Monday, June 1, 2015

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


It is too easy, isn’t it, to dismiss writers who were once esteemed as if they were mere irrelevancies? I have more-or-less done this on this blog in the way I’ve dealt with George Meredith’s The Egoist. But please note, dear readers, I have earlier on this blog said very positive things about the man’s The Ordeal of Richard Feverel and Beauchamp’s Career. And while his poetry isn’t on my list of favourites, it does sometimes show genuine spark and inspiration. I say this on the authority of having worked my way through the two volumes of his collected poetry, softbacks printed in 1909, which I once bought for the modest sum of $6 from an Auckland second-hand bookshop which is no more.
Let me say at once that I am not particularly enamoured of his Love in the Valley, which was once one of his most admired. Too damned “purty” for me, as Ezra Pound might have said. But I do raise the flag of admiration for his fine sonnet Lucifer in Starlight, one of the best expressions of Decadenz in Eng Lit, and a poem which T.S.Eliot saw fit to quote (satirically and sardonically) in his early verse Cousin Nancy. I mean, “the army of unalterable law” is a damned good phrase isn’t it? Even if you are taking the piss out of it.
Here is Lucifer in Starlight:

On a starred night Prince Lucifer uprose.
Tired of his dark dominion swung the fiend
Above the rolling ball in cloud part screened,
Where sinners hugged their spectre of repose.
Poor prey to his hot fit of pride were those.
And now upon his western wing he leaned,
Now his huge bulk o'er Afric's sands careened,
Now the black planet shadowed Arctic snows.
Soaring through wider zones that pricked his scars
With memory of the old revolt from Awe,
He reached a middle height, and at the stars,
Which are the brain of heaven, he looked, and sank.
Around the ancient track marched, rank on rank,
The army of unalterable law.

Looking back at my reading diary, I see I tried for witticism when I first undertook to read Meredith’s sequence Modern Love (each poem in the sequence is like an extended sonnet, being 16 lines long) I wrote facetiously that Modern Love presented “thoughts on a strained marriage as acute as those of T.S.Eliot – but unfortunately expressed in the language of Elizabeth Barrett Browning”. Such hauteur really does violate my creed that a poet who writes even one poem that is still remembered years later should be esteemed. And in the sequence Modern Love there are some good individual poems. Take Poem Number 47 which, despite some flowery vocabulary, does express that intense sense of the death of love even in the moments when love is most being enjoyed. Can’t help feeling that that distinctly elegiac tone, with the swallows gathering to depart, is copied from the way Keats ends his Ode to Autumn – but then Meredith has made good use of the borrowing. Here is Poem 47 from Modern Love.

WE saw the swallows gathering in the sky,
And in the osier-isle we heard their noise.
We had not to look back on summer joys,
Or forward to a summer of bright dye;
But in the largeness of the evening earth
Our spirits grew as we went side by side.
The hour became her husband, and my bride.
Love that had robb’d us so, thus bless’d our dearth!
The pilgrims of the year wax’d very loud
In multitudinous chatterings, as the flood
Full brown came from the west, and like pale blood
Expanded to the upper crimson cloud.
Love, that had robb’d us of immortal things,
This little moment mercifully gave,
And still I see across the twilight wave
The swan sail with her young beneath her wings.

And finally, not wishing to stretch your patience, I quote only the first third of his best-known poem The Lark Ascending (best-known in part because Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote a tone poem inspired by it – which a young relative of mine once said was his favourite piece of music). Here are the first 44 lines of Meredith’s 122 line poem. Because of Vaughan Williams’ music, it is often associated with pre-Great War pastoralism. Fair enough, I guess, though I prefer to see it as an exercise in pure sound.

He rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake,
All intervolv’d and spreading wide,
Like water-dimples down a tide
Where ripple ripple overcurls
And eddy into eddy whirls;
A press of hurried notes that run
So fleet they scarce are more than one,
Yet changingly the trills repeat
And linger ringing while they fleet,
Sweet to the quick o’ the ear, and dear
To her beyond the handmaid ear,
Who sits beside our inner springs,
Too often dry for this he brings,
Which seems the very jet of earth
At sight of sun, her musci’s mirth,
As up he wings the spiral stair,
A song of light, and pierces air
With fountain ardor, fountain play,
To reach the shining tops of day,
And drink in everything discern’d
An ecstasy to music turn’d,
Impell’d by what his happy bill
Disperses; drinking, showering still,
Unthinking save that he may give
His voice the outlet, there to live
Renew’d in endless notes of glee,
So thirsty of his voice is he,
For all to hear and all to know
That he is joy, awake, aglow,
The tumult of the heart to hear
Through pureness filter’d crystal-clear,
And know the pleasure sprinkled bright
By simple singing of delight,
Shrill, irreflective, unrestrain’d,
Rapt, ringing, on the jet sustain’d
Without a break, without a fall,
Sweet-silvery, sheer lyrical,
Perennial, quavering up the chord
Like myriad dews of sunny sward
That trembling into fulness shine,
And sparkle dropping argentine…..

Now that will do for a taste of a very good poem. The style and sentiment are not those of our age – but then whoever said that all good poetry has to conform to our norms?
Okay, enough to convince you that George Meredith wasn’t a bad poet.

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