This review is reproduced here by kind permission of the online inter-disciplinary journal Cercles, where it was first published. The illustrations have been added to the original review, as has a note on editorial theory suggested by GPL. Click on the last four images for larger pictures and more bibliographic and other information.
Cover of the book under review. The illustration shows part of Raphael's St Michael striking Down the Demon, a painting to which Meredith refers in "Modern Love," Sonnet XXXIII.
Any publishing initiative that makes George Meredith's work more accessible is an event for Meredith scholars. This new edition of his Modern Love and Poems of the English Roadside, with Poems and Ballads is no exception. Reprinted in its entirety for the first time since its original publication in 1862, it is accompanied by a chronology, introduction, annotations, a list of all textual variants, a dozen illustrations, and a substantial "Contexts" section containing a wide range of reviews and other writings chosen to illuminate the poems. The project raises one or two questions, but on the whole is thoroughly welcome.
Meredith published eight volumes of poetry in his lifetime. Although this one was only the second, it is arguably the most important. As the title shows, it contains his best-known poem, "Modern Love," a sonnet sequence analysing a disintegrating marriage. This "unholy battle" (30) has always been the main focus of critical attention in the volume. However, as the rather cumbersome title also indicates, it is only one part of a larger collection. As well as struggling to process the breakdown of his first marriage, Meredith was reaching for a wider vision of life. The socio-political element of this vision becomes obvious in the "Roadside" poems, when the travelling performer in "Juggling Jerry" challenges those who sneer at his honest life's work, or when the speaker in "The Old Chartist" declares himself unrepentant: he still looks forward to the day "when every pot will boil / Harmonious in one great Tea-garden!!" (85). Meredith longed for harmony not only in society, but also between people and nature in its evolutionary purposes. This entailed coming to terms with human mortality. In "Ode to the Spirit of Earth in Autumn," for instance, he asks a personified Nature to help him feel part of her grand, ongoing process: "Teach me to feel myself the tree, / And not the wither'd leaf" (153). In their introduction to the volume, editors Rebecca N. Mitchell and Criscillia Benford suggest that, at this difficult stage of his life, nature served mainly as a retreat or compensation for the poet. But he was already turning to it for spiritual guidance as well.
Left: Illustration for "The Old Chartist," by Frederick Sandys, Memorial Ed. of Meredith's Poems, Vol. I, Vol. XX1V, frontispiece. Right: Illustration for "Juggling Jerry," by Hablot K. Browne. Memorial Ed. of Meredith's Poems, Vol. II, Vol. XXV, facing p. 240.
Concentrating on the dramatic struggle in Meredith's personal life, to the exclusion of the larger one in his political and philosophic outlook, has always been a mistake. It robs "Modern Love" of its wider ideological context. Moreover, it prevents us from appreciating his versatility as a poet. As Mitchell and Benford point out, he experimented with "an impressive variety of poetic forms" (xli), from the sixteen-line sonnets themselves to sprightly dramatic monologues, and from ballads and brief memorable lyrics to the sonorous ode that concludes the volume. Focusing on "Modern Love" has had yet another bad effect: it has encouraged us to neglect Meredith's poems on mythology and other subjects, with their sensuous imagery — like that of the "blue night like a great bell-flower from above / Drooping low and gold-eyed" in "Shemselnihar" (137), a poem inspired by his beloved Arabian Nights. The special virtue of this new edition is that it restores the balance in all these ways, by presenting the 1862 volume as a whole, rather than reproducing just one section of it.
However, it does raise one important issue. An integral part of the project has been to restore the original text of the edition, incorporating only the handwritten corrections that the poet himself made in some presentation copies. But Meredith was in the habit of revising and reworking his earlier writings. For instance, he revised The Ordeal of Richard Feverel (1859) three times, the last time for the "Edition de Luxe" (Constable, 1896-1911), and some of the revisions are very significant. The poems could be chopped and changed even more easily: "Love in the Valley" from his earlier Poems (1851) grew to more than twice the length when he republished it in Macmillan's Magazine in 1878, and it stayed like that in the Edition de Luxe. Previous editors of his poetry have nearly always relied on the text that Meredith and his son approved for this later edition. In his Selected Poems (Oxford University Press, 1962), for instance, Graham Hough makes only two exceptions, one of them being that he prints the first version of "Love in the Valley." Phyllis Bartlett adopts a similar policy in her standard two-volume edition of The Poems of George Meredith (Yale University Press, 1978), noting in her introduction that Meredith (like any author) preferred whatever he wrote last. She too prints the later versions and simply gives earlier variants in her extensive scholarly apparatus. Thus "By the Rosanna," a two-part poem from the 1862 edition, is printed without lines 21-179, which Meredith later decided to cut. These lines appear only in Bartlett's "Supplementary Textual Notes." Keith Hanley, editor of another Selected Poems (Carcanet, 1983), opts for the final versions as well, just adding the earlier one of "Love in the Valley" in an appendix. The Edition de Luxe is also the normal source of little popular editions of the "Modern Love" sonnets, like that edited by Stephen Regan (Daisy, 1988) — although it is worth noting that Gillian Beer (Syrens, 1995) reprinted the 1862 versions.
How different is the 1862 text anyway? Most variants are very minor. For instance, in perhaps the best known of the sonnets, No. XLVII, the husband and wife of the poem are strolling by the river in the evening, and birds are roosting among the willows of a nearby island. (The Thames near Shepperton, where Meredith and his wife lived before their marriage broke up, has a number of such islands.) In the 1862 version the opening lines are: "We saw the swallows gathering in the sky / And in the osier-isle we heard their noise." Here, the second line starts romantically, but ends in rather a humdrum way. This line remained the same in subsequent reprints, until it finally became the familiar "And in the osier-isle we heard them noise" (emphasis added) in the Edition de Luxe. This might be a misprint, but is equally likely to be an intentional change. Meredith missed the sound of birdsong as he grew deaf. It was not simply a "noise" to him. He certainly uses "noise" as a verb elsewhere: "But heard I a low swell that noised / Of far-off ocean," he says in "Ode to the Spirit of Earth in Autumn" (150). The line sounds more quirkily Meredithian in the Edition de Luxe version. Still, the choice between "their" and "them" in the 1862 text is hardly an important in terms of the poem's meaning.
Left: Leaf from a notebook: "Love in the Valley," showing Meredith's revisions. Right: An "osier-isle" in the Thames near Shepperton, seen from the river bank in the evening.
The occasional variant, however, is substantive. Another change Meredith made to this same sonnet is certainly deliberate. Having just described the expansive moment that he and his wife shared on this walk, after so much misery, he concludes in the 1862 version, "And still I see across the twilight wave, / The swan sail with her young beneath her wings." In the final version, he substituted the words "Where I have seen" for the original "And still I see." The revision removes the earlier suggestion of emotion recollected in tranquillity, and instead confines the couple's "little moment" of respite to its setting — where it surely belongs. Like the change in the second line, this one seems justified. The difference is that it has some bearing on the interpretation of the whole sonnet. Granted that the original version of "Love in the Valley," like that of The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, is often preferred to the later one, it still seems a shame that Meredith's poetry should not be presented quite in accordance with his final wishes. Another notable example occurs in "Ode to the Spirit of Earth in Autumn," where Meredith later altered "Oh, mother Nature!" to "Great Mother Nature!" (152], demonstrating a more passionate enthusiasm in the older poet.
The historicist approach has much to recommend it. What Mitchell and Benford give us is the poetry of a young man in his early thirties, without any emendations by the elderly sage. Yet this approach, rather popular now, has a drawback too. It robs the author of his final decisions — and, incidentally, his readers of lines with which they are familiar, both from their own reading, and from critical commentaries right from G. M. Trevelyan's early study, The Poetry and Philosophy of George Meredith (Constable, 1916), onwards.
As Matthew Arnold maintained in the preface to his own Poems (1853), excerpted later in this book, "words of disparagement or of cavil" are often due to uncertainty of intention or expectation (194). No disparagement of this meticulously researched edition is intended here. But perhaps the shorter significant variants could have been put at the foot of the page instead of in the long "Textual Variants" section at the very back of the book. There are a few more "cavils" of a practical nature. The first is that the editors simply direct readers to Bartlett's 1978 edition for "the composition and publication history of each poem," which they "have not ... reproduced here" (x). As they themselves note, this is now out of print. Having found space for a substantial introduction, could they not also have included background of this kind, even in summary form? This would have enabled the edition to stand alone, and it would certainly have been more useful than some of the annotations. A reader who needs to be told that Niagara is "a waterfall in Ontario, Canada" (56n), or that magnanimity means "generosity of spirit" (24) is unlikely to turn to Meredith in the first place. Also inconvenient is the bunching of most of the illustrations between the poetry itself and the "Contexts" section. Figure 4, Raphael's painting of St Michael striking down the Demon, is useful for understanding sonnet XXXIII, for instance, but is well over a hundred pages away from it.
However, to end on an appreciative note, the other contextual material, such as contemporary reviews, excerpts from mid-Victorian writings on gender and poetics, and examples of other poetry being written in this period, has been very well chosen and genuinely illuminates the poet and his work. The excerpt from George Wilson's The Five Senses (1860), for example, throws welcome light on Meredith's thinking and practice when he was actually writing. Wilson's comments on the "peculiar ethereality of music" (275), and the harmony it can inspire, would certainly have struck a chord with Meredith, whose ear for music of all kinds was so acute during most of his writing life. Other excerpts, like the one from John Stuart Mill's The Subjection of Women (1869), which Meredith would read with rapt attention later on, show where he was going rather than where he was coming from, an indication in itself of his "faith that forward sets" (153). Having read and been enthralled by Mill's heartfelt support for women, which tallied so much with his own thinking, he would express his ideas on this subject more forcefully in his later novels. Perhaps all that is missing in this section is something more about nature, though Keats's sonnet "On the Sea" was an inspired choice.
Brought out to mark the 150th anniversary of the volume's original publication in 1862, this handsome new book confirms the upward trend in Meredith studies. The editors hope that it is will prove suitable "for classroom use, scholarly work, and pleasure reading" (ix), and so it should. In fact, it should ensure that these categories overlap. This book will certainly appeal to all those exploring the work of this probing, innovative and often exhilarating author, and indeed to anyone interested in Victorian literature and culture in general.
A Note on Editorial Theory
The book under review follows the tenets of recent editorial theory propounded by Jerome J. McGann in his pioneering The Textual Condition (Princeton, 1991) rather than the earlier eclecticism associated with W. W. Greg and Fredson Bowers. According to the newer approach to scholarly editing, every version of the text published in an author's lifetime (other than pirated editions) has its own validity. Such an approach presents the editor with two dilemmas: which text to privilege in a new edition, and how to present the many variants. The difficulties of establishing an author's final intentions may sometimes be acute: McGann cited another inveterate rewriter, W. B. Yeats, to illustrate them. Like Meredith, Yeats had begun putting his work in order for an Edition de Luxe in his last years, but never completed the task. In Meredith's case, however, the process was nearer completion by the time he died. Of the 1862 poems, for instance, only one poem had not yet appeared in the de Luxe edition: "The Patriot Engineer" came out in the posthumous Volume XXXIII (1910) as one of his "Poems Written in Youth." In Meredith's case, then, it seems unfortunate that variants in the last author-corrected/-revised/-approved texts should be relegated to the back of the book. Perhaps cyberspace, with its potential for linking multiple texts and flagging up their relations, is the ideal place for the author to get a balanced and comprehensive hearing — and (equally important) for the reader to be part of the conversation too (see Landow, Hypertext 3.0 [Johns Hopkins, 2006, Chapter 3]).
Meredith, George. Modern Love and Poems of the English Roadside, with Poems and Ballads. (1862) Ed. Rebecca N. Mitchell and Criscillia Benford. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2013. Hardback. xlv + 390 pp. £40.00. ISBN 978-0-300-17317-8.
Last modified 11 May 2013