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are but the raw food of experience, and literature is
concerned only with experience itself. A child of
the mystical East, a master of that Semitic thought
which has produced the greatest religions. Burton
was astoundingly matter-of-fact. There was no
touch of the visionary in him — the curious analogies
everywhere discoyerable in things disparate, the
chemical reactions of passion, the astounding agree-
ment between mathematical formul£e and the laws
of love and hatred, the myriad provoking hints, like
eyes glinting through a veil, that tempt the poet to
dreaming, the artist to belief, were all lost on Bur-
ton. He was a master of this life and cared nothing
for any other; his disbelief was characteristically
bold and emphatic. He wrote :


The shivered clock again shall strike^ the broken reed shall

pipe again.
But we, we die, and Death is one, the doom of Brutes, the

doom of Men.

But, with all his limitations and all his shortcomings,
Burton's place was an Eastern throne and not the
ignoble routine of a petty Consular office.

At length the good hour came; he died.

As he had lived alone:
He was not missed from the desert wide.

Perhaps he was found at the Throne.


THE publication of Meredith's letters has been, a
literary event: they appear to have surprised
the general public and touched it to unwonted regret.
In a peculiar way, they have set the seal upon a repu-
tation which has been growing now for over sixty
years, since the appearance indeed of his first novels
and poems. Fifty years ago Carlyle noticed his
work, and his fame widened with every book, took
on a ring, so to speak, every year, and grew slowly
as trees grow which are destined to last for centuries.
In the eighties, when Meredith was well over fifty,
the younger generation began to speak of him with
reverence; to us he stood with Browning and Swin-
burne among the Immortals. But Browning lived
a life apart and held himself aloof from men of
letters and journalists; while Swinburne showed
every now and then a vehemence of anger and a
deplorable extravagance of speech which made one
almost ashamed of even his generous and clear-
sighted judgments. Those of us who had the honor
and the delight of knowing Meredith personally had
seldom anything to forgive him; we knew that he
was not only one of the greatest of Enghsh letter-



writers, not only a splendid creative artist and poet,
but something more even than that; a most noble
and Inspiring personality, perhaps the widest and
deepest mind born In England since Blake.

I could give many Instances of his generosity and
sympathy, the eagerness with which he championed
any cause or person that seemed to him worthy, or
merely In need of help; but I must content myself
with one, and thus pay a personal debt.

Shortly after I was appointed editor of The Fort-
nightly I wrote my first short stories, and, as some
friends spoke well of them, I showed them to Fred-
eric Chapman, the managing director of Chapman
and Hall, who controlled the review. He liked them
and wished me to publish them : accordingly, I pub-
lished The Modern Idyll In The Fortnightly. It
was bitterly attacked by the unco' guld: the Rev.
Newman Hall wrote a furious letter about It, and,
to my amazement, The Spectator, for which I had
written for years, joined In the hue and cry with
peculiar malevolence. The result was that the direc-
tors of Chapman and Hall met and Instructed me
not to Insert any more of my stories In the review.
I saw them, and, without giving Frederic Chapman
away, told them what I thought of their literary
judgment and handed them my resignation. Frederic
Chapman begged me to reconsider the matter, but
I was obstinate. A day or two afterwards Chapman
came to me and told me that Meredith was In his


room, and that he was praising my story enthusias-
tically: "Would I come across and see him?"

I was naturally eager to see the king of contem-
porary writers, and jumped at the opportunity. As
Meredith got up from the arm-chair to greet me,
I was astonished by the Greek beauty of his face
set off by wavy silver hair and the extraordinary
vivacity of ever-changing expression, astonished, too,
by the high, loud voice which he used in ordinary
conversation, and by the quick-glancing eyes which
never seemed to rest for a moment on any object, but
flitted about curiously, like a child's. The bright
quick eyes seemed to explain Meredith's style to me,
and give the key to his mind. The good fairies had
dowered this man at birth with a profusion of con-
tradictory gifts — beauty of face and strength of
body and piercing intelligence. They had given him
artistic perceptions as well as high courage; generos-
ity and sweetness of soul together with great self-
control — all the enthusiasms and idealisms, and yet
both feet steadfast on Mother Earth in excellent bal-
ance. But the bad fairy, who couldn't prevent him
seeing everything, could hinder him from dwelling
patiently on insignificant things, or what seemed in-
significant to him ; the eyes flitted hither and thither
butterfly fashion, and the style danced about for van-
ity's sake to keep the eyes company.

But at the moment I was more impressed by the
kindly humanity of the man than even by his genius.


As soon as he heard what had happened he declared
he would see the directors himself; "Perhaps they
will listen to me," he cried, with friendliest interest;
"they mustn't be allowed to stand in our light," he
added, with a humorous twinkle. Frederic Chapman
told me afterwards that Meredith had come up to
London on purpose to speak for me to the directors,
and he soon induced them to recall their insulting

I am proud to put on record this instance of Mere-
dith's kindness to an unknown stranger, for such
human sympathy is rare Indeed among English writ-
ers. So far as I know, Meredith was the only man
of his generation who took the high responsibilities
of genius seriously: an uncrowned king, he never
forgot that sympathetic kindness to juniors and in-
feriors was a duty of his position.

I could fill a book with instances of his generous
appreciations and helpful kindness; but I cannot re-
sist the temptation to reproduce here the conclusion
of one of his letters to me just to give an idea of
the familiar charm and sweet-natured tact of his
friendship. He had written asking me why I hadn't
brought out a book which had been announced ? The
public, I replied, didn't care for my work, and the
illiterate prudery of the Press was revolting. He
wrote at once calling on me to pay no attention to
the malice of journalists or the religiosity of the


feeble-minded. The letter was in the strain of Mary
Coleridge's famous verse:

Narrow not thy walk to keep
Pace with those who, half asleep.
Judge thee now. . . .

and it ended with the encouragement of his own
example :

"I am an old offender before the public. There were
meetings at Book Clubs headed by clergy over the country
to denounce R. Feverel as an immoral production. The
good beast is doubtful of the smell of me still, and, as I
am not guided by his opinion, you must take the fact to
weigh in the scales against my judgment.

"Yours ever,

"George Meredith."

Again and again he cheered younger ones to the
work, and whenever anybody wrote to him he an-
swered at once, and always with the enthusiasm that
regards difficulties as rungs of the ladder. One
might have thought he had nothing else to do but
play good Samaritan and encourage the faint-

His own courage was of the finest. In 1896 he
wrote to me that he had come up to London for an
operation. A foolish fear seized me: I realized
what it would mean to lose him. I called at once


and found him In bed laughing and chatting with
friends who had come to see him. Evidently he
was ready and willing to face the worst. No
need even for resolution: he had accustomed
himself to look upon the Arch-Fear as a friend.
Nothing finer could be Imagined or wished : "Science
has abolished pain," he said gaily, "and with pain
even the need of steeling oneself: the doctors have
made the ford easy, we can't even feel the chill of
the water." It was good to meet the old hero and
find him superior to his fate, light-hearted indeed,
knowing that, whatever happened, he had fought a
great fight and won many a victory.

Now and again, however, little disappointments
came to show me he was human.

Talking one day about his French Odes, which
I admired, "Aylwin" was mentioned, and to my
amazement he praised parts of it. That he should
even have been able to read the drivel made me
gasp: but Theodore Watts-Dunton as a writer for
The Atheuceiim had a certain influence : the question
imposed itself: did Meredith care so much for popu-
larity? Yet I had only to get on a larger subject
with him to find at once the imperial sweep of mind,
like a broad landscape on the downs when you can
see over the hills the wide expanse of sea meeting
the reach of sky. It is curious that the little weak-
nesses, even the faults of those we love, do not touch
our affection or even diminish our reverence. Often


Indeed they make the character dearer to us, more
human, more lovable.

But there are differences of opinion which go deep-
er, and after ten years' friendship I was at length
to meet one of these In Meredith.

The incident may be put on record, though It
stands alone, because every close reader of his works,
and especially of his poetry, will admit that It was
eminently characteristic. All the world knows that
Oscar Wilde was sentenced to two years' imprison-
ment with hard labor; but very few have heard that
this punishment had been previously condemned as
Inhuman by a Royal Commission. Acting on the sug-
gestion of the Commission that the frightful sen-
tence should always be mitigated I got up a petition
for the remission of part of the term. I was In-
formed on good authority that If Meredith headed
the petition and I could get five or six other men
of letters to support the request, the Government
would grant It without further ado. I jumped at
the chance, feeling sure I had only to ask Meredith
to get his consent; but to my astonishment he replied
that he couldn't do as I wished, and when I pressed
him to let me see him on the matter, he answered
that he would rather not meet me for such a purpose
as his mind was made up. I was simply dumb-
founded, and at a complete loss. I knew it was not
courage that was lacking, or want of imagination:
what could be the reason? When I turned elsewhere


and failed I was not astonished; how could I be
angry with the sheep when the bell-wether had played

A little later I made it my business to meet Mere-
dith as If by chance and have it out with him. To
my amazement he defended his want of sympathy:
abnormal sensuality In a leader of men, he said, was
a crime, and should be punished with severity. Again
and again he repeated that all greatness was based
on morality, that immorality and a fortiori, abnor-
mal immorality was a proof of degeneracy; Wilde
was "an arrested development" ; he became emphatic,
loud, rhetorical. On the other hand, I argued that
abnormal vice was a monomania and should be
treated as a mental aberration: It wasn't catching;
one didn't punish cripples and so on. He wouldn't
listen; as he had said his mind was made up, and at
length I had to accept the fact that a hero could
allow the maimed and deformed on his own side to
be tortured by the enemy.

It has since been pointed out to me that Meredith's
poems discover the same relentless, stoic severity;
but the explanation did not interest me greatly.
Meredith as a leader of thought and men died for
me then, and my sorrow was embittered with im-
patient disdain. The foremost Englishman after
twenty centuries had not climbed to the Christ height.

There Is something to be said In his excuse ; though
not much. He had a poor opinion of Oscar Wilde's


writings, he would not hear of placing him in the
front rank; he was a poseur he said. Wilde had
laughed at his obscurity and tortuous style in one
of his Essays; but I was convinced that that circum-
stance had nothing consciously to do with Meredith's
attitude. Meredith was so noble and lovable that
no mean suspicion could attach to his misjudging.

The truth is, he had scant appreciation for
Wilde's extraordinary sweetness of nature and ex-
quisite sunny humor; probably he had never known
him at all intimately. But to me the fact remained
that he had defended the barbarous punishment of
a man of genius when punishment was wholly in-

For some years I had no further communication
with him : I could not even write to him : I should
have had to probe the wound: why did he act so?
How could he? I couldn't think of "the great re-
fusal" dispassionately.

A little later Meredith gave me another shock of
surprise and disappointment, followed by just as im-
patient and certain condemnation. In the South
African dispute he persisted in saying that there
were faults on both sides. While admitting that
the war was unnecessary and that the British were
chiefly to blame, he proposed coolly that Johannes-
burg and the mines should be taken from the Boers.
The other day when the Hon. Alfred Lyttleton died,
it was said of him in eulogy that he was an ideal


Englishman, who always held with "his own people,
right or wrong." It really seems as if Englishmen
are fated to be insular, provincial even, whenever
their own country is concerned. Meredith saw cer-
tain virtues of stubborn manfulness in the Boers;
but he had no right notion of them in relation to the
British emigrants and the future of South Africa, no
realization of the fact that foreign miners can hardly
be regarded as bona fide settlers, and that German
Jew financiers are not apt to be good rulers.

He took it for granted that the Boers maltreated
the KafErs, and that their civilization was far lower
than ours. When I asked him to protest against the
dreadful mortality in the Concentration Camps, he
told me that he didn't believe the mortality could
be lessened. He protested, it is true, in the Daily
Nezvs and elsewhere against some of the worst ex-
cesses of the British during the war; but he seemed
to have no idea that the burning of peaceable farm-
houses was barbarous, and that no civilized people
except the British had been guilty of such a crime
In the last hundred years. The awful mortality In
the Concentration Camps cannot be explained away,
and the whole policy remains as a blot on the English
name for ever.

But It was Impossible to be angry with Meredith
for long. His faults were so manifestly faults due
to his birth and training that one simply had to for-
give and forget them. It is almost Impossible for


an Englishman to reach the Impartiality frequently-
shown by distinguished men of other races. It may,
of course, be argued that the strength and success
of the English come from just this inability to see a
foreigner's point of view and sympathize with it.
But the Romans tried patriotism instead of human-
ity and found it fall them, and It may be that the
British will yet come to grief for the same reason.

However that may be, the fact is that In the South
African War no Englishmen of note, with the excep-
tion of Mr. Frederic Harrison, and Mr. Bernard
Shaw, were at all able to judge events impartially,
and they were Imperfectly acquainted with the Boers
and their desires.

It Is scarcely possible to hope that any man will
always rise superior to the prejudices of his race and
upbringing. In nine cases out of ten Meredith stood
for the right, even when the right was unpopular.

At the very commencement of the agitation for
Women's Suffrage he struck In for the women and
their demands in whole-hearted fashion. His short-
comings even were not shortcomings of character or
of courage.

About this time, at seventy-four or five years of
age, he began to talk as If his work were done and
the account settled. But later still I met him again;
and found his mind as vivacious as it had been
twenty years before. In particular I remember one
afternoon above his house on Box Hill when he was


being driven in his little donkey-chair. I went over
and spoke to him and found him the same as ever,
as friendly and clear-sighted and affectionate as in
the earlier days.

His letters show one that up to the very end
his intellect was as keen, his perception as fine, and
his judgment as sure as ever. They contain, indeed,
the finest criticism in the language. Here is how
he ranks himself :

Men to whom I bow my head (Shakespeare, Goethe, and,
in their way, Moliere, Cervantes) are Realists au fond.
But they have the broad arms of Idealism at command.
They give us Earth; but it is earth with an atmosphere.

And here is Victor Hugo judged by a master:

On re-reading V. Hugo's Les Cymballers du Roi I am
confirmed in a cloyed sensation I first experienced. The
alliteration is really so persistent that the ears feel as if
they had been horribly drummed on. Power of narrative,
I see. Mimetic power of a wonderful kind and flow of
verse; also extraordinary. I am not touched by any
new music in it. I do not find any comprehension of
human nature, or observation, or sympathy with it. I per-
ceive none of the subtleties, deep but unobtrusive, that
show that a mind has travelled. Great windy phrases, and
what I must term (for they so hit my sense) encaustic
imageries, do not satisfy me any longer, though I remem-
ber a period when they did. . . .

The article on the "Travailleurs de la Mer" is Morley's.


I think it scarcely does justice to the miraculous descriptive
power. The Storm is amazing: I have never read any-
thing like it. It is next to Nature in force and vividness.
Hugo rolls the sea and sweeps the heavens; the elements
are in his hands. He is the largest son of his mother
earth in this time present. Magnificent in conception, un-
surpassed — leagues beyond us all — in execution. Not (nur
Schade !) a philosopher. There's the pity. With a philo-
sophic brain, as well as his marvellous poetic energy, he
would stand in the front rank of glorious men for ever.

This word about English prose hits the centre :

The prose in Shakespeare and in Congreve is perfect.
Apart from drama. Swift is a great exemplar ; Bolingbroke,
and in his mild tea-table way, Addison, follow. Johnson
and Macaulay wielded bludgeons ; they had not the strength
that can be supple.

And the masters of his own time are judged from
the same height:

I can hardly say I think Tennyson deserves well of us;
he is a real singer, and he sings this mild fluency to this
great length. Malory's Morte d' Arthur is preferable.
Fancy one affecting the great poet and giving himself
up (in our days — he must have lost the key of them) to
such dandiacal fluting. . . . The praises of the book shut
me away from my fellows. To be sure, there's the mag-
nificent "Lucretius."

I return Ruskin's letter, a characteristic one. It is the
spirituality of Carlyle that charms him. What he says


of Tennyson I too thought in my boy's days — ^that is, be-
fore I began to think: Tennyson has many spiritual indi-
cations, but no philosophy, and philosophy is the palace of

In another letter he writes with proper disdain
of Ruskin's "monstrous assumption of wisdom."

His judgment of Carlyle is magnificent and
kindly :

He was the greatest of the Britons of his time — and
after the British fashion of not coming near perfection;
Titanic, not Olympian ; a heaver of rocks, not a shaper.
But if he did not perfect work, he had lightning's power
to strike out marvellous pictures and reach to the inmost
of men with a phrase. . . .

In reading Carlyle, bear in mind that he is a humorist.
The insolence offensive to you is part of his humour. He
means what he says, but only as far as a humorist can
mean what he sa.ys. See the difference between him and
Emerson, who is, on the contrary, a philosopher. The hu-
morist, notwithstanding, has much truth to back him. Swim
on his pages, take his poetry and fine grisly laughter, his
manliness, together with some splendid teaching. I don't
agree with Carlyle a bit — but I do enjoy him.

And this superb defence of the Good and True in
the shape of advice to his son:

The Bible is outspoken upon facts, and rightly. It is
because the world is stupidly shamefaced that it cannot


come into contact with the Bible without convulsions. I
agree that the Book should be read out, for Society is a
hypocrite, and I would accommodate her in nothing;
though for the principle of Society I hold that men should
be ready to lay down their lives. Belief in religion has
done and does this good to the young ; it floats them through
the perilous period when the appetites most need control
and transmutation. If you have not the belief, set your-
self to love virtue by understanding that it is your best
guide, both as to what is due to others, and what is for
your positive personal good. If your mind honestly re-
jects it, you must call on your mind to supply its place
from your own resources. Otherwise you will have only
half done your work, and that is mischievous. You know
how Socrates loved truth. Truth and virtue are one. Look
for the truth in everything, and follow it, and you will
then be living justly before God. Let nothing flout your
sense of a Supreme Being, and be certain that your under-
standing wavers whenever you chance to doubt that He
leads to good. We grow to good as surely as the plant
grows to the light.

Again and again these letters show flashes of
Shakespearean Insight: all his letters to Lady Ulrica
Duncombe (and most especially his letter in defence
of the sensual passion of his own Diana of the Cross-
ways) are quite extraordinary. He sees that Lady
Ulrica, like most English women, "is kindled more
martially than amorously; not so much softened as
elevated." He talks superbly of woman's courage
as "elastic," subject to ups and downs, that is; but


always finding strength again in her affections; he
will not have man or woman condemned rigorously
for a sensual slip; he would have marriage modified,
shocked England indeed by proposing to legalize
marriage with a time limit, say of ten years : de-
clared against himself that "it is not wholesome
even for great men to be adored while they
breathe"; deplored the fact that "the English don't
want their novels to be thoughtful, the characters
to be deeply studied," positively preferring conven-
tional surface sketches: and a propos of something
in the South African War he tells his countrymen
that "their apathy to their evil deeds is not only a
crime, but perceptibly written by history as the cause
of national disaster." On every page indeed he
shows, to use his own phrase, "a mind that has

When seventy-sev^en years of age he concluded
that "England has little criticism beyond the expres-
sion of personal likes or disHkes, the stout vindica-
tion of an old conservatism of taste"; and he adds,
"I have seen many reviews, not one criticism of my
books in prose or verse." Was there ever such a
condemnation of English men of letters?

The last letter is on the same high level. It
was called forth by the death of Swinburne, and is
boyishly enthusiastic:

"Song was his natural voice. He was the great-
est of our lyrical poets — of the world I could say.


considering what a language he had to wield." But
many years before he had put his finger on the poet's
weakness :

Swinburne is not subtle; and I don't see any internal
centre from which springs anything that he does. He
will make a great name, but whether he is to distinguish
himself solidly as an artist I would not willingly prog-

No greatness seemed to escape him; his judg-
ments even of Russian writers show the same in-
tuitive appreciation.

It was characteristic of him, I think, that he
underrated German literature; probably because it
Is a little weak in the romantic and heroic elements
he most prized and because he is not a master of

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Online LibraryFrank HarrisContemporary portraits → online text (page 12 of 20)