The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 6. Metrical experiments
Meredith is a great metrical experimenter. He devises new forms of stanza in Modern Love, Hymn to Colour, A Ballad of Fair Ladies in Revolt (where the rhythm sustains admirably the sense of keen spontaneous debate), Love in a Valley (which plays exquisite variations upon a nursery measure), Earth and Man and The Thrush in February (two variants of the gnomic quatrain). His tragic ballads invite comparison with similar forms in Rossetti, Morris and Swinburne; his sonnets are very various in theme, temper and structure; one of them, Lucifer in Starlight, is among the most remarkable technical achievements of Meredith; it evokes the full epic strain of Milton from the restricted keyboard of the brief sonnet form. The travail of creation tortures the form of much of Meredith’s poetry; the Lucifer sonnet has the repose of perfect achievement. Individual effects are attained, also, in his continuous measures; in the iambic movement of the consummate lyric outburst The Lark Ascending; in the anapaestic trimeters of The Day of the Daughter of Hades and A Faith on Trial, the freedom of equivalence and substitution (and, in the former case, of rime) preserves the emphasis of meaning from the too great insistence of the metrical beat—the pitfall of this metre. The Woods of Westermain and The Nuptials of Attila are in the trochaic tetrameter catalectic; in the latter poem, the impression of primitive violence in the theme is reinforced by the persistence of four strong stresses within a short line of seven syllables, and by the entire avoidance of weak syllables either at the beginning or the end of the line. Phaéthôn, a splendid, if rather free, attempt, in galliambic measure, for which Meredith names the Attis of Catullus as his model, and Phoebus with Admetus, with its three successive strong stresses at the end of the even lines, and the use of pauses to complete the length of the line, are other instances of the research and the testing of metrical possibilities by the inner ear which impart a fresh and unfamiliar music to his verse. There is evidence that, by its imaginative, intellectual and metrical daring, and by its opening of new springs of poetical inspiration, Meredith’s verse has more immediate bearing upon the practice of following writers than his novels; for, though it is admitted that he has set a high standard to which the novel must attain, if it would be ranked as literature, nevertheless, fiction has quite notably discarded his philosophic way, and is committed to the path entered upon, not with his approval, by the realists.