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W.GARRETT FISHER, Academy, 11 January 1896

W.GARRETT FISHER, Academy, 11 January 1896

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MEREDITH



Browning, Mr Meredith is chiefly interested, here as in almost all his

works, in ‘the development of a soul’. He might say, with Keats, to his

reader, ‘Call the world, if you please, ‘the Vale of Soul-making’. Then

you will find out the use of the world’.1 So we are invited by his

incomparable art to consider the progress in soul of a man and woman,

Lord Fleetwood and Carinthia Jane Kirby, under the burning sunshine

and heavy showers of life. Carinthia herself, the heroine of ‘the amazing

marriage’, is one more of those noble pieces of portraiture such as no

English novelist before Mr Meredith has ever achieved. ‘She was a

warrior woman, Life her sword, Death her target, never to be put to

shame, unconquerable’. This sense of seriousness and strength, her

hereditary right, is the keynote of her story. It fell to her lot, as most

readers now know, to be mated with one of the young men who have

not learnt ‘that life is no longer a game when they have a woman for

partner in the match’. Lord Fleetwood ‘was born with suspicion of the

sex. Poetry decorated women, he said, to lime and drag men in the

foulest ruts of prose’. He cast eye on Carinthia out of spite at the

insensibility of ‘the golden Riette’, and married her but to ‘fling the

world at her’, as Lord Ormont in a different spirit had done with Aminta.

But Carinthia was no meek-spirited Griselda to play at patience, nor yet

one of ‘the inexplicable sex’ whose action under insult can never be

predicted. She is a daughter of the mountains as well as of the Old

Buccaneer, dowered with the freshness, sincerity, and courage that come

from such a double parentage. Hence arises a noble opportunity for the

treatment, in Mr Meredith’s best style, of Carinthia’s growth from

curious, impressionable girlhood into noble, steel-fibred womanhood.

Carinthia’s figure must be placed loftily among the many portraits of

‘fair and desirable women’ that Mr Meredith’s creative brain and subtly

shaping hand have already given to a grateful world.

The other striking creation in the book is the character of Lord

Fleetwood. This gentleman is compact of those nice shades and subtle

elements that Mr Meredith mingles in so masterly a fashion. Like Sir

Willoughby and Wilfred Pole, with both of whom he has a touch in

common, Lord Fleetwood is a captivating though by no means a great

man. His true nature may be easily guessed from his two conflicting,

but equally genuine, friendships, for the Catholic Lord Feltre, and the

humanist Gower Woodseer. He is, you are told repeatedly, ‘the

wealthiest nobleman in all England’. ‘He is accustomed to buy men and

1



Letter to George and Georgiana Keats, 14 February–3 May 1819.



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THE CRITICAL HERITAGE



women’, urges Riette, in her fine ‘lyrical cry’ at the end of the book.

There is the weak spot—the touch of the ‘beast of prey’. You see that

he has noble instincts by his sincere affection for Woodseer, who brings

him into contact with the work-a-day world of the brown earth; by his

no less sincere leaning to Feltre, Woodseer’s antipathetic opposite, who

points an ascetic finger to the Church. But the training in luxury, the

flattering of Sir Pandarus, have spoilt it all; and he comes in contact with

the noblest of women only to fulfil his and her destiny by dashing her

aside and learning her worthiness too late. Feltre and Woodseer, his foils,

are comparatively simple. The complexity of Lord Fleetwood’s character

is fascinating in the extreme.

The style of the book is beyond all praise. Mr Meredith at one time

(for it is permitted to see spots even on the sun) showed a tendency to

develop certain of those mannerisms which come almost inevitably with

the years to a great master of language. In his two latest books he has

achieved the feat that proved too much for Browning or Mr Ruskin,

Carlyle or Thackeray, and has returned to the simplicity of his earlier

manner, touched with a depth of thought and a mellowness of sympathy

that only the ripening years can be supposed to bring. There is nothing

here quite in the glorious poetic style of Ferdinand and Miranda or By

Wilming Weir, but there is at least one chapter that will linger as fondly

in the mind’s ear as either of those perfect idylls of youth. One quotation

from it must be made for affection, if not to give an idea of the whole.

Carinthia and her brother have just left their Tyrol home for the last time.

[Quotes v, from ‘She did not look back’ to ‘out of the chamber of

death’.]

This ‘intervolving’ of the landscape with the mind of a person is

peculiarly charactersitic of Mr Meredith, as it is of serious life.

The background in which the main plot is set argues an opulence of

fancy and a ripe knowledge of humanity to which only the very greatest

of our writers ever rise. One especially recalls the figures of ‘the golden

Riette’, the laughing, light-hearted beauty whose love for Chillon is the

only element of gravity in her nature; of the Countess Livia, who took

excitement ‘as the nymph of the stream her native wave, and swam on

the flood with expansive languor, happy to have the master passions

about her’; of the girl Madge, who ‘could be twisted to laugh at herself,

just a little. Now the young woman who can do that has already jumped

the hedge into the high road of philosophy, and may become a

philosopher’s mate in its by-ways, where the minute discoveries are the

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MEREDITH



notable treasures’. All the Fleetwood circle are sketched with the hand

of a master. But perhaps the most remarkable of all the minor characters

is that of the roving philosopher, Gower Woodseer, who shares the taste

of Vernon Whitford for country walks and plain speaking, but has a fund

of wit and philosophy that are all his own, though some have curiously

taken for granted that they must be copied from a real human being

whose similar possessions are now known to all of us. Woodseer’s social

creed, indeed, is happily expressed in a song of Mr Stevenson’s that has

just been published:

Give to me the life I love,

Let the lave go by me,

Give the jolly heaven above,

And the by-way nigh me.

Bed in the bush with stars to see,

Bread I dip in the river—

There’s the life for a man like me,

There’s the life for ever!1



The spirit of An Apology for Idlers and Travels with a Donkey, too, is

strong in Woodseer.

‘I put on my hat one day,’ he says, ‘and walked into the country. My college

fellows were hawkers, tinkers, tramps and ploughmen, choughs and crows. A

volume of our poets and a history of philosophy composed my library. I had

hardly any money, so I learnt how to idle inexpensively—a good first lesson.

We’re at the bottom of the world when we take to the road; we see men as they

were in the beginning—not so eager for harness till they get acquainted with

hunger, as I did, and studied to myself the old animal having his head pushed

into the collar to earn a feed of corn.’



Mr Stevenson has more than once put on record his immense and

laudable admiration for the author of The Egoist; and this sketch is a

new proof, if one were needed, of the essential sympathy that existed

between the minds of the greater writer and the lesser. Mr Meredith

might have been our earlier Stevenson, if he had not been our later

Shakspere. I use the phrase advisedly. Exaggeration, either of praise or

blame, is a hateful thing, although it is far too common nowadays. But

when one casts back through our literature for a parallel to the author of

Richard Feverel and The Egoist, Rhoda Fleming and Sandra Belloni, where

is one to find it save in the author of As You Like It and Hamlet and King

1 ‘The Vagabond’, st. 1; Songs of Travel (1896), i.



450



THE CRITICAL HERITAGE



Lear? At any rate, without pushing the parallel askew, one may safely

assert that no man since Shakspere has created such fair, human, and

red-blooded women as Mr Meredith. Warm-hearted Sandra, brave Rose

Jocelyn, lively Diana, enchanting Peggy Waring, [sic] peerless Clara

Middleton, grave-eyed Aminta—do not the very names hold out a

promise of delight never to be unfulfilled for the wise reader? So, too,

Bessy Berry, the Countess, that Irishwoman, Mrs Chump, and Mrs

Pagnell, who rhymed with spaniel, testify to the possession of that

kindly and lambent humour which makes a perennial joy out of the

most common-place of things. Carinthia herself is fully worthy to take

place beside the finest of these ‘Shaksperian women’, as someone has

happily called them. And the two worthy volumes in which her sober

and simple, yet powerful, story is unfolded with such admirable skill

are a fresh and most welcome contribution to that great Handbook of

Humanity which is Mr Meredith’s supremely valuable gift to the

literature of the world.



113. J.A.Noble, Spectator

lxxvi, January 1896



For J.A.Noble see above, No. 92, headnote.



It is always with a sense of mental confusion and trepidation, not allayed

by gleams of faint disturbing hope, that we open a new book by Mr

George Meredith. We have of late years been often assured—not only

by irresponsible young critics, but by various men who speak with

authority—that Mr Meredith is a great novelist; and from our

consciousness of a personal conviction that he is simply a novelist whose

books contain a few isolated great things, is born two discordant

temptations—the temptation to shout in a voice of shrill dogmatism, or

to whisper in accents of quavering self-distrust. Our only encouragement

to rely upon our own instincts is provided by the fact that where we are

today there were all the critics some ten years ago. Mr Meredith’s



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MEREDITH



warmest eulogists will allow that the novels on which his claim to

greatness must be based had been published prior to 1885, but up to that

year no suspicion of his supremacy had visited either the public or the

critics. Indeed, the public, naturally but unwisely, ignored Mr Meredith

altogether, and his critics agreed that he was a writer of considerable

intellectual grip, with very remarkable literary gifts, but that as a novelist

he was so very unequal and at times so laboriously ineffective that it

was all but impossible to place him. This is certainly the view that is

suggested by his recent performances, and especially by The Amazing

Marriage. It is rich in shrewd observation, in wise reflection, in witty

epigram—indeed Mr Meredith’s wit is his most distinctive endowment—

and there are just a few scenes which have a certain dramatic flavour;

but in the qualities which make a great work of fiction recognizable as

a creative organism, it is even conspicuously deficient. The story—if

story it can be called—has just three landmarks, the marriage itself,

which is ‘amazing’ only in virtue of the fact that Lord Fleetwood deserts

his wife almost immediately after the ceremony, the birth of a mysterious

and unaccountable baby, and the final retirement of the incredible

husband into a monastery. In the intervals a number of people pop in

and out, or hold the stage for a time, with the apparent purpose of

providing material for Mr Meredith’s Meredithisms of epigram or

paradox; for they are bodiless phantoms which give us no feeling of

flesh and blood. Of course there are passages in the novel which arrest

and startle, which make the intellect tingle with a prickly tingling as of

a galvanic current; there are even passages which charm —witness that

early chapter, ‘A Mountain Walk in Mist and Sunshine’ —but the book

as a whole is terribly hard reading for the natural man. Of course it will

be haughtily said by the Meredithians that Mr Meredith does not write

for the natural man, that his caviare is not intended to appeal to the palate

of ‘the general’; but in this case, what of the claim to greatness? Homer,

Dante, Shakespeare, and Cervantes appealed to a world, not to a côterie;

but the mention of such names as these is cruel to Mr Meredith, so we

will simply note the fact that his contemporary, Thackeray—a novelist

of genius if ever there was one—made himself heard with delight by

the ratepayer in Suburbia, as well as by the lounger at the literary clubs.

Mr Meredith might have had a place beside Thackeray; he has chosen

a place beside Lyly, and only the intellectual vigour of much of his work

will prevent the new Euphuism—a great literary nuisance it is! —from

being as short-lived as the old.



452



114. J.M.Robertson on Meredith’s

‘preciosity’

1897



John Mackinnon Robertson (1856–1933), critic and biographer,

whose works included Walt Whitman, Poet and Democrat (1884),

Criticism (1902–3), Browning and Tennyson as Teachers (1903).

In the first part of his article, not reproduced here, Robertson

estab-lishes his definition of ‘preciosity’, describes the conditions

under which it is found and briefly discusses the work of Carlyle,

Browning, Pater and Swinburne. The article appeared in Yellow

Book, xiii, April 1897.



VII

Whatever dispute there may be over the foregoing criticisms, there can

be none, I think, over the judgment that Mr Meredith’s style is the most

pronounced outbreak of preciosity in modern English literature. There,

if ever, we may allow ourselves a quasi-Pantagruelian protest. It is indeed

impossible for a reader who respects Mr Meredith’s genius to read

him—or at least his later works—without irritation at his extraordinary

ill-usage of language. Old admirers, going back to his earlier works,

never free from the sin of preciosity, recognise that there has been an

almost continuous deterioration—the fatal law of all purposive preciosity.

In the earlier novels there were at times signal beauties of phrase,

sentences in which the strain towards utterance was transmuted into fire

and radiance, sentences of the fine poet who underlay and even now

underlies that ever-thickening crust of preciosity and verbal affectation.

Even in One of Our Conquerors there seemed, to the tolerant sense, to

be still some gleams of the old flame, flashing at long intervals through

the scoriæ of unsmelted speech. But in Lord Ormont and His Aminta

neither patience nor despair can discover in whole chapters aught but

the lava and cinders of language. In mere tortuosity the writing is not



453



MEREDITH



worse; it could not well be; but now, after the first few chapters, one

has given up hope, and instead of desperately construing endless

paragraphs of gritty perversity one lightly skips every mound in the path,

content to follow the movement of a striking story behind a style that

in itself has become a mere affliction. With the exception of Zola’s La

Terre—hard reading for a different reason—One of Our Conquerors was

the hardest novel to read that I ever met with; but I have found Lord

Ormont and His Aminta easy enough. After a few chapters I no longer

sought to read Mr Meredith. I made a hand-to-mouth précis of nearly

every page, and soon got over the ground, only pausing at times to

reassure myself that all was ill.

Hardly once, so far as I have read, do we find an important sentence

really well written; never a paragraph; for the perpetual grimace of

expression, twisting the face of speech into every shape but those of

beauty and repose, is in no sense admirable. Simple statements, normal

reflections, are packed into the semblance of inspired and brilliant

aphorisms. As thus:

That great couchant dragon of the devouring jaws and the withering breath,

known as our London world, was in expectation of an excitement above yawns

on the subject of a beautiful Lady Doubtful proposing herself, through a group

of infatuated influential friends, to a decorous Court, as one among the ladies

acceptable. The popular version of it sharpened the sauce by mingling romance

and cynicism very happily; for the numerous cooks, when out of the kitchen,

will furnish a piquant dish.



The violent metaphor, thrust into the fore-front of the sentence to impress

us in advance, remains a grinning mask which moves no more; the dragon

becomes ‘the numerous cooks’. And the satire baulks no less than the

poetry; for when society’s problems are thus admittedly contemptible,

what becomes of the satirist’s story based upon one of them? A few

paragraphs further on we set out similarly with ‘the livid cloud-bank over

a flowery field’, which at once lapses to ‘the terrible aggregate social

woman…a mark of civilisation on to which our society must hold’. It is

after a grievous tirade of this sort that we have the avowal: ‘The vexatious

thing in speaking of her is, that she compels to the use of the rhetorician’s

brass instrument’. Well, we have really heard no note concerning her that

does not belong to Mr Meredith’s own orchestra; and yet when we

attempt, as we are so often moved to do, a translation of the passage into

sane English, it is hardly possible to save it from the air of platitude. So

little security does strangeness of style give for freshness of thought.

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THE CRITICAL HERITAGE



The case is past arguing. Short of the systematic counterfeiting of the

Limousin student,1 nearly every element that men have agreed to

vituperate in preciosity is found in this insupportable idiom. And all the

while we recognise it as the writing of an artist of unusual insight and

originality; a novelist, if not of the very first rank, yet so powerful and

so independent that to apply to him the term second-rate is not allowable.

He must be classed by himself, as a master with not worse limitary

prejudices than those of Balzac; with more poetic elevation than any

novelist of his day; a true modern in many things, despite a fundamental

unrealism in his characters and an almost puerile proclivity to old-world

devices of circumstantial plot. How, then, is the egregious vice of style

to be accounted for?

Why, by one or other of the antecedents which we have seen to be

involved in all preciosity; and as there is and can be no Meredithian

school or clique, we go at once to the solution of individual self-will,

defiance of censure, persistence in eccentricity, and self-absorption in

isolation. It is all sequent. His first novels, with their already eccentric

style, were given to a generation unable in the main to appreciate the

originality and importance of their problems and the subtlety of their

treatment; and the denunciations of dull critics nettled him. In a letter

to the late James Thomson, published some years ago, he spoke with

due causticity of the usual spectacle of the author haled up, with his

hands tied behind his back, before the self-elected and enthroned critic,

who tries and scourges him for the offence of writing his own book in

his own way. Contemning those who contemned him, Mr Meredith

persisted in being cryptic, eccentric, fantastic, elliptic. As if it were not

enough to be artistically too subtle for his generation, he must needs

persist in being gratuitously difficult and repellent as a writer, perverting

a fine faculty to the bad ambition of being extraordinary, nay, to that

of seeming superior. The prompt appreciation of the few good readers

did not teach him to look on the reading-public as what it is, a loose

mass of ever-varying units, in which even the dullards have no solidarity:

he entrenched himself in the Carlylean and Browningesque manner,

personifying the multitude as one lumpish hostile entity, or organized

body of similar entities. Thus when, after an interval of silence, he

produced The Egoist, and the accumulating units of the new

generation, the newer minds, appreciated the novelty of the problem

and the solution so generally as to make the book the success of its

year, he was understood to be cynical over the praise given to a work

1



Rabelais, ii, 6.



455



MEREDITH



which was in his opinion inferior to its predecessors. The new generation

has since proceeded to read those earlier works; but Mr Meredith had

fixed his psychological habits, and no sense of community with his

generation could now avail to make him treat language as a common

possession, which anyone may rightly improve, but which no one may

fitly seek to turn into impenetrable jungle for his own pleasure. Ill health

may have had something to do with Mr Meredith’s æsthetic deviation

from ‘the general deed of man’; and his contemporaries have their share

of responsibility; but we must recognize in him what we have recognized

behind all forms of preciosity—a specific limitation or one-sidedness,

a failure to develop equably and in healthy relation to all the forces of

the intellectual life. It cannot indeed be said of him that he has not

grown. In his last book, despite the visible survival, in part, of the

commonplace Jingoism of which he gave such surprising evidence in

some violent verses eight or ten years ago, he has touched a position

that is much better; and he has ventured on one solution of a sex problem

which in former years he shunned. But the very lateness of these

advances is a proof that he lost much by his isolation. Lesser people had

got as far long ago. It has been recently told of him that he now reads

in few books save the Bible and a few Greek classics—a regimen which

would ill nourish even smaller minds. What he long ago confessed of

himself in Beauchamp’s Career—that he had acquired the habit of

listening too much to his own voice—is now too obvious to need

confessing. It all goes to produce, not only that defect of relation to

current life which we see in his unhappy style, but that further defect

which consists in his lapses into unreality as a novelist. For many of us

there is such unreality in those devices of plot complication to which

he so inveterately clings, and which so vexatiously trip up at once our

illusion and our sense of his insight into the dynamic forces of character.

A recent illustration is the episode of the concealment of Weyburn and

Aminta in the wayside inn while their pursuers ride past—an episode

which belongs to the art of Fielding and Smollett. While, however, some

readers may still see no harm in these venerable expedients, every reader

who knows enough to be entitled to form a judgment must be startled

by the amazing episode of the swimming-encounter of Weyburn and

Aminta when the former is on his way to the Continent. That is the

imagination of a man who either never knew what swimming is or has

forgotten what he knew. The occurence, as related in the novel, is an

impossible dream. Mr Meredith may be in touch with the developments

of fencing—an old hobby of his—but his conception of what people do

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THE CRITICAL HERITAGE



or can do in the water is pure fantasy. In this, indeed, there is pathos;

and perhaps the ideal reader would see only pathos—or literary

picturesque—in the kindred aberration of the novelist’s prose. But when

writers are still so imperfect, there can be few perfect readers. We end

by deploring, as contemporary criticism always must, a particular case

of excessive preciosity, after setting out to find the soul of goodness in

the thing in general. As it was in bygone instances that we could best

see the element of compensation, the saving grace, it may be that the

difficulty in seeing it in contemporary cases, and above all in Mr

Meredith’s, is one which will lessen for posterity; though it is hard to

believe that posterity, with its ever enlarging library, will have the time

to ponder all of that tormented prose, supposing it to have the patience.

A misgiving arises as to whether much of Mr Meredith must not

inevitably go the way of Donne. But whether or not, his case clinches

for us the lesson that is to be learned from more ancient instances; and

that lesson may be summed up as consisting or ending in a new view

of the meaning of democracy. It is in the democratic age that we seem

to find, after all, at once the freest scope for individual literary

idiosyncrasy and the least amount of harmful contagion from it—the

maximum of the individual freedom compatible with a minimum of the

harm. It would thus seem that language, at least, is becoming effectively

socialized. And here, let us hope, lies the security against that mild form

of the malady of preciosity which is apt to follow the wide diffusion of

an imperfect culture. The preciosity of democratic half-culture, in an age

of knowledge, is at the worst a much less extravagant thing than the

preciosities of the upper-class culture of ages in which all culture was

narrow. So that the so-called process of ‘levelling-down’, here as in other

matter, turns out to give the best securities for a general levelling-up.



457



115. Arthur Symons on Meredith

as a decadent

1897



This essay was originally published as ‘A Note on George

Meredith’, Fortnightly Review, lxii, November 1897. A year later

Henri Davray used it as a Preface to his translation of the Essay

on the Idea of Comedy (1898) and Meredith wrote to Davray

asking him not to include it in further editions. Meredith thought

it ‘entirely misleading’ and ‘ludicrously childish’ to call him a

decadent. For Symons see above, No. 75, headnote.



A volume of Selected Poems, recently published, will perhaps remind

some readers that Mr George Meredith, though he has written novels,

is essentially a poet, not a novelist. It will also remind them that he is

a poet who is not in the English tradition; a seeker after some strange,

obscure, perhaps impossible, intellectual beauty, austere and fantastic.

If he goes along ways that have never been travelled in, that is because

he is seeking what no one before him has ever sought; and, more

absolutely than most less-absorbed travellers, he carries the world behind

his eyes, seeing, wherever he goes, only his own world, a creation less

recognizable by people in general than the creation of most imagemaking brains. That is why he is so difficult to follow, and why you will

be told that his writing is unnatural, or artificial. Certainly it is artificial.

‘Let writers find time to write English more as a learned language’,

said Pater;1 but Mr Meredith has always written English as if it were

a learned language. Aiming, as he has done in verse, at something

which is the poetry of pure idea, in prose, at something which is

another kind of intellectual poetry, he has invented a whole vocabulary

which has no resemblance with the spoken language, and whose merit

is that it gives sharp, sudden expression to the aspects under which he

sees things. So infused is vision in him with intellect, that he might be

1



‘English Literature’, Guardian, 17 February 1886.



458



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