AN INARTICULATE POET.
" rpHE song is to the singer, and comes back most to him," says somewhere Walt Whitman ; and who can doubt that this in reality is the characteristic of the true poet ? His creations are, and must be, more to him than to the rest of the world, for they are the outcome of his own emotions and of his own sensa- tions, though not necessarily of his own experience. But who- ever yet could clothe in words the whole of what he felt,—did not leave perhaps the most essential and compelling sense within him unexpressed P But if this is the necessary characteristic of the poet, it is also his chief danger. Not seldom the song is so much to the singer, that he is indifferent what it may be to the world. His instinct very likely tells him truly that his poem is good, for it has sprung straight from some deep well of emotion. He knows, too, that the work in which he has laboured to enshrine it, is wrought with the fine gold of imagination and rhetoric. He forgets that to the world at large it expresses nothing. The emotion of which it was the outcome was either essentially inarticulate, or only articulate on one side ; and that side he has omitted to show. The judgment of the really great and successful singer is, then, as im- portant as his power to feel and to sing. He must select as well as refine, and must for ever be stepping outside his own work and judging it as from the stranger's standpoint. Only by the use of this judgment which can choose between the expressible and nnexpressible, can the poet be articalate,—be the singer of songs that the world can understand. Without the power to be articu- late, no poet can win the highest praise.
But though this is so, it would be far too much to deny altogether the name of poet to a writer because of the frequent absence of articulateness in his verse. Indeed, were we to do so in the present generation, we should banish from the ranks of the poets more than one writer whose work is, in every sense, essentially poetic. It is of the verse of such a partially inarticulate poet that we desire to speak here. As a novelist, Mr. George Meredith has won, and deservedly won, a very high reputation among, if not the largest, at least the most thoughtful class of readers. As a poet, however, he has received no adequate recognition. This may, we believe, be accounted for by the fact stated above,—the greater part of his verse is inarticulate. It is in no sense meaningless; it is simply unable to say what it desires to say. Take as an example the last stanza from " Bellerophon
" Lo, this is be in whom the surgent springs Of recollections richer than our skies To feed the flow of tuneful strings,
Show but a pool of scum for shooting flies."
How few are those who could read this and not be repelled ! Yet what pleasure do they miss who are repelled, who never learn to know the other side of Mr. George Meredith's writings, and to love the noble chords of music he sometimes strikes ! It is, then, our intention here not to dwell upon what is harsh, erode, unintelligible, and pedantic in Mr. Meredith's verse, but to show instead what a pure and lucid strain of lyric sweetness, what floods of passionate eloquence, are to be found side by side with his modest and most repellent verse.
To begin with, we must notice that the first characteristic of Mr. George Meredith's articulate poetry is, that it is always classic,—classical, not in that it borrows from or is exclusively inspired by the literatures of Greece or Roman, but in the sense that Ste. Belly° has defined in his famous essay. Take, for instance, the verses which, with a strange waywardness of fancy, Mr. George Meredith has chosen to introduce by frag- ments into "The Ordeal of Richard Feverel." Could the imagination be more set on fire than it is by the subtle magic of the lines that tell us of the Golden Bride P-
" Oh, sunless walkers by the tide !
Oh, have you seen the Golden Bride ! They say that she is fair beyond
All women; faithful, and more fond."
And of the answer that is made by her worshippers ?— " Faithful she is, but she forsakes :
And fond, yet endless woe she makes : And fair ! but with this curse she's crossed : To know her not till she is lost !"
Again, how fall of a strange passionate fancy are the couplets !— " She bath a palace in the west
Bright Hever lights her to her rest And him the Morning Star awakes, Whom to her charmed arms she takes."
But if the verse charms us here by the mysterious yet tender shadowing-forth of some world of sunset fancy, the wonder is the more to find the same poet, when he touches a perfectly modern theme, rivalling the best writers of veva de eociil4 in the delicacy and perfection of his taste and workmanship :— "She rides in the Park on a prancing bay, She and her squires together;
Her dark locks gleam from a bonnet of gray, And toss with the tossing feather.
Too calmly proud for a glance of pride Is the beautiful face as it passes ; The cockneys nod to each other aide,
The coxcombs lift their glasses.
And throng to her, nigh to her, you that can breach The ice-wall that guards her securely ;
You have not each bliss though she smile on you each An the heart that can image her purely."
The thought may be slight enough, but how unresponsive must be the ear that would not be fascinated by the fall of such verse! Just as in his novels, Mr. George Meredith shows himself in his poetry a great phrase-maker. Again and again the reader of his verse is delighted by some exquisite rendering of a thought into perfect poetic form. This quality is especially to be noticed in a poem called "Modern Love," published some twenty-five years ago. '°Modern Love" is, indeed, so remarkable, that whatever else of Mr. George Meredith's work mast be left unnoticed here, this tragedy of the heart must claim space for comment. Written in a series of small poems rather than stanzas, which, for want of a better name, we may call sonnets of sixteen lines, "Modern Love" tells the heart-estrangement of a man and wife,—an estrangement all the more bitter that it is but of the heart. Hardly in modern literature is to be found a more powerful picture of the vehement agony of yearning that comes when passion survives the discovery of that faith- lessness which it is more terrible- " To read on the steel-mirror of her smile," than even to know an actual sin.
It is impossible to do justice by quotation to this poem, where, in sonnet after sonnet, a man and a woman's heart-blood is wrung out drop by drop. Still, an example may be given in the two sonnets :—
"In our old shipwreck'd days there was an hoar,
When in the firelight steadily aglow, bind slackly, we beheld the chasm grow Among the clicking coals. Our library-bower That eve was left to us: and hnsh'd we sat As lovers to whom Time is whispering.
From sudden-open'd doors we heard them sing The nodding elders mix'd good wine with chat.
Well knew we that Life's greatest treasure lay
With us, and of it was our talk. 'At, yes !
Love dies !' I said I never thoaght it less.
She yearu'd to me that sentence to unsay.
Then when the fire domed blackening, I found Her cheek was salt against my kiss, and swift Up the sharp scale of sobs her breast did lift :— Now am I haunted by that taste ! that sound!
• • • ...... • At dinner she is hostess, I am host.
Went the feast ever cheerfaller ? She keeps The Topic over intellectual deeps
In buoyancy afloat. They see no ghost. With sparkling surfaoe.eyes we ply the ball It is in truth a most contagious game; HWINU me BRELZTON shalt be its Mime.
Such play as this the devils might appal !
But here's the greater wonder ; in that we, Enamour'd of our acting and our wits, Admire each other like true hypocrites.
Warmlighted glances, Love's Ephemera, Shoot gaily o'er the dishes and the wine.
We waken envy of our happy lot.
Fast, sweet, and golden, shows our marriage-knot.
Dear guests, you now have seen Love's corpse-light shine ! "
Of course, two sonnets torn from their context thus, are hardly intelligible, and may seem almost to exhibit the very qualities which we have condemned. We must, however, run this risk, for without a quotation from "Modern Love" it would be impossible for our readers to have any notion of Mr. George Meredith's tragic force and intensity of passion. The grim and sardonic humour which is so often shown by Mr. George Meredith in his prose, is present also in his verse. "Juggling Jerry," "The Old Chartist," and "Grandfather Bridgeman," all possess this quality in a high degree. Though the poems from which we have as yet quoted are to be found exclusively among the earlier worke, it must not be supposed that Mr. George Meredith's later verse is all in the inarticulate vein. No doubt he has, like Mr. Browning, shown a tendency to let his natural leaning towards obscurity grow upon him. Still, the last two volumes of poems show work of high excellence.
The Lark Ascending," published only some three years ago, is an ode which, for melody and lyric fervour, deserves special praise. The treatment of the theme might well serve as text for a homily on the way in which realism has invaded every art. When Shelley addresses the skylark, the bird's notes are lost in a tempest of gorgeous poetic imagination.
"Hail to thee, blithe spirit, Bird then never wert,"
is his invocation. The bird ceases to be a bird, and becomes the spirit of the poet's dream. With Wordsworth, the sky- lark is the vehicle for a moral reflection, beautiful and appro- priate, no doubt, but absolutely unrealistic. What touches him is the lesson the bird conveys as he rises over his neat,—
" True to the kindred points of Heaven and home." How different is the modern singer's invocation !— " He rises and begins to round,
Be drops the silver chain of sound Of many links without a break In chirrup, whistle, slur, and shake."
His is the real skylark, the bird itself, not the ideal that the song has put into the post's brain. Mr. George Meredith is, however, far too much of a poet to let realism mar his work, Though he so obviously feels its influence. As the rapture with which the bird's song inspires him swells and rises, he shakes off the earth, and reaches the common ground of all true poetry. This, the region of pure song, is reached when the verse has thus become "an ecstasy to music turned." The notes -the bird scatters are-
" Such wooing as the ear receives
From Zephyr caught in °boric leaves Of aspens, when their chattering net Is flushed to white with shivers wet ; And such the water-spirits chime On mountain heights in morning's prime,
Too freshly sweet to seem excess, Too animate to need a stress ; But wider over many heads, The starry voice ascending spreads, Awakening, as it waxes thin, The best in us to him skis;
And every face to watch him raised, Puts on the light of children praised.
It would be out of place to leave Mr. George Meredith's verse without some reference to his metrical experiments. Though no doubt the poet is right to be continually essaying to extend the scope and tone of his instrument, he must be very cautions That he is not misled into sacrificing beauty of tone for mere novelty. In many instances we cannot help thinking that this has been the case. There in one essential condition for all metres. They must scan themselves—read like verse—without the aid of our feet or hands to thrum them out a music. It cannot be said that this condition is fulfilled in lines like,— "Divinely thrilled was the man, exultingly full
An quick well-waters that come of the heart of earth."
In one poem, however, "Love in the Valley," a new metre is really contrived so as to make a music of its own. Could any- thing be sweeter in sound than :—
Under yonder beech-tree single on the green.sward,
Couched with her arms behind her golden head, Knees and tresses folded to slip and ripple idly, Lies my young love sleeping in the shade." Space does not allow us to enter into the very interesting question of Mr. George Meredith's use of language. To us it seems that he often errs greatly in the strain he puts upon it, especially in his creation or use of ugly and unaccustomed words. What, for instance, could be more intolerable than the word " dotlings" in a serious poem P But, after all, if it, is pedantic in him to use such words, it were far worse pedantry to refuse him for that reason the name of poet. It is absurd to deny that poetry may exist in spite of a thousand perversities and affectations of style. In Mr. George Meredith's verses, notwithstanding all their faults, the characteristics of true poetry are certainly to be found. However many may be his defects, there runs through his work a clear and perfectly distinct poetic vein,—thin, perhaps, and crooked, but none the less reek Once grant this, and we have no right to refuse a wider recognition to Mr. George Meredith as one of the poste of our generation.