( Originally Published 1907 )
MR. MEREDITH IS "the last leaf upon the tree in the spring." Mr. Swinburne and Mr. Hardy belong in some measure to our own generation, both in spirit and in time. But Mr. Meredith gathered in his sheaves in that rich harvest time when Tennyson and Browning, Carlyle and Ruskin, Dickens and Thackeray were his fellow-gleaners; when Darwin was recasting the history of man, as Copernicus had recast the structure of the heavens; and when Thomson was daily adding to the story of man's conquest over matter. He is the last of the giants.
It is nearly sixty years since Tennyson's ear caught a fresh note in the woodland song, a brave, joyous note, thrilling as the lark, pure as the nightingale. For young Meredith burst on the world singing that matchless " Love in the Valley," and Tennyson was haunted by its liquid, full-throated melody. It haunts us still. It will haunt the world for ever. For it is one of the indisputable things of literature. Listen:
Happy, happy time when the white star hovers Low over dim fields fresh with bloomy dew, Near the face of dawn that draws athwart the darkness, Threading it with colour, like yewberries the yew. Thicker crowd the shades as the grave East deepens Glowing, and with crimson a long cloud swells. Maiden still the morn is; and strange she is, and secret.
Strange her eyes; her cheeks are cold as cold sea-shells.
It was the glad song of the dawn. And now the long summer day has drawn to evening evening serene and joyous as the dawn : the deep, resonant voice clear and thrilling as of old, the light of the dark eye undimmed, the intellect undarkened, the frequent laughter buoyant and infectious as a child's.
He is the spirit of unconquerable youth. He brings into our querulous and near-sighted time the spacious cheerfulness of a more confident day. " People talk about me," he says, " as if I were an old man. I do not feel old in the least. On the contrary, I do not believe in growing old, and I do not see any reason why we should ever die. I take as keen an interest in the movement of life as ever. I enter into the passions of youth, and I watch political affairs with the same keen interest as of old. I have seen the illusion of it all, but it does not dull my zest, and I hold more firmly than ever to my faith in the constant advancement of the race."
Life to him is a gallant adventure of the soul. The victories of the common man are the victories of ponderable things. They are recorded in the banker's ledger. George Meredith's career has been one long victory of the spirit a buoyant, indomitable spirit, all sunshine and fresh air. He is the captain of his unconquerable soul. Long years of failure and neglect could not sour him; age cannot dull the edge of his blithe spirit. When, far away in • the fifties, he was reduced to the last verge of impoverishment, he bought himself a sack of oatmeal, and having no money with which to get fuel, he subsisted on oatmeal and water, and on that Spartan diet wrote Evan Harrington, the most joyous comedy in the language, a novel full of the singing of birds and light-hearted laughter, of the gaiety of the incomparable Countess, and of jolly cricket on the village green. And when the world would still have none of him, he cheerfully set himself to other tasks to win his bread, wrote " leaders " for the Ipswich Gazette, turned an honest penny as locum tenens for his life-long friend, Mr. John Morley, on The Fortnightly, arid having failed in his bid for a popular success wrote for himself, growing ever more subtle and oblique, displaying ever more of the Virgilian obscuris vera involvens. If he thought of his public at all he must have thought of it as Savage Landor thought " I shall dine late; but the room will be well lighted, the company few and of the best."
Success in the ordinary material sense has never come to him. The largest sum he has ever received for a novel, I believe, is £qoo, and even the ripple that Diana of the Crossways caused on the surface of the popular mind was due less to its amazing merits than to the fact of the supposed identification of Diana with Mrs. Norton, who was said to have sold the famous secret to the Times. But he never asked for success. The joy of living has been all-sufficient. We catch a glimpse of him in middle life in Justin McCarthy's Reminiscences.
He loved bodily exercises of all kinds; he delighted to take long brisk walks " spins " as he called them along the highways and byways of the neighbourhood; and he loved to wander through the woods and to lie in the grass, and I have no doubt he would have enjoyed climbing the trees. He seemed to have much of the temperament of the fawn; he seemed to have sprung from the very bosom of Nature herself. It amazed me, when I first used to visit him, to see a man, no longer young, indulge in such feats of strength and agility. It delighted him to play with great iron weights, and to throw heavy clubs into the air and catch them as they fell and twirl them round his head as if they had been light bamboo canes.
The long country walks are over, and no longer he indulges in heroic feats with the clubs; but all the rest is as of old. He has still the " temperament of the fawn " and -the unquenchable passion for life. As you meet him driving on the country roads near his delightful little home under the shadow of Box Hill, you are arrested by the quick vivacious glance that roves the landscape and scans the passing faces with eager interest. And if you have the good fortune to go with him into his garden with the beautiful yew hedge and the little wooden chalet at the top of the garden slope, you will find his talk full of the light and laughter of youth, and you will find his attitude to the world reflected in his genial comrade-ship with his gardener, who is not a servant but an old friend. For he has none of the aloofness of genius —that haughty pride that made Wordsworth turn his back on De Quincey, who had dared to praise his mountains. Nothing to him is base or trivial, no one too slight for his joyous fellowship; and so he enters into the heart of " Old Martin's Puzzle" as keenly as into the secret of the " hymning night," and shares the careless gaiety of the boy as readily as the mystery of a woman's soul. There are no boys in literature like Meredith's boys, no cricket matches so full of the true glamour of the game as his.
He has an intimacy with Nature which has nothing in common with that of the student who would " peep and botanise upon his mother's grave." It is intuition rather than erudition. He has not learned the secrets of Nature from without, but seems to come from the heart of Nature bearing those secrets with him. William Sharp records that he walked over from Meredith's one day to visit Grant Allen at Dorking. When he was about to return, Grant Allen said he would walk with him, as he wanted to ask Meredith about a disputed point in natural history. Sharp expressed surprise that a specialist like Allen should wish to consult an amateur on a matter of intimate knowledge and observation.
"There are not half a dozen men living," replied Grant Allen, to whom I would go in preference to Meredith on a point of this kind. He knows the intimate facts of countryside life as very few of us do after the most specific training. I don't know whether he could describe the greenfinch in the wild cherry yonder in the terms of an ornithologist and botanist in fact, I'm sure he couldn't. But you may rest assured there is no ornithologist living who knows more about the finch of real life than George Meredith does its appearance, male and female, its song, its habits, its dates of coming and going, the places where it builds, how its nest is made, how many eggs it lays and what like they are, what it feeds on, what its song is like before and after mating, and when and where it may best be heard, and so forth. As for the wild cherry perhaps he doesn't know much about it technically; . . but if anyone can say when the first blossoms will appear and how long they will last, how many petals each blossom has, what variations in colour and what kind of smell they have, then it's he, and no other better. And as for how he would describe the cherry tree . . . well, you've read Richard Feverel and ' Love-in the Valley,' and that should tell you everything."
This delight in the visible, tangible phenomena of Nature distinguishes him from the mystics who, like Francis Thompson, "'unsharing in the liberal laugh of earth, having no physical rapture, no sensuous joy in things, see Nature only as the strange garment of their dreams;
How should I gauge what beauty is her dole,
That expresses with rare beauty the Uranian passion of Thompson. With all the splendour of his imagery, there is no sensuous joy in the contacts of earth. The pageant of noon and night, the appeal of the universe of sound and vision and touch and all the dear intimacies that bind us to this world of visible and Prophets, Priests, and Kings tangible delights leave his translunar spirit unfettered. He cannot see the casement for the sky and has no kinship with our common life. But Meredith shares our " sensible warm motion " and shares it without the fears of the " kneaded clod " that affrighted Claudio's mind. He loves the earth with the warm, homely love of a son for his mother with a love that has no place for fear.
He is the lyric voice of Nature, as Wordsworth was her reverie. He turns to the East and the morning as instinctively as Wordsworth turned to the West and the glowing embers of the day. Like his own Lucy, Wordsworth " leaned his ear in many a secret place," and the beauty of the earth and the peace of Nature slid into his soul. To him, as to Beethoven, every tree seemed to cry " Holy, holy ! " The anthem of incommunicable things came to him out of the sunset and the silence of the starry sky and the quiet of the lonely hill'. Nature was a Presence " to be felt and known in darkness and in light," a personal voice uttering its secrets in his reverent ear. It was the voice of God, and he the consecrated vehicle of its message. Meredith's attitude is more Pagan. He does not lean his ear in the secret place. He looks out on the universe with a delighted wonder, and surrenders himself to Nature more joyfully than a deer lies down among the grass of spring." He, in his own buoyant words,
seats his soul upon her wings,
More knowledge of her secret, more
And out of that union with Nature comes the victory —not the victory over things, but the victory over self. For the self is merged in the whole, the personal in the impersonal, the mortal in the immortal. We are made one with Nature, and are lost in the notes on the lips of the choir That chants the chant of the whole.
In this joyous surrender of self there is nothing for tears, nothing to affright or dismay. The dawn is magical, but night is magical too. Life is a splendid pageant; but Death has no terrors. He does not, like Keats, " call it soft names in many a mused rhyme," for he has nothing of the hectic morbidness of Keats. He welcomes it rather as Whitman welcomed it as the strong deliverer. It is the arch where through gleams the untravelled world:
Death shall I shrink from, loving thee?
It is this unquestioning acceptance that fills the Meredithian world with such a sense of radiant optimism. He has written tragedies; but he has not the spirit of tragedy. Stevenson called Richard Feverel a brutal assault upon the feelings, and complained that Meredith had played the reader false in starting a tragedy in the spirit of comedy. But the truth is that tragedy to be tragedy must have in it the terror of death as well as the lust of life. It must ask for an individual immortality and be denied. It must have the secret of Hardy's sombre thought. He, too, sees Nature as a vast, sentient, inscrutable being ; but he sees man, not as a child taken to its bosom, but as a rabbit caught in its ruthless trap, crying, not for a vague absorption in Nature, but for its own personal, tangible existence. And out of that cry of terror comes tragedy.
Meredith has none of this terror, and if he touches the fountain of tears it is only to reveal the image of the rainbow. He is the spirit of high and noble comedy. He looks at life with a certain spacious calm, a serene tranquillity. His vision has something of the impartiality as well as of the veracity of Velasquez, something of the sovereign comprehension of Shakespeare. For with all his psychology and introspection his view is essentially objective. The world of men passes like a pageant before him, and he reads it as if it were a printed page. He sees life sanely and sees it whole, and he sees it with that robust and wholesome humour that keeps the vision true and the mind sweet.