimer Menpes (frontispiece to the Memorial Edition of Diana of the Crossways, Vol. XVI).
Even at his busiest, Meredith had continued to publish poems in periodicals, including substantial ones like "France, December 1870," his stern exhortation to the beleaguered French ("Now is humanity on trial in thee") at the time of the Franco-Prussian War.1 Since his mid-fifties he had been devoting more time to poetry, revising and extending "Love in the Valley," adding the prefatory sonnet to "Modern Love," and publishing five new volumes of verse. Here as in the novels he aims to illuminate "an expanded world" for others, as Adiante is said to do in [his last, unfinished novel] Celt and Saxon. Drawn as ever to epic subjects, he sometimes attempts this through character and action, notably in Ballads and Poems of Tragic Life (1887). Indeed, the poet George MacBeth thought that "his best work is in his dramatic pieces" (178) such as the long "Nuptials of Attila" and the shorter "King Harald's Trance" — both from this volume, both ending in tragedy and confusion [...]. Predictably, such poems were too much for [his early biographer, Siegfried] Sassoon, who says of the former, "My soul craves for something gentler than 'arrow, javelin, spear and sword'" (237) and despite MacBeth's praise they are not much read today.
In the more meditative poems, as in the novels as a whole, the aim is to encourage the reader to transcend the self, to reach out towards fellow human-beings and upwards towards nature. The struggle here is still dramatic, but the drama is expressed in [91/92] terms of life/death, light/dark imagery, and with reference to an even vaster time-scale — for this is the struggle not of an individual, a couple, or even a country at some point in history, but of the human race itself. Some of these poems have lasted better. This being the case, Meredith's verse has generally been perceived as philosophical, didactic, or at best "descriptive-doctrinal." (Hough 3). Wendell Harris suggests severe "winnowings" to preserve the most appealing and accessible of the poems, recommending the exclusion of all the poetry of the last seventeen years, and much else besides.(119; cf. Lucas 15). Graham Hough and Keith Hanley, who respectively edited two twentieth-century selections, focus on "Modern Love" and just a handful of others, such as "Love in the Valley" and a few from Poems and Lyrics of the Joy of Earth (1883). Hanley also includes several from A Reading of Earth (1888). But both omit the important four-part "Woods of Westermain" from the former volume, suggesting that they have missed the point about the later poetry. Like all Meredith's work, including "Modern Love," this part of his oeuvre is not heavily moralistic. On the contrary, it is best seen as exploratory and participatory — that is, as personal experience recreated for the reader to share. 6
The Druids' Grove, Norbury Park: Ancient Yew Trees by Thomas Allom, in E. W. Brayley's A Topographical History of Surrey, Vol. IV (Willis, 1851), facing p. 453.
Inspired by Meredith's beloved Druids' Grove (see Bartlett II: 207), "The Woods of Westermain" exemplifies the kind of poetry Meredith was most engaged with in these last years, and, challenging as it is, comes closest to making his mature vision explicit. As in Milton's paired "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso," hypnotically rhythmic seven-syllable lines beckon us into a world with the potential to be seen in two entirely different ways. The mysterious depths of nature, seething with life and movement, are delightful to those who are open to experience: "Toss your heart up with the lark, / Foot at peace with mouse and worm" (I). But to the apprehensive, the distrustful, they are threatening: "All the eyeballs under hoods / Shroud you in their glare" (II). This duality is then explored in two much longer parts. As for the receptive,
Farther, deeper, may you read,
Have you sight for things afield,
Where peeps she, the Nurse of seed,
Cloaked, but in the peep revealed;
Showing a kind face and sweet:
Look you with the soul you see't,
Glory narrowing to grace,
Grace to glory magnified,
Following that will you embrace
Close in arms or aëry wide. (III)
Here, the "Nurse of seed" is of course evolving nature, a power to be welcomed, a power to enrich the spirit. But again, for those who bring in "a note / Wrangling," everything is different. They will not hear the pipings of Pan, or see the "lustreful" foliage or "the huntress moon / radiantly facing dawn"; nor will they achieve a "larger self" through such experiences, or enter into fellowship with the like-minded, or find love. Instead, they will be mired in a world of bestiality, cruelty and oppression, a world of which Meredith has always been only too aware.8 For these sojourners, "Nightmare upon horror broods" (III); owls screech and spectres haunt them. Of the many darker images and symbols woven through the poem, such as the "moth-winged jar" (II), snakes, owls, the serpent and the tiger, the most important is that of the dragon, which suggests not so much self as the pride in self that is the root of all ills, and must [93/94] be jettisoned. As explained in the last and longest part, the trick is to "love the light so well / That no darkness will seem fell." Then, no such phantoms or monsters will appear. What is seen instead is only the play of light, which symbolises life itself in continual healthful movement:
Then you touch the nerve of Change
Then of Earth you have the clue;
Then her two-sexed meanings melt
Through you, wed the thought and felt.
Meredith's ideas blend seamlessly here as he both experiences and suggests the reward of accepting change, of absorbing it into the mind and the sensations. Curiously, this reward is spiritual calm, a kind of permanence that is quite different from static sameness or fixity:
Lo, you look at Flow and Drought
Interflashed and interwrought:
Ended is begun, begun
Ended, quick as torrents run.
Look with spirit past the sense,
Spirit shines in permanence.
Harmony with others and with the world at large has been seen as a major goal throughout Meredith's work. In order to be fully alive, in order to achieve "true felicity," integration needs to occur within the self as well. "Blood and brain and spirit" have to come together:
Earth that Triad is: she hides
Joy from him who that divides;
Showers it when three are one
Glassing her in union. (IV)
"Glassing," with its suggestion of light passing through and being contained, is the perfect word here. Meredith fully acknowledges the stern realities of life in this poem, but chooses to see and work for the brighter possibilities, recommending the same process to his readers. Entering the "enchanted woods" is [94/95] still a challenge, even at the end, where the refrain ("Enter these enchanted woods / You who dare") is repeated for the last time. But it is one for which he has tried to prepare us.
In contrast to the owl, night-jar, vulture and horrible "scaly Dragon-fowl" (IV) that swoop through the shadows of "The Woods of Westermain," the songbird rises, chirps and flutters through the daylight, and also expresses the joyous soul within. Meredith takes up this idea again in "The Lark Ascending," with its memorably accurate mimetic opening:
He rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound,
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake,
All intervolved and spreading wide
Like water-dimples down a tide
Where ripple ripple overcurls
And eddy into eddy whirls. . . .
This first sentence is a tour de force that lasts the whole verse paragraph of 64 lines. But the simple point is that the bird, as he says in "The Woods of Westermain" (III) is "bird and more," calling forth the best in us "to him akin," that is to say, the human spirit freed from "taint of personality" and hence egotism, spiralling widely upwards to enrich the world — extending it "at wings and dome" for others. 9
The best poems of these years carry us naturally from images to philosophical ideas in a similar way (see Crunden 268), striking a balance between concrete and abstract. This is movingly achieved through the light conditions and personifications of what G. M. Trevelyan considered to be "one of his greatest poems" (82), "Hymn to Colour." The scene here is set at the break of day, when "night puts away / Her darker veil for grey," progressing to when "Colour, the soul's bridegroom, makes / The house of heaven splendid for the bride." During this time, the speaker, who has been walking between Life and Death, and who has been guided by Love, conceives a state in which body and soul are in harmony — where men, "[n]ot forfeiting the beast with which they are crossed" attain to the "stature of the Gods." Uplifted by this intimation, the speaker finally sees the dawn "glow through" even Death itself. A similar balance and epiphany is achieved in "In the Woods." Derived like "Dirge in Woods" from an earlier, longer poem of about 1870 ("In the Woods: Foresight and Patience"), this is a sequence of six short lyrics in which Meredith again adopts the time-honoured allegory of life as journey. Trampling weeds and touching the furrowed bark of the trees, the speaker here makes the same choice that Robert Frost's speaker does later, in one of the best-known poems of the next century, "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening." That is, he decides to continue his journey rather than sink into the darkness.12 But Meredith's speaker makes his choice in a very different spirit. His decision "to proceed / By the light I have within" comes from the sheer love of life rather than from any sense of duty. Not that he clings frantically to life, or even to the hope of an after-life. "Like a ring for the bride," he simply holds life in his hand, and is ready to be generous with it. Nothing could be more essentially Meredithian.
Some of the longer poems of these years are less coherent, even though they started out as independent pieces. Even the expanded "Love in the Valley," which has many fine new lines, suffers from a disconnection between its piled-up images and the yearning for "heaven" in the last stanza. This produces a far weaker ending than the earlier version's ringing cry: "Lo! The nest is ready, let me not languish longer! / Bring her to my arms on the first May night." More damagingly, despite being inspired by the very bird that sings outside his study window and recalls his own youth to him, "The Thrush in February" soon vanishes into a thicket of evolutionary ideas. No longer thrilling to a simple union with nature, Meredith maintains here that the "beast" must indeed be forfeited, if "the tidal multitude and blind" are to be led by the heroes amongst us "from bestial to the higher breed."13 The abstractions Love, Pleasures, Pains, Life and Death all vie for our consideration in a single quatrain (stanza 38), long after the "twilight bird" is last mentioned. Again, the impact of the original experience is lost.
"The rapture of the forward view," as Meredith puts it in "The Thrush in February," is easier for him to sustain in shorter lyrics like "The Orchard and the Heath." Here as elsewhere, he had been doing his own "winnowing": when printed in Macmillan's Magazine in early 1868, this was followed by another hundred lines of reflection. But the stanzas as they appear in Poems and Lyrics of the Joy of Earth are complete enough, and wonderfully evocative. On a long walk, the speaker sees children playing in an orchard. Their world is a carefree world of plenty: "They had but to lift hands or wait / For fruits to fill them; fruits were all their sky." Later in the day though, past the "pleasant farms and lanes" and across the heath, the speaker comes upon a gypsy encampment under a "patched channel-bank" over-run with late foxgloves. Here he sees some more children, including three girls poised to race each other, "with shoulders like a boat at sea / Tipped sideways by the wave." As the girls bend forward, their ragged clothes slide sideways off their shoulders "from either ridge unequally" — a slightly provocative detail that reminds us of Harry Richmond and his unfettered Kiomi [in his Bildungsroman, The Adventures of Harry Richmond (1871)]. The girls' brothers egg them on, but suddenly smell wood-smoke and lose interest in their sport. They stretch out by the camp-fire instead, where a dog waits eagerly too, "upright in circle," as supper comes to the boil. Both these scenes, in the orchard and the gipsy camp, evoke youth, energy and natural appetite under the changing heavens. But, having made clear the contrasts in the children's lots, the observer seems wistful at the end, his appreciation of earth's riches tinged with the glow of sunset. In Part 2 of the poem, as originally printed, he had gone on to wish for "equal destinies" for the children, a goal to be achieved through the "service" of the better-placed.14
There is never anything facile about Meredith's glad receptiveness to natural energies. As for his own lot, by now he has had more than his share of "thwackings" [a term he first used at the very beginning of his first novel, The Shaving of Shagpat (1858)] from life, and A Reading of Earth, published not long after his wife's painful illness and death, shows just how much he struggled to come to terms with this latest blow. "Change in Recurrence" gives a particularly moving picture of his lonely life at this time:
I stood at the gate of the cot,
Where my darling, with side-glance demure,
Would spy, on her trim garden-plot,
The busy wild things chase and lure.
I gazed: 'twas the scene of the frame,
With the face, the dear life for me, fled....
He had never shirked the fact and prospect of mortality, and he is not, in the end, overwhelmed either by his bereavement or by his own approaching death. Back in 1862, in "Ode to the Spirit of Earth in Autumn," he had asked nature: "Teach me to feel myself the tree, / And not the withered leaf," and this request seems to have been granted. As late as 1892, in Poems: The Empty Purse, with Odes to the Comic Spirit, to Youth in Memory, and Verses, the "lyre of earth" still plays for him in "Night of Frost in May." And in his very last collection of 1901, A Reading of Life with Other Poems, even as he endures his solitariness, grows deafer still and loses his mobility, he poignantly expresses and communicates to us in "Song in the Songless" his unwearied response to life:
They have no song, the sedges dry,
And still they sing.
It is within my breast they sing,
As I pass by.
Last modified 16 July 2012