George Meredith’s selected poems are in some danger of shrinking to two pieces, the anthology standard “Lucifer in Starlight” and the sonnet sequence “Modern Love,” a little novel in fifty sonnets. I have read more Meredith than that, but not a lot more. My edition of Meredith’s Selected Poems (Carcanet, 2001) only has seventy pages of poetry, with “Modern Love” filling twenty of them. All of this from eight books published over the course of fifty years.
I would read more. Maybe not too many more. Let’s hunt for good lines.
“Lucifer in Starlight” (1883) is a Miltonic sonnet that works a lot like “Dirge in Woods” from yesterday – nature capped with Reflections, except it is more mysterious and ambiguous. Lucifer is the morning star, and also Milton’s anti-hero, and also whatever the panicky Brit Lit II student can come up with. It famously ends:
Around the ancient track marched, rank on rank,
The army of unalterable law.
Although I prefer the description of the stars as “the brain of heaven.”
“The Old Chartist” (1862) is a Browning-like dramatic monologue, not at all typical for Meredith, about an old political radical who has finally returned to England after being transported to Australia. He still has his beliefs, and pride, and can still enjoy a walk in the field, where he comes across a kindred soul, a muskrat:
His seat is on a mud-bank, and his trade
Is dirt:- he’s quite contemptible; and yet
The fellow’s all as anxious as a maid
To show a decent dress, and dry the wet.
Now it’s his whisker.
And now his nose, and ear: he seem to get
Each moment at the motion brisker!
A humane poem about an old man watching a muskrat wash himself.
But Meredith is usually more abstract in his nature writing (from “Ode to the Spirit of Earth in Autumn,” 1862):
Behold, in yon stripped Autumn, shivering grey,
Earth knows no desolation.
She smells regeneration
In the moist breath of decay.
If I were a different, better reader of poetry, I would memorize these lines and trot them out every October to the gradually increasing annoyance of meine Frau.
“Love in the Valley” (1883), now this is an interesting poem, a love poem where the valley is as interesting as, somehow mingled with, the young woman:
Lovely are the curves of the white owl sweeping
Wavy in the dusk lit by one large star.
The woman, the love object is mentioned in the previous line, so the loveliness, and the curves, are meant to be associated with her, too. As Victorian poems go, this is one of the sexy ones. “This I may know: her dressing and undressing,” referring, of course, to “Earth” at harvest-time, of course, what else.
This bit is pure sound and vowels, a ripoff of the Greatest Poem of the 19th Century:
Doves of the fir-wood walling high our red roof
Through the long noon coo, crooning through the coo.
Loose droop the leaves, and down the sleeping roadway
Sometimes pipes a chaffinch; loose droops the blue.
A footnote suggests that “the blue” is the sky. Perhaps Meredith goes too far, bringing the doves back at the end there. Perhaps he already went far too far with the second line. I love that line. Hoo can you noot loove it?