S. M. (Stewart Marsh) Ellis.

George Meredith; his life and friends in relation to his work online

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gifts at that stage of their development, and his
future prospects, very fairly. He had received in
July a letter in commendation of his book from
Charles Onier,^ and in reply stated that it was
appreciation coming from such a source that made
Fame worth seeking for. He was prepared to face
the probability that his little volume would meet
with injustice and slights, but he was supported by
the knowledge that it was the vanguard of better
work to come. The poems were the product of his
youth, and he did not think they would live beyond

1 As Charles Oilier was the first writer of note to appreciate George
Meredith's work and the first critic to encourage him in his literary
path, it may not be supererogatory to recall briefly Olher's career.
This man of many Uterary friendships was bom in 1788. Early in
life he, with his brother James, was a pubUsher in Vere Street. He
was the friend of Shelley, Keats, Lamb, Leigh Hunt, Peacock,
Harrison Ainsworth, and many other writers. He published for
Shelley. In 1829 he was connected with The New Monthly Magazine.
Later, he was principal reader for Richard Bentley. Charles Oilier
was the author of novels entitled A Itham and his Wife and Ferrers,
and many contributions to magazines. But, as Ainsworth wrote to
Olher's son : " From circumstances he never achieved the position
in Uterature which he ought to have obtained. He had a fine critical
taste, and a genuine reUsh for the broadest humour, as well as a
susceptibility of the tenderest pathos. He had a thoroughly mascu-
Une nature, and I never knew a man with a keener sense of existence
nor one more aUve to the beauties of external nature. He was a
lover of art — indeed, a critic in art, and accompUshed in music.
His conversational powers on all subjects were very great. . . ."■
Charles OUier died in 1859, so his encouraging appreciation of
Meredith's first work was one of the last episodes in his useful and
well-spent Ufe devoted to the best interests of hterature.


the purpose of making his name known to those
willing to encom-age young and earnest students of
Nature who were resolved to persevere until they
attained the wisdom and inspiration of the true

However, before the year was out, two notable
and signed reviews of the Poems appeared. In
The Critic of 15th November, 1851, there was an
interesting notice by William Michael Rossetti,
who, although but twenty-two years old himself,
and a year younger than Meredith, assumed a
mentorial attitude of age towards his future friend's
work :

" The main quality of Mr Meredith's poems is
warmth — warmth of emotion, and, to a certain
extent, of imagination. That he is young will be as
unmistakably apparent to the reader as to ourself ;
on which score various shortcomings and crudities,
not less than some excess of this attribute, claim
indulgence. . . . Scarcely a perceptive, but rather
a seeing or sensuous poet. He does not love nature
in a wide sense as Keats did ; but nature delights
and appeals closely to him."

Passing on to note Love in the Valley, IMr Rossetti
observed :

" Surely, it may be said, there is passion enough
here, and of a sufficiently personal kind. ... It is
purely and unaffectedly sensuous, and in its utter-
ance as genuine a thing as can be. We hear a clear
voice of nature, with no I'alsetto notes at all ; as
spontaneous and intelligible as the wooing of a bird.
. . . We have assigned Mr Meredith to the Keatsian


school, believing that he pertains to it in virtue of
the more intrinsic qualities of his mind, and of a
simple enjoying nature. . . . We do not expect ever
quite to enrol Mr Meredith among the demi-gods
or heroes ; and we hesitate ... to say that we
count on greater things from him ; but we shall not
cease to look for his renewed appearance with hope,
and to hail it with extreme pleasure, so long as he
may continue to produce poems equal to the best
in this first volume."

This was not an unfair criticism, and coincided to
some extent with the views expressed by Meredith
himself in the letter to Oilier. But a critic endowed
with more prevision — acquired, no doubt, by longer
experience— was Charles Kingsley, who, in an article
contributed to Fraser's Magazine for December,
1851, and entitled This Yearns Song Crop, wrote
thus of Meredith's Poems :

" This, we understand, is his first appearance in
print ; if it be so, there is very high promise in the
unambitious little volume which he has sent forth
as his first-fruits. It is something to have written
already some of the most delicious little love- poems
which we have seen born in England in the last few
years, reminding us by their riches and quaintness
of tone of Herrick ; yet with a depth of thought and
feeling which Herrick never reached. Health and
sweetness are two qualities which run through all
these poems. They are often over-loaded — often
somewhat clumsy and ill-expressed — often wanting
polish and finish ; but they arc all genuine, all
melodiously conceived. ... In Mr Meredith's
Pastorals y too, there is a great deal of sweet, whole-


some writing, more like the real pastorals than those
of any young poet whom we have had for many a
year . . . honest landscape-painting, and only he
who begins honestly ends greatly. ..."

Kingsley's critique was of considerable length,
and he gave Meredith much good advice, which the
poet, of course, ignored, to the detriment of many
later poems. The fact remains that Meredith, with
his sensitive and rather unhappy disposition, was
disappointed with the results of his first book. He
never would speak well of these early verses. He
referred to them as rubbish in 1862. And many
years later, in 1908, but eight months before his
death, he asked M. Rene Galland to refrain from
noticing this first volume of poems, which he termed
the worthless immature work of a boy in his teens,
and which he hoped was dead and forgotten by the

There was an implacable element in Meredith's
character. He never forgave what had offended him
— not even himself when his work failed to come up
to the high standard he had erected. Still, his
criticism of his early poetry is unduly severe when

' There is an interesting reference to Meredith's Poems of 1851
in a letter of William Hardman's, written about ten years later to
a friend. This also shows how reticent Meredith was on the subject
of his first marriage :

" You will recollect in one of my previous letters, I ventured to
presume that our friend Meredith married a daughter of old Mr
Peacock, the author of Gryll Grange. Well, I knew that Meredith
had published a volume of poems in 1851, 300 copies of which he
had afterwards destroyed, and they are consequently very scarce.
Of course the British Museum have a copy, so I got hold of it
rather against G. M.'s wish, why, I know not. The dedication of
the volume is ' To Thomas Love Peacock, Esq., this volume is
dedicated with the profound admiration and affectionate respect
of liis son-in-law.' So I was right."


one considers that it inclvided the first version of
the exquisite Love in the Valley — the poem which, on
its original pubhcation in 1851, moved Tennyson to
write to Meredith saying how much it charmed him,
and that he went about the house repeating its
cadences to himself. This from the conspicuous
poet who had produced In Memoriam the previous
year, when also he succeeded Wordsworth as Poet
Laureate. Tennyson was then living at Chapel
House, Montpelier Row, Twickenham, not far, of
course, from the Weybridge district of Surrey,
where Love in the Valley had its scenic setting.
F. T. Palgrave notes in his reminiscences of
Tennyson : " In G. Meredith's first little volume he
was delighted by the Love in a Valley (as printed
in 1851 : the text in later issues has been greatly
changed)." ^

Meredith, in return, highly praised the earlier
verse of Tennyson. He told Mr Clodd : "In The
Lotus Eaters and (Enone (which I could get neither
Peacock nor Jefferson Hogg to enjoy) there are lines
perfect in sensuous richness and imagery. The
Idylls, perhaps I should except the Morte d' Arthur,
will not add to his fame ; they are a part of the
' poetical baggage ' of which every writer of a large
body of verse must be unloaded. Tennyson's rich
diction and marvellous singing power cannot be
overrated, but the thought is thin ; there is no
suggestiveness which transcends the expression ; no-
thing is left to the imagination. He gave high praise

1 The late Rev. H. G. Woods, Master of the Temple, possessed a
copy of the second edition of Tennyson's The Princess, 1848, which
contained on the flyleaf an original manuscript poem of ten lines by
George Meredith, and his autograph inscription : "To CorneUa —
as the Lady most ambitious and best endowed to take fair Ida for
prototype.'- The book was sold in 191 5 for l-^g.


to my Love in the Valley ; would like to have been
its author," ^

For some of Tennyson's later work Meredith had
severe criticism. He expressed the opinion that
Enoch Arden pandered to depraved sentimentalism
and was badly done. The Holy Grail he compared
to half yards of satin and figures of Dresden china,
and said Tennyson had put up the Muse's clothes-
line and strung it with jewellery.

But he greatly admired Lucretius, which he de-
scribed as grand, and in later years he liked Tenny-
son's Queen Mary. Mrs Meynell relates that Mere-
dith said the high-water mark of English style in
poetry and prose was reached in Tennyson's " On
one side lay the ocean and on one lay a great water,
and the moon was full."

It is interesting to note that as late as 1886
Meredith wrote a poem, The Young Princess, which
displayed unmistakably the influence of Tennyson.
This is like the Tennyson of the period of Maud, who
was begotten of Keats and the Romantics. Despite
the harsher notes of most of his later poetry, it is
evident that Meredith retained an inner and almost
unacknowledged love for the sensuous and mellifluous
minstrelsy which sang in Maud, The Princess, and
The Lotus Eaters, and in his own Poems of 1851.

To return to Love in the Valley, R. L. Stevenson
also paid a fine tribute to the haunting music of this
poem. Writing to W. B. Yeats in 1894, he said :

" Long since when I was a boy I remember the
emotions with which I repeated Swinburne's poems
and ballads. Some ten years ago a similar spell was
cast upon me by Meredith's Love in the Valley ;

^ The Fortnightly Review, July, 1900.


the stanzas beginning, ' When her mother tends
her ' haunted me and made me drmik Hke wine, and
I remember waking with them all the echoes of the
hills about Hyeres."

And York Powell, the Oxford historian, described
Love in the Valley as " the most gorgeous piece of
rhythmical work and passion. . . . Meredith has
invented his great metres."

Leslie Stephen, too, loved the poem, and knew it
by heart. Both Stevenson and York Powell may
have been more familiar with the later version of
the poem than the original form which moved
Tennyson to admiration. As is well known, Mere-
dith rewrote and added many stanzas to Love in the
Valley when it was republished in Macmillan's
Magazine, October, 1878. It is ever matter for
surprise and regret that he omitted those last lines
of the original poem which hymn the coming of
Spring so beautifully.

On the other hand, the second version contained
many improvements and new stanzas of infinite
beauty, particularly the oft-quoted word-picture in.
the fifth verse.

Despite his condemnation of the early poems,
Meredith, at the back of his mind, doubtless ex-
empted Love in the Valley, for we find him writing,
in 1907, to Mrs Sturge Henderson, to whose book on
Meredith Mr Basil de Selincourt contributed some
chapters dealing with the subject's poetry, pro-
testing mildly against the charge of preciosity in
Love in the Valley.

It is, of course, a partial truism that an artist—
particularly a literary artist— is a bad judge of what
constitutes his best work. Certainly Dickens and

POEMS, 1851 73

Thackeray were exceptions to the rule, for each was
fully aware of the superlative merits of, respectively,
David Copper field and Vanity Fair. But such
personal perspicacity is rare, and Meredith rather
lacked it. His literary judgments were generally in
dissonance with public opinion — and even critical
opinion — and in the case of his own work he favoured
his later poetry, which to the majority will always
be difficult and therefore unpopular. The early
poems, if artless and unpolished, were lyrical : this
can scarcely be said of the later poems — such as are
contained in A Beading of Life — and the odes dealing
with French history, which leave a sabulous taste
on the literary palate : a more saccharine tooth
frankly admits preference for Love in the Valley and
Beauty Rohtraut. Surely the supreme charms of
poetry, regarded as a symbol or expression of
Beauty, are its musical cadences which attune the
mind to the thoughts desired, and its art of painting
a mental picture : profound ideas and didactic
philosophy are better expressed in stately prose.
Meredith's early poems supply unsophisticated tonal
pleasures in full measure ; and what beautiful
pictures of twilight and night are those in the
Pastorals. The fifth is not unworthy of comparison
with Gray's Elegy, by which it was obviously in-
spired, though the young poet chose to dispense
with rhymes. Years later, Meredith showed his
friend, William Hardman, the scene which suggested
these Pastorals and the spot where he wrote them —
an eminence surrounded by pines on the St George's
Hill Estate, between Weybridge and Byfleet.
Hardman notes : " Meredith and I had an argument
as to whether he ought not to have made the second
and fourth line to rhyme, and I think he convinced


me that the plan he had adopted was the better


In the delightful Robin Redbreast the last stanza
conjures up a pieture of young Meredith in the
garden of a Surrey eottage, for after leaving The
Limes he and his wife lived for a time in a rustic red-
brick cottage near the parish schools at Weybridge.

In striking contrast to this poem are Will o' the
Wisp^ with its elfin lilts, and the remarkable Londo7i
hy Lamplight, which has an elusive suggestion of
the impressionist poets of forty years later, together
with romantic word painting in rapid antithesis.
Here is " an influence strange and swift as dreams,
a whispering of old romance " ; and so there is, in
another sense, in the beautiful and musical ballad
of Beauty Rohtraut, translated from the German of
Moricke. It was first published in The Leader for
September, 1850, and deservedly found a place in
Illustrated British Ballads, 1881, with an illustration
drawn by Henry Marriott Paget.

How fine, too, is Meredith's first expression of his
lifelong love of the South- West Wind in the poem
of that name. This was an earlier form of Ode to
the Spirit of Earth in Autumn (1862), which contains
many similar thoughts and Nature pictures, as a
comparison of the two pieces will demonstrate.
But the finest exposition of Meredith's Nature
worship and his kinship with things of air and wood-
land to be found in the early Poems is the third

That was the first verse of the life-song whose
last lines were to be written nearly sixty years later,
in 1908, when the singer was within a few months
of death — Youth in Age.

Apart from the fact that work which contains so

POEMS, 1851 75

much of beauty and music can never merit oblivion,
the early Poems of George Meredith have their
fitting and important place in the history of his
mental development, and are thereby secm-e of



ANOTHER lost year in the record of Mere-
dith's Hfe is 1852. He must, however, have
been planning and commencing The Shaving
of Shagpat, for he once told Mr Clodd it was written
" at Weybridge with duns at the door." He was
also conceiving Richard Fever el, but both works were
completed elsewhere. It is interesting to note, in
confirmation of the fact that Meredith was really
contemporary with, and one of the band of, the great
Victorian writers, that in this same year, 1852-1853,
which saw the dawn of these two masterpieces,
appeared Dickens's Bleak House, Thackeray's
Esmond and The Newcomes, Kingsley's Hypatia,
Charlotte Bronte's Villette, Lytton's My Novel, Mrs
Gaskell's Cranford, and novels by the lesser lights,
Charles Lever, Harrison Ainsworth, G. P. R. James,
Frank Smedley, and Surtees. Browning and
Tennyson, too, were producing fine poetry, so young
Meredith had a noble band of rivals in the field of
literary endeavour.

In 1853 he and his wife removed from Weybridge
to the opposite side of the river. Lower Halliford, to
live, for a time, with Mrs Meredith's father, Thomas
Love Peacock, whose wife, Jane Gryffydh, had died
the previous year. Peacock was now sixty- eight


Thomas J,o\ k rKAcncK


years of age, with the most important events of his
life behind him. His earlier years he had passed in
literary dalliance, and his famous friendship with
Shelley commenced in 1812. He accompanied the
poet and Harriet to Edinburgh in 1813 ; and when
Shelley was at Windsor and Marlow, where also
Peacock was then living, in 1816, the two men were
constantly together. To Peacock, Shelley's fine
letters from Italy were addressed, and it was this
friend who endeavoured to bring about the pro-
duction of The Cenci at Covent Garden Theatre.
The first of the delightful series of Peacock's novels,
Headlong Hall, appeared in 1816, and the last, Gryll
Grange, in 1860. Those known to Shelley were
much admired by him, including Nightmare Abbey,
wherein he was amusingly satirised ; possibly the
author depicted himself as Mr dowry, for that
" very consolate widower " held " that there was
but one good thing in the world, videlicet, a good
dinner " — which was certainly one of the articles of
Peacockian belief. The charm of Peacock's novels is
increased by the poems and songs scattered through
them, Melincourt being particularly rich in this
respect. In 1819 he became an official at the East
India House, and a confrere there of Charles Lamb.
Peacock's long association with Lower Halliford
commenced in 1822, and he remained faithful to
this part of Shepperton until his death, in 1866.
His house, in reality two cottages connected by a
passage, was only separated from his beloved Thames
by a strip of garden, on to which his long, low-ceiled
sitting-room opened.

In this house, now called Elmbank, was born, on
13th June, 1853, George Meredith's son and Peacock's
grandson, Arthur Gryffydh ^Icrcdith, his second


name being that of his maternal grandmother.
Possibly he was named Arthur after his father's
first cousin, Arthur Ellis, then Adjutant at Woolwich,
and available as a sponsor. Several children had
been born to the Merediths earlier, and died as
infants : this was the only child of the marriage
who survived to any age : he was destined to bring
his parents much joy and, later, great sorrow.

It was soon found that this joint residence was
not altogether a successful arrangement. Peacock
was getting old, and liked quiet and a domestic
regime that ran on oiled wheels of comfort. His
infant grandson was, no doubt, in accordance with
the immemorial habits of the genus, exigent in his
claims upon the time and attentions of the females
of the household, and given to making melody of a
timbre not appreciated by bachelors and elderly
widoAvers. Further, it has to be stated that although
George Meredith had a profound admiration for the
literary work of Peacock, and shared his taste for
good cooking and good wine, the two men had not
much in common in other respects. Meredith was
never easy to live with, and his highly-strung tem-
perament and nervous, restless habits — humming
snatches of song the while he strode about the
narrow rooms of the house, or fidgeted with orna-
ments and furniture — worried his comfort-loving
father-in-law. Consequently Peacock took another
little house for the Merediths just across the way
on the opposite side of the pleasant Green at Lower
Halliford. It was here, Vmc Cottage, in the small
front room nearest to the entrance, that Meredith
finished The Shaving of Shagpaf. His recreations
in this quiet and rural spot took the form of playing
cricket with his little step-daughter and other


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children on the Green in front of the cottage, and
his customary long walks through Surrey, when he
stored up many impressions of Nature and scenery
which found expression in the novels and poems of
the years to come.

The Shaving ofShagpat was published by Chapman
and Hall at the close of 1855 (though bearing 1856
on the title-page), and in the author's prefatory note,
dated December 8th, 1855, he opined that the only
way to tell an Arabian story was by imitating the
style and manners of the Oriental story-tellers.
But as such an attempt might read like a transla-
tion, he thought it better to preface his Entertain-
ment by an avowal that it came from no Eastern
source, but was in every respect an original

And yet this wonderful work of art, original and
distinctive, though as picturesque and gorgeous as
The Arabian Nights, and far transcending Beckford's
Vathek, achieved no success at the outset. Indeed
the first edition sold badly, and was eventually
disposed of as a remainder, according to rumour,
although the reviews had been quite favourable. It
is of interest to recall that two of these notices were
written by George Eliot, who had not then attained
her own fame, for it was not until 1857 that her
Scenes of Clerical Life were published. George
Eliot was at this period living at No. 8 Parkshot,
Richmond. She had some slight personal acquaint-
ance with Meredith, and read his book directly it
appeared, for she noted in her diary for 30th
December, 1855 : " Read The Shaving of Shagpat
(George Meredith's)." Her first review of the work
appeared in The Leader for 5th January, 1856, in
the course of which she said :


" The Shaving of Shagpat is a work of genius, and
of poetical genius. It has none of the tameness
which belongs to mere imitations manufactured with
servile effort or thrown off with sinuous facility.
It is no patchwork of borrowed incidents. Mr
Meredith has not simply imitated Arabian fictions,
he has been inspired by them ; he has used Oriental
forms, but only as an Oriental genius would have
used them who had been ' to the manner born.'
... In one particular, indeed, Mr Meredith differs
widely from his models, but that difference is a high
merit ; it lies in the exquisite delicacy of his love
incidents and love scenes. In every other char-
acteristic — in exuberance of imagery, in picturesque
wildness of incident, in significant humour, in
aphoristic wisdom. The Shaving of Shagpat is a new
Arabian Night. To two- thirds of the reading world
this is sufficient recommendation."

Writing to Miss Sara Hennell, on 18th January,
1856, George Eliot said : "If you want some idle
reading get The Shaving of Shagpat, which I think
you will say deserves all the praise I gave it." Her
second notice of the book appeared, in April, in
The Westminster Review, a periodical she had previ-
ously assisted in editing. In view of George Eliot's
appreciation and kindly help in these early days, it
is unfortunate that Meredith was not more grateful
in his estimate of her. It is true that he once wrote
of the author oi Adam Bede as the greatest of female
writers. But in that case Meredith must have had
a poor opinion of female writers in general, for, as
J. Comyns Carr recorded : " For George Eliot's
achievement he never professed more than a strictly
limited respect. Her more pretentious literary


methods failed to impress him, and there were times
when the keenness of his hostile criticism bordered
upon scorn. I remember when someone in his
presence ventured to remark that George Eliot,
' panoplied in all the philosophies, was apt to swoop
upon a commonplace,' he hailed the criticism with

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Online LibraryS. M. (Stewart Marsh) EllisGeorge Meredith; his life and friends in relation to his work → online text (page 5 of 23)