The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 2. His poems
The scheme of thought thus baldly abstracted from the poems underlies all Meredith’s picturing of the human condition; as may be seen in many instances. Such an inter-relation of man and nature as is suggested by this doctrine explains how “earth” can resume her suspended spiritual purpose in men; it is through the senses that nature works to withhold Susan from tragic error in the poem Earth and a Wedded Woman; and through the senses that the fevered spirit of Richard Feverel is bathed and cleansed in the storm of the Rhine forest; phrases such as Nataly Radnor’s “Earth makes all sweet” and the equally characteristic “Carry your fever to the Alps” are steeped in the Meredithean creed. The identity of human life and nature is so complete that, at supreme moments, passion seeks expression in the language of nature; the surrounding scene prolongs the ecstasy of Richard and Lucy at the weir; the waves are richer in meaning than words for Matey and Aminta. Through this identity of human and natural law comes the perfect fusion of sensuous glory and symbolic truth which characterises the poet’s Meditation under Stars, Dirge in Woods and Ode to the Spirit of Earth in Autumn. The deep veining of Meredith’s creative work by his thought may be seen, again, in his studies of the mating of the sexes; rhetorical emotion on the theme of love gave way in France to a pitiless insistence upon physical aspects of passion. Meredith, though equally suspicious of mere sentiment, nevertheless keeps the ideal aspects of love uppermost; to him it is a force “wrought of the elements of our being.” The unions which win his sanction are those in which passion, mind and spirit each find due response after sharp and long-during trial; from these unions are to come “certain nobler races now very dimly descried.” His most brilliant diagnosis is practised upon alliances which fail in one or other of those regards, as, for instance, in A Ballad of Fair Ladies in Revolt; in The Sage Enamoured and the Honest Lady; in darker and intenser mood, in Modern Love and in the characters of later novels, Diana, Nesta, Aminta, Carinthia, who add to the qualities of Victorian heroines the greater power intellect, the “more brain” which Meredith’s ideal of womanhood required and all that follows thence of dignity and largeness of character. From the doctrine embodied in the poems is derived, also, a juster and more delicate scale of judgment for motive and action, a scale called for by the ever-growing consciousness of the complexity of character and morality. Meredith has made it incumbent upon the novelist of the future to take into account remote hidden origins as well as the diverse play of the more immediate forces which shape character. Seen in the perspective of the poet’s thought, the egotist Sir Willoughby Patterne proves to be “the brutish antique” prolonged into the civilised state, and “become fiercely imaginative in whatsover concerns himself.” Sentimentalism has its roots, also, in the primitive man; it is a sophisticated form of the instinct of sex; in Diana Warwick’s phrase, it is “fiddling harmonics on the strings of sensualism.” Alvan-Lassalle is brought nearer to comprehension by the same scale; the instance is the more germane because Meredith did not invent either the character or the story. The fine adjustment of the claims of blood, brain and spirit is the ideal illustrated in his grander figures; Mazzini, “an orbed mind supplying its own philosophy,” Carinthia, and Vittoria, whose nature, compounded of the elements of woman, patriot and artist, was “subdued by her own force.” Finally, the conception of retribution in the poems and novels shakes off the scriptural and puritan accretions which cumbered George Eliot; other orders of human error and punishment come to light, as in the instances of Sir Austin Feverel, Victor Radnor and lord Ormont. On the largest scale, in Odes in Contribution to the Song of French History, Meredith’s ethic reveals Sedan as the expiation of the errors of seventy years before, when, rejecting her spiritual lover, liberty, France yielded to the glamour of Napoleon.