DESPITE the sorrow of fervid disciples, it is a small matter for wonder that Mr. George Meredith, a Celt, a radical, an assailant of tradition in thought, literature, and life, saw the staid backs of his English public for a score of years or so. It is a small matter for wonder, too, that he received, pell-mell over shoulders and head, many a cudgeling by scandalized critics. On the other hand it seems strange, at first blush, that he was not promptly acclaimed on these shores of the Atlantic, where the Celtic race is strong, and where many a doctrine thought subversive in England has been placidly put into practice. Yet when one remembers the mental sloth of our readers of fiction, and the tumultuous agility of Mr. Meredith’s brain, one’s surprise at his late welcome merges into wonder that a third American edition of his works1 was possible during his nine and seventieth year.
The fact is that Mr. Meredith’s lyric and dramatic genius has caught the hearts of many of us whose heads still combat him. Nor is this an unhealthy symptom. Indeed, we should be almost morbidly pedantic if our wits obediently threaded the labyrinthine entrance to One of our Conquerors, though our hearts beat unstirred and unhalted by the romance of Richard Feverel’s songlike meeting with Lucy, the brookside picker of dewberries, or the tragedy of his parting from that same Lucy, his wife, the
mother of his child, that jeune femme forte et belle destined to death by his folly. But our heart’s joy or pain, and the flash and thrill of our imagination, are alike insufficient. If we are even clearly to reject, if we are not blindly to pass by perhaps the chief gift which, through half a century, Mr. Meredith has wrought for us of the English tongue, we must set our wits in search of the creative spirit which, battling, laughing, passion-torn in scene after scene of his novels, paces the intervening paths of his prose, and stands so vividly revealed in his poems that one may face it eye to eye, and find, not the “cynic” or “performer of antics” imagined by purblind critics, but a high and sane though whimsical friend.
Unyieldingly as Mr. Meredith guards his legitimate privacy, enough facts are public concerning his life and temperament to test and illuminate both his gospel and his works.
His life, the expression of a conquering temperament, began in a characteristic though unconscious defiance. Although of Welsh and Irish blood, he had the temerity to be born in the English county of Hampshire; this too in a year so long past that even innate distinction such as his had to outface social prejudice, unless ushered into the world by an almost pompous pedigree. Lacking this, the boy Meredith might well have grown up a lonely spirit. A ward in chancery, under a guardian with whom he had no warmth of companionship, he was sent to a school in Germany where his sympathies thrust out the roots which were afterward to strike deep into the human and intellectual soil, not only of Germany, but of all the Continent. At this school, too, he laid the foundations of a notable classic erudition, and caught a love of music which still outlasts his early technical proficiency. In his native land again, he came to know, with all the zest of his fifteen years, the rich countryside of England, and England’s farmer folk, like Farmer Blaize, her Lucys perhaps, and very certainly her every beast and bird. In London, a law student of twenty, he heard the rumblings of that revolution of 1848 in which Richard Wagner lent a hand, and from which the contagion of freedom added fuel to the fires kindled by Mazzini in Austria’s Italy. And in London he first saw the crimes and shame of city life, from which he turned to fix his gaze on ideals of chivalric rebellion.
Emerging simultaneously from London and the law, he found himself, at twentyone, ridden with debts not of his own making, but breathing confidently the air of power and poetry, alert with keen companionships, inspired by romance. With Thomas Love Peacock, the satirical novelist who remembered Shelley and could still hear in his ears the cries of the French Revolution, the full-blooded, agile-minded, vastly dreaming young Meredith looked back into the days when Napoleon and the English poets broke in pieces the traditions of the whole rigid eighteenth century; and with the radiantly witty young Mrs. Nicholls, Peacock’s widowed daughter, he knew briefly such companionships of mind and heart as only genius may conquer. Yet the joy of it turned to heaviest suffering. As Mr. Meredith wrote in the sixteenth poem of Modern Love: —
When in the firelight steadily aglow,
Join’d slackly, we beheld the chasm grow
Among the clicking coals. Our library bower
That eve was left to us: and hush’d we sat
As lovers to whom Time is whispering.
From sudden-open’d doors we heard them sing:
The nodding elders mix’d good wine with chat.
Well knew we that Life’s greatest treasure lay
With us, and of it was our talk. “ Ah, yes !
Love dies ! ” I said : I never thought it less.
She yearn’d to me that sentence to unsay.
Then when the fire domed blackening, I found
Her cheek was salt against my kiss, and swift
Up the sharp scale of sobs her breast did lift : —
Now am I haunted by that taste ! that sound!
Surely a tragic poem this; and to prove its inspiration a thing not of dreams, it is enough to say that in 1862, the year of its publication, Mr. Meredith went to live with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Rossetti, and Swinburne, on that Cheyne Walk made famous by Carlyle.
Meantime his temperament had not only been heated in the forge fires of passion, but hardened by the hammerstrokes of his own will. Self-tempered to meet tragedy, he met, at the same time, and conquered, his mundane hardships, winning free of debt by a pen-slavery to journalism only less galling than Evan Harrington’s slavery to Tailordom. By leader-writing for various newspapers; by acting as literary adviser to Messrs. Chapman and Hall; by conducting the Fortnightly Review during the absence of the editor, John Morley, in America; by translating a life of Cavour from the French of Charles de Mazade; by these and other drudgeries, he gained enough stability of independence to save his imagination from compromise with the tastes of a hidebound public. By these drudgeries, too, he founded his gospel of frugal self-support on the boulders and ledges of fact.
Stony and arid as life often was, Mr. Meredith proved himself anything but a gloomy conqueror. Though he knew almost privation, though he faced the failure of passion and afterward suffered the worst agonies of severance by death, he made himself, through the years, a life of congenial labor, of companionship, beauty, and wide interests. After his stay —and it was brief —at Cheyne Walk, after the death of his first wife, and his reabandonment of a city alien to his sylvan spirit, he settled again among the downs and woods of Surrey. Married again, and sharing the life of his two sons and a young daughter, he went down each week to the London of his tasks, the London, too, of his companionship with such friends as Swinburne, James Thomson, Justin MacCarthy, John Morley, and Lady Duff Gordon. At home in the hillside study where Roy Richmond, Nevil Beauchamp, Renée, Chloe, Clara Middleton, and Diana flashed into his brain, this younger contemporary of Thackeray, Dickens, and George Eliot read with fire and judgment the works of poets and novelists, big and little, English, American, German, Italian, French. Here he wove into the very texture of his thinking a thread or two spun by German metaphysicians, and one vivid cord of Darwin’s. And here for the most part, though partly on the Continent, he watched, day by day, year by year, that brave spectacle of human growth, the England of feudal squires transformed by railway and factory into a land of democracy, America war-cleansed, Italy freed, Germany united, France abased and renascent, and his ancestral Ireland slowly filing through the fetters of English arrogance and blundering.
Thus all too roughly one may block out the events and surroundings of Mr. Meredith’s life. But what of the man himself ? What of the mental and emotional soil from which have sprung the spreading branches, the leaves and the flowers of his poetry and prose ? For an answer we might turn to these growths themselves, might listen intently for the very flowing of their sap. But unless some taste of the dragon’s blood of suffering has cleared our brains, the sound of this flowing sap may seem no song at all. And as even suffering is not always efficacious, we may best turn, perhaps, from the prose and poems to the man, — the man, too, as he has appeared, not to Saxons of murky vision, but to a Jew whose Gallic genius made his mind like a piercing eye.
To this Jew, the Marcel Schwob of Stevenson’s letters, Mr. Meredith came out, one day, from the study where he had been lost in work. He was broadshouldered, strongly built, gray, his face “clear, fine, and dominating, his eyes deep blue.” And of these eyes Schwob writes, “during the first moments of his talk with me, they were literally drunk with thought.”
“ Leading me toward his cell,” Schwob goes on, “Mr. Meredith remarked, ‘They say that the brain grows weary. Believe never a word of it! You cannot tire the brain; it is the stomach that we overwork;’ and he added, smiling, ‘mine has been bad from birth.’”
In Mr. Meredith’s “cell” Schwob notes that the writing-table stood under a window opening into a dark pine copse. “The brain must have twilight for its thoughts to gush and flow,” explained Mr. Meredith. And watching a bird, as it flew hither and thither tirelessly across the sky, “Do you see that bird?” said he. “It interests me immeasurably: it flits all day, with never a rest, never a stop. We call it the swift; and every time I see it, I think of its endless motion, just like the flitting of the brain.”
And this “ flitting of the brain ” has become indispensable to Mr. Meredith, as Schwob discovered when, by chance, he spoke of the old tower at Utrecht whose great bell rings only when the king has died.
“Even then I should wish it silent,” Mr. Meredith exclaimed. “I loathe the bells, with their insistent rhythm! At Bruges, I remember, they kept me from thinking in the night. Oh, I loathe them! ”
Now this restless, this haunting intellectuality so permeates Mr. Meredith that we may almost say it has dyed the lenses of his eyes. Like a man whose smoked glasses color the whole world, Mr. Meredith sees nothing unstained with the hue of thought. In varying degrees, moreover, this has been true of him from youth. Even in the “extinct” first poems a faint trace of it appears, and in his first prose work, that gorgeous and fantastic arabesque, The Shaving of Shagpat, it crops out in a continual series of ethical epigrams. Yet quite as characteristic as his tireless intellectuality is a second trait, that vividness of imagination, amounting almost to hallucination, àpropos of which Mr. Meredith said to Schwob, “When Harry Richmond’s father first visited me, — when I first heard the pompous phraseology of that son of a royal duke and a seventeenyear-old actress, — I perfectly roared with laughter.” Nor was it a thin and abstract idea that made him thus “perfectly roar:” it was Roy Richmond practically in the flesh, Roy Richmond visible and audible, in a word, a living vision, “at whose dictation,” to quote Marcel Schwob again, Mr. Meredith wrote so much of the dialogue of The Adventures of Harry Richmond.
A common trait, one might call this vividness of imagination, a trait, one might add, discoverable in every novelist of more than mechanical powers. Or, with Marcel Schwob, one might regard it as a result of supernormal mental activity. In Mr. Meredith, however, it lies deeper than that keenness of realization which made Thackeray, for instance, sob at the thought of Colonel Newcome dying. And in Mr. Meredith it is anything but a result of mental overstrain. On the contrary, the ceaseless “flitting” of Mr. Meredith’s brain has strengthened it to master his senses, — those senses whose wakeful impressions are the very stuff and substance of his imagination.
Without many a characteristic other than restless intellectuality and vividness of imagination Mr. Meredith, of course, could not be human. Without spontaneity, almost lawlessness, he would be at least half automaton. Without insight into character bordering on the miraculous, he would be, not one of the Welsh, — if we may trust his account of them,— but a Saxon or a Teuton. Without love of nature, truth and laughter, without hatred of equivocation, sentimentalism, and lies, he might perhaps be his own cousin, never himself. With the “godlike sort of chaffing,” and the “rolling organ tones of laughter,” described by his friends, this sylvan athlete, however, is very much himself, — himself, too, in a trace of the feminine, not the effeminate, which makes his temperament almost too complex for analysis save in the light of those phrases of his, “I loathe the bells,” and “I perfectly roared with laughter.” These, with his corresponding experience of the “flitting” brain and the vision of Roy Richmond, reveal the two main streams of tendency which after all have contributed most to the walled torrent of his temperament.
Take first the tendency which gives him the material of his visions, the tendency which he has implied in a thousand references to sensation and to the senses. Something of its dominance and of its nature may be seen in both the style and the substance of all his early prose, for example, in this vision of a water spirit seen by the youth Farina: —
“No fairer figure of woman had Farina seen. Her visage had the lustrous white of moonlight, and all her shape undulated in a dress of flashing silver white, wonderful to see. The Lady of the Water smiled on him, and ran over with ripples and dimples of liquid beauty. . . . She curved her fingers, and beckoned him on. . . . The youth was a shadow in her silver track. Her own shadow was but the fainter effluence of her form, and moved pale as she passed like a harmless wave over the closed crocuses; but the crocuses shivered and swelled their throats of streaked purple and argent as at delicious rare sips of a precious wine. Breath of violet and ladysmock and valley-lily, mingled and fluttered, at whiles faint, and again fresh about her.” And Farina “could see the heart in her translucent, hanging like a cold and dingy ruby.”
In this passage every phrase is tuned to the pleasure of the listening ear, filling it with the lilt of rhythm, with liquid alliteration, and with assonance. Nor is this all. “Breath of violet and ladysmock and valley-lily, at whiles faint and again fresh—” with these echoing vowels, and these v’s and artfully flowing l’s and f’s, the “fluttering” perfumes of the flowers mingle in the imagination. When the crocuses alliteratively “shiver and swell their throats as at delicious rare sips of wine,” the shivers and the wine stir the senses of touch and taste. The rippling and the undulation of the Water Lady wake the eye to joy in motion. The crocuses delight it with their purple and argent. Then a vision; and the gaze is fixed on the water spirit’s heart hanging, in her body, “like a cold and dingy ruby.”
Now while the dominance of the senses in this passage suggests that the young Mr. Meredith who wrote it was in what he terms a “sensational” state, the final vision reveals something of its nature. And this the more significantly since it stands by no means alone. In The Shaving of Shagpat, for instance, a lily rooted in a palpitating human heart is but one of a series of visions so multitudinous and so strange that one critic, at least, has thought them akin to insanity. In fact, they are outgrowths of a Celtic imagination destined to dream great dreams, dreams of ocean, alp, and sunrise, of superhumanly typical men, and of women as glorious as they are magically real. Yet, vivid as they are to the eye, these first fruits of an imagination active at last in creations of the highest sanity, show the senses rebelling against the mind in a certain carelessness both of adverse fact and of natural law; and this carelessness, often harmless or even admirable in itself, is sharply characteristic of what Mr. Meredith terms the “sensational” state.
As depicted, then, by Mr. Meredith, the sensational state is that in which the demands and impressions of the youthful or undisciplined senses are but loosely interlinked with the outer world, and are interfused scarcely at all with the higher interests of the mind and will. It is the state in which Mr. Meredith himself writes that “intricate visions of tripping by means of gold wires danced before ” the eyes of — a novelist ? — no ! of a blankly unimaginative countryman dwelling on the temptation to steal! And to cite a contrasting instance, it is the state in which Renée, in Beauchamp’s Career, with anything but true consent to her lover’s overbearing entreaty, still equivocally gives him her hand; for, as Mr. Meredith perfectly puts it, “in the heat of her conflict of feelings the deliciousness of yielding to him curled round and enclosed her as in a cool humming seashell.”
In variety, indeed, and in extremes of falsity and folly, the “ sensational,” or, to put it less technically, the impressionistic state eludes all estimate. Yet its tendency may be summarized. Not only is it fantastic and misleading, not only does it substitute strangeness for beauty, impression for fact, and whim for the passionate will; it tends to make the brain, that rightful master of the senses, subject through impulse to the tyranny of a formlessness primitively theirs, — a formlessness, too, which, if unresisted, would disintegrate the mind, replacing ideas by a train of images, structure by mere flow, and the faceted crystals of thought by a mist of colored consciousness.
To connect with Mr. Meredith the idea of mind thus relapsing into sensation would, of course, be preposterous. Reverse the idea, however, and its application, even to this intellectual Titan, becomes sober enough. In the upbuilding of intellect a sensational stage is normal; and of Mr. Meredith’s surmounting it we have the evidence concrete in his works. In them is incarnate that “flitting,” or rather that soaring, of the eagle brain which sees less to enjoy than to swoop upon and conquer. From the first Mr. Meredith’s novels and romances flash with insight into wile after wile, deceit after deceit of the senses; from the first they are vital with a power opposed in its essence to the sensational or impressionistic state. The constant epigrams which encrust the Shaving of Skagpat were polished not by the senses, but by the brain; and the brain it is — and not the senses — which founded among the visions of this Arabian fantasy a realm of austere courage, Aklis, that strange and dusky land where haste and lingering are alike forbidden, and where “fear is ruin and hesitation a destroyer.” Again, while Harry Richmond, that splendid river of youth, flows with a waywardness akin to the sensational state, the gleaming comedy of Evan Harrington is a mental tour de force, a structure whose balanced thrusts and intricate design are comparable, in their complex symmetry, to the vaults and flying-buttresses, the glass and the shafts and pillars of a Gothic hall. Nor are plot-structure and epigram in Mr. Meredith’s works their only revelations of brain. Continual miracles of brief description, phrases of a dozen words that create for the imagination a landscape, a mood, or a character, reveal its compressing, its almost astringent power; trackings of thought and feeling to their most labyrinthine lairs reveal its subtle power of explaining and unfolding; finally, a stoic’s code of ethics and a religion as individual as it is unorthodox reveal the brain’s constructive poweractive in building the temple of man’s relation to his fellow man, to nature, and to God.
Rebel and reformer though Mr. Meredith is, he thrusts few facts into misfit theories. His thought has authority not through dogma, but through experience. The experience, moreover, which at first is almost the substance of his thought is obviously love of nature. Poets are betrayed by their imagery ; and Mr. Meredith, especially in his earliest novels, is revealed by his every simile as a cleareyed lover of sky and stream, forest and beast and bird. Haunted by memories definite as a naturalist’s and colored as a painter’s, he writes of men and women and of their converse inevitably in terms like these: —
“' Think, sir, —think!’ cried Andrew, cocking his head like an indignant bird; ” and, “Both the brothers sniffed like dogs that have put their noses to a hot coal; ” or again, “Her face was like the after sunset across a rose-garden, with the wings of an eagle outspread on the light;” or this: “She waited as some grey lake lies, full and smooth, awaiting the star below the twilight.” And as if the implication of such similes could by some chance be escaped, Mr. Meredith emphasizes his intimacy with nature by the contrast of his rare illustrations from the works of man. Unlike Mr. James, for instance, who almost fondles the metaphoric porticoes and mansions which make a city of his works, Mr. Meredith ignores domestic architecture in the similes of his first four and thirty years of writing; then, conceiving a man whose rigidity shall be the Irish Diana’s torment, he compares Mr. Warwick’s face to the façade of a city house. But with his most tender and free imaginings he mingles spontaneous visions of nature; and nature, in storm and darkness, nature at dawn and in sunlight, is one with his strongest insight into the depths of the human heart.
‘“A father?’” It is the guilt-stained Richard Feverel, first hearing, in Germany, that Lucy, his wife, has borne him a son.
“ ‘A father ?’ Richard fixed his eyes as if he were trying to make out the lineaments of his child.
“Telling Austin he would be back in a few minutes, he sallied into the air, and walked on and on. ‘A father!’ he kept repeating to himself; ‘a child!’ and though he knew it not, he was striking the keynotes of Nature. But he did know of a singular harmony that suddenly burst over his whole being.”
In anguish, again, he walked, hour after long night-hour, through a stormdrenched forest. “Suddenly he stopped short, lifting a curious nostril. He fancied he smelt meadow-sweet. . . . He went on slowly, thinking indistinctly. After two or three steps he stooped and stretched out his hand to feel for the flower, having, he knew not why, a strong wish to verify its growth there. Groping about, his hand encountered something warm that started at his touch, and he, with the instinct we have, seized it, and lifted it to look at it. The creature was very small, evidently quite young. Richard’s eyes, now accustomed to the darkness, were able to discern it for what it was, a tiny leveret. . . . He put the little thing on one hand in his breast, and stepped out rapidly as before.
“The rain was now steady; from every tree a fountain poured. So cool and easy had his mind become that he was speculating on what kind of shelter the birds could find, and how the butterflies and moths saved their coloured wings from washing. Folded close they might hang under a leaf, he thought. Lovingly he looked into the dripping darkness of the coverts on each side, as one of their children. Then he was musing on a strange sensation he experienced. It ran up one arm with an indescribable thrill, but communicated nothing to his heart. It was purely physical, ceased for a time, and recommenced, till he had it all through his blood, wonderfully thrilling. He grew aware that the little thing he carried in his breast was licking his hand there. The small rough tongue going over and over the palm of his hand produced this strange sensation he felt. . . . What did it say to him ? Human tongue could not have said so much just then.
“A pale grey light on the skirts of the flying tempest displayed the dawn. Richard was walking hurriedly. The green drenched weeds lay all about in his path, bent thick, and the forest drooped glimmeringly. Impelled as a man who feels a revelation mounting obscurely to his brain, Richard was passing one of those little forest-chapels, hung with votive wreaths, where the peasant halts to kneel and pray. Cold, still, in the twilight it stood, rain-drops pattering round it. He looked within, and saw the Virgin holding her Child. He moved by. But not many steps had he gone ere his strength went out of him, and he shuddered. What was it ? He asked not. He was in other hands. Vivid as lightning the Spirit of Life illumined him. He felt in his heart the cry of his child, his darling’s touch. With shut eyes he saw them both. They drew him from the depths; they led him a blind and tottering man. And as they led him he had a sense of purification so sweet he shuddered again and again.
“When he looked out from his trance on the breathing world, the small birds hopped and chirped; warm fresh sunlight was over all the hills. He was on the edge of the forest, entering a plain clothed with ripe corn under a spacious morning sky.”
Now the loving knowledge of nature with which Mr. Meredith thus transfuses the deepest of human emotions enters also into his religious thought; and this by the aid of Darwin. For widely as poet and man of science are sundered, Mr. Meredith has eaten of the fruit of the tree which Darwin planted; and though it has given him no direct knowledge of good and evil, it has clarified and confirmed his insight into the kinship between Nature and Man, So it happens that he faces Nature, not as a foundling meets his unknown mother, yearning toward her with a wistful yet ignorant instinct, but as a son knowing that he was born out of her womb, blood of her blood, flesh of her flesh.
However obscure the transition from inert to self-moving, from dead to living matter, no Darwinian doubts the sonship of this last; and Mr. Meredith, with a candor deluding to materialists, accepts the Darwinian dictum. From carbon to protoplasm, from protoplasm to ape and to man, the genealogical tree rises tall and strangely branching; yet for Mr. Meredith, as for Darwin, man, with his thoughts and achievements, his language, his society, his religion, is just as truly as the rose an outgrowth of the earth. Thus Earth, for Mr. Meredith, is not only his mother, but the All Mother whose spirit lives within us, animating our very rebellions against her. As he puts it, in his poem on Earth and Man,—
Imploring storms, her essence is the spur.
His cry to heaven is a cry to her
He would evade.
From the point of view of materialism, this conception of earth as our Mother would of course be the flimsiest metaphor. To Mr. Meredith, however, the words Mother Earth stand for a real relationship. Poet, to some degree Hellenic poet that he is, flower and stream and tree are peopled with presences, airy to be sure, yet vital enough to imply the presence of life even in the rocks over and between which the stream flows and breaks, even in the sod from which spring the trees and perfumed flowers. Thus life, for Mr. Meredith, comes to permeate every cranny of earth; and as he learns Earth’s ways and her will, he finds in her man’s “one visible friend.”
Mother Earth is, for him, our friend, our initiator into life, our one authentic priestess pointing to God. All this she is, but in no visionary and no pampering sense. For the earth is no soft dream; and the individuality of our “one visible friend ” lies largely in this, that she is sharply seen. Nourishing, bounteous, joygiving though she is, Mr. Meredith blinks neither the grossness nor the cruelty of Earth; and if in these he finds needful goads to action, it is in Earth’s stern and still, cold beauties that he finds her hymns to the Master. For Mother Earth in frost and stillness is not alone. Of an autumn night she is visibly one among a host of stars, all moving in concord. And when known thus, in celestial company, the Mother of Man is more than mother; she is our priestess of Beneficence.
With all his debt to Darwin, it is only partially, however, through reason that Mr. Meredith learns the Beneficence of the Master. Seeing “the rose in mould unfold” and the soul “through blood and tears,” he dreams, to be sure, of a flower of good blossoming out of each and every evil. Remembering that discord may be discord when standing alone, yet harmonious as part of a musical whole, he gropes toward mystic regions where all our rebellions shall be reconciled, “all our unsolved solved.” But his dream, as he himself says, is “the thought in the ghost,” the aim “beyond reason” of “mind seeking Mind.” Confronted, like Browning, by the unsolved paradox of love and inexorable law standing side by side in the actual world, he is driven — thinker though he is — to faith in love. Unlike Browning, however, this Hellenic modern looks not first to Heaven, but to Earth. For love, being “bred of Earth,” “our blood-warm mother,” must dwell in her who gave it; and not only in her, the bearer of harvests, the companion of stars, but in those “lustrous people of the night” who “sow the sky with their fiery sails.” Alight with this thought, Mr. Meredith’s spirit leaps to meet, in the loving universe, “the binder of his sheaves, the sane, the right,” whose banner of goodness, Earth proclaims, is
And life in them doubled on Life,
As flame upon flame, to behold,
High over Time-tumbled sea,
The bliss of his headship of strife,
Him through handmaiden me.2
But to survive in strength, Mr. Meredith’s belief had to pass through that agony dealt by Death, in which, as he says, “arrows we breathe, not air.” To his impressions, his racked sensations. Earth seemed but
Soulless, heading a hunt
Aimless except for the meal.
And false to his deeper insight as this conception was, he found it true that
Neither song nor smile in ruth,
Nor promise of things to reveal,
Has she, nor a word she saith. . . .
For the road to her soul is the Heal:
The root of the growth of man.
But when at last he submitted himself, submitted himself wholly to this “relentless quencher of lies,” his faith rose again. As he himself puts it, —
As a tree when the leaf is shed
To winds in the seasons that wane :
And when from my soul I said,
May the worm be trampled: smite,
Sacred reality ! . . .
then, out of the night, death gleamed before him in a lightning flash of joy, the stern joy of God seen at the heart of things. For God, as Mr. Meredith saw, is not extra-mundane, but immanent; and through his immanence all reality, even that of death, is sacred. For though the dawn seen through death has, for Mr. Meredith, no light of personal immortality, it is golden with the fire of the Eternal’s life.
“May the worm be trampled.” Revolted by the “ravenous” egotists who demand life in and for their own persons forever, he asks of death only death, and he asks it from his soul. For, in contrast with those peevish or flippant minds who fancy that Truth, or some part of it, may be malignant, he believes that all truth is of God. In contrast, too, with the quietists, whose worship of reality is a laying down of arms, he keeps his full zest for living. To him nothing is finished, nothing immutable. Even the past, the glad and lamentable past, must be recreated by the intellect; and the future is a marble mass from which his strokes, like ours, must hew the emerging countenance of Truth.
In the Temple to Reality built by Mr. Meredith, his cult is the service of truth. Only the unreal is to him a profanation; but that is a blasphemy. So it comes that his very positive doctrine of living has the negative side implied in his analysis of the sensational state, a negative side bitingly emphasized in his ironies on sentimentalism. For sentimentalism, to Mr. Meredith, is a fresh symptom of that state in which the demands and impressions of the youthful or undisciplined senses are but loosely interlinked with the outer world. Because such is the plight of his senses, the sentimentalist, as Mr. Meredith shows, covers the face of reality with a mask of dreams; and when Truth shatters it, rebels in vain against that divine iconoclast. In Sandra Belloni, for instance, a sentimental baronet knows of the woman he loves only his own waxen ideal; and she, accepting the mask, wearing it, and acting the appropriate part, drives him at last into the morbidness of suicide. Again, in the same novel, though Sandra’s love gives the young and sentimental Wilfred Pole “a certain awed sense of being in the presence of an absolute fact,” a trace of tobacco smoke in her hair is enough to make him exclaim, “in a dim reminiscence of poetical readings, ‘Ambrosial locks, indeed!’” A whiff of sensation in the nostrils has driven him into a haze of succoring poetry; and, faithless to fact as the baronet, he is damned, not, to be sure, so tragically, but with a grotesqueness quite as complete.
Now the folly of these instances is an intaglio of Mr. Meredith’s devotion to Truth: its depths are his heights, its hollows his roundness. Neither led by the whim of his nostrils nor enslaved by blind ideals, he aims at loyalty to facts in their wholeness, their vitality, their interrelation. While admitting, for example, the civilizing possibilities of “nice shades and fine feelings,” he cherishes these sentimentalist totems chiefly as objects of wholesome laughter. Their remoteness from the facts of passion is to him thoroughly comic; for we sons and daughters of earth, if alive and true to our nature, are creatures less of supersensitive ideals and sensations than of the fiery blood. Yet this, as he sees, is only half of the truth. If we are to fulfill our complex nature, the eagle brain soaring up out of instinct and sensation must subdue our blood to its uses. Nor may its talons then relax. In our whole lives no significant thing may escape them. If the hero of Modern Love, for instance, relinquish his comprehending memory of even a sinful past, he does so at tragic cost; for “so,” he says, “so lessen I the stature of my soul.” But If, with unshrinking eye, he visit his own shame, he may stand for the future erect and free. His whole nature, “at interflow with past and present,” gains a new harmony, “that oneness of feeling” which, as Mr. Meredith says in a flash of spiritual insight, is actually “the truthful impulse.”
But though the round and self-comprehended or “orbic” nature is possessed of the truthful impulse, that full loyalty to fact of which Mr. Meredith is a prophet can be attained only through active experience. Even a fiery faith in the sacredness of reality is unavailing if it light up only a world of masks and dreams; and veiled in dreams, falsified by masks, this world of men and women must largely remain if we fall short of passionate and strenuous living. “From sloth and sluggishness, from mere suppression, from pampering and ease, strong Spirit of Life, deliver us!” When such an invocation is part of the Church of England’s Litany, we may imagine Mr Meredith almost orthodox. Meantime he stands apart, sounding a warning and a summons. Since the blood of our passionate instincts forces the brain toward experience of fact, he warns a timorous world, —
Ere reason ripen for the vacant place.
And since Ease so often sleeps within castle walls of riches, this author of Evan Harrington and of The Empty Parse blows, at the gates, a trumpet call of summons. His warning against mere suppression is balanced, however, by a scornful handling, in Richard Feverel, of that wild-oats theory so comfortable to our grandfathers; and his trumpet-call at the gates of ease rises clear and high above the snarl and snap of under dogs. For his summons and his warning are alike in their motive, the furtherance for every man of contact with Circumstance, the teacher of that alchemy by which our brains transmute sensation and impression into knowledge of fact.
Yet Mr. Meredith himself almost outvies Circumstance as an initiator into truth. Despite such criminal libels as Diana’s alleged betrayal of her friend’s state secret and Evan Harrington’s alleged assumption of his sister’s — that delectable Countess de Saldar’s — guilt, Mr. Meredith depicts the positive and often intricate facts of life with an insight and vividness which stimulate the mind to seize on fresh truth for itself; and since many a man’s faith in the sacredness of reality is too lax to make him look facts in the face, Mr. Meredith, the prophet, dramatizes blindness and falsity in action. Radical that he is, he delights in creating such a type of distorted vision as that Captain Baskalett, in Beauchamp’s Career, who crams both his own and his uncle’s conception of the growing Nevil Beauchamp into the mould of a few fixed and deforming epithets. Again in this, perhaps the most individual of his novels, Mr. Meredith illustrates the corroding wastefulness of deceit in the story of Sir Romfrey’s benevolent hoodwinking of Rosamund, a woman whom the first tug of desperate truth lifts out of weakness into vital decision. And not content with illustration, he turns to positive maxims. Since vagueness is the occasion of much half truth, he bids us condense our vaporous aims and desires into the ice of a clear phrase. And as if thus to crystallize his own far from vaporous motives, he utters through the mouth of a hero, that “orbic ” Welshman, Merthyr Powys, a saying quoted by Sandra Belloni: “I am not to follow any impulse that is not the impulse of all my nature — myself altogether,” a saying which, as one considers it, is seen to destroy much seeming integrity, but to protect and preserve truth in action.
As for Mr. Meredith’s own battle, following the impulse of all his nature he has put himself altogether into the work of clarifying the false relations between man and woman. Anything but the dilettante that he has been called, he closed his first prose work with a veiled selfdedication to the feminine problem; and in no one of his subsequent novels has he failed to attack it. The masculine problem, on the other hand, he saw clearly as such only at the time when personal tragedy forced him to face it. Then, however, he grappled with it as no dilettante could. With telling if disproportionate vigor he dragged the Turk and the hawk in man out of the darkness of convention : in the persons of Sir Lukin, Lord Ormont, Lord Fleetwood, and a score of others, he incarnated the tyranny of the predatory male, — this too with ever fresh impulses of creation, though The Egoist, which Marcel Schwob has called un livre unique au monde, might alone have been expected to drain his mind dry of all ideas on the frailty of man.
For intoThe Egoist Mr. Meredith concentrated the whole masculine problem, writing of that quintessential type, Sir Willoughby, with the visionary quality of his youthful work transposed and strangely heightened to the key of intellect. Of a mortal, indeed, Mr. Meredith’s thoughts concerning Sir Willoughby would be wildly impossible. Of this immortal, however, they are so much more than possible that he can say with literal truth that, reading deeply in Lætitia’s eyes, Sir Willoughby “found the man he sought there, squeezed him passionately, and let her go.” No wonder that the touchstone of love applied to this “letter I” in flesh and blood found him requiring to be dealt with by Clara, his betrothed, not as a man but an “original savage.” “To keep him in awe and hold him enchained . . . she must be cloistral.” But, as Mr. Meredith goes on, “the capaciously strong in soul among women will ultimately detect an infinite grossness in the demand for purity infinite, spotless bloom. Earlier or later they will see they have been victims of the singular Egoist, have worn a mask of ignorance to be named innocent.” For “the devouring male Egoist prefers them as inanimate, overwrought, pure-metal precious vessels . . . for him to walk away with hugging . . . and forget that he stole them.” Such early Victorian maidens, however, as the Egoist loves, retiring “in vapours, downcast, as by convention,” Mr. Meredith wills to make what in health girls are. And his means to this end is the truth. Where angels fear to whisper, he speaks out. Enfant terrible, one is tempted to say, géant terrible, one must say, he based his second story, Farina, on the contrast between a shamefaced old maid and a maiden with blood in her veins; in Evan Harrington he set over against a girl morbidly in love the truth and high spirit of Rose Jocelyn; and through novel after novel he led such as Rose, till, in Clara Middleton’s divinely candid love for Vernon Whitford, and in Diana Warwick’s mating with Red worth, he gave to men and women his ideals.
Need one add that his faith in the sacredness of reality keeps these ideals undimmed, or that his solution of the pro blem of man and of woman still lies in clear knowledge of each by the other, in companionship, and in the mutual respect of spiritual equals ?
While no analysis can corrode Mr. Meredith’s works, one is glad, after any attempt at defining his aims and temperament, to turn at last to the splendor of his creative achievement. That splendor has been called diamond-like. It is more like the splendor of an opal aflame in the matrix. The rough darkness of this, however, needs not half the attention given it by many a critic. Why so firmly face the obvious ? If candor compels a glance at Mr. Meredith’s imperfections, a defect more essential may easily be found.
Despite the skill in plot-construction which Mr. Meredith so early acquired, the originally unconstructive, the flitting impulse of his brain has left his work somewhat defective for the spirit. Though sharing the vitality of tree and stream, alps and the tidal ocean, the dissonances of mood and drama in his songs and his novels cannot melt into the clearest of high harmonies; for his religion, heroic in faith and in unfaith though it is, fails in completeness of thought. Nor is this surprising. The days of Fra Angelico, Thomas Aquinas, and Dante are dead: no longer can imagined hierarchies of soul, whether naïve, poetic, or rigidly logical, solve for us the bitter tragedies of fact. By Darwin the old order has fallen; and Mr. Meredith, with that winged mind of his flitting through a century of religious chaos, has seen only in flashes, sung only in dim interludes, our modern religious rebirth. Less blind and dumb than his fellows, Mr. Meredith, however, has seen and sung at least something of that religion of matter and spirit commingled, of earth permeated with divinity, which tends to supplant, with its closer harmonies, that chant of warring spirit and matter which still echoes down to us from the Middle Ages. Insufficient, restless, fragmentary though his religious thought may be, Mr. Meredith alone among English novelists has known “the divinity of what the world deems gross material substance,” and has vitalized with poetic fire the Darwinian insight into growth.
Only the intellectual prig will deny that this achievement atones for a religious incompleteness which, after all, is more the last century’s than Mr. Meredith’s own; and even the intellectual prig must admit that the religious lack can but seldom be remembered in the presence of Mr. Meredith’s pictures of human life. Here again, however, Mr. Meredith is temperamentally so hampered that he watches individuals with a long, clear gaze, but sees the horizon only in flashes. With that winged mind flitting tirelessly hither and yon,yet scarcely soaring into the heights of time, he has therefore missed that vision of England growing out of a belated feudalism into democracy, which he, more than Thackeray, George Eliot, or even Dickens, might have fixed for our imaginations.
Yet so vivid are Mr. Meredith’s separate suggestions that, like the spots of color in an impressionist painting, they tend to fuse in a single effect; and so significant of a nation’s change are The Tale of Chloe, Rhoda Fleming, Beauchamp’s Career, and One of Our Conquerors, that whoever dreams of that eighteenth century cameo, that black rural tragedy, that modern saga of radicalism, and that study of business optimism aimed for bedlam, will see their colors interfuse in a single historic picture throbbing with light.
Now just as Mr. Meredith, with that winged mind of his, flits hither and yon through history, he flies from point to point in space, flies from England fo Germany, to the Alps, France, Italy; and in each country he watches less that picturesqueness dear to aesthetes than racial traits incarnate in women and men. He sees and depicts, for example in Vittoria, no Browningesque Italy of art and passion, but Mazzini’s Italy, the Italy of proud and high devotion to its ideals. In Harry Richmond he sketches, not the trippers’ Germany of legends and Rhenish wine, but the Germany whose cult of fact and thought has gained for the Empire that economic power which it now so formidably wields. And in Beauchamp’s Career, as in the splendid ode to defeated France, he paints no region of conventional intrigues, but a France of wit and passion, of fire and intelligence, reaching out of their warfare toward high harmony. Mr. Meredith, moreover, paints Germany, Italy, and France in no abstract terms. With a sympathy for Continental traits born of his own love of fact and thought, his own idealism, his own passion and intelligence, he understands the Continentals; and seeing into their hearts and brains he creates foreign characters — Ottilia, Sandra, Renée, and many more — whose vividness makes their nations, by reflected light, more living in his stories than in those of any other great Island novelist.
Broadly as Mr. Meredith scans the Continent, he takes of the British Isles a somewhat narrow view. Ignoring the Scotch, and praising the Welsh more appealingly than he draws them, he creates but few Irishmen. Ireland’s whole spirit of bravery and sensitiveness he breathes, however, into his Diana of the Crossways, a being even more glowingly changeful than his first Irishwoman, Mrs. Gump, was mechanically a type. And as for the English, he creates them in such vital and plenteous variety that, if the people are the nation, Mr. Meredith’s English are all England in little.
They are England, however, seen somewhat aslant; for Mr. Meredith, although a democrat by sincerest conviction, is by temperament an aristocrat. When he tries to make us comprehend a cockney, he succeeds only in showing us a cockney’s brain. In reading One of our Conquerors, accordingly, we see so little of Skepsey’s soul that we are inclined to indict Mr. Meredith for human lèse majesté. And in his treatment of rustics, though he plays few tricks of psychological legerdemain, we find him anything but an English Tolstoi. Behind Master Gammon’s head he suggests no halo of the divine; with a friendly aristocrat’s brush he paints Master Gammon’s face, as it is, quite lizard-like. And his other rustics, excepting Dahlia and Rhoda Fleming, her country lover, and Farmer Fleming, he presents to us much as an animal-lover exhibits his polo pony, race horse, and Airedale terrier.
Yet where Mr. Meredith feels himself comparatively among equals in brain or station, he shares with us his close relationship to astoundingly vital and varied characters. He lets us see in his own visions those creations of his almost hallucinatory imagination, the “Great Mel,” Roy Richmond, Sir Willoughby. Through his own analyses he makes us know a Cecilia Hacklett in her subtlest moments, a Victor Radnor at his strongest. Through an interest in the human growth indicated by Harry Richmond’s changing conception of his own father, or by Nevil Beauchamp’s inability, after years of political effort, to seize the passionate instant longed for in his youth, he shows us the living essence of these endearingly faulty heroes. And in the give and take of everyday life, by such notation of characteristic action as in Adrian Harley’s stretching out a hand for “ any book” on the table beside him, or by such soul-betraying words as Clara’s whisper, “There is one . . . compared with him I feel my insignificance,”— by such simple miracles Mr. Meredith makes us intimate, not merely with Clara Middleton and with Adrian Harley, but with a score of young gentlemen “of the very large class who are simply the engines of their appetites, and to the philosophic eye still run wild in the woods.” Intimate, too, he makes us with his dominating old men, Squire Beltham, that “twelfth-century baron” Sir Romfrey, Lord Ormond, and at last with his older women, the manly, not mannish, Lady Caroline, and that Lady Camper who is so incomparably possessed of Meredithian insight and Meredithian wit.
In thus making vivid to us the men and women of his imagination, Mr. Meredith has given us more than pictures of Continental and of English life: he has shared with us, one must in decency remember, a spirit disciplined to face the sacredness of reality. His methods we may dispute; his excess of analysis we may find an insult to the reader’s insight and a veil over his characters’ will; his sense of proportion, his arrangement of material, we may sometimes find lacking in that litheness of form which he himself admires in French thought; his style, at its best imaginative, rhythmic, and terse in its torrential flow, we may consign, at its worst, to that “spirit of sunny malice” which, when men wax overblown, pretentious, or pedantic, “will look humanely malign and cast an oblique light on them followed by volleys of silvery laughter.” Yet despite the Comic Spirit’s mockery, Mr. Meredith’s thought is so hot with life, his prose so poignant with poetry, that even for his faults men may thank him in the coming days, when not only The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, Beauchamp’s Career, Diana of the Crossways, and The Egoist, but the man’s own spirit of laughter and stoicism, of fire and brave intelligence, shall be loved by every adventurer in the magic land of English letters.
- The Pocket Edit ion of the Works of George Meredith. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1906. The same publishers have also issued during the year Mr. George Macaulay Trevelyan’s sagacious volume, The Poetry and Philosophy of George Meredith, and The Meredith Pocket Book, edited by G. M. T.↩
- This quotation, like the quotations in the succeeding paragraph, is from the poem, “ A Faith on Trial.”↩