THE COUNTRY OF GEORGE MEREDITHThe day was a van-bird of summer; the robin still piped, but the blue,
ON just such a van-bird day as sung in those lines of the poet-romancist himself I take up my pen to write of "The Country of George Meredith." The country of George Meredith: a fascinating theme indeed! For the true Meredithian, there is no living writer so saturated with the spirit of nature in England as this rare poet. What other has sung with so vibrant and exultant a note as this great analyst and portrayer of men and women?-- who with all his Aristophanic laughter and keen Voltairian spirit feels to the core what he has himself so finely expressed . . . that nothing but poetry makes romances passable, "for poetry is the everlastingly and embracingly human; without it, your fictions are flat foolishness." But what a country it is--how wide its domain, how evasive its frontiers! I doubt if any living writer is as intimate with nature-life, with what we mean by "country-life." Certainly none can so flash manifold aspect into sudden revelation. Not even Richard Jeffries knew nature more intimately, though he gave his whole thought to what with Meredith is but a beautiful and ever-varying background. I recollect Grant Allen, himself as keen a lover and accomplished a student of nature as England could show, speaking of this singular intimacy in one who had no pretension to be a man of science. And that recalls to me a delightful afternoon illustrative of what has just been said. Some twelve or fourteen years ago, when Grant Allen (whom I did not then know) was residing at The Nook, Dorking, I happened to be on a few days' visit to George Meredith at his cottage-home near Burford Bridge, a few miles away. On the Sunday morning I walked over the field-ways to Dorking, and found Grant Allen at home. It was a pleasant meeting. We had friends in common, were colleagues on the staff of two London literary "weeklies," and I had recently enjoyed favourably reviewing a new book by this prolific and always interesting and delightful writer. So, with these "credentials," enhanced by the fact that I came as a guest of his friend, I found a cordial welcome, and began there and then with that most winsome personality a friendship which I have always accounted one of the best things that literary life has brought me. After luncheon, Grant Allen said he would accompany me back by Box Hill; as, apart from the pleasure of seeing Mr. Meredith, he particularly wanted to ask him about some disputed point in natural history (a botanical point of some kind, in connection, I think, with the lovely spring flower "Love-in-a-Mist"--for which Meredith had a special affection, and had fine slips of it in his garden) which he had not been able to observe satisfactorily for himself. I frankly expressed my surprise that a specialist such as my host should wish to consult any other than a colleague on a matter of intimate knowledge and observation; but was assured that there were "not half a dozen men living to whom I would go in preference to George Meredith on a point of this kind. He knows the intimate facts of countryside life as very few of us do after the most specific training. I don't know whether he could describe that greenfinch in the wild cherry yonder in the terms of an ornithologist and botanist--in fact, I'm pretty sure he couldn't. But you may rest assured there is no ornithologist living who knows more about the finch of real life than George Meredith does--its appearance, male and fermale, its song, its habits, its dates of coming and going, the places where it builds, how its nest is made, how many eggs it lays and what--like they are, what it feeds on, what its song is like before and after mating, and when and where it may best be heard, and so forth. As for the wild cherry . . . perhaps he doesn't know much about it technically (very likely he does, I may add! . . . it's never safe with 'our wily friend' to take for granted that he doesn't know more about any subject than any one else does!) . . . but if any one could say when the first blossoms will appear and how long they will last, how many petals each blossom has, what variations in colour and what kind of smell they have, then it's he and no other better. And as for how he would describe that cherry-tree . . . well, you've read Richard Feverel and Love in a Valley, and that should tell you everything!"
But before we come to Meredith's own particular country--the home-country so intimately described in much of his most distinctive poetry and prose, and endeared to all who love both by his long residence in its midst-let us turn first to the wider aspects implied in the title of this article of our "Literary Geography" series.
George Meredith as a writer of romance has annexed no particular region, as Mr. Hardy has annexed Wessex, as, among younger men, Mr. Eden Phillpotts has restricted his scope to the Devon wilds, or Mr. Murray Gilchrist to the Peakland region. In truth, he has no territorial acquisitiveness: it would matter nothing to him, I fancy, whether Richard Feverel, or Nevil Beauchamp, or Evan Harrington, or Rhoda or Dahlia Fleming, or Clara Middleton, or "Browny" Farrell, or any other of his men and women, played their parts in this or that country, in southern-England or western or eastern, in Bath or Berlin, in London or Limburg. Although the natural background of his English stories is very subtly used by him, it is only occasionally the background of specific geographical region or of locality; though at times we may find ourselves for a while at Bath, or Tunbridge Wells, or Wimbledon (if Wimbledon it be where General Ople had his "gentlemanly residence" and was appropriated out of widowerhood by the redoubtable Lady Camper), or by Tharnesside, or at Felixstowe, or anywhere east or south of Waterloo Bridge as far as the dancing tide of that unforgettable off-Harwich swim in Lord Ormont and his Aminta, or that particular reach of "blue water" of the Channel betwixt the Isle of Wight and the coast of France where Jenny Denham, on board the Esperanza, wakes to the truth that she is to be the crowning personal factor in Nevil Beauchamp's diversified amorous career.
In this series of "Literary Geography" it has ever been a puzzle how to treat specifically the country of a famous writer when that writer has wandered far afield, as Scott did, or as Stevenson did. It is rare that one finds a novelist so restricted in locality as George Eliot or Mr. Thomas Hardy. The former made one great and unconvincing venture abroad; but in connection with the titular phrase "The Country of George Eliot" the Florence of Romola would not naturally be thought of. George Eliot made photographic Florentine studies: she did not herself re-create for us the country of Romola, as she re-created her own home-land for us in Adam Bede, or Silas Marney, or The Mill on the Floss. And Mr. Hardy is Wessex to the core. Little beyond is of account in what he has done, and we can no more readily imagine him writing a tale of Venice or of Switzerland than we could readily imagine Dostoievsky or Maxim Gorki emulating Samuel Lover or Charles Lever.
But Meredith leaves one in face of an acuter difficulty. In a sense, he is English of the English: there is none living who more swiftly and poignantly conveys the very breath and bloom of nature as we know it in England-- above all in Surrey and the long continuous vale of the Thames. The titles of one or two books of his verse are significant: Poems of the English Roadside, Poems and Lyrics of the Joy of Earth. He is, before all, the poet of the joy of life, and none has more intimately brought us nearer in delight to the countryside. I know no more winsome book of verse, for the truly in love with nature, than The Nature Poems of George Meredith, with Mr. William Hyde's wholly delightful drawings: a volume containing little in quantity, but superlatively rich in quality. It is enough to add that its contents include the noble Hymn to Colour Woods of Westermain, Love in a Valley, The South-Wesley, The Thrush in February, The Lark Ascending, Night of Frost in May, the Dirge in Woods. Yet, while this is obvious, any lover of his writings will recall that much of what is most beautiful in description--rather in evocation, for anything of detailed description, save on the broadest canvas with a swift and burning brush, is rare with this master of English prose--is in connection with Italian, or French, or German, or Austrian, or Swiss scenery. He has made Venice and the Alpine regions more alive with unforgettable light and magic touch than any other has done since Ruskin, and in a way wholly his own, supremely the Tintoretto of the pen as he is. How, then, in speaking of "The Country of George Meredith," are we to limit ourselves to Surrey or the home-counties? The most English of his novels is held to be The Ordeal of Richard Feverel; but the finest piece of descriptive writing of nature in that book (and, as it happens, the longest of any in the books of Meredith) is not of nature as we know it on the Surrey downs or by the banks o' Thames, but among the hills of Nassau in Rhineland and by the clear flood of the Lahn where it calls to the forest not far from that old bridge at Limburg, "where the shadow of a stone bishop is thrown by the moonlight on the water crawling over slabs of slate." No one who has read (how many there must be who know it almost by heart!) the fortysecond chapter of this book--the chapter so aptly named, though with double meaning, "Nature speaks"--will be ready to forego the author's right to have this riverland and forestland of Nassau included in his "Country." If one of the most deep, vivid, and beautiful pieces of writing in modern literature is not to bring the region limned within the frontier of the author's literary geography, what value in the designation remains? It is not isolated in beauty, that unforgettable scene . . . not even when set with its compeer in the same book, the familiar but never staled beauty of that finest prose-poem in English fiction, the famous Enchanted Islands chapter or wooing of Richard Feverel and Lucy Desborough (with characteristic irony entitled "A Diversion Played on a Penny Whistle"), or with the brief but mordant passage given to the tragically ineffective meeting of married Richard and Lucy in Kensington Gardens, "when the round of the red winter sun was behind the bare chestnuts." One could companion these with a score, with a hundred passages, from the Rhineland of the early Farina to the Alps of The Amazing Marriage.
The literary geography of George Meredith, then, cannot be confined to a region or scattered regions with definite frontiers, still less to a mere county or two with adjustable boundaries: it must be constructed, say, like the shire of Cromarty, which one finds in bits about the north of Scotland, or like that familiar "Empire" map where the red flaunt of our kinship is scattered over the world with what a famous humorist has called an impartial and inveterate zest for "dumping" on all the desirable and soft spots.
Switzerland, from the Bernese Oberland to Monte Generoso; Italy, from the Lombard Plain below Monte Motterone to Verona and Venice; Austria, from the upper waters of Lago di Maggiore or from Friulian or Carinthian Alp, to hill-set Meran and imperial Vienna; Germany, from the Harz to the hills of Nassau and the Rhinelands of Cologne-- (of the thousands who invest there in the "Farina" of commerce, one wonders how many indulge in or recall the "Farina" of literature, wherein the Triumph of Odour is so picturesquely set forth!); France, from the pleasant Vosges or old Touraine to the not unguessable "Tourdestelle" of the Norman coast--are not these, with Solent waters and the open Channel and the Breton reaches of La Manche and "the blue" west and south of Ushant, even to distant Madeira . . . are not all these to be brought within the compass of the literary geographer?
True, it may be urged, these are but swallow-flights into poetry. "A series of kaleidoscopic views, however beautiful, is not enough to justify the claim of the literary geographer to this or that region, or words to that effect, might be adduced. But the secret of the vivid and abiding charm of Mr. Meredith's backgrounds to the tragicomedy of his outstanding men and women is just in their aloofness from anything "kaleidoscopic," with its implication of the arbitrary and the accidental lie does not go to Venice or to Limburg to write about these places, or to note the bloom of local colour for literary decoration; nor does he diverge by the Adriatic or by the winding ways of Lahn, so as to introduce this gondola-view of the sea-set city or that forest-vision which for English folk has given a touch of beauty to Nassau which before it hardly owned in literary remembrance. His men and women are there, for a time, or passingly; and so the beauty that is in the background closes round and upon them, or is flashed out for a moment, through the magic of the same power which gave themselves the breath of life. The same vision which has seen into a Renée's heart or the life-springs of a Nevil Beauchamp, or pierced the veils of personality in a Cecilia Halkett (or any of the long unequalled "studies" from Lucy Desborough to beautiful Carinthia, from Rosamund Romfrey--perhaps Mr. Meredith's subtlest portrait--to Mrs. Berry) or in men of passionate life and action such as Richard Feverel, or "Matey" Weyburn, or the great Alvan (and here, too, what a gallery of living natures, between the almost grotesque extremes of Sir Willoughby Patterne of one great novel and the Dr. Shrapnel of another!)--the same vision has noted the determining features and outstanding aspects of this or that scene, arid, in flashing a single ray or flooding a long continuous beam, has revealed to us more than the most conscientious photographic or "Pre-Raphaelite" method could accomplish in ten times the space, or in ten times ten. It is, indeed, pre-eminently in these brief outlines of the country in which his imagination temporarily pursues its creative way that Meredith excels. A score of instances will doubtless occur to the reader, but here are one or two chosen almost at random. I do not allude to those, and they are many, which convey solely by awakening an emotion in the mind of the reader--not by description but by a sudden terse expression of deep feeling in the midst of dialogue or direct narrative: as, for example, a couple of lines in that delightful romance Lord Ormont and his Aminta, which so charmed readers of the Pall Mall Magazine in the numbers issued from December 1893 to July 1894:
"Thus it happened that Lord Ormont and Philippa were on the famous Bernese Terrace, grandest of terrestrial theatres, where soul of man has fronting him earth's utmost majesty. . . ."
I allude, rather, to vivid "asides" such as:
". . . poor Blackburn Tuckham descended greenish to his cabin as soon as (the yacht) had crashed on the first wallwaves of the chalk-race, a throw beyond the peaked cliffs edged with cormorants, and were really tasting sea. . . ." (Beauchamp's Career.)
"Thames played round them on his pastoral pipes. Bee-note and woodside blackbird, and meadow cow, and the leap of the fish in the silver rolling rings composed the music." (Lord Ormont.)
or that rapid impression of Venice, by Renée, in her brief Adriatic flight romanceward with Nevil Beauchamp:
"Green shutters, wet steps, barcaroli, brown women, striped posts, a scarlet night-cap, a sick fig-tree, an old shawl, faded spots of colour, peeling walls."
or, and finally, for one must make an end to what might be indefinitely prolonged and for the same reason,-- still to keep to Beauchamp's Career--this of the fading of Venice from the gaze of Renée and Nevil:
". . . [Leaning thus], with Nevil she said adieu to Venice, where the faint red Doge's palace was like the fading of another sunset north-westward of the glory along the hills. Venice dropped lower and lower, breasting the waters, until it was a thin line in air. The line was broken, and ran in dots, with here and there a pillar standing on opal sky. At last the topmost campanile sank. Renée looked up at the sails, and back for the submerged city. 'It is gone,' she said, as though a marvel had been worked; and swiftly.' "
As for more detailed description of those regions--Venetian, Lombardian, Alpine, Swiss, French, German, Austrian--which must be included by the literary geographer of the country of George Meredith, that too might be made the pleasant task of a volume rather than the difficult coup d'oeil and impossible adequate 'representation' of a magazine article. From Richard Feverel and Beauchamp's Career, the two deepest and tenderest and most winsome of the author's books, to the superb Vittoria, the brilliant and fascinating Diana of the Crossways; from that intense study of the Teuton nature aflame, The Tragic Comedians, to Lord Ormont and his Aminta, and the best loved and most lovable of Meredith's later romances, The Amazing Marriage, there is not one which would not yield some long excerpt of treasurable beauty and distinction. Which would it be, if but a quotation or two at most could be given? Shall it be just across the Channel, at Renée's Tourdestelle in Normandy, hidden behind that coast of interminable dunes, that coast seen by Nevil Beauchamp on his fateful visit "dashed in rain-lines across a weed-strewn sea?" Or at Baden Baden and the high Alps with Carinthia? Or with Richard Feverel in the woods at Nassau on the day when that "tragic failure" learns suddenly what has happened to poor Lucy . . . that he is a father? Or with beautiful and radiant Diana at Monte Generoso? Or with superb Vittoria at Monte Motterone, overlooking Lombardy and Italy? Or the Adriatic by night--or the Alps beyond Venice at dawn--or . . . but an end!
"The woman guides us." But which of the many beautiful women of Meredith's "House of Life" shall it be? All are unforgettable portraits, from Lucy Desborough and Renée de Croisnel to Clara Middleton, to Diana, to Carinthia; all are of vital womanly nature at its vividest, from Vittoria to Clotilde, from Cecilia Halkett to "Browny" Aminta (perhaps, of all, the nearest to the most modern ideal of woman, she who of all this author's women-characters appeals most to men and women jointly. . . . and has not he who knows her best written of her, "All women were eclipsed by her. She was that fire in the night which lights the night and draws the night to look at it"?)
But let us choose another and less bewildering method. Nature is nature, whether viewed among the Alps, in Nassau forests, in Surrey woods or wealds. George Meredith writes with his bewitching mastery, not because he has travelled widely and seen much, but because from his cottagehome in the heart of Surrey, or wherever else he has lived, briefly or for long, he has observed with insatiable love and eagerness --because he has the transmuting mind and the instinct of interpretation. "How did he learn to read at any moment right to the soul of a woman? It must be because of his being in heart and mind the brother to the sister with women." So, if not thus articulately, thought "Browny" of " Matey " Weyburn in that keen-eyed and perturbing chapter, "Lovers Mated." And, it might be added of their creator, how did he learn to read at any moment right to the soul of any aspect of nature? . . . It must be because of his being heart and mind the brother to the living soul that breathes and reveals itself in "the everything and the all" of Nature. Hidden in the midst of the two hundred and ninetieth page of The Ordeal of Richard Feverel is the clue-word of that book--of all his work. The "auroral" air is that wherein his genius takes wing, whence it comes, whither it soars, though its pastures are of earth, and oftenest indeed of the earth earthy. This is the secret of his magnificent sanity this undying youth with the wisdom of the sage and the auroral joy of life.
What a wealth to draw from! One need not turn to the more familiar scenes, and can find the unsurpassable by the sand country, marsh, and meadow of Bevisham, or by sea-set Felixstowe, as well as among the high Alps or where Venice lies "like a sleeping queen" on the Adriatic. What pictures innumerable, besides these the better known of Lucy and Renée, Sandra and Clotilde, Diana and Clara, Aminta and Carinthia, and their eager lovers . . . .as, for example, that of the lovely episode of Cecilia Halkett's voiceless wooing in the dawn "of a splendid day of the young Spring."
So saturated with the sense of nature is all Meredith's work in prose or verse, so continually illumined is it with vivid allusion or revealing glance that--ot withstanding the innumerable pages given to nature--background in foreign lands, from Norman Tourdestelle to Adriatic Chioggia, from Madeira in the Canary Sea to Meran in the Austrian Tyrol--the prevailing impression on the habitual reader of his writings is that his "country" is our own familiar English country, and preeminently Surrey and Hants and Dorset, or all from Felixstowe (of the immortal swim) to Bevisham, south-west of the Isle of Wight and the dancing Solent.
It is in his verse, however, that Meredith has given most intimate and poignant as well as most personal expression to his deep love of and exceptional intimacy with nature. If we must make exception, let it be such a passage as that where Richard Feverel first sees Lucy Desborough, when on the dream-quest after his ideal "Clare Doria Forey" . . . "(name of) perfect melody! . . . sliding with the tide, he heard it fluting in the bosom of the hills;" or that ever-lifting passage beginning, "Above green-flashing plunges of a weir, and shaken by the thunder below, lilies, golden and white, were swaying at anchor among the reeds. Meadow-sweet hung from the banks thick with weed and trailing bramble, and there also hung a daughter of earth;" . . . or that (since Richard's romance holds one spell-bound) where Sir Austin Feverel and his son are together in a railway-carriage, as they approach Bellingham at sundown, and the young man looks out over the pine-hills beyond to the last rosy streak in a green sky, and sees in "the sad beauty of that one spot in the heavens" the very symbol of the ache and wonder in his heart. For in these things is the very breath of poetry, if not the metrical semblance.
But to begin now and quote from the poetry of George Meredith would keep us indefinitely. It is led to, often, by rough roads, and not infrequently rude and even unsightly and unwelcome banks, obscure dew-wet pasture and moonlit glade. But his "country" is always the country of Beauty, of the poet. One ever looks back across "the twilight wave," and sees there, as in a dream, remembered images of what has impassioned and inspired:
Those who would be in closest touch with the veritable "country of George Meredith" will find it in his poetry. It is the country of that Surrey where he has so long lived, so long watched the wild cherry in the hollow behind Box Hill blossom anew at the clarions of Spring, or the nightjar "spin his dark monotony" from the moonlit pine-branch each recurrent June; where he has so often rejoiced in the south-west wind leaping bacchanalian across the hills and vales, or seen winter silence fall upon that winding Mole by whose still stream he has so often dreamed, or watched the reds and yellows of autumn glorify the woodland fastness behind the inn at Burford Bridge--that inn of many memories, where Keats wrote part of his Endymion, which for Robert Louis Stevenson had so great a fascination (and has by him been snatched out of the dusk of passing things), where first the two greatest romancists of to-day met, "in the fellowship of Omar." In one or other of the small editions of the Selected Poems the reader will find the "life" of the author, as he lives it, and has for so long lived it, in his quiet home. This lies but a stone's-throw from what was till recently a lonely country road, though now a thoroughfare almost metropolitan in its continual business of coach and motor. It has still, however, at times, much of its old fascination for the diminishing few who go afoot, and the still rarer folk of the yellow van. The Lark Ascending, Woodland Peace, Seed-time, The South-Wester, The Thrush in February, Breath of the Briar, Love in a Valley, Hymn to Colour, Night of Frost in May, Woods of Westermain--the very names are "breaths of the briar." Who has not thrilled over Love in a Valley, and to its lilting music ? . . . perhaps also to those four lines which Rossetti once quoted to the present writer as the most beautiful of their kind in the language, adding "if whiteness be the colour of poetry, then here is virgin whiteness":
We saw the swallows gathering in the sky,
And in the oiser-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 robbed 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 robbed 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.
There are such material differences in the two extant versions (Love in a Valley) as to constitute them two poems rather than variants of one. In that of 1851 there are eleven stanzas; in that, thirty-two years later, of Poems and Lyrics of the Joy of Earth (or, rather, that of Macmillan's Magazine in 1878, twenty-seven years later), there are more than half as many again--in all, twenty-six. Of the eleven stanzas of the earlier version only the first, second, fourth, eighth, and ninth reappear, though through the fourteenth of the later version rises the phantom of the original fifth stanza. In rhythmic beauty this fourteenth stanza is finer, but in the earlier the poetic note is as authentic and one misses the lovely line (following the "whitenecked swallows twittering of summer," and the jasmine and woodbine "breathing sweet"),
When from bed she rises, clothed from neck to ankle
In her long nightgown sweet as boughs of May,
Beauteous she looks! like a tall garden lily
Pure from the night and Perfect from the day!
Another lost beautiful line is that missing in the altered second stanza,
Fill her with balm and nested Peace from head to feet.
Full of all the wilderness of the woodland creatures To the cancelled stanzas one can but say "Ave atque vale," since the author's mature judgment wills them away; and yet it is with reluctance we lose the lines just quoted, or these:
Surely that exquisite last line might have been saved! On the other hand, there is no music in the earlier to equal that of certain stanzas of the later version. . . .
. . . On a dewy eve-tide
Whispering together beneath the listening moon
I prayed till her cheek flush'd. . . .
. . . .Show the bridal Heavens but one star?
Is she a nightingale that will not be nested
Till the April woodland has built her bridal bower?
April . . . with thy crescent brows. . . .
Come, merry month of cuckoo and the violet!
Come, weeping Loveliness in all thy blue delight!
or the lovely "swaying whitebeam" music of the twenty-sixth stanza, or that even lovelier twenty-fourth stanza beginning, "Soon will she lie like a white-frost sunrise," and closing with
Lovely are the curves of the white owl sweeping
Wavy in the dusk lit by one large star.
Lone on the fir-branch, his rattle-note unvaried,
Brooding o'er the gloom, spins the brown eve-jar.
Darker grows the valley . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . green-winged Spring,
Shy as the squirrel, and wayward as the swallow
Swift as the swallow when athwart the western flood
Circleting the surface, he meets his mirror'd winglets,--
Is that dear one in her maiden bud.
Shy as the squirrel whose nest is in the Pine-tops
Gentle--ah ! that she were jealous as the dove!
Full of all the wildness of the woodland creatures,
Happy in herself is the maiden that I love
This oral citation of the poem by Rossetti must have been from two to three years before the publication of the revised and amplified Love in a Valley in book-form (Poems and Lryics of the Joy of Earth, 1883). The poem as it is now known first appeared in Macmillan's Magazine (October 1878); but when Rossetti quoted the lines to me it was out of old remembrance . . . hence the epithet "perfect" for "splendid" in the last line. On the same occasion he showed me (after some search) a manuscript copy of it made--if I remember his words exactly--"more than twenty years ago": and added that it was written in "Meredith's 'George Meredith Feverel' days." I had not seen the poem in Macmillan's, and did not then know of the Poems of 1851; and, am not likely to forget the impression of its beauty as read by Rossetti from the MS., or the delight I had in making a copy of it. Years afterwards I had the deeper pleasure of hearing Meredith himself read the later and nobler version, in that little Swiss chalet of his above Flint Cottage and its gardens, where so much of his later work in prose and verse has been written--a little brown wooden house of the simplest, but to many friends richer in ardent memories than any palace in treasures . . . with its outlook down grassy terraces and pansied garden-rows across to the green thorn-stunted slope of Box Hill, and its glimpse leftward up that valley where still in nightingale-weather may be seen in a snow of bloom the wild white cherry which inspired the lines:
Shy as the squirrel and wayward as the swallow,
Swift as the swallow along the -river's light
Circleting the surface to meet his mirrored winglets,
Fleeter she seems in her stay than in her flight.
Shy as the squirrel that leaps among the pine-lops,
Wayward as the swallow overhead at set of sun,
She whom I love is hard to catch and conquer,
Hard, but O the glory of the winning were she won!
One wishes that, in his later poetry, Meredith had oftener sounded the simple and beautiful pastoral note which gave so lovely a beauty to his first volume of verse. We miss the music of the scenery and nature-life of his beloved Surrey; the lilt of songs such as the Autumn Song, beginning
Fairer than the lily, than the wild white cherry
Fair as an image my seraph love appears. . . .
or this " Spring Song
When nuts behind the hazel leaf
Are brown as the squirrel that hunts them free,
And the fields are rich with the sunburnt sheaf,
'Mid the blue cornflower and the yellowing tree. . .
When buds of palm do burst and spread
Oh! then is the season to look for a bride
Choose her warily, woo her unseen;
For the choicest maids are those that hide.
Like dewy violets under the green.
Summer glows warm on the meadows, and speedwell
and goldcups and daisies
Darken 'mid deepening masses of sorrel, and
Show the ripe hue to the farmer, and summon the
scythe and the haymakers
Down from the village; and now, even now, the air
smells of the mowing,
And the sharp song of the scythe--whistles daily,
from dawn till the gloaming
Wears its cool star . . .
* * * * *
Heavily weighs the hot season, and drowses theAnd would that he could sing again and oftener of the great Surrey rolling slopes he has known so well, and most his own close by, up and down and along which he has walked at all hours in all seasons for so many years:
Drooping with languor the white cloud floats, but
sails not, for windless
The blue heaven tents it, no lark singing up in its
fleecy white valleys. . . .
Among the ignorant and uncritical claims made for the poetry of the late W. E. Henley is that of his pioneer-use of unrhymed lyrical verse, or, it may be, with admission of Matthew Arnold's priority. But other writers preceded Mr. Henley, and, as I think, with a mastery beyond his (as again I think) overrated rhythmical experiments. At his best he never approaches the dignity of Arnold's unrhymed lyrical verse, or the suave and supple loveliness of Coventry Patmore's. Nor do I recollect any rhymeless lyrical verse of his finer in emotion and touch than the unrhymed stanza just quoted; or than this, from the unrhymed lyric of Nightfall (Pastoral No. V.):
All day into the open sky,
All night to the eternal stars,
For ever both at morn and eve
When mellow distances draw near,
And shadows lengthen in the dusk,
Athwart the heavens it rolls its glimmering line!
In these and all such as these we have the true country of George Meredith--that which is part of his daily life, which is morning and noon and evening comrade, in whose companionship all his work has grown and every poem taken wing, whose solace has been his deepest comfort in long seasons of sorrow, and is still his deepest happiness in the long days of old age--if one can think of this blithe spirit other than as eternally young.
Three short songs gives the clear-voiced throstle,
Sweetening the twilight eye he fills the nest;
While the little bird upon the lealfess branches
Tweets to its mate a tiny lovingnote.
Deeper the stillness hangs on every motion
Calmer the silence follows every call:
Now all is quiet save the roosting pheasant,
The bellwether tinkle and the watchdog's bark.
Softly shine the lights from the silent kindling homestead,
Stars of the hearth to the shepherd in the fold.
"O joy thus to revel all day in the grass of our own beloved country!" he sang, as a youth; and to-day the solitary old poet, looking out still on his "beloved country" of mid-Surrey, finds the same joy, if sobered to the deeper emotion of happiness, in the warmth of human life around and human love radiating from near and far.
How barren would this valley be
Without the golden orb that gazes
On it, broadening to hues
Of rose, and spreading wings of amber
Blessing it before it falls asleep
How barren would this valley be
Without the human lives now beating
In it, or the throbbing hearts
Far distant, who their flower of childhood
Cherish here, and water it with tears!
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