Modern Love and Poems of the English Roadside
With Poems and Ballads
Edited by Rebecca N. Mitchell and Criscillia Benford
New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2013
Hardback. xlv + 390 pp. ISBN 978-0300173178. £40.00
Reviewed by Jacqueline Banerjee
The Victorian Web
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 (1), 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"  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!!" . 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" . 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.
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" , 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
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
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!" , 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 . 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
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.
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.
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