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REV. JAMES MOFFATT on Meredith in perspective, Bookman, July 1909

REV. JAMES MOFFATT on Meredith in perspective, Bookman, July 1909

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MEREDITH



Lord Ormont and His Aminta, includes this exquisite glimpse of a

summer day beside the Thames:

[Quotes ‘Pastorals’, vii, ll. 41–7.]

Over and over again, in prose and verse, he shows this power of

reproducing a natural scene in its detail and charm. Thus, in his last

volume, we get the following lyric, a vignette of autumn:

[Quotes ‘Song in the Songless’.]

But Nature came to mean far more than this to Meredith. Thomas

Love Peacock, his father-in-law, to whom the volume of 1851 was

dedicated, had cited in his Misfortunes of Elphin a Welsh triad upon ‘the

three primary requisites of poetical genius: an eye that can see Nature;

a heart that can feel Nature; and a resolution that dares follow

Nature’. 1The first two requisites never abandoned Meredith. His

sensitiveness to Nature enabled him to round the inward vision by lyric,

lucid transcripts of what he saw and felt, from blackbirds to larks and

nightingales, from the Thames to the Alps, from the crocus to the wild

cherry-tree. His prose and verse repeatedly vibrate with such passages—

sometimes a sentence or stanza, sometimes a paragraph or chapter—of

direct intuition and unaffected charm. But another spirit of affectation

and complexity struggled for his soul as a literary artist. Its hold upon

him was due to the prominence assigned to his peculiar conception of

the third requisite in the Welsh triad. Nature to him meant the cosmos

of modern evolutionary science, and loyalty to Nature involved an ethical

idealism which sought the ethical standards as well as the physical origin

of man in his relationship to the facts and forces of this living organism.

This frank recognition of human nature as part of Nature produced

Meredith’s characteristic attack on sentimentalism and his buoyant, grave

message of courage and joy. But it was responsible for serious defects

in his literary method. Into its philosophic merits or demerits we need

not enter here. The point is that his propaganda led not only to an ultrasubtle handling of motives, which investigated human nature with a

lens and a scalpel, but to a disproportionate and unseasonable intrusion

of philosophic analysis upon the course of his novels and the

movement of his larger poems. To read some of the latter is like

listening to a canary in a room full of typewriters at work: you

catch occasional notes of song amid the metallic and staccato click

of the machines. As for the romances, they are studded with half1



Misfortunes of Elphin (1829).



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THE CRITICAL HERITAGE



defiant, half-contrite apologies for the intrusions of the Philosopher, but

the latter is too much in evidence. He takes you behind the booth to let

you see the strings by means of which the showman works his puppets.

The result is that the characters are not always kept at blow-heat, while

the reader’s attention is apt to flag. It is as if Marcus Aurelius had

embodied his philosophy in tales of the Romans and the Quadi.

This pre-occupation springs from the correct perception that human

motives are to be sought in the ideas rather than in the appetites, but

Meredith pays too little attention to the facts and incidents which give

rise to the ideas in question, and in which his characters ought to have

been allowed to reveal themselves more fully than they do. What

interests him is the effect produced upon his characters by certain events

in the chain of circumstance, and, in his eagerness to analyze the former,

he often commits the inartistic blunder of merely hinting at the latter.

He allows his antipathy to the reporting columns of sensational fiction

to carry him too far. When he chooses, he can give his readers

Stevenson’s luxury of laying aside the judgment and being submerged

by the tale as by a billow. But the trouble is that he often chooses the

worst part. Instead of letting himself go, he will prefer to keep your head

prosaically safe above the water, or even to drag you ashore, while he

expounds in diverting and ingenious words the sequence of the tides.

Thus the duels are never described directly in The Tragic Comedians or

in Beauchamp’s Career, while the horse-whipping in the latter book is

only alluded to. The divorce-case in Diana, and Lord Fleetwood’s

nocturnal visit to Carinthia are similarly ignored, except by way of

allusion. Things happen, of vital moment to the story. We only hear of

them incidentally. The Greek dramatists employed a Messenger to tell

the audience such incidents, but while Meredith creates an equivalent

to the Greek chorus, he forgets to include in his dramatis personæ any

Messenger, the result being that his method of telling a story frequently

suggests a forgetfulness of the distinctions between the psychological

essay and the romance. Thus, in the searching and poignant sequence

of poems entitled ‘Modern Love’, it is not easy, even after a second or

third reading, to make out the precise facts which underlie the actions

and emotions of the husband and the wife as they blunder against one

another in the snare of their own devising. But this perverse habit of

allusiveness became more irritating than ever in the prose romances,

when the author had less excuse for his failure to be explicit and definite.

Style is ultimately a matter of temperament, and it is the same

passion for suggesting a multiplicity of more or less obvious ideas

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MEREDITH



which is largely responsible for the elliptic discords and the conceits

in Meredith’s brilliant and energetic phrasing. After Rosamund Culling

had listened to Dr Shrapnel, ‘it was perceptible to her that a species

of mad metaphor had been wriggling and tearing its passage through

a thorn-bush in his discourse, with the furious urgency of a sheep in

a panic; but where the ostensible subject ended and the metaphor

commenced, and which was which at the conclusion, she found it

difficult to discern’. De te fabula, the exasperated reader of Meredith

is often tempted to exclaim. No one can go quite so far wrong as a

clever man, when he sets his mind to it, or rather as a genius who is

also a clever man and who, as Henley grumbled, sometimes prefers

his cleverness to his genius.1 But the genius is there, and it reasserts

itself before long, even in the most ornate and grotesque chapters of

the novels. Yes, ‘genius’ is the word for him, intellectual and

imaginative genius. The Times reviewer singled out his first great

romance as ‘penetrative in its depth of insight and rich in its variety

of experience’,2 while George Eliot had already hailed The Shaving of

Shagpat as ‘a work of genius’ in its own way.3 The subsequent novels

bore out the promise of these initial works. The four most characteristic

of the series—The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, The Egoist, Beauchamp’s

Career, and Diana of the Crossways—rank among the contributions

of the Victorian age to the great literature of English fiction. They

possess the line and colour of master-pieces, stamped with the

individuality of a profound intellect. And they are flanked by poems

such as the ‘Hymn to Colour’, ‘The Nuptials of Attila’, ‘Earth and a

Wedded Woman’, ‘The Thrush in February’, ‘Juggling Jerry’, ‘The

Woods of Westermain’, ‘Love in a Valley’, and ‘Melampus’ —to name

only representative specimens of the author’s versatile talent. These all

testify to the essentially ‘great’ note of his mind, to the extraordinary

penetration and wide grasp which inform the luxuriant fancy and terse

energy of the style upon the higher levels of his prose or verse.

For Meredith’s eccentricity is of expression rather than of ideas. Like

his own ‘later Alexandrian’, ‘mystic wrynesses he chased’ —and caught

and fondled. The style is often as condensed and enigmatic as the

digressions are prolix. But his thought, or rather his penetrating out-look

upon life, has an equipoise and unity of its own. His ideal of life

according to Nature saves him, even in his most daring and radical

moments, from falling into the extravagances of the crude theorist, who

1



See above, No. 59.



2



See above, No. 23.



500



3



See above, No. 7.



THE CRITICAL HERITAGE



would either flout Nature or worship natural instincts or fall into raptures

before the ‘green thought in the green shade’. One of the best

illustrations of this balance occurs in his stringent criticism of plutocratic

society in ‘The Empty Purse’ and in Beauchamp’s Career, where his

denunciations are carefully accompanied by a frank recognition of the

place due to tradition and of the risks run by the extreme reformer. But

perhaps a comparison of his treatment of the lark with the similar poems

of Shelley and Wordsworth will serve to bring out what is meant by the

equilibrium of his judgment. To Shelley the lark represented an

‘unbodied joy’, which scorns and surpasses the earthly measures of men.

Wordsworth saw in its mounting and dropping an emblem of ‘the wise

who soar, but never roam’ from their appointed lot on earth. Meredith

combines the joy and the link with earth in a higher synthesis. His lines

upon ‘The Lark Ascending’ begin with a passage of genuine poetry

describing the bird’s song:

[Quotes ‘The Lark Ascending’, ll. 1–8.]

But Meredith finds in the lark a truth of his own philosophy. The lark’s

song thrills with that simple and rich joy of earth which comes from a

life in harmony with Nature. The bird’s song expresses the rapture of

its natural existence, whereas, he contends, men are prone to fall out of

touch with their surroundings and conditions.

[Quotes ‘The Lark Ascending’, ll. 89–94.]

The inward, spiritual interpretation of the bird’s song, as it mounts alive

and aglow with the joy of the earth below it, is that the true love of earth

means self-forgetfulness. What spoils the happiness and strength of men,

the poet argues, is their rampant egoism; they exaggerate their personal

likes and dislikes until they lose touch with the great, sane, wise order

of Nature, and fall into the extravagance either of passion or of

melancholy. Real eccentricity, according to Meredith, lay in egoism, and

it was against this error in every phase of life that he shot his sharpest

arrows. False pride, in its variety of forms, represented to him the really

abnormal thing in human life. If his analysis of it became frequently

hyper-subtle, the reason is that he felt its ramifications rayed out from

a central error and were in many cases undetected alike by the sinner

and the spectators, simply because they, failed to grasp the constituent

relation of human life to the natural order. He enjoyed splitting

psychological seeds. He enjoyed the display of his own dexterity in

handling them. But, at his best, when the method ceased to be

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MEREDITH



overintellectual, and the materials were other than some wilful

derangement or aberration, he made his readers feel that he was taking

a survey of human life from its centre, and not merely cataloguing with

caustic insight the delicate traceries and gossamer filaments upon

fantastic orchids in some garden of modern civilization.

When a criticism of life is passed through the creative imagination

of a novelist and poet, its effectiveness largely depends upon the

particular form assumed by his analysis. Meredith did not choose an easy

form. He abjured satire and irony, which anyone could have understood,

little as they might have liked them. He chose a subtle, intellectual form

of humour which he dubbed the Comic Spirit, and the main difficulty

of appreciating his treatment of life arises from this idiosyncrasy. It is

often so delicate, and makes such heavy demands upon the wit of the

reader, as to suggest an eccentricity, a wilfulness, a perversity, which is

unfairly attributed to the original and stimulating philosophy which it

embodies. Fortunately, the ‘Essay on Comedy’ supplies the necessary

clue to the poems and the novels alike, especially to the latter. ‘Comedy

is the fountain of sound sense; not the less perfectly sound on account

of the sparkle’. ‘Philosopher and comic poet are of a cousinship in the

eye they cast on life: and they are equally unpopular with our wilful

English of the hazy region and the ideal that is not to be disturbed’.

Meredith’s humour is exactly defined in the last of these sentences. It

is the humour of a serious thinker who, for all the fun and farce in him,

wants to disturb conventional ideas and ideals. For an appreciation of

his method he had to create his public, and the comparatively slow

recognition of his genius has been due in part to his own mischievous

delight in puzzling his audience, in part to the difficulty which people

felt about taking grave criticisms of society from a writer of gaiety and

romance. Still, the philosophy of his laughter has won its way at last.

Its success has been and will be hindered by the handicap which he

imposed on himself, but its impact is now recognized, and recognized

as a factor in the increase of sanity and sincerity throughout modern life.

‘He did stout service in his day. If the bad manners he scourged are now

lessened to some degree, we pay a debt in remembering that we owe

much to him; and if what appears incurable remains with us, a continued

reading of his works will at least help to combat it’.1 Meredith wrote

these words about one of his great predecessors in English fiction, and

we are justified today in applying to himself what he said gratefully of

Thackeray.

1



Introduction to W.M.Thackeray’s The Four Georges (Red Letter Library ed. 1903).



502



125. A Final Appreciation



This excellent article was by Percy Lubbock (b. 1879), a proponent

of Jamesian principles, author of The Craft of Fiction (1921), and

one of the most influential of twentieth-century critics. The article

appeared in Quarterly Review, ccxii, April 1910, as a review of

the Collected Works.



The art of fiction, in all its innumerable divagations of the last hundred

and fifty years, must truly by now have provided material enough for

a generalized criticism of its nature, its scope, its limiting conditions;

but criticism can hardly be said to have yet made any calculated attempt

to survey the whole parti-coloured field and to define the principles

which seem to be implied. In the early and bravely irresponsible days

of the novel there could be no possibility of such a definition. So long

as the art was still purely experimental, so long as it could spread in all

directions over virgin soil, criticism could merely watch discreetly and

take provisional note of failures and successes. But fiction must follow,

and is already following, the line of development which carries it from

its first expansive thoughtlessness to self-conscious deliberation. It must

run its course, like other forms of art; it must lose certain qualities and

assume others; it must submit to maturity and make the best of it without

trying to reproduce the essentially youthful graces of its past. It continues

so unmistakably to hold its own as the most characteristic form of our

time that a distinguished future, it is impossible to doubt, still lies before

it. But it must pay the penalty of its prolonged predominance by learning

to ‘know itself’ and to realize its principles. Such a process implies loss

in a hundred ways, loss perhaps of the very qualities for which we most

incline to value the art; but if the sacrifice is inevitable it is only the

sharper challenge to the novelist to develope new values in their place.

An artist is of his time, and if he inherits a form which has already

yielded its first freshness he has to find the base of his work in the

qualities that remain. Criticism steps in at this stage and tries to express

the results that have been established, patiently hoping, be it confessed,

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MEREDITH



to avoid its usual mistake of making the art square with its formula

instead of moulding its formula on the art.

No attempt can of course be made here to co-ordinate the scattered

achievements of fiction in the manner suggested; but the single illustrious

case to be considered will be approached as far as possible from this

point of view. The work of George Meredith, so sumptuous and so

varied, has for its admirers intellectual, moral, philosophical appeals

which have perhaps to some extent obscured the question of its strictly

artistic characterization. Much has been written upon the strong

consistent view of the world, of nature and society, which lies alike

behind his novels and his poetry; but the art which went to its expression

has usually been treated as a detachable matter, something to be

estimated side by side, even if in the same prominence, with the personal

doctrines of the great writer. Meredith cut so deep into his material and

laid open such new sources that the fruition of his thought has occupied

his critics before the form in which it was embodied. If it is attempted

to reverse the process there can be little danger of overlooking the matter

for the sake of the manner, for from this side the two things cannot be

separated. The personality of an artist can be disentangled from his art,

but never his art from his personality.

True, surely, of all writers, this is trebly true of Meredith, so sharply

stamped with the mark of his brain and spirit was everything he touched.

The most obviously Shakespearean in a certain sense of modern authors,

he was nevertheless the least so if the word is used of that aspect of

Shakespeare’s work which gives us the most striking example in all

literature of an apparent exception to our rule, the aspect in which the

writer is merged, almost beyond possibility of recovery, in his creations.

Meredith is never for an instant in this sense dramatic. His own presence

dominates every page of his books; and often enough, both in his prose

and his poetry, we seem less to be handling a fashioned and selfcomplete work of art than to be actually present in his studio, watching

while he flies impetuously at the marble which hides the statue, and

perhaps at times more conscious of the process, of the crackle of blows

and the hail of white chips, than of the lurking goddess. Yet even so,

though the din and the effort may interfere with one kind of enjoyment,

the display of power, the determination and the onslaught, joined with

the sense that the possible prize is worth the struggle and that the

unconquered block does in fact conceal the divine—all this makes of

such an experience an exhilarating memory for craftsman or critic. It

fires the athletic quality which is part of the mind of every artist, and

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THE CRITICAL HERITAGE



shows in the perfected work, when at other times it is given us rounded

and flawless, the temper which the highest beauty receives from brain

alone.

Meredith’s art, indeed, as we follow it from book to book, reflects

one long conflict with stubborn and recalcitrant material. It is as though

he could never be content until he should make language do a little more

that it ever will. Most writers by middle life have acquiesced in the

limitations of their medium, and their submission is dignified, rightly

enough, by the style of mastery of their craft. There is, then, in the

typical case, a moment at which hand and brain work in harmony and

produce their best work, before the time arrives when the hand, now

completely controlled, is found to be closing upon a gradually

weakening substance. That is, on the whole, the evolution more or less

clearly to be traced in most cases. But Meredith’s record is utterly

different. The compromise between intention and result, between thought

and word, is struck with extraordinary precocity in his earliest work and

with ever increasing difficulty in his later. Not of course necessarily on

this account is The Ordeal of Richard Feverel a better book than One

of Our Conquerors, when the scope, the significance, the final product

of the balance is considered, as well as its nicety. But while it is solely

a question of the command of the medium in which he worked, it is easy

to see that the Meredith of 1859 was far surer of poised and sustained

effect than the Meredith of thirty years later. The rocky utterance with

which his stories tended more and more to be wrenched into being was

the exaggeration no doubt of an inherent mannerism; but to name it thus

does not carry us far. With the living force which Meredith throughout

poured into his work, the history of its style becomes the history of its

substance; and the growing sense of effort merely implies that he

charged his art with ever more complicated burdens. No other

imaginative writer of our time has had to reckon with a brain so

perennially insurgent and insistent. Meredith’s intellect touched life at

an immense number of points and could rest at none of them. He was

only incidentally a painter of nature and society; essentially he was an

interpreter of one and a critic of the other. The distinction places him

nearer Carlyle than Browning; for Browning, though in his case also

intellectual curiosity never relaxed its strain upon his art, was far less

a critic than a portrait-painter, and was more interested in character, for

its own sake, than Meredith ever was.

We thus arrive at what must be called a fundamental weakness in

Meredith’s attitude as a novelist pure and simple. Character is the corner505



MEREDITH



stone of fiction, and the variation of an inch in its position must more

or less insidiously affect the whole fabric. It is perfectly true of course

that a novel is in one sense necessarily a criticism of life, for the simple

reason that nothing a human being may say or do can imaginably be

anything else. Nor must it be suggested that good fiction cannot be

produced except upon the most strictly impersonal lines. All this may

be admitted without touching the assertion that fiction is the master-art

of representation, and is more than this only at its own risk and on its

own responsibility. So far from resenting the limitation, fiction should

glory in it and be ever ready to look jealously on the tendency to infringe

it. It is, or it should be, the especial pride of this beautiful art that it can

represent more fully and freely, with greater subtlety and greater

precision, than any other; and it ought not to forget that, however often

it may do it with impunity, to allow other considerations to cloud the

issue is really by just so much to compromise its unique power. To be

interested first and foremost in character as such is the novelist’s

safeguard and justification. Meredith’s interest in character was

ultimately relative; it was closely modelled, that is to say, upon his

philosophy, and it was in their bearing upon his philosophy that men

and women appealed to him. The desire to show their value or their

uselessness was the larger part of his desire to portray them; and, often

as he might portray them magnificently, this constant preoccupation must

be taken into account if we try to speculate as to the verdict which will

eventually be passed upon his work. It must also be distinguished from

the obvious truth that for the strictest novelist human beings have a

varying range of values, the difference being that judgment depends for

him upon the æsthetic and not upon the ethical elements of the case.

We are here promptly confronted with the question whether the novel

was really the form best fitted for this masterful imagination, or whether

it might not have expressed itself with less hindrance in some more

confessedly personal shape. But it will not do, we must be firmly

reminded, to be tempted at this point by a question so completely in the

air; the plain fact being that when Meredith began to write, as indeed

when he ceased, no other form was possible for creative work on a scale

so extended. Art, it would seem, insists on claiming that at least its

greatest followers should, at any given epoch, keep to the main lines of

its evolution. They must accept the forms which lie to their hand,

wilfulness in such a matter being allowed only to those whose force is

intense rather than broad. Meredith’s power was too varied for any but

the central stream, whatever its disadvantages; he was a novelist by

506



THE CRITICAL HERITAGE



predestination. Nor should it be forgotten that this very clash between

the claim of art on one hand and individual impulse on the other may

actually discover compensating sources of strength; as indeed conflict

in some shape or other, with consequent sacrifice, seems ever necessary

for the engendering of the best. It is surely, for example, not fanciful

to trace to what we have called Meredith’s initial weakness as a novelist

one of the most characteristic and important qualities of his work. With

an outlook on life so little detached, with an interest so speculative and

constructive, with a range of opinion so positive in its operations,

Meredith’s grasp of actuality was far-reaching in proportion to his want

of impartial serenity. This may seem a paradox in view of the inevitable

objection that ‘actual’ is the last word one would apply to the world of

his novels; and it is of course true that in the sense of a photographic

transcript nothing could well be further from daily fact. And yet it must

be felt that Meredith’s novels, for all their curiously alien atmosphere,

are somehow or other deeply embedded in life. Other writers may draw

more recognizable scenes; Meredith contrives to place us in company

which, in spite of seeming at times like a mad dream, never allows us

to question that something living and genuine is going forward.

Yet, vivid as was Meredith’s sense of life, his rendering of it was

always in indirect terms. He was as entirely in and of the Victorian age

as man could be, and his types were for the most part of the essence

of the nineteenth century; but the air he set them in and the light he shed

upon them have the effect of carrying the whole action back to the most

spacious days of the ancien régime. Horse-whippings, duels, abductions,

heroic conviviality, high-handed rollicks of all kinds— Meredith’s

drama, whatever the scene or the period, was ever charged with epic

reverberations of such matters. It is needless to say that this wholehearted delight in the romantic stock-in-trade had nothing about it either

vulgar or obvious. It was not the commonplace desire of the man of

letters hungering to take a hand in great enterprises for which he has

been born too late. It was something much more fundamental than this,

much more entwined in his artistic aims. If real life enacts itself in

Meredith’s novels upon a plane of unreality, it must be remembered that

a peculiarly heightened and concentrated effect was thereby obtainable.

Meredith singled out certain qualities—courage, spirit, pride,

sentimentalism—and threw them into the strongest possible relief. He

did much more than record them; he blazed light upon them, he raised

their power, so to say, by intensifying their setting. The Rlevel of

ordinary life was much to low for the strongly symbolic parts his heroes

R



507



MEREDITH



and heroines had to play. ‘My people are actual, yet uncommon’, he

himself pointed out. ‘It is the clockwork of the brain that they are

directed to set in motion’. High comedy cannot be rendered in terms of

our daily intercourse; it requires isolation, a swept stage, an artful

disposition of lights. The framework which for Meredith gave the

required relief was florid and artificial; in it his characters could not

merely be themselves, they could be strikingly and exceptionally

themselves.

All novelists are, of course, confronted with this problem, which is

simply the all-embracing problem of turning life into art, the discovery

of the right artistic notation for the theme selected. Of this part of the

business Meredith was a past-master. His presentation of life is

everywhere homogeneous; it bears to actuality a uniform and consistent

relation. To choose one method of presentation, and not to be reduced

(within the same work) to appealing for help from another, is perhaps

less recognized as the plainest demand of art in fiction than in any other

form. Perfect examples of this admirable economy are plentiful through

the length and breadth of Meredith’s novels. To single one out, we may

point to two scenes from Sandra Belloni—the moonlight expedition,

with its characteristic interweaving of irony and lyrical rapture, in search

of the unknown singer in the wood, and the delirious farce of Mrs

Chump’s capture of Braintop to help her in concocting her letter to the

Miss Poles. Remote from each other, the two scenes are yet translations

from life into one and the same language. Mrs Chump’s voluble

indignation and despair are no more ‘realistic’ in treatment than Emilia’s

liquid melody ringing through the night. Both are equally true, both are

at the same angle to literal fact. There is no descent from one to the

other; they are wrought up to the same pitch and by the same broad,

sweeping strokes.

As marked as Meredith’s care for consistency of tone was his curious

indifference to background. This again may seem for the moment a

paradox if we think of his superb power of brushing in a whole

landscape in half a sentence, or if we remember only certain scenes in

which outbursting emotion melts into sea or sky or land, transfusing and

transfiguring them, absorbing their very essence into its own mood. But

chapters like ‘Morning at Sea under the Alps’, or ‘By Wilming Weir’,

are exceptional invocations of the beauty of day and night to surround

and envelop human passion. Such exquisite visions of poetry are only

for moments of great exaltation. For the most part we ask in vain for

any sufficient means of realizing pictorially the action which is passing.

508



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