Nature Lessons from George Meredith
by Henry S. Salt
“George Meredith has constantly devoted himself to the ever-fruitful fields of real living nature and human nature.” So wrote James Thomson, one of the earliest and most sympathetic of Mr. Meredith’s admirers; and the words remain to this day as true and appropriate as when they were written. For George Meredith is naturalist and novelist in one; the gospel which he preaches may be not inaptly summed up as a “return to nature.” In the “Woods of Westermain,” that suggestive poem which forms the introduction to the lyrics rightly named “Of the Joy of Earth,” we have the essence of Mr. Meredith’s philosophy. Wild nature is reverenced and celebrated by him as the inmost sanctuary of wisdom, the touchstone by which all human sentiment and knowledge must ultimately be ratified or condemned. Such is the note struck in the opening lines:
Enter these enchanted woods,
You who dare.
Nothing harms beneath the leaves
More than waves a swimmer cleaves.
Toss your heart up with the lark,
Foot at peace with mouse and worm,
Fair you fare.
Only at a dread of dark
Quaver, and they quit their form:
Thousand eyeballs under hoods
Have you by the hair.
Enter these enchanted woods,
You who dare.
It were easy to show, by examples taken from Mr. Meredith’s writings, the extraordinary beauty and force of his descriptions of natural scenery and of his similes drawn therefrom; but what is better worth showing, inasmuch as it has not received the attention it deserves, is the supreme power, and the supreme tenderness in power, with which he has imaged those mystic, subtle, evanescent, yet very real sympathies that subsist between Nature and Man. Especially is this noticeable in the great crises of his plots—turn to them, and you will find that then it is he touches with unerring finger on the very pulse of nature, and suggests to us that the heart of the universal mother beats in unison with our own. The solemnly-gorgeous “Morning at Sea under the Alps,” when Beauchamp, alone with Renée on the Adriatic, is at the turning-point of his career; the double-blossom wild cherry-tree, with its “load of virginal blossom whiter than the summer cloud on the sky,” under whose shade Clara Middleton, sickened by the egoism of Sir Willoughby, first knows her love for the simple manly Vernon; the “great surges of wind, piping and driving every light surface-atom as foam,” on which Diana, her heart tumultuous as the wind, descends the Surrey hill-slope with the faithful Redworth; the immortal sunset-sonnet in “Modern Love,” when “the largeness of the evening earth” gives a divine moment’s recompense for two wasted lifetimes; the little stream of Beckley Park, that warbles its undertone, now sad, now glad, to the shifting fortunes of Evan Harrington; the final sentences of “Sandra Belloni,” where Merthyr reads Emilia’s letter, “sitting in the Richford library alone, while the great rhododendron bloomed outside, above the shaven sunny sward, looking like a monstrous tropic bird alighted to brood an hour in full sunlight”; the majestic part played by the Alps at the close of “Vittoria,” where, by the surest poetic instinct, the scene is lifted from the reeking murderous battle-plains of Italy to the solitude of the spotless snows—these are but a few of the memorable passages in which George Meredith has represented human passion as finding an echo and a sympathy in the elemental forces of nature.
This “nature,” however, is a somewhat ambiguous term, and to avoid misconception it should be premised that Mr. Meredith’s nature-worship by no means implies a sanction of mere sensual impulse; on the contrary, the perils, no less than the advantages, of natural instinct are repeatedly emphasised by him. “She is a splendid power,” he says of nature, “for as long as we confine her between the banks; but she has a passion to discover cracks, and if we give her headway, she will find one, and drive at it, and be through, uproarious in her primitive licentiousness, unless we labour body and soul like Dutchmen at the dam.” Note, as an example of this want of balance between “nature and circumstance,” the character of Alvan, in the “Tragic Comedians,” of whom it is said, “a stormy blood made wreck of a splendid intelligence.”
How, then, shall the devotee of nature distinguish between the true nature and the false; how, entering the enchanted Woods of Westermain, shall he grasp as a blessing the gift which is offered him in the form of blessing or curse? The choice lies within himself. The essential condition of true nature is vital growth; and whoso has realised this law may wander a free man through the wildest recesses of the forest.
Then for you are pleasures pure
Sureties as the stars are sure:
Not the wanton beckoning flags
Which, of flattery and delight,
Wax to the grim Habit-Hags
Riding souls of men to night:
Pleasures that through blood run sane,
Quickening spirit from the brain.
Brain and spirit, so Mr. Meredith reminds us, are integral elements in nature. “‘Tis nature bids you be to nature true,” he says in one of his poems; and elsewhere, “To demand of us truth to nature, excluding philosophy, is really to bid a pumpkin caper.” And again, in the same chapter; “If in any branch of us we fail in growth, there is, you are aware, an unfailing aboriginal democratic old monster that waits to pull us down; certainly the branch, possibly the tree; and for the welfare of life we fall. . . . Be wary of him in the heart; especially be wary of the disrelish of brain-stuff. You must feed on something. Matter that is not nourishing to brains can help to constitute nothing but the bodies which are pitched on rubbish heaps.” Here we see the source of Mr. Meredith’s repeatedly outspoken detestation of custom, of sameness, of intellectual stagnation, all of which are utterly alien to nature:
Sameness locks no scurfy pond
Here for custom, crazy-fond:
Change is on the wing to bud
Rose in brain from rose in blood.
We see, therefore, that the basis of Mr. Meredith’s philosophy is emphatically a belief in the saving wholesomeness of nature. And it is here worth observing that his nature lessons are, in one way, the more significant and effective, on account of the seeming incongruity of their surroundings. They are a cry for simplicity from the very camp of the artificial. We are not now alluding so much to the “artificialities,” real or imagined, of Mr. Meredith’s style—the protracted sword-play of the dialogue, and the other elaborate mannerisms of which his readers, perhaps not unfairly, complain—as to the fact that the scenes of his novels are mostly laid in an aristocratic, and therefore necessarily artificial atmosphere, a country-house assemblage of lords and ladies and gentle-folk, who move amid the continuous tittle-tattle of fashionable drawing-rooms and dinner-tables. Could anything, it might be said, be less congenial to nature? Yet perhaps for that very reason the moral is pointed more acutely; certainly the position of the moralist is more piquant and stimulating. “One learns,” says Mr. Meredith, in “Rhoda Fleming,” “to have compassion for fools, by studying them; and the fool, though nature is wise, is next door to nature. He is naked in his simplicity: he can tell us much and suggest more.” And again, in “One of our Conquerors”: “An acutely satiric man, in an English circle that does not resort to the fist for a reply to him, may almost satiate the excessive fury aroused in his mind by an illogical people of provocative prosperity. . . . They give him so many opportunities.”
Mr. Meredith, in brief, is a humorist who loves nature; and when he tarries amid artificial surroundings, it is precisely because he is so keenly aware of the incongruity, and of the rich material the contrast offers him; for comedy, as he has himself remarked,” is a game played to throw reflections upon social life, and it deals with human nature in the drawing-room of civilised men and women.” His high opinion and masterly use of what he calls the “comic spirit”1 are thus seen to be closely connected with his philosophy of nature, being the weapons with which he scourges the follies and vices of civilisation. “Whenever men violate the unwritten but perceptible laws binding them in consideration one to another; whenever they offend sound reason, fair justice; are false in humility or mined with conceit, individually, or in the bulk—the Spirit overhead will look humanely malign and cast an oblique light on them, followed by volleys of silvery laughter.”
We would especially call attention to the words “humanely malign,” because there is no more lamentable misunderstanding of the humorist in general, and of Mr. Meredith in particular, than the idea that the “comic spirit” is in any degree cynical or misanthropic. Years ago an unfortunate critic identified the cynical Adrian of “Richard Feverel” with the author of that book; and later, Mr. J. M. Barrie has remarked that “wit does not proceed from the heart, and so in many of Mr. Meredith’s books there is no heart. . . . This want of heart is a part of the price Mr. Meredith pays for his wit.” Mr. Meredith’s temper is, from first to last, a humane one; his works are everywhere as full of heart as they are full of brain; and the reader who has missed the recognition of this, has missed the most signal point in his teaching. It is his peculiar triumph to have demonstrated that there is no incompatibility, but rather the closest interdependence, between intellectual strength and spiritual tenderness—that to be large-brained is also to be large-hearted.
Let us now consider the application of Mr. Meredith’s philosophy to certain of the ethical and social questions of the present time. “Sentimentalism” is perhaps the moral blot which has been most persistently indicated by him. “And how may you know,” he says, “that you have reached to philosophy? You touch her skirts when you share her hatred of the sham decent, her derision of sentimentalism.” In healthy nature there is no place for the sentimentalist. “Such persons come to us in the order of civilisation; wealthy communities must engender them. Our sentimentalists are a variety owing their existence to a certain prolonged term of comfortable feeding.” Closely allied to this sentimentalism, perhaps at root scarcely to be distinguished from it, is the “egoism” which plays so important a part in Mr. Meredith’s novels, and provides so large a field for his exercise of the “comic perception.” And, further, we would remark that this sentimental egoism of which Mr. Meredith makes such havoc, bears a strong generic resemblance to the pseudo-idealism which Ibsen has set himself to denounce. The secret of the character of Sir Willoughby Patterne, the Egoist par excellence, is stated to be that “he is one of those excessively civilised creatures who aim at perfection “—a thoroughly Ibsenite utterance. Very notable, too, in this connection, is the following passage from that characteristic introduction to “Diana of the Crossways”:
“‘So well do we know ourselves that we one and all determine to know a purer,’ says the heroine of my columns. Philosophy in fiction tells, among various other matters, of the perils of this intimate acquaintance with a flattering familiar in the ‘purer’—a person who more than ceases to be of use to us after his ideal shall have led up men from their flint and arrowhead caverns to intercommunicative daylight. For, when the fictitious creature has performed that service of helping to civilise the world, it becomes the most dangerous of delusions, causing first the individual to despise the mass, and then to join the mass in crushing the individual.”
On this misleading will-o’-the-wisp, whether it be called “sentimentalism” or “egoism” or “idealism,” Mr. Meredith, as befits a champion of the natural, has waged unceasing and relentless war.
Naturalness is, in fact, the watchword of Mr. Meredith’s art. It has been his avowed purpose to maintain, at all costs to his popularity as a novelist, a healthy and rational position, remote alike from the “rose-pink” of sentimental romance and the “alternative dirty drab” of realistic pessimism. His books, like those of George Borrow, are a sturdy protest against the fashionable inanities of kid-glove literature. “My way,” he says, “is like a Rhone island in the summer drought, stony, unattractive and difficult between the two forceful streams of the unreal and the over-real, which delight mankind—honour to the conjurors! My people conquer nothing, win none; they are actual, yet uncommon. It is the clock-work of the brain that they are directed to set in motion.” Mr. Meredith’s characters are accordingly neither immaculate heroes not unmitigated villains, but real creatures of flesh and blood; while even the artificialities of his style and diction, already alluded to, are incidental surface-blemishes, not radical defects indeed, as James Thomson pointed out, his language, at all important crises, is “beautiful in simplest Saxon."
Sentimental egoism is, of course, a very different thing from personal individuality, of which Mr. Meredith, like all nature-lovers, is an ardent advocate. There is a deliberate and very noticeable contrast, in his writings, between that gallery of weak self-indulgent “shuttle-cockians,” of whom Sir Willoughby Patterne is the chief example and Wilfrid Pole and Percy Dacier among the lesser lights, and those typical, strong, self-contained men of the Merthyr Powys class, to whom the mature love of the noblest women is ultimately awarded. In Mr. Meredith’s words:
Love meet they who do not shove
Cravings in the van of Love.
To distinguish “cravings” from affection, egoism from individuality, is to know the true self from the false one, and this is one of the central precepts of the Meredithian philosophy.
It is obvious that this nature-gospel must have an important bearing on the question of the right relation of the sexes. Now the naturalness of Mr. Meredith’s female characters, and the delicacy of his insight into the feelings of women, have been largely acknowledged, and his “heroines of reality” have already taken their place among the solid achievements of literature: it is sufficient to refer to the names of Emilia and Diana, of Janet Ilchester and Clara Middleton. But there is still deeper significance in Mr. Meredith’s treatment of the social status of women. To preach nature, and the individual freedom which is inseparable from nature, here, in this labyrinthine maze of the “sham decent,” is to revolutionise indeed! Yet this is what Mr. Meredith has consistently done through the whole sequence of his novels; and the fact that it is done as an artist must do it, indirectly, and in no obtrusively didactic spirit, does not at all diminish the importance of the result. A flood of ridicule is poured in passage after passage on “the common male egoist ideal of a wax-work sex,” an ideal which has made individuality of character a difficult, well-nigh impossible attainment for women, whose purity is “carved in marble for the assurance to an Englishman that his possession of the changeless thing defies time and his fellows—is the pillar of his home and universally enviable.” “I must be myself, to be of any value to you, Willoughby,” are Clara’s unheeded words to the Egoist.
In “One of our Conquerors” Mr. Meredith has expressed the same conclusion with even greater insistence.
“Thus was Nesta, too, being put into her woman’s harness of the bit and the blinkers, and taught to know herself for the weak thing, the gentle parasite, which the fiction of our civilisation expects her, caressingly and contemptuously, to become in the active, while it is exacted of her—O comedy of clowns!—that in the passive she be a rock-fortress impregnable, not to speak of magically encircled. She must also have her feelings; she must not be an unnatural creature. And she must have a sufficient intelligence; for her stupidity does not flatter the possessing man. It is not an organic growth that he desires in his mate, but a happy composition. You see the world which comes of the pair.”
Well may Mr. Meredith suggest that grossness is at the root of this conventional ideal of womanly purity; and that sentimentalism, “fiddle in harmonics” as it will, is but the “fine flower, or pinnacle flame-spire of sensualism.”
It has been said that “George Meredith’s position is that of a mourner over the present state of womankind, and a devout believer in woman’s future elevation, by man’s kind permission and assistance,” a criticism which is founded on the erroneous assumption that a certain sentence in “The Pilgrim’s Scrip”—I expect that Woman will be the last thing civilised by Man”—expresses the judgment of Mr. Meredith himself, whereas in reality it is (in the sense attributed to it) directly opposed to the general tenor of his doctrine. The truth is, that the whole protectorate of men over women has had few more deadly assailants in English literature than the author of “Diana of the Crossways” and “ Modern Love”; the monstrous absurdity, the utter impasse, of woman’s present position is the moral written very clearly, for those who have eyes to read it, in Mr. Meredith’s books. “They cannot take a step without becoming bondwomen; into what a slavery!” is the verdict of Clara on her sex. “I have had a Beauty’s career, and a curious caged beast’s life I have found it,” is Diana’s similar experience; and so in like manner with each of his other heroines in turn, until we read of Nataly, in “One of our Conquerors,” that she “could argue her case in her conscience—deep down and out of hearing, where women, under scourge of the Laws they have not helped decree, may and do deliver their minds—she stood in that subterranean recess for Nature against the Institutions of Man.”
What then is to be the outcome of this tyrannous coil of artificial restriction? Writing as a poet and novelist, and not as a lecturer, Mr. Meredith has preferred to suggest his views in outline, rather than propound them in full; but there can be no question that he foresees very distinctly, even from the slight indications of the present day, the resistless tide of the emancipation that is to come. Witness the four concluding lines of the final stanza of “Modern Love”:—
In tragic hints here see what evermore
Moves dark as yonder midnight ocean’s force,
Thundering like ram ping hosts of warrior horse,
To throw that hint thin line upon the shore!
If we may judge by the internal evidence of Mr. Meredith’s writings, the sex question is the one which has had the largest share of his sympathetic interest; but no intelligent reader can fail to perceive that he is a thorough lover of freedom in all its forms and phases, social, national, or intellectual. His democratic instincts are unmistakable; their import, as I have already said, being enhanced rather than lessened by the contrast of their surroundings; and if the society of his Stukely Culbretts and Cecil Baskeletts is felt to be somewhat oppressive at times by those who have not been fated to dwell in the same polite environments, it should be remembered that these very passages convey the most complete revelation of the character of the modern “gentleman,” that “national apology for indolence,” as he has inimitably expressed it. Best of all, Mr. Meredith has never faltered in his course; from first to last, through neglect and ridicule and misrepresentation, he has been true to his own genius and to the principles that inspired him. From the time, now many years ago, when he showed, in “Richard Feverel,” the catastrophe that must ensue from the attempt of any Superior Person, whether scientist or humanist, to bind nature by a “system,” he has enforced and reinforced, under a succession of various aspects, the same great nature-lesson.
And herein he has his reward. At once the sanest and the humanest of English novelists, the strongest brain and the most feeling heart of his literary generation, he will be read and studied with increasing attention when the great social and ethical movements that are now at work shall have rendered antiquated the larger portion of contemporary fiction. Unlike Dickens, unlike Thackeray, unlike George Eliot, he is essentially a poet; hence his subtler sympathies and loftier scope of vision, which have not only saved him from the lapses into morbid sentiment of which those writers were not unfrequently the victims, but have enabled him to read the signs of the times and to forecast impending changes with far greater penetration.
It has been well said that Mr. Meredith’s purpose is “to reconcile the spiritual and the material by means of the intellect.” The divorce of thought from nature, as if the two principles were in some way antagonistic, is utterly alien to the spirit of his philosophy; he would accept and humanise both, and by humanising reconcile them. His teaching is epitomised in the verse:
Mind that with deep earth unites.
The fruits of this steadfast deep-rooted nature-worship are seen in the healthy confidence, the fresh reanimating faith in life and humanity, that breathes, like his favourite south-west wind, through Mr. Meredith’s writings. Here, at any rate, is an optimism that is neither sentimental nor selfish, that has blinked no sombre or distasteful fact, but has looked reality in the face, and can yet bid mankind be of good cheer. It is no common debt that English fiction owes to the man who, during the past quarter-century, has done more than any other to redeem it from the slur of intellectual barrenness, and to point it to those “ever-fruitful fields of real living nature and human nature” where his own lifework has been accomplished.
1 See his essay on “The Idea of Comedy, and of the Uses of the Comic Spirit.”
Published: The Free Review, September 1896, Vol. IV