Sunday, 17 June 2007

George Meredith (1828-1909)

Our life is but a little holding, lent
To do a mighty labour: we are one
With heaven and the stars when it is spent
To serve God's name: else die we with the sun.

Quatrain from 'Vittoria'
(reproduced on George Meredith's headstone in Dorking cemetery)



When barely in his twenties George Meredith abandoned a career in law to become a prolific poet and novelist. He is credited with having helped Thomas Hardy start his literary career and he succeeded Tennyson as president of the Society of Authors. In 1905 he was appointed to the Order of Merit by King Edward VII.

My grandmother was lucky enough to meet Meredith briefly on the occasions of his visits to her employer, J. M. Barrie, at Black Lake Cottage, near Farnham, Surrey:


Other famous visitors were mostly from the literary and artistic world. One of the most welcome ones was the poet George Meredith, then in his seventies, who twice drove over from his home on Box Hill. I was so excited when Mrs Barrie informed me that he was expected, for he was my favourite poet; I especially loved his South-West Wind in the Woodland. Mr Barrie had admired Meredith for years and, after travelling out from London to Box Hill, where he sat for hours on the bank opposite Meredith's Flint Cottage – the bank has since been named 'Barrie's Bank' - had become very close friends with him. He was also very special to Mrs Barrie, perhaps because he shared her enthusiasm for her lovely garden. Meredith was envious of the Barries because they were surrounded by pine woods. He loved all trees – his cottage was closely bounded on three sides by deciduous woodland, and some of his poems included wonderful descriptions of trees - but pines had a special place in his heart and he loved to walk among them in all weathers. Mrs Barrie clearly thought the white-bearded, eye-twinkling, always laughing Meredith was a charming gentleman. And, from what little I saw of him, so did I.
(Extracted from It Might Have Been Raining by Robert Greenham, Elijah Editions 2005)



George Meredith in 1893


Here is that favourite poem of my grandmother's:


SOUTH-WEST WIND IN THE WOODLAND
by George Meredith, OM


The silence of preluded song -
AEolian silence charms the woods;
Each tree a harp, whose foliaged strings
Are waiting for the master's touch
To sweep them into storms of joy,
Stands mute and whispers not; the birds
Brood dumb in their foreboding nests,
Save here and there a chirp or tweet,
That utters fear or anxious love,
Or when the ouzel sends a swift
Half warble, shrinking back again
His golden bill, or when aloud
The storm-cock warns the dusking hills
And villages and valleys round:
For lo, beneath those ragged clouds
That skirt the opening west, a stream
Of yellow light and windy flame
Spreads lengthening southward, and the sky
Begins to gloom, and o'er the ground
A moan of coming blasts creeps low
And rustles in the crisping grass;
Till suddenly with mighty arms
Outspread, that reach the horizon round,
The great South-West drives o'er the earth,
And loosens all his roaring robes
Behind him, over heath and moor.
He comes upon the neck of night,
Like one that leaps a fiery steed
Whose keen black haunches quivering shine
With eagerness and haste, that needs
No spur to make the dark leagues fly!
Whose eyes are meteors of speed;
Whose mane is as a flashing foam;
Whose hoofs are travelling thunder-shocks; -
He comes, and while his growing gusts,
Wild couriers of his reckless course,
Are whistling from the daggered gorse,
And hurrying over fern and broom,
Midway, far off, he feigns to halt
And gather in his streaming train.

Now, whirring like an eagle's wing
Preparing for a wide blue flight;
Now, flapping like a sail that tacks
And chides the wet bewildered mast;
Now, screaming like an anguish'd thing
Chased close by some down-breathing beak;
Now, wailing like a breaking heart,
That will not wholly break, but hopes
With hope that knows itself in vain;
Now, threatening like a storm-charged cloud;
Now, cooing like a woodland dove;
Now, up again in roar and wrath
High soaring and wide sweeping; now,
With sudden fury dashing down
Full-force on the awaiting woods.

Long waited there, for aspens frail
That tinkle with a silver bell,
To warn the Zephyr of their love,
When danger is at hand, and wake
The neighbouring boughs, surrendering all
Their prophet harmony of leaves,
Had caught his earliest windward thought,
And told it trembling; naked birk
Down showering her dishevelled hair,
And like a beauty yielding up
Her fate to all the elements,
Had swayed in answer; hazels close,
Thick brambles and dark brushwood tufts,
And briared brakes that line the dells
With shaggy beetling brows, had sung
Shrill music, while the tattered flaws
Tore over them, and now the whole
Tumultuous concords, seized at once
With savage inspiration,--pine,
And larch, and beech, and fir, and thorn,
And ash, and oak, and oakling, rave
And shriek, and shout, and whirl, and toss,
And stretch their arms, and split, and crack,
And bend their stems, and bow their heads,
And grind, and groan, and lion-like
Roar to the echo-peopled hills
And ravenous wilds, and crake-like cry
With harsh delight, and cave-like call
With hollow mouth, and harp-like thrill
With mighty melodies, sublime,
From clumps of column'd pines that wave
A lofty anthem to the sky,
Fit music for a prophet's soul -
And like an ocean gathering power,
And murmuring deep, while down below
Reigns calm profound;--not trembling now
The aspens, but like freshening waves
That fall upon a shingly beach; -
And round the oak a solemn roll
Of organ harmony ascends,
And in the upper foliage sounds

A symphony of distant seas.
The voice of nature is abroad
This night; she fills the air with balm;
Her mystery is o'er the land;
And who that hears her now and yields
His being to her yearning tones,
And seats his soul upon her wings,
And broadens o'er the wind-swept world
With her, will gather in the flight
More knowledge of her secret, more
Delight in her beneficence,
Than hours of musing, or the lore
That lives with men could ever give!
Nor will it pass away when morn
Shall look upon the lulling leaves,
And woodland sunshine, Eden-sweet,
Dreams o'er the paths of peaceful shade; -
For every elemental power
Is kindred to our hearts, and once
Acknowledged, wedded, once embraced,
Once taken to the unfettered sense,
Once claspt into the naked life,
The union is eternal.



6 comments:

Fauna Amor said...

I don't know very well George Meredith.But I understand why this poem was your grandmother's favorite...even if I'm not able to understand it completely,I can "feel" it.I hope you understand my horrible english,it must be a nightmare for you to read me!
And,I 've finished the novel I was reading,tonight I open your book,I hope it'll be raining outside.

Holly Golightly said...

"When a great man dies - and this one of the greatest since Shakespeare - the immortals await him at the top of the nearest hill. He looked up and saw his peers. They were all young, like himself. He waved the staff in greeting."
J.M. Barrie, George Meredith, A Tribute.

Atticus said...

Thank you, Fauna, I understand you perfectly. In the near future I plan to post a shorter poem of Meredith's: one on an entirely different subject and which is one of my favourites. Bon chance avec mon petit livre.

Thank you, Holly. You have anticipated my blog post for tomorrow to some degree. Great minds think alike!

Muse said...

Il est vraiment dommage que les traductions de poèmes anglais ne puissent pas nous rendre la beauté de leurs vers...j'ai essayé avec Lord Byron et j'ai été très déçue...

Celia said...

Robert - it was good to be reminded of Meredith's poetry - indeed, of Meredith himself, as his reputation has certainly been eclipsed in the modern age. I've only read The Ordeal of Richard Feveral, and that some time ago. I suspect that his syle, particularly in his later works, is too intellectual and obscure to find favour nowadays. Sometimes, when all else fails, I return to reading 'the classics' - I shall now ascend to the attic, where I have some book-cases groaning with same, and look for some Meredith! It is a great comfort to me to know that there are still whole libraries of great works I haven't read and which are laid up like old wine, a reliable resource for my declining years!

Atticus said...

Merci, Muse, tu es correct. On peut comprendre complètement la beauté de poèmes seulement en leur langues originales.

Celia, I agree with you about Meredith losing popularity. I wish you happy delving in your shelving.