German scholars used to worry about something they called ‘Das Adam Smith Problem’. There seemed to be two of him: one was the author of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, awash with warm-hearted fellow feeling; the other, the hard-nosed realist of The Wealth of Nations, a work which seemed to describe a world governed by a heedless disregard for anyone other than oneself. These days the authorities agree that, in Smith’s own terms, there wasn’t ever really a problem: it only arose from a misunderstanding of what he meant by sympathy, on the one hand, and self-love, on the other. But still, the problematists weren’t wrong that some central elements of Smith’s mind pointed in strikingly different directions, so that, say, sentimentalist and utilitarian admirers could equally find encouragement for their positions somewhere within him.
Smith is a celebrated case but the raw materials for a feeling of self-contradictoriness can probably be found in any thinker with big enough ambitions. Whether they are incoherent enough to constitute a problem is always going to be the nice question. Take George Meredith. No one can regard him as a significant thinker now – almost all of his work is long out of print – but for a few decades at the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th he was the cutting edge, a highbrow’s highbrow, and he evidently entertained philosophical ambitions of serious amplitude. But with Meredith, you feel, there really is a problem of the kind misattributed to Adam Smith: it’s often quite impossible to see how he adds up. As it happens, although Smith didn’t matter to him in the slightest, the conflicting elements of the George Meredith problem are descendants of those the anxious Germans discovered in Adam Smith, except now ratcheted up several emotive notches thanks to an intervening century of Romanticism. For Meredith offers you fellow feeling in bucketloads, passionate accounts of transformative selflessness by means of which you reach a spiritual reality that will do your heart good; but he was no less keenly attuned to an innate and ineradicable self-centredness within the human species, something he could regard with scientific dispassion or grim disapproval but either way seemed to accept as a given. And these different strands express themselves in strikingly different kinds of literature. He writes a tangly, difficult poetry of self-forgetful rapture and metaphysical exuberance, but he is also the author of some of the most brilliantly withering pages of character assassination in Victorian fiction: he had a gift for loathing his characters as great as George Eliot’s for finding the good in hers. And these different Merediths can appear disconcertingly cheek by jowl: it is as though Wordsworth were to take a break from the sublimities of ‘Tintern Abbey’ to write a few sardonic pages in the manner of Vanity Fair. In ‘real life’, Meredith judiciously observes in his novel The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, ‘all hangs together,’ but that’s not obviously the way things work in the Meredithian world.
What did his admirers see in him? A good place to start is G.M. Trevelyan’s The Poetry and Philosophy of George Meredith (1906), which helpfully and devotedly neologises the great man, presenting him as ‘the prophet of the joy and beauty of Earth’ and one whose works exemplify, in Trevelyan’s phrase, ‘Agnosticism wedded to Faith’. Meredith, who had absorbed Darwin in his own way, was thoroughly au courant with all the disenchanting tendencies of the age, but yet he managed to offer something like the old-style consolations modernity had threatened to snatch away. Trevelyan’s admiration has the feel of someone finding just what he wanted: ‘the poet of common sense, the inspired prophet of sanity’. That’s the man: ‘Loud and constant was his exhortation,’ one of Meredith’s acquaintances recalled: ‘Live with the world … Play your part. Fill the day. Ponder well and loiter not. Let laughter brace you. Exist in everyday communion with Nature.’ His moral guidance was bracingly upbeat and salutary, and it won over brainy people partly thanks to its avoidance of anything resembling a truth claim; as Trevelyan said, ‘his Faith is not belief in this or that fact as to the mechanism of the Universe, this or that view of the questions of God or Immortality in the narrower sense.’ ‘Our great error has been (the error of all religion, as I fancy) to raise a spiritual system in antagonism to Nature,’ Meredith thought, who was as tough-minded about what he called ‘fables of the Above’ as any materialist could wish. He didn’t require you exactly to believe in anything, so much as to strike a positive attitude towards things in general: ‘If we would digest the Universe,’ Trevelyan says, itself a period-piece of a phrase, ‘we must trust, not to drugs, but to exercise, clean living, and cheerfulness.’ Drugs, anyone?
Nothing could seem more absolutely consigned to history than the combination of a strong pair of legs and a healthy cast of mind that so powerfully appealed to the late Victorian intelligentsia. ‘He was all wire and whipcord,’ one of Meredith’s contemporaries recorded, ‘and his endurance, as I found out in more than one long exhausting walk and vigorous playful tussles, was unwearying.’ Leslie Stephen, one of Meredith’s friends, eulogised the effects of an invigorating tramp in the country in the true spirit: ‘You can consume your modest sandwiches, light your pipe, and feel more virtuous, and thoroughly at peace with the universe, than it is easy even to conceive yourself elsewhere.’ The open air makes you whole again, a claim that Stephen must have seemed to epitomise as he strode back into Trinity Hall with a fresh Alp in his pocket; and Meredith would have warmly agreed. The climactic episode in The Ordeal of Richard Feverel is a walk through the woods, a breezy aesthetic experience which marks the hero’s moral regeneration. (You are reminded of Irving Babbitt’s unforgiving remark about Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, ‘relieved of the burden of his transgression by admiring the colour of water-snakes!’) Meredith attributed momentousness to his own walks in the same sort of way. Gazing at the rushing torrent during a trek in the Tyrol, he looked forward to the lasting effects of the encounter, and cast his confidence into verse:
How often will those long links of foam
Cry to me in my English home,
To nerve me, whenever I hear them bellow,
Like the smack of the hand of a gallant fellow!
Can spiritual buoyancy ever have been cast in so off-putting a manner? ‘My religion of life is always to be cheerful,’ he once informed an inquirer. It’s no surprise he professed himself ‘grieved’ by his friend Hardy’s pessimism, as he told Edmund Gosse, a judgment that Gosse did not hesitate to pass on to Hardy, adding spryly: ‘I wonder whether you were not saddened by his optimism? There is something to me almost flighty in his cheerfulness. You know he has broken his ankle? He appears to be quite cheerful about that too.’ Even his admirers could find it a strain: ‘He is not an easy man to be yourself with,’ Robert Louis Stevenson confessed to Henry James, ‘there is so much of him, and the veracity and the high athletic intellectual humbug are so intermixed.’
Hardy wrote loyally after Meredith’s death that ‘His words wing on – as live words will,’ but this was not to become the standard view. ‘No,’ Leslie Stephen’s daughter wrote in 1928, ‘the general conclusion would seem to be, Meredith has not worn well.’ In that essay Woolf quoted E.M. Forster, who, the year before, had despatched Meredith in Aspects of the Novel with a dig at ‘the home counties posing as the universe’ and the final verdict that Meredith ‘now lies in the trough’ – an especially telling demolition, as Leavis remarked, for being the work of someone who had ‘belonged to the original milieu in which Meredith was erected into a great master’. A few years later, in his troubled, heresy-hunting book After Strange Gods, T.S. Eliot paired Meredith off with Gerard Manley Hopkins as ‘English nature poets’. He did not mean to pay either of them a very handsome tribute, but at least Hopkins had the Church behind him: all Meredith had, Eliot said, was ‘a few acute and pertly expressed observations of human nature’ and ‘a rather cheap and shallow philosophy of life’. Siegfried Sassoon ended his sympathetic 1948 study of Meredith with the reflection that ‘he stands the test of being thought about when one is out of doors’; but by then that must have felt like a voice from a long dead past. About the same time, in Stephen Potter’s Lifemanship (1950), the breezy non-denominational Meredithian pieties have clearly become objects of a more worldly fun. Advising his reader on ways of making people feel usefully awkward about religion, Potter recommends a speech along these lines: ‘Elsa, when the painted glass is scattered from the windows, and the roof is open to the sky, and the ordinary simple flowers grow in the crevices of pew and transept – then and not till then will your church, as I believe, be fit for our worship.’
And yet Stevenson had it right: there is athletic humbug, but at the same time ‘there is so much of him.’ His nature poems are quite unlike anything else written in the 19th century except perhaps, as Eliot observed, the wilder stretches of Hopkins. They are, in his own fruity phrase, ‘revelries of ripeness’. The power of such poetry is a function of its utter lack of decorum, and when it’s at its best it is very odd indeed:
The crimson-footed nymph is panting up the glade,
With the wine-jar at her arm-pit, and the drunken ivy-braid
Round her forehead, breast, and thighs: starts a Satyr, and they speed:
Hear the crushing of the leaves: hear the cracking of the bough!
And the whistling of the bramble, the piping of the weed!
The mood of this high-minded romp, ‘Ode to the Spirit of Earth in Autumn’, is one of rampant pantheism, and, as with many of Meredith’s nature poems, it seems only right that it should go on and on – one more sign of the reckless natural abundance it exists to celebrate. Meredith uses the classical machinery of nymphs and satyrs in a blithely non-classical way: characteristically, the overwhelming jollity of the poem incorporates a barely covert amusement at the eccentricity of its own proceedings. In one of his cartoons Max Beerbohm hit off the effect with brilliant concision, picturing Meredith urging his sluggish aesthetic friend Rossetti to rouse himself: ‘Come forth into the glorious sun and wind for a walk to Hendon and beyond!’ Beerbohm captures exactly the way Meredith can be rapt and ludicrous at the same time, inhabiting a world of innocent hyper-realism – where else but in Meredithian woods would ‘Mossy-footed squirrels leap/Soft as winnowing plumes of Sleep’ and get away with it? The lines that stick in your mind are often unhinged like that, their ‘joy of Earth’ complicated by the force of Meredith’s hyperbolic personality, expressions of a ‘love exceeding a simple love of the things/That glide in grasses and rubble of woody wreck’ (‘Melampus’).
The moral in the verse is not remotely obscure. The problem in life is the ego, which Meredith colourfully calls the ‘distempered devil of Self’, and what you must do obviously is lose it, which involves recognising your participation in nature and emulating its things – such as the exuberant bird in ‘The Lark Ascending’ who sings ‘seraphically free/Of taint of personality’ and so offers a lesson in ‘self-forgetfulness divine’. The gifted critic Graham Hough once singled out this sort of ‘glad act of identification with the non-human energies’ as a key to Meredith, which makes him something like the Shelley of ‘Mont Blanc’ or ‘Ode to the West Wind’, except that a mountain or a wind in Shelley is always more than just a mountain or a wind – it is an embodiment of Power, the spirit of revolution, a dream of historical inevitability – and Meredith’s lark is just a lark, which of course is all it needs to be: ‘Toss your heart up with the lark,/Foot at peace with mouse and worm,/Fair you fare.’
Meredith is touchingly full of advice like that, manifestly well-meant and clearly well-received by his many admirers, but no less puzzling for that. The sense of perplexity stems not only from the intrinsic paradox of willing yourself to be as much like nature as you can be, a determination which no bird or mouse could ever entertain, but also from the form in which Meredith casts his prescriptions. How would you go about footing with a worm, say? It means more, presumably, than the intention not to tread on one. And how, for a more sensational example, would you act on this instruction from his ‘Hymn to Colour’?
Look now where Colour, the soul’s bridegroom, makes
The house of heaven splendid for the bride.
To him as leaps a fountain she awakes,
In knotting arms, yet boundless: him beside,
She holds the flower to heaven, and by his power
Brings heaven to the flower.
‘Damn you, George,’ said his friend Burnand, the editor of Punch, ‘why won’t you write as you talk?’ Meredith was probably no more solipsistic than anyone else but, as John Bayley once nicely remarked in a review of the collected poems, his hallmark idiom is about as solipsistic as can be. The poetry celebrates open-air, big-hearted, honest and robust virtues, but its usual manner is contrived, self-absorbed, often deeply cryptic, as though using English according to some utterly private set of rules. The critic M.R. Ridley, a loyal Meredithian, once floated the thought that the complications arose because Meredith chose to deploy ‘an uninflected language as though it were an inflected one’, as if this was always an option: the consequence is turns of phrase such as ‘soul of him/Possessed walks never dim,’ or ‘Carols nature, counsel men,’ or ‘A woman who is wife despotic lords/Count faggot at the question, Shall she live!’, in which the words shimmy in and out of their different grammatical possibilities and dazzle you.
The self-absorption is the very stuff of the second George Meredith, the one who flourishes most obviously in the sprightly world of the novels. His masterpiece in prose is undoubtedly The Egoist in which, despite the title, all the principal characters are more or less landlocked within themselves, with the star turn a colossal moral imbecile called Sir Willoughby Patterne. Meredith’s pleasure in hating him and his society has the versatility of true loathing. Willoughby has a ‘clever tongue’: his garrulity earns him ‘a reputation as a convivial sparkler’, and he basks incorrigibly in his self-esteem. His aim and instinct are wholly to subdue the personality of Clara, his intended, to his own, and the book tells at length the story of her attempts to break out of his clutches, which she does manage finally though messily. Clara is capable of a transporting moment or two in the breezy air, and she certainly sounds at times like someone who is on message: ‘If Willoughby would open his heart to nature, he would be relieved of his wretched opinion of the world,’ she reflects at one point, while in the quintessentially Meredithian act of throwing open a window. But here the uplift has a dutiful quality, and Clara’s deepest insight comes towards the end of the novel when she realises that she too has acted out of a robust egoism all of her own. Not that she seems any the worse for it: Meredith defended himself sturdily against the charge of cynicism, and the novel indeed suggests that a healthy dose of unembarrassed self-assertion might be no bad thing. ‘The Egoist is our fountain-head, primeval man,’ Meredith tells us, ‘the primitive is born again, the elemental reconstituted’; and the often insufferable narrator is no exception to this universal quasi-Darwinian principle.
The moral logic of the book, that is to say, turns out to be much more complicated than an improving tale of female emancipation because Meredith himself is engaged in the same struggle for rhetorical mastery, busy conjuring a wondrous egoistical display of his own. In this context, his friendship with the editor of Punch doesn’t come as a surprise, since the flamboyance of his style is clearly related to the sort of facetious pleonastic verbosity that journal made a trademark of English humour; and, as with Punch, the joke is partly about being wearisome. There can be no other unmistakably great novel that starts with such a parade of over-writing as The Egoist does: ‘A stretch from the Lizard to the last few poor pulmonary snips and shreds of leagues dancing on their toes for cold, explorers tell us, and catching breath by good luck, like dogs at bones about a table, on the edge of the Pole’ – which is a frankly ridiculous way of saying, roughly, ‘from Land’s End to John O’Groats’. But the total effect of the book is huge and compelling – there is so much of him – and the manner ultimately justifies itself triumphantly as an expression of the book’s pervasive, strange, sardonic energy. It is certainly inimitable: were you in a creative writing seminar you would be hard-pressed to defend such elephantine constructions as ‘she left him, feeling the contempt of the brain feverishly quickened and fine-pointed, for the brain chewing the cud in the happy pastures of unawakenedness’ or ‘the publican’s ancestors and family sat against the walls, flat on their canvas as weeds of the botanist’s portfolio, although corpulency was pretty generally insisted on, and there were formidable battalions of bust among the females.’ Or if imitable then only by the grace of parody, as Beerbohm showed in A Christmas Garland: ‘In the heart of insular Cosmos, remote by some scores of leagues of Hodge-trod arable or pastoral … ’
The pathos Meredith barely allows himself to acknowledge in The Egoist is Willoughby’s terrible emotional neediness. During a conversation early in their unsatisfactory courtship, Clara falls silent, ‘knowing’, Meredith says, ‘that he did not know her, and speculating on the division made bare by their degrees of the knowledge’. The clear-sighted acknowledgment of human isolation in that, so reminiscent of Hardy, doesn’t often make it into the poetry, which tends to imagine human love on the same rhapsodic scale as it does the natural world, most memorably in ‘Love in a Valley’, his happiest masterpiece (Meredith never fails to rise to the occasion of women’s hair):
O the golden sheaf, the rustling treasure-armful!
O the nutbrown tresses nodding interlaced!
O the treasure-tresses one another over
Nodding! O the girdle slack about the waist!
But even here, where the spirits could hardly be more soaring, the proto-Betjemanian way in which the lines send themselves up might suggest some covertly defensive or self-protective movement of his mind, as though defusing a cynical reaction to his adoration by getting one in first. Bayley memorably discerned ‘something wholly insecure’ at the heart of the poems, and many of the reminiscences seem to confirm the sense of a wobbly personality articulating itself in self-conscious errancies of voice. An early admirer from Cambridge noticed ‘his incisive methods of expression, and the strange way in which he would of a sudden turn into ridicule about half of what he had said seriously just before … my undergraduate friends did not know what to make of him.’ ‘Love in a Valley’ never swerves into open ridicule, to be sure, but there is a disarming spirit of comedy in the way the poem is as much about being plain stumped by his love object as it is about knowing all her ways. The behaviour of the girl in ‘Love in a Valley’ is registered with the deep and appalled fascination with which Pater regarded the Mona Lisa or Ted Hughes his jaguar, and she remains just as much a closed book: ‘Strange she is, and secret;/Strange her eyes; her cheeks are cold as cold seashells.’ The romance is giddy and the joke is on the lover: ‘clearly a very ordinary sort of girl in a comparatively humble way of life’, Bayley ruminated, ‘a farmer’s daughter perhaps’. Any attempt the lover might make to – as Meredith put it in a characteristically twisted way in The Egoist – ‘angle for the first person in the second’ is here thoroughly stymied by a third person who is not going to be fathomed: ‘She whom I love is hard to catch and conquer,/Hard, but O the glory of the winning were she won!’ Sir Willoughby might have said the same of Clara.
‘Love in a Valley’ portrays the gap between people consolingly within the ideal frame of pastoral fantasy. In only one of his poems does Meredith draw fully on the hard comedy of egoism that informs his fiction: it’s his masterpiece of total insecurity, and perhaps the greatest of all his works.
‘Modern Love’ was published in 1862 in a volume that also included some colourful sketches in verse of robust rural characters and examples of Meredith’s vigorous landscape poetry: Modern Love and Poems of the English Roadside, with Poems and Ballads is the awkwardly titled text that Rebecca Mitchell and Criscillia Benford have edited in handsome style. ‘Modern Love’ is a sort of dark sister-piece to the sunshine of ‘Love in a Valley’, and not at all what his contemporaries admired in him; as this edition demonstrates, the reviewers were happy enough with the wholesome poems about rustics, but they mostly loathed ‘Modern Love’. Even the great R.H. Hutton of the Spectator thought ‘Modern Lust’ might have been a fitter title and disliked what he called its ‘fast’ manners. Swinburne wrote in with an angry defence which Hutton printed but was unpersuaded by.
It came out of the formative crisis of Meredith’s life. In 1849 he had married Mary Ellen, the clever and witty daughter of Thomas Love Peacock, with whom at first they lived. The marriage was obviously a good one for Meredith, who had come from nowhere much and now found himself part of a distinguished literary circle; and the pair seems to have started out genuinely close and happy. Meredith called Peacock ‘the clever old man’, a phrase which no doubt could convey a range of feelings. For his part Peacock evidently found his son-in-law’s Tiggerish manners rather a strain and disliked his smoking. When a baby arrived it was a disruption too far and the couple moved to a small cottage, where a mixture of professional disappointment, lack of space, and having no money had soon turned things sour. Their son later offered a sorry and perceptive account of what went wrong: ‘Two highly strung temperaments – man and wife – each imaginative, emotional, quick to anger, cuttingly satirical in dispute, each an incomparable wielder of the rapier of ridicule, could not find domestic content within the narrow bounds of poverty and lodgings.’ In 1858, Mary left Meredith for the painter Henry Wallis, whose image of Thomas Chatterton, sprawled on his suicidal couch, is one of the best known Pre-Raphaelite portraits. Meredith had been the model for Chatterton, which cannot have helped. The lovers ran away to Capri, but Mary arrived back in England the following year with a baby; abandoned by Wallis, she may have tried to patch things up with Meredith, but he was immovable, refusing to let her see their boy and never meeting her again. In October 1861 news came of her death: ‘This filled my mind with melancholy recollections which I rarely give way to,’ Meredith wrote stiffly to a friend.
Feelings of a kind he rarely let himself feel certainly made the poem possible, but, as the editors here remark, it is not simply an oblique account of the unhappiness of their marriage, and narrowly biographical readings sell it short. It is a consciously devised story which you piece together through the interstices of the fifty lyrics that compose the work, a method which Meredith describes in the poem itself as ‘tragic hints’. A good part of its greatness is novelistic: the vivid capturing of domestic episodes, glimpses of awkward life that communicate more than their participants could have realised, forlorn little vignettes of banal miscommunication. The narrative is straightforward: a husband, the speaker, comes to learn that his wife has had an affair, a thought which leaves him in rags, making his continuing desire for her, their moments of physical intimacy and all the mundane business of their cohabitation, an imprisonment and a torture. ‘He moves but in the track of his spent pain,’ as one of the many starkly abrupt formulations of the poem puts it. The husband has had at least one affair in the past and admits to keeping a trophy lock of hair in his desk drawer, but the point is not held up, as it might have been by Hardy, as a case study in the hypocrisy of sexual codes: the focus of the poem is too remorselessly claustrophobic to gain anything like an objective vantage point. As retaliation, the husband takes a lover; the marital home, and the table over which husband and wife still preside with frightening plausibility when friends come round, become sites of mutual destruction, no less dreadful for being acted out almost entirely by implication and innuendo. The story is not without its high-pitched passages, but it is actually rather less melodramatic than real life was, partly because Meredith chose to write out the complication of the couple having a child. Disaster, in the poem, is a matter of grinding attrition, and closure of a kind only comes when the wife unexpectedly dies in bed.
It is often described as a sonnet sequence, but they are not really sonnets. A sonnet is traditionally a verbal machine of 14 lines which sorts out a problem, often a problem to do with the psychology of love, and it works purposefully towards a clinching couplet or a resolving sestet (however subject to irony or doubt the answer arrived at might be). But nothing is sorted out in Meredith’s poem, and his lyrics are best described as non-sonnets, each 16 lines long, made up of four abba quatrains: the sonnet machinery is pointedly not turning here. The emotional pitch of the piece doesn’t progress either, but wavers, sometimes crazily, between histrionics (‘See that I am drawn to her even now!’) and sudden bursts of emotional wildness (‘The dread that my old love may be alive,/Has seiz’d my nursling new love by the throat’). The poem was written quickly, and it keeps a pacey spirit that allows for a marvellously embittered line in colloquial wisecracks, almost in anticipation of Berryman’s sardonic throwaways. Here, for instance, the two women in the narrator’s life (he refers to his wife as ‘Madam’ and to his lover as ‘my Lady’) have encountered one another with good grace, each afterwards praising to him the attributes of the other:
Now, Madam’s faulty feature is a glazed
And inaccessible eye, that has soft fires,
Wide gates, at love-time only. This admires
My Lady. At the two I stand amazed.
It is a superb moment, a piece of brittle social comedy as well as a devastating portrait of the husband’s bewildered vanity.
Meredith was one of the worst narrators in the history of the English novel, Forster said; but ‘Modern Love’ turns his inability to set things out in a straight line to advantage, enabling an extraordinary dramatisation of emotional evasiveness and obstruction. He once professed his literary passion to be for ‘epical subjects – not for cobwebs in a putrid corner’ – though, as he conceded, ‘I know the fascination of unravelling them.’ But his most lasting poem is about cobwebs, precisely domestic and not epical, a torment played out in the corners of drawing rooms and double beds and gardens. ‘I have become an adjective,’ he was pleased to observe when an old man, as indeed he had; but it is an odd irony that ‘Modern Love’ should be good in ways that no one in his day would ever have considered good. It’s as though he had been momentarily freed, though at a terrible and humiliating price, from the obligation to be Meredithian, even the onerous duty of feeling better after a walk in the fresh air:
She joins me in a cat-like way, and talks
Of company, and even condescends
To utter laughing scandal of old friends.
These are the summer days, and these our walks.