MEREDITH'S PREFACE TO THE COLLECTED EDITION. (LUCILE, THIRD EDITION, 1867)
This book represents the result of an experiment so alien to my present appreciation of the nature and conditions of verse that I could now, on this ground, have wished to withdraw it from print, if my so doing were not liable to be interpreted as an acquiescence in the propriety of certain charges, for reference to which the most fitting occasion is furnished by the reappearance of the book in the present collection of early verse. What I have here to say is rendered necessary by exceptional circumstances, and is explanatory, not of the contents of the book, but of the conduct of its author. Explanations of this kind need no apology, if they are brief. Mine shall be so.
A portion of the narrative material of Lucile is taken from a prose romance,* by Madame George Sand ; a writer, whose works are familiar to the entire novel-reading public of Europe, and whose wide and well-merited celebrity is, I conceive, sufficient to refute, and should have been sufficient to prevent, the imputation of any desire upon my part to conceal an obligation, the legitimacy of which appears to me indisputable. In a preface, which was written for publication with the first edition of Lucile, the full extent of that obligation was minutely stated, in connection with the reasons which had induced the author to borrow as much of his narrative material as could be made compatible with the special purpose of his poem : reasons which I still believe to be sound, and for which, I think, high authority exists. That preface, I regret to say, was suppressed, -- partly in consequence of a belief that the great popularity of the beautiful little prose tale from which some of the incidents in Lucile are borrowed was such as to render uncalled for any prefatory references thereto, and partly, also, in consequence of an apprehension, which I yet entertain, that, as a general rule, explanatory prefaces and notes to poems are out of place. In this case, however, I cannot too greatly deplore an error of judgment which has now placed me under the necessity of saying now what might, with greater propriety, have been said then, and replying, in the present edition of this book, to accusations which a very few words, prefixed to the first edition of it, would, I trust, have sufficed to prevent.
I now desire to assure, first of all, that great writer to whose genius I am a humble but not ungrateful debtor, and, secondly, those critics by whom Lucile has been described as a mere translation, that I exceedingly regret, -- not having borrowed so much -- but having only been able to borrow so little of the narrative material of this poem from "Lavinia." If, compatibly with the purpose of the poem, I could have taken the entire narrative of it, either from "Lavinia," or from any other prose story, I would gladly have done so. That purpose, whether good or bad, is my own, and worked out in my own way. The whole amount of the narrative material adopted from the prose story is confined to the opening portion of a poem consisting of twelve Cantos. Every character in Lucile is fundamentally different from any character in "Lavinia :" and in consequence of this essential difference, it has been necessary to alter materially even those situations and incidents in which the narrative of the poem most closely follows that of the prose romance.
I state this as a matter of fact, not as a matter of principle. The more or less of my obligation to the prose of Madame Sand in no wise affects the legitimacy of it. The immemorial privilege of the poet (or writer in verse) to take his narrative material, in whole or in part, from the work of any prose writer, whether contemporary or antecedent, cannot, I think, be seriously questioned. Chaucer made narrative poems, and Shakespeare plays, out of contemporary novels. Nor did those great writers disdain the utmost fidelity, compatible with the purpose of their own works, in the reproduction of materials borrowed by them from contemporary fiction. It may be said, however, that what was lawfull to Shakespeare and Chaucer is not lawful to a modern poet ; because the state of literature, as well as of public culture, is now very different front what it was in the days of those poets. I need not discuss this opinion : because, whether it be right or wrong in a general way, it is inapplicable to Lucile. The French novel is now as noticeable and characteristic a feature of the current literature of Europe, as the Italian novel was in the days of Chaucer, and in the days of Shakespeare. The attempt to embody in verse the sentiment and character of these contemporary fictions -- in other words, to poeticise the French novel, is as new now as the attempt to poeticise the Italian novel was new then. What was necessary, and therefore lawful, to the execution of any similar attempt in those days, is equally necessary, and therefore equally lawful, to the execution of any similar attempt in these days. The advisableness, or propriety, of the attempt made in Lucile to poeticise the French novel, and the success of that attempt, are open to question. The legitimacy of the only means available for the attempt is not.
As regards the charge of plagiarism brought against Lucile, I apprehend, therefore, that, neither in the fact of my obligation for narrative material to the prose of Madame Sand, nor in the fidelity with which I have endeavoured to follow so much of the prose story as was compatible with the purpose and character of the poem, any grounds exist for such a charge. I might, indeed, with far greater propriety and justice, have been accused of plagiarising from Alfred de Musset; some of whose best verses were closely though clumsily imitated by some of the worst verses in the first edition of Lucile. Of these thefts, into which I was betrayed by the recollection of some lines recited to me by a French friend at a time when his visits were pleasant interruptions to the solitude of a sick bed, I was not conscious until it was, unfortunately, too late either to acknowledge or suppress them at the first publication of this book; the greater part of which was composed on horseback, in the Pyrenees -- a fact to which it probably owes whatever freshness or fidelity there may be in some of the descriptive parts of it. The verses have been expunged from the present edition.
I regret that the defects of this poem, most apparent to myself, are of a kind which does not admit of correction. The greatest of all is, in my own eyes, -- not that a portion of its narrative is borrowed from any particular prose work, but that the whole subject of it is fitter for prose than for verse ; not that the metre of it is slipshod, and interspersed with colloquialisms (for roughness of form is not necessarily a fault in such a book as Lucile), but that the whole conception of the poem is inconsistent with the permanent conditions of poetic beauty. I am also conscious of another fundamental defect in the book, which has not, so far as I know, been noticed by any of its critics. The characters are described rather than revealed ; and, in the endeavour to enforce a moral purpose, sound in itself, but demanding more limitation and counterpoise than it receives in this poem, the psychical action of the personages, one upon another, as well as the influences of social circumstance, and external incident, upon the development of individual character, have been somewhat exaggerated.
These defects are radical, and cannot, I fear, be removed, except with the whole body of the poem. For this reason, it is with extreme reluctance that I have allowed the poem to reappear in the present edition of collected verse. The paramount consideration whereby that reluctance is overcome has already been explained. I have, however, too much respect for honest criticism, as well as for honest authorship, to regard as a sufficient excuse for the republication of a worthless book, the opportunity for personal explanation which has chiefly induced me to print a third edition of Lucile. Notwithstanding the faults I have mentioned, and many others which are equally apparent to me, I am assured by the previous sale of this book that it has not altogether failed to please many readers whose opinion cannot be impugned by me, without ingratitude. In this fact I hope that there is sufficient justification for the republication of it. And with that hope is mingled, I confess, a memory purely personal to myself ; but as I am on the way of personal explanations, I will not conceal it. The first publication of Lucile was accompanied by at least one record of its author's feelings which he can never wish either to alter or withdraw: and in his own mind the book thus remains associated with the revered name to which it has been unworthily inscribed.
In many (but far from all) later American reprint editions, the dedication is replaced with this preface. The preface first appeared in the 1867 "New Edition," a volume in a multi-volume Collected Works, and also appeared in the Longmans, Green, and Co. "New Edition" of 1893.
One of the verses closely related to de Musset that were "expunged" was Part I, Canto VI, verse XXII.
Last revised: 23 January 2012