Ye who dare!
THESE words, which stand at the beginning of George Meredith’s most characteristic poem, The Woods of Westermain, take on a new significance as we turn inevitably to the contemplation of his productive life, now so recently closed. For they voice in some measure the strong appeal of his individual genius, the challenge to find its uttermost meaning, its final message. The desire comes now with peculiar urgency, an insistent curiosity to question without delay the essential quality of that work, long held remarkable. And perhaps for once it may be needless to await the perspective of time, since Meredith’s was a force which dwelt apart, aloof from the hum of literary gossip, so distant indeed that it has been possible during his lifetime to find in his writings a consistency hard to detect in the work of a contemporary.
The secret of George Meredith’s mystery may perhaps lie in the fact that never before has a writer of such eminence partaken at one time in so full a measure of the critical and the creative faculty. Shakespeare knew how to write a play, Aristotle knew how one ought to be written; we shall rarely find in the study of any period an author preëminent both as critic and creator. That word which is able to make flesh of abstract material comes seldom from the mouth of the scientist, however fine and true be his knowledge, potent his voice, or sturdy his faith. What a monstrosity indeed was that Frankenstein, man created by the hand of man to scare the public of a century ago! Nor could ever a workman, however curious his art, make of any dry bones a Zagloba. This it is then which marks George Meredith as unique among artists: that being first a critic of man, he is in a secondary degree, and yet in a degree extraordinary, a creator of man.
But how did George Meredith, undoubtedly the most analytical of English novelists, avoid the paralysis of art which so readily follows self-consciousness ? Wherein lies the intrinsic power able to maintain its greatness despite the chill of dangerous self-knowledge ? For, try as we will to criticise his work, we find ourselves bound to pay it the compliment of large comparisons. It is impossible to liken Meredith to anything small. Perhaps his style is more obscure than Browning’s, or his plots lack the simplicity of Molère. We sometimes go so far as to say that he fails of the robust vitality of Shakespeare. No mean condemnation, certainly! To what then shall we turn for the unifying secret of Meredith’s art, the saving grace which keeps it forever above the level of the mediocre, and perpetually significant ?
Not indeed in his consistent adherence to his favorite principles of comedy, nor in the fine flashes of his unequal poetic imagination, lies the secret. Rather is his entire work in prose and verse a splendid monument to the honor of sanity in human life. The diverse body of Meredith’s novels is wide of scope, sounding the scale of passions from pure lightness of heart to that depth of tragedy where the “ worst returns to laughter.” The ample output of his verse is various in form and in theme; but we shall search in vain for the record of one maudlin moment in the author, for the whimper of one self-pitying tear, for the bombast of a solitary complaint against an unfeeling universe. Here, if anywhere, is sanity, uncompromising, imperturbable, and abiding. Thence is it that we stand rebuked before the spirit of the man judged unworthy to lie among the memories of Westminster ; that we pause with respect to register a tribute to the marvelous tonic quality of his virile achievement, to the unwavering force of his masculine energy, the healing flame of his ruthless honesty. For the world-weary Empedocles, type of all loose-gripped humanity, there is but the terse epitaph: —
Of Ætna’s fiery scoriæ
In the next vomit shower made he
A more peculiar cinder.
So perish all his despairing sort, unhelped by George Meredith, unless they are wise to find in the pure exposure of their bravado a help sufficient.
As the priest of sanity, then, Meredith has chosen to call himself a comedian, the word now so fully identified with his genius. By lifelong philosophy and practice it has come to have a meaning peculiar to himself alone, though, as is usual with Meredith’s phraseology, the term has gained its special significance simply because it is applied with psychological exactness unusual to the current carelessness of men. For to George Meredith, more than to any other except his favorite Molière, comedy is but the perfect exercise of the intellectual faculty, busied forever with the honesty and shapeliness of humanity, devoted with infinite justice to the untiring revelation of folly self-deceived. Like the comic spirit, then, he aims at unblinking penetration, to set in the light the overblown foibles of man, the secret and unsuspected sins. Like the comic spirit, too, though ever in the temper of high fellowship, he must view his subject from a sufficient distance, if he would perceive it in its right proportions, if he would keep the total freedom from prejudice which may purge him altogether of contempt, “ a sentiment which cannot be entertained by comic intelligence.”
He would see and reproduce with the truth of knowledge. So in The Egoist he boldly claims the name of comedian. So in Beauchamp’s Career he voices his artist aim : “ This day, this life, and even politics, the centre and throbbing heart of it, must be treated of, men and the ideas of men, — these are my theme, and may it be my fortune to keep them at bloodheat and myself calm as a statue of Memnon in prostrate Egypt. He sits there waiting for the sun; I here, and readier to the musical than you think. I can at any rate be impartial, and do but fix your eyes on the sun-light striking him, and you have an idea of the passive receptivity of sun and shade that I hold it good to aim at, if at the same time I can keep my characters at bloodheat.” So ever and anon in the various appeal of his poetry he stops to glorify above all the comic genius, the “ sword of common sense,” hence in very truth the sword of the spirit, without which, in the stern but sun-lightened creed of Meredith, we none of us shall see salvation.
This is comedy indeed, but a religion of comedy, a religion which asks of its votaries the absolute abandon of cowardice and shrinking pretense, demands rather a complete devotion to naked sincerity and to moral health. It is comedy, if he wills it so; but more — rather let us say, the apotheosis of reason, an atmosphere, man-created, where the vapors of morbidness are forever blown away and we breathe the pure air of common sense, an air in which literary energy must have a sturdy growth.
Thus the fine course of Meredith’s masterful fiction is one long tribute to that human intelligence which is his light ; and to bear witness to that light have come into existence the various and complex characters which he created in the chambers of this imagery. All the better is their testimony that in most cases they have failed in the ordeal; for, with one splendid exception, the novels of George Meredith centre about some poor ” tragic-comedian,” who has struck a discord with life, gone somehow trippingly astray in the path of “ unreason and sentimentalism,” “ such being folly’s parentage when it is respectable.” We know them all, — the seekers after delicate affectation, the victims of subtle self-delusion, the blind who boast of sight, the feeble who pretend to strength, a considerable train of lovable and unconscious fools who have sought, all, in some unsuspected manner, after vanity. There is the warm, erratic beauty of Diana, hasty-footed, quick to folly, willful for a bullet’s shot at a swiftly sighted aim. There are the sentimentalists of Sandra Belloni, with whom Meredith almost forgets his boasted patience; the delicately ludicrous Poles, twittering group of triflers, who turn to prettiness their loves, their hopes, and the deepest experiences of life. There are the selfdeluding charlatans, the stupendous fraudulence of Harry Richmond, the inimitable presumptions of Old Mel’s children, and their victim, the delightful Evan, struggling slowly through the network of deceit, in which he is so carefully swathed, to the discovery of honesty’s clear freedom. There are the pitiful selfdeceivers, who fail only through an overweening sense of their own importance. Poor Sir Austin Feverel, in the vain attempt to be Providence to his son, apes too much the aloofness of Providence, learning too late the mercy of Providence.
More gallant is the failure of our favorite Beauchamp, sweet and noble of nature, failing in humility only from the intensity of his conviction, which drives him headlong to bring to pass at once the deed upon the thought. “ His mind was clear enough to put the case that either he beheld a tremendous magnification of things, or else that other people did not attach common importance to them, and he decided that the latter was the fact.” Alas for Beauchamp! But in reverence before his inglorious end, we learn respect, as nowhere else in the works of Meredith, for the modesty of human reason.
Comedy like this, quiet but relentless, calls for a singular and elaborate mastery of plot. Such a conception of human nature is intrinsically dramatic, demanding for itself a continuous and inexorable logic of action, a steadily thickening web of entanglement, all the more inextricable that the victim weaves it for himself. Hence the delightful power of the Meredithian story, rich with a plurality of complications which can be found nowhere else in literature, unified by an amplitude of vision sure to pierce its way to the perfect end, that finality toward which the varied and branching courses of folly must ultimately stream. The most obvious example of the comic method is The Egoist, where the tricksy spirit has rare sport with the little gathering at Patterne Hall. Here the author’s peculiar prey is the hero himself, Sir Willoughby, the very sound of whose irreproachable name conjures up the image of his correct figure and well-moulded face, so perfect that the slightest surprise precipitates it into caricature. Excessively regardful of the dignity of his own being, he balances gracefully on the immovable base of his egotism till the inevitable tumble exposes him to the derision of his abhorrence, “ the world.” As we watch his desperate shifts to escape ridicule, we let no pity mitigate our judgment, but join the sprites of laughter, who circle perpetually about the figure of Sir Willoughby to celebrate a victim so peculiarly to their liking. The Egoist, then, Meredith’s masterpiece in structure, is, with all its bewildering variety, the simplest exponent of his method. A man acts according to the folly of his nature, and nothing more is needed for a plot, nothing but its revelation for a dramatic climax.
Yet, were the novels of George Meredith but studies in failure, sanity would fade under the blight of gloom. We remember then the ” interchange of sun and shadow ” which he held it good to aim at, and cease to wonder that the same genius which could conceive the irony of Beauchamp’s life has given us these creations of full-blooded vigor, potent with sincerity and unerring truth, who come and go freely through the meshes of the woven plot. Theirs is the gift to find out the way of nature in the doubtful paths of folly and of ruin vapor-wrought, for they pass in a health of moral grace able to cure and to revive. We know and love them best of the noble beauties of George Meredith’s making, for they are his immortal women, dearest types of unqualified genuineness. And they seldom fail us. Into the network of her children’s lies walks always at the moment of need the inexorable Mrs. Mel, bent on the rescue of Evan to the rational life. If Sir Austin Feverel could have consulted Mrs. Berry, plump incorporation of the sure maternal instinct, she could have taught him more than all his system, by the mere wisdom of her aphorism, better than any of his, that “ it’s al’ays the plan in a dielemner to pray God and walk forward.” There is the exquisite fidelity of the French René, the unyielding devotion of the true English Janet, the eternal charm and health of Clara Middleton, fairest of the lovely women of George Meredith. And unconscious among the “ fine shades ” and the “ nice feelings ” moves Sandra Belloni in her elemental simplicity, as lonely amid their unreality as the sound of her own glorious voice, rising clear in the silence of the night-empty woods, an eternal appeal to whatsoever within us is genuine and straightforward.
Thus Meredith, driven by the pulsing vitality of his theme, attained scope far wider than his usual aim; for we must insist on the many sides of his genius, refusing to accept his limitation of comedian. Of wit he sufficiently convinced us long ago, for none can forget the occult cleverness of his metaphors, the aptness of his epigram, the brilliant repartee of his delightful conversation, almost too subtle for truth. There is more need to emphasize the largeness of that illumined sympathy which can probe the depth of mortal unreason with such marvelous acuteness, all untouched by the taint of contempt; which can turn from the unsparing dissection of folly to a scene of utmost tenderness and delicacy. The hand which drew the figure of Sir Austin Feverel made, too, the sweet idyllic light which rests upon the loves of Richard and Lucy. None may smile save in gentleness at the meeting by the river, or the poetry of the wood-talk under the moonlight, while boor, scoffer, and sentimentalist listen in the bushes; or at the tale of Richard’s wandering in the wet woods, tremulous over the birth of his child; scenes all of a precious sacredness, just for their infinite fragility. From the same mind came the unspeakable tragedy of Rhoda Fleming, unbearable record of anguish miserably needless, crushed to the silence of despair. Hence came, too, that other tragedy, articulate and undaunted, Viitoria, where the comic faculty, slumbering for once, leaves us sober but alert before the dignity of human passion, the immensity of mortal pain, free to pass beyond the personal problem to the historic significance of events in a world free of space and action, aglow with contest, big with the twisted coil of events and the steady sweep of time.
The very faults of George Meredith are always faults of strength. An unlimited facility for plot-construction must sometimes result in a woof too complicated for the easy understanding of less nimble wits. He who has for a lifetime conceived his characters by a systematic exercise of the comic perception must sometimes fail of reality, reduce his handiwork by its precision to the level of a mechanism, since human nature can nowhere show the consistent regularity of machinery. Sometimes, too, we are rebuffed by an insistence on the critical attitude, the extreme of his theories pushed beyond the human limit. Impartiality he never fails to achieve, but he must inevitably lose now and again something of that warmth which partisanship alone can lend to human ardor. This defect accounts perhaps for the coldness which strikes our hearts at sight of Lord Fleetwood’s meteoric vagaries, Lord Ormont’s wanton tempting of joy, or the shallowness of Victor Radnor’s optimism. Protracted contemplation becomes at times a frosty business. We do not contemplate Tom Jones, — bless him, — or the most living creations of George Meredith. It were a waste of time to analyze Clara Middleton. But it is vanity and unprofitableness to harp on the lapses which must needs be in this work, at once so widereaching, so profound, and so complex.
Complexity indeed is the final impression of Meredith’s fiction. It is always with something of surprise, therefore, that we acknowledge the real simplicity which lies at the heart of his poetry. We can recognize our novelist in the kindly monologues like Juggling Jerry, the tragic force of Modern Love, the tempting of subtle pride in Theodolinda’s high fervor; but the dearest aim is clearly pictorial, to catch a color, to call back an imagined sound, to restore a dead shiver, or thrill, or reverence. With wonder-struck exactness, he searches out the minuteness of nature’s beauty. The grasses are “ bestrid with shadows; ” the swallow “ circles the surface to meet his mirrored winglets ; ” cows “ flap a slow tail kneedeep in the river, — breathless.” Picture writing it is, winged with lordly color, kingly flashing, rich with moving gold, blown in on the light, in a world which dips before the breeze. It is a world of good promise, too, for in his poetry, defective, unequal though it be, Meredith gives full utterance to his buoyant philosophy, his whole-hearted acceptance of life’s secret, from which springs the invincible sanity, the surest gift of his art.
For Meredith’s faith resolves itself at last to the mere sense of nature’s beneficence, the persuasion that to follow the law of earth is the way of blessing. His truest type of man is the giant Antæus, whose strength returns at every touch of the ground. Even the poetry of Meredith’s age breathes a glad delight in the assurance that struggle is progress, change but the way of beauty’s new birth, that the base of all sky-climbing hopes lies in the soil of common things. Turn to the titles of our poet’s collected volumes, and whether it be the Reading of Earth or the Reading of Life, the meaning is always the same — The Joy of Earth. So the mystery of life is, to his thinking, resolved to simple springs, and the Dark Unknown becomes only the Great Unseen.
To such a philosophy, then, Meredith calls us to return as the only sanity. Clear and wholesome it is, and that it comes at last, not of reasoning, but of pure mystic reverence, is its saving grace as poetry. So it glows rich with the wonder of created things, the bliss of warmth, the sure knowledge of growth, the inner kinship of man with whatever lives and grows on the face of the earth. Thus in his allegory of The Woods of Westermain, where he typifies most profoundly his trust in the kindliness of nature to him who loves her fully, we must “ foot at peace with mouse and worm,” “ love the light so well ” as to fear no darkness. Then and then only do we catch the clue of earth ; then and then only do we gain the “ fruitful sight,” and escape the dire revelation of earth’s terrors, which awaits inexorably the consternation of the doubter. A mystic creed! None the worse a creed for that, the creed of a great thinker who could rest content in the sunshine of earth, nor ask
The hidden to unmask,
The distant to draw near.
In this earth-worship, despite his unclassical luxuriance of style, Meredith approaches the spirit of the Greeks. Not for all their divinities has he honor — never indeed for Dionysus, leader in life’s madness, little perhaps for the goat-foot Pan, “ a holiness horn and heel ; ” but he turns with a wonderful comprehension to the light-giver Apollo, maker of songs, “ whose harmonies all are sane,” and with most perfect sympathy to the great mother Demeter, type of the earth’s eternal renewing, who brings the joy of abundance. His masterpiece is the Dayof the Daughter of Hades, story of the maid who escaped from the pale land of the dead for one day of light and beauty and the knowledge of things which grow. If a myth might be gladly conscious of its own beauty, here were a modern myth at last, full-measured with the fatness of earth, the wonder of life’s milky kernel, “ corn, wine, fruit, oil,” a song which “ gives us to eat.” For the shadow-born could sing, as no mortal, of the “ rapture of breath,” “ the grace of the battle for food.” The poem must abide always among the great things of art, fair with the world’s beauty and bloom, fairer in its reverence for the earth’s yield of increase, for the mellow fruitfulness of harvest, for the comfortable sustaining of all who ask of her plenty. Here, more perfectly than in his profounder works, is the same underlying peace, broad with a sure sympathy, faith-lightened, — full assurance that our most unsparing critic is great of heart. His wisdom is but the under-hum of his poetry’s song, and a rare music it is. Here in the midst of our small singers, our sighers after forgotten things, the yearners over beauty’s passage, comes a strong field note, stout for the piping of years, in hard weather and in the season of blossom a glad pæan of the joy of earth.
For a smaller reason than its intrinsic value it is worth while to pause at the poetry of George Meredith, less noteworthy than his fiction, as it must always remain. Here, with the pictorial qualities of verse to help us, we can hope with some show of success to penetrate the secret of his obscurity in style. For we must admit that the very difficulty of his language has forever shut out George Meredith from the little company whom all the world delights to honor. No master of English prose can attain to supreme greatness if he ignore the virtue of clarity, and to be understood Meredith has never taken the slightest pains.
He has loved to play cunningly with his words and thoughts, — shall we say with his readers too ? We are baffled first by his deliberate habit of rapid change, of jumbling for our confusion the many styles which he can assume at ease, a sudden wind from nonsense into tragic simplicity, from the terseness of epigram to excess of volubility. Always, too, we must reckon with his habit of abridged expression, a short-hand of description so direct as to mystify at its very force. The difficulty is intensified a hundredfold by his amazing wealth of analogy quickened with suggestion, till the reader, accustomed to a slacker use of vocabulary, fails to get the power of a phrase quivering with reality, so true its aim, so straight its rush at the target. The fault is simply his great gift used on the wrong side, — that knack for accurate thought and precise speech which, touched with wonder, achieves poetry, or graced with wit, is the extreme condensation of sense.
For Meredith’s style may be likened but to the very tree of knowledge which, according to the old narrative of Cyrano de Bergerac, grows in the garden of the moon. “ Its fruit is covered with a rind which produces ignorance in whomsoever hath tasted thereof; yet this rind preserves underneath its thickness all the spiritual virtues of this learned food.” Just so is it wdth Meredith’s wisdom. The first bite is hard for the tooth, but within is a learned food indeed, tasting of nothing less than the knowdedge of good and evil. It is not altogether pleasant, but wonderfully wholesome; and whosoever pierces the rind becomes quicker to note, keener to feel, and saner to judge of himself and his fellow man.