INTRODUCTION to Betty Balfour's Selection of Meredith's (Her Father's) POEMS
published by Longmans, Green & Co. (1893).
The present volume is the outcome of an attempt to collect the best and most characteristic Poems from those works of my father, which it has been thought inadvisable to republish separately. To this extent it is to be regarded as a companion volume to the "Wanderer" and "Lucile," which have now been reprinted, and to the posthumous and lately published "Marah" and "King Poppy."
The chronological arrangement has been adopted for the sake of its human as well as its literary interest. My father's poems reflected in a marked degree his own state of feeling, at the date of their composition, and in them may be traced the history of his emotional as well as his intellectual life through a period of forty years. The brief account of his works which follows, makes no pretence to be a critical review. My object has rather been to collect some facts connected, with the circumstances of their production, together with the judgments he himself passed upon, them, drawn partly from letters written to personal friends, and partly from what I myself have at different times heard him say in conversation.
At seven years of age my father was already scribbling verses. He wrote part of his "Clytemnesta" at eighteen while still a boy at Harrow, and many of the shorter lyrical pieces which are associated with it in his first published volume, before he was twenty. The volume itself did not appear until four years later, in 1855. It was published under the now well-known pseudonym of "Owen Meredith," and was received with favour by the public. Among those who spoke warmly in its praise, and leniently of its defects, was Leigh Hunt, whose opinion of it I copy from a letter to Mr. John Pouter :-- "I have read every bit of Owen Meredith's volume, and it has left me In a state of delighted admiration. He is a truly musical, reflecting, impassioned, and imaginative poet, with a tendency to but one of the faults of his contemporaries, and that chiefly in his minor pieces—I mean the doing too much, and the giving too much importance and emphasis to every fancy and image that comes across him, so that his pictures lose their proper distribution of light and shade, nay of distinction between great and small On his greatest occasions, however, he can evidently rid himself of this fault. His "Clytemnestra" is almost entirely free from it, in spite of temptations from some of the Greek masters. Oh! what tears he made me shed at pages 65 and 66." [* See pages 5 and 6 of this volume].
The chorus from "Clytemnestra," over which Leigh Hunt shed tears, is given in the present collection together with such of the shorter poems from the same volume as depicted most strongly the personal feelings of their author, and gave the greatest promise of future power. They are printed here from the first edition, and not as subsequently revised, partly in order to preserve their chronological interest, and also because in the pieces selected the original text, whatever its literary blemishes, remains for me the most genuine and intense expression of the youthful sentiment which inspired them.
In 1859 appeared "The Wanderer," which was followed in 1860 by "Lucile." Having been recently reprinted, no part of these works is included in the "Selections," nor could they be properly represented by extracts. Though "The Wanderer" is a collection of short love poems, there is a dramatic sequence in their arrangement, and isolated specimens would lose much of their effect when disjoined from the context.
"Lucile" was, of all my father's works, the one in which my godfather took the keenest interest and delight. For his sake it was dear to its author, though on its own merits never a favourite with himself, "I have written worse poems and weaker poems than ‘Lucile,’" he wrote to Mrs. Browning, soon after it was published, "but none, I must frankly own, that I myself less loved or liked. The faults are obvious. The metre is detestable, and disagrees with the language. The management of it was a tour de force the success of which is probably very partial. But the attempt involved that kind of difficulty which was only to be met by a 'rush.' Polish was out of the question. The main defect of the book is, I think, that which you have pointed out—diffuseness and redundancy, too much of the explanatory system of the spelling-book. The weakness of all the characters was intended, but it was a mistake in conception. I meant it to be no representation of life in the large and catholic sense of the word, as some have supposed, but a fanciful sketch of the most superficial aspect of life in certain phases of society, ‘Lucile’ should represent that sort of intellect, more common to women than men, which, whilst it is of an order richer and fuller than belongs to mere talent, is essentially unproductive and uncreative. I know one or two women of whom Lucile is a fair type; who think as genius thinks, and feel as genius feels, but cannot create as genius creates;—heroic natures, but insufficient, needing to complement themselves with another, not reaching the highest type, in which, intellectually, there is no sex."
The plot of "Lucile" was founded in part on the "Lavinia” of George Sand, the scene of which was laid in the Pyrenees. When my father was in the same neighbourhood recruiting his health, the story recurred to him, as one suitable for his purpose. He had no copy of the work by him at the time, and was afterwards surprised to find how accurately he had remembered not only the incidents, but the minute local descriptions, and how literally he had versified them. He soon parted from the little tale which had set' him going, and out of a poem of twelve cantos the opening portion alone was borrowed, and the characters not at all. As he said in his preface to the third edition of this work, "every character in ‘Lucile’ is fundamentally different from any character in ‘Lavinia.’ The scale of the two productions reduced the copied parts of necessity to narrow limits, for “Lavinia” was a slight though very graceful and artistic sketch of some thirty pages, and "Lucile," in the latest edition, extends to 333. In a preface intended for the first edition of "Lucile," the writer's obligations to George Sand were specified in detail, but by the advice of his father this preface was suppressed. "The position of the poet," said Sir Edward, "is not that of the novelist, The poet is perfectly authorised in taking his plot right and left from any source that avails him. His originality is in his poetry, not in his story. Long explanations are best avoided." Unfortunately my grandfather had not then read "Lavinia," and when he became aware that some of the sentences in the French tale had been practically paraphrased in the poem he somewhat changed his opinion. The coincidences with the story of a famous contemporary novelist were recognised as a matter of course, and unscrupulous critics grossly exaggerated their extent, and accused the author of a wilful intention to deceive. He gave his reasons in the preface to the third edition of his poem for cancelling the preface he had prepared for the first, but was compelled to keep back the principal motive lest he should seem to be casting the responsibility on another.
"Clytemnestra" with its "other poems," "The Wanderer," and "Lucile," the first written in youth, and the two latter in early manhood, are still the works by which my father is most generally known and judged as a poet He set small store by them himself. In after years he said that all the poems he had printed up to this date, were "tremendously young and crude, and their form most inadequately elaborated." One defect from which his earlier poetry suffered was its imitative character. The substance, indeed, was original, but the garb in which he dressed it was borrowed. This was well expressed by Mrs. Browning in one of her letters to him: "You sympathize too much. It is your own wine, but you use your neighbour's glass to drink it out of." His intense poetical temperament made him in a rare degree the enthusiastic admirer of the principal poets, French and English, of his time. He read their works again and again with an ardour that never cooled, and haunted by their forms he cast, by an irresistible impulse, the ideas peculiar to his own individuality into the shapes recommended to him by their immortal verse. He did it deliberately, but in consequence of the charm the manner had for him, and not because he was Incapable of going alone He said himself at a later period; "I unreservedly admit that in the form of my early poems there are many imitative features, and in the tune of them echoes from the notes of other poets. The sentiment of them is the spontaneous imperative outcome of my own emotional experience. The circumstances of all such experience are, of course, common enough. But the relation between character and circumstance is individual, and to that extent -- quantum valeat — the note of feeling in these poems is, I think, peculiar to my own individuality."
In 1861 he published a small volume entitled "Serbski Pesme; or, National Songs of Servia." This was the result of a visit to Belgrade, He had been sent there on a diplomatic mission, and used the opportunity to investigate the history, customs, and characteristics of the Servian people. With an ever eager curiosity in many branches of knowledge, poetry had always the foremost place with him, and he was pleased to have found a key to much of the national poetry of Servia in a prose translation by a Frenchman named Dozon. To him he referred the English public in his preface to "Serbski Pesme," but in a letter to his father he admitted that this preface had been "so hurriedly written and so ill considered as to suggest, by a sort of swaggering tone," that his own translations were from the Servian text. He bad not, however, the remotest desire to conceal the fact that his Servian Songs were a free translation of a translation, and he openly avowed that they were not, as they could not be, a close rendering of the originals. From a purely poetical point of view, the merit of his version has never, I believe, been denied, and the three examples here selected from it are those which bear the most indubitable stamp of his own individuality.
After the "Songs of Servia" my father did not publish another volume of poetry till 1867, when he brought out the two volumes of "Chronicles and Characters." His intervening years had been spent in hard study, and the fruit of his wide reading and prolonged thought was embodied in his new work. "The purely aesthetic purpose of the book is," he wrote, "to unroll an extended and rapidly changing panorama of the chief epochs in the history of the civilised world. The moral purpose is, by such picturesque representation of their action upon mankind, to indicate indirectly the quality of the chief ideas by which civilisation has been from time to time most influenced. The book, therefore, may be best described as an attempt at a poetic history of the education of man." This comprehensive scheme marked an era in the intellectual life of its author, and separated the work by a wide interval from all his previous productions. The difference of theme too imposed a change in the character of the writing, for his subject excluded those interior conflicts and feelings, the record of his private experience, which had inspired his earlier verse. The one or two pieces in which the personal note reappears hardly belong to the strictly historical series.
Nevertheless "Chronicles and Characters," in spite of the advance in power which it everywhere exhibits, cannot be said to reveal the full individuality of its author. He had given ample proof of a rich vocabulary, and a real independence of thought, but the form of the poems still bears the impress of his favourite models. The influence of Victor Hugo and Browning are constantly apparent, and the "Grammarian's Funeral" cannot fail to be recalled by the "Botanist's Grave." But those who choose to compare the two will find that, even in this instance, where the resemblance is closest, the moral and purpose of the poems are distinct.
From "Orval, or the Fool of Time," founded on the "Infernal Comedy" of the Polish poet Krazinski, and published in 1869, nothing has been extracted. It was a hasty experiment, and considered by my father himself to be a failure, It was in his next work, "Fables in Song," published in 1873, that he first completely broke away from the influence of his favourite contemporary poets.
Though his accuracy as an observer of Nature has sometimes been criticised, no trait was more dominant in him than his lore of the animal and natural world, and he possessed beyond most persons the propensity for discovering in things animate and inanimate, a representation of the mental world within him. Like the banished Duke and his companion in the Forest of Arden, he found tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, and sermons in stones, and had so much of Wordsworth's faith that every flower enjoys the air it breathes, that he would check a person who was idly destroying wild flowers, because it distressed him to see them wantonly deprived of existence. With his habit of putting his private feelings into his writing, he could hardly fail sooner or later to hit on a method of working this prolific vein which was a pervading portion of his daily existence, and the shape it took was his "Fables in Song." In an essay on "Fables and Fabulists," which has never been published, my father describes this work as a series of short poems addressed more directly to the intellect than the emotions. "Each of them," he goes on to say in reply to criticisms on the title of the book, "contained an instruction conveyed by an allegory, and for this reason I called them Fables. All of them, however, departed widely from the type of the Greek Fable in their frequent combination of sentiment with humour under conditions demanding a language more flexible than that of prose, a language susceptible of quicker variation and greater tenderness of tone. These fables, therefore, were written in verse; and most of them in verse of a specially lyrical and irregular character. For that reason I called them 'Fables in Song.' Such a title was fairly open to the objection that, from a technical point of view, the poems described by it were neither fables nor songs. Not songs, if that be no song which cannot be sung; and not fables, if that be no fable which fundamentally differs from the Aesopic model."
Criticisms, however, which were less pedantic, and more unanswerable, were brought against the work. Diffuseness both of thought and expression, and a certain want of clearness in the original conception of some of the poems, were defects which undeniably marred their beauty. In the best of them, however, there is a combination of fancy, tenderness, and humour which |gives them a character quite their own, and realises my father's own definition of Fable as "the borderland between Dream and Humour."
"Only a Sharing" deviates perhaps as much as any of these poems from fables of the ordinary type, but will exemplify and vindicate his method to a narrow compass. There is the child of five that picks up the curled and variegated shaving, and, entranced, with its beauty, carries it as a lost treasure to the workshop from which it has been blown; there is the burly, begrimed master of the shop with a vein of tenderness which contrasts with his rough exterior; the apprentice ready, but for the reproving look of his master, to roar with laughter at the child's simplicity; the dismissal of the child made supremely happy by a pinafore full of the precious shavings; the carpenter, too much touched by the incident to continue his work, who, having lighted his pipe, sits dreamily watching the smoke, leaving us to surmise that he is carried back to his own childhood, and sadly recalls the artlessness, innocence, and happiness of a time that puts to shame the coarser feelings, deeds, and pleasures of manhood It is a dramatic scene full of charm from its picturesque details, and the rich easy flow of its idiomatic language, and then comes the moral—
"I know not what were his thoughts. But I know
There be shavings that down from a man's work fall,
Which the man himself, as they drop below,
Haply accounts of no worth at all;
And I know there be children that prize them more
Than the man's true work, be its worth what it may.
And I think that (albeit 'twas not half o'er)
This workman turned, from his work that day
Having, just then, nor wish nor will
To go on planing a coffin still."
The "Fable" is truly "Song" in keeping with the title of the work, and the moral worthy of the exquisite little poem to which it is appended, teaching thro' the child the splendours displayed in the refuse of nature's work, before familiarity has blinded our eyes to its glories, and through the mechanic the pathetic lessons inculcated by the heaven-born instincts of childhood, and the enormous value of what Wordsworth calls—
"that best portion of a good man's life,
His little, nameless, unremembered acts
Of kindness and of love."
In 1885 my father published his second long narrative poem of "Glenaveril," the scheme of which he had revolved in his mind many years before. It was an "attempt," he writes, "to inaugurate, or at least to indicate the possibility of inaugurating, a kind of modern poetry which, in relation to the unrevivable Elizabethan Drama, might take some such place as that occupied by the modern novel in relation to the unrevivable Comedy of the Restoration."
From a literary point of view it was a protest against what he conceived a tendency with modern poets "to be too careful of the mint and cummin of verbal and metrical niceties, and too careless and unconscious of the weightier matters of the law of pure Imagination; so that modern poetry, like the girl in the Roman story who was crushed by the jewelled bucklers she craved, is in considerable danger of succumbing to an overload of ill-sustained superficial ornamentation, losing its imaginative vitality and motive power, and degenerating into a lifeless mechanical art."
From a moral point of view it was a protest against the "monotonous tendency in contemporary departments of our imaginative literature towards the disorderly and the unwholesome."
The great length of "Glenaveril," however, and its complicated plot repelled the public, while the deliberate roughness of its verse, and its colloquial phraseology equally displeased the critics. Its real beauties, as for instance the poetry of fancy to be found in such passages as Cordelia's fairytale, and Marietta's needle, and the poetry of feeling in the death of Emanuel and the scenes preceding it, passed unnoticed.
"I confess to a feeling," my father wrote sometime after its publication, "as if I had dropped a big bit of myself, without any audible splash into some torpid pool, where what was weighty in my own mind seems to have fallen with the lightness of a feather, as do the blows we deliver in a nightmare,"
The only extract from "Glenaveril" given in this volume is the fable of the Falcon and the Dove, which has the advantage of being complete in itself, and in addition to its other merits is ample proof that it was not from inability to sustain the continued harmony of which the rhymed stanza is capable, that he adopted the ruder and more colloquial style where the subject required it
The series of poems which form the first part of "After Paradise, or the Legends of Exile," published in 1887, and which gave the book its title, revert to a fabulous ground-work. My father contemplated some day reprinting them as an introduction to a new edition of the "Fables in Song," but they belong essentially to the later period of his writings, the poetic workmanship being more highly finished than that of the "fables," and the thoughts more speculative and abstract, notwithstanding the fanciful imagery in which they are clothed.
He was greatly influenced at this time by the writings of Schopenhauer. The second and finest of the legends was in part inspired by Schopenhauer's treatise on Music, and in part by his own enthusiasm for the masterpieces of Wagner. He cared little for chamber music or solos, but was keenly sensitive to the great orchestral effects of modern composers, and in the "Legend of Music" sought to reproduce in a poetic translation the impressions they created in him.
Some of the short lyrics which appeared in the second half of the volume were written at a much earlier date, though never before published. The longer poems, "Uriel," "Prometheia," "Strangers," belong, like the "Legends" to later years. In common with these they combine in a remarkable degree fancy with reflection, and are pervaded by the same abiding tone of melancholy. "Hopelessness of the Ideal is the burden of them all. But the Ideal is in each case different In 'Prometheia' we have a satire on the vanity of what this age calls progress; 'Uriel' is a picture of the disillusion that attends individual aspirations and desires; and 'Strangers.' the saddest poem in the book, reads like a passionate wail over the fate of loving and poetic souls, that vainly build ideal universes of their own, too fragile for contact with the reality of an unfeeling world." [The Scots' Magazine, July 1887].
The next volume in the order of publication was "Marah," in type at the time of my father's death, but not published till 1892. It is a connected series of short poems much on the plan of "The Wanderer," but more condensed. They are the outpourings of passion at various stages of a life whose experiences are bitter, as the title imports. For weirdness of inspiration and concentrated intensity of expression, some of these pieces deserve to rank with the best work their author ever produced.
"King Poppy," published in the same year with "Marah," was first written in 1874 but entirely re-cast in 1890. My father esteemed it his masterpiece; and many of those who appreciate its imaginative charm, the humanity of its characters despite their symbolical significance, its benevolent humour, and its pathetic tenderness, will agree with him.
In allusion to the little regard which had been shown to some of his latest productions, he said in a letter to a friend, "After a certain age we none of us read poetry with anything like the emotional response of our mental intercourse with the poets we read when we were young. For this reason every generation has its own poet or set of poets, I have missed mine; and well knowing that what I write is written for that 'wallet' wherein 'Time puts alms for oblivion,' I should never write another line if it were not for the irresistible." Poetry had been a passion with him from early boyhood, and to think it, and reduce it to form, was an impulse apart from its success with the world. When fresh from the composition of a new work, and under the immediate influence of the glow his conceptions had kindled in him, he would indulge the expectation that the strain would evoke corresponding feelings in others; but, taught by experience, it was his ordinary conviction that nothing he wrote would be popular. Circumstances in some respects were against him. For the larger part of his life he was an exile. Neither books and periodicals, nor reflection on his art, could supply the place, of direct intercourse with the representatives, few or many, of that outer circle to which he addressed himself. Hence it may have arisen that he often demanded more thought to follow his meaning than most were willing to bestow; more relish for the creations of fancy and the abstractions of philosophy than the average many could command; more readiness to linger with him by the way than meets with response from persons impatient to reach the conclusion; more sympathy with the depressing species of pessimism that tinged his later work than was congenial to natures that instinctively turn away from an horizon not brightened with hope. These elements in his poetry might have been modified if he had lived in closer communion with his generation at home, but amid a foreign public they remained unchecked. On his return from exile his own contemporaries had in large measure passed away, and he failed to gain touch with the spirit of a younger age.
Apart from this there is a general disinclination to allow that genius itself can excel in widely distinct departments. When my father was Viceroy of India, those opposed to his policy sometimes took for granted that they discredited the statesman by reiterating that he was a poet. Others alleged that his poems must be trivial because by profession he was a diplomatist and politician. The double character was not without its effect upon the reception of his works; butt the plausible supposition that two pursuits so dissimilar must necessarily clash, was without foundation. He found recreation In change of employment, as his father had done before him, The minds of both were ceaselessly active, and they turned without a pause from one kind of thought and business to another as readily as they turned from either to easy, disengaged conversation. Had the rival calls of his many-sided intellect been at variance, the poet in my father would always have had the preference. Among his hitherto unpublished lyrics at the close of this volume, the last of all, written only two or three months before his death, and called "The Prisoner of Provence," turns upon the famous, and it may be apocryphal, story of the Man in the Iron Mask; and adopting the version that re-presents the man to have been the twin brother of Louis XIV., he applies the opposite fate of these twins—prisoner and king—to his own twofold destiny. There was the man as he was known to the world, prosperous and enviable, and there was the hidden man secretly lamenting his lot. The parallel—admirable for its aptness and ingenuity—is true in a degree of all the world. "The heart knoweth its own bitterness." Among the multiplied cares of life there is a bitterness that is each man's private property, and is shared by none. But the poem had a personal as well as a general application, and my father's slighting mention of "celebrity and success" largely arose from the circumstance that they had been scantiest in the quarter from which he coveted them most.
Each generation adds to the number of eminent poets, whose names are soon better known than their works, and who attract a few scattered readers at most. In the crowd of competitors, to hare linked their name to a single undying piece of verse is fame enough. Let those who care for poetry at all choose out what pleases them best in these "Selections," and I feel confident that my father's title to an honourable place among poets will be established by the measure of their approbation.
Last revised: 13 August 2010