George Eliot (Blind 1883)/Chapter 12

George Eliot  (1883)  by Mathilde Blind
Chapter XII. Her Poems



Few are the external events to be now recorded of George Eliot's life. The publication of her successive works forms the chief landmarks. But the year 1865 is distinguished by circumstances of some importance. In this year Mr. Lewes, after assisting to found the Fortnightly Review, assumed its editorship; and among the contributions to the first number of the new Review was a short article from the pen of George Eliot on Mr. Lecky's important work 'The Influence of Rationalism.'

In the course of the same year Mr. and Mrs. Lewes moved from 16 Blandford Square to the Priory, a commodious house in North Bank, St. John's Wood, which has come to be intimately associated with the memory of George Eliot. Here, in the pleasant dwelling-rooms decorated by Owen Jones, might be met, at her Sunday afternoon receptions, some of the most eminent men in literature, art, and science. For the rest, her life flowed on its even tenor, its routine being rigidly regulated. The morning till lunch time was invariably devoted to writing: in the afternoon she either went out for a quiet drive of about two hours, or she took a walk with Lewes in Regent's Park. There the strange-looking couple—she with a certain weird, sibylline air, he not unlike some unkempt Polish refugee of vivacious manners—might be seen, swinging their arms, as they hurried along at a pace as rapid and eager as their talk. Besides these walks, George Eliot's chief recreation consisted in frequenting concerts and picture galleries. To music she was passionately devoted, hardly ever failing to attend at the Saturday afternoon concerts at St. James's Hall, besides frequenting various musical réunions, such as the following extract from one of her letters will show: "The other night we went to hear the Bach choir—a society of ladies and gentlemen got together by Jenny Lind, who sings in the middle of them, her husband acting as conductor. It is pretty to see people who might be nothing but simply fashionables taking pains to sing fine music in tune and time, with more or less success. One of the baritones we know is a G——, who used to be a swell guardsman, and has happily taken to good courses while still quite young. Another is a handsome young G——, not of the unsatisfactory Co., but of the R—— G—— kin. A soprano is Mrs. P——, wife of the Queen's Secretary, General P——, the granddaughter of Earl Grey, and just like him in the face—and so on. These people of 'high' birth are certainly reforming themselves a little."

She likewise never omitted to visit the "Exhibition of Old Masters" at Burlington House. To most people few things exercise so great a strain on their mental and physical powers of endurance as the inspection of a picture gallery, with its incessant appeal to the most concentrated attention. Yet, in spite of physical weakness, George Eliot possessed such inexhaustible mental energy that she could go on, hour after hour, looking with the same unflagging interest at whatever possessed any claim to attention, tiring out even vigorous men that were in her company. In her works the allusions to art are much less frequent than to music; but from a few hints here and there, it is possible to form some idea of her taste, one very significant passage in 'Adam Bede' showing her peculiar love of Dutch paintings, and her readiness to turn without shrinking "from cloud-borne angels, from prophets, sibyls, and heroic warriors, to an old woman bending over her flower-pot, or eating her solitary dinner, while the noonday light, softened perhaps by a screen of leaves, falls on her mob-cap, and just touches the rim of her spinning-wheel and her stone jug, and all those cheap common things which are the precious necessaries of life to her."

Another favourite resort of George Eliot's was the Zoological Gardens. She went there a great deal to study the animals, and was particularly fond of the "poor dear ratel" that used to turn somersaults. In fact her knowledge of, and sympathy with, animals was as remarkable as that which she showed for human nature. Thus she astonished a gentleman farmer by drawing attention to the fine points of his horses. Her intimate acquaintance with the dog comes out in a thousand touches in her novels, and her humorous appreciation of little pigs led her to watch them attentively, and to pick out some particular favourite in every litter. In her country rambles, too, she was fond of turning over stones to inspect the minute insect life teeming in moist, dark places; and she was as interested as Lewes himself in the creatures, frogs, etc., he kept for scientific purposes, and which would sometimes, like the frog in the fairy tale, surprise the household by suddenly making their entrance into the dining-room. Her liking for the "poor brutes," as she calls them, had its origin no doubt in the same source of profound pity which she feels for "the twists and cracks" of imperfect human beings.

Her evenings were usually passed at home, and spent in reading, or in playing and singing; but she and Lewes used to go to the theatre on any occasion of special interest, as when Salvini appeared in 'Othello,' a performance attended repeatedly by both with enthusiastic delight. Otherwise they rarely left home, seldom visiting at other people's houses, although they made an exception in the case of a favoured few.

They were both fond of travelling, and, whenever it was possible, would take trips to the Continent, or seek some quiet English rural retreat away from the sleepless tumult of London. "For," says Lewes incidentally in a letter, "Mrs. Lewes never seems at home except under a broad sweep of sky and the greenth of the uplands round her." So we find them frequently contriving a change of scene; and the visits to foreign countries, the pleasant sauntering on long summer days through Continental towns, "dozing round old cathedrals," formed delightful episodes in George Eliot's strenuously active life. The residence in Germany in 1854, and again in 1858, has already been alluded to. Now, in the year 1865, they paid a short visit to France, in the course of which they saw Normandy, Brittany, and Touraine, returning much refreshed at the beginning of the autumn. Two years afterwards they went to Spain, a country that must have possessed a peculiar interest for both; for in 1846 Lewes had published a charming, if one-sided, little book on 'The Spanish Drama,' with especial reference to Lope de Vega and Calderon; and in 1864, only a year after the appearance of 'Romola,' George Eliot produced the first draught of 'The Spanish Gypsy.' On becoming personally acquainted with this land of "old romance," however, her impressions were so far modified and deepened that she re-wrote and amplified her poem, which was not published till 1868.

The subject of the gypsies was probably suggested to George Eliot by her own memorable adventure in childhood, which thus became the germ of a very impressive poem. Be that as it may, it is worth noticing that the conception of 'The Spanish Gypsy' should have followed so closely on the completion of the Italian novel, both being foreign subjects, belonging to much the same period of history. In both the novelist has departed from her habitual track, seeking for "pastures new" in a foreign soil. After inculcating on the artist the desirability of giving "the loving pains of a life to the faithful representation of commonplace things," she remarks in 'Adam Bede' that "there are few prophets in the world, few sublimely beautiful women, few heroes," and that we cannot afford to give all our love and reverence to such rarities. But having followed this rule, and given the most marvellously truthful delineations of her fellow-men as they are ordinarily to be met with, she now also felt prompted to draw the exceptional types of human character, the rare prophets, and the sublime heroes.

To her friend Miss Simcox, George Eliot one day mentioned a plan of giving "the world an ideal portrait of an actual character in history, whom she did not name, but to whom she alluded as an object of possible reverence unmingled with disappointment." This idea was never carried out, but at any rate Dinah Morris, Savonarola, Zarca, and Mordecai are all exceptional beings—beings engrossed by an impersonal aim, having the spiritual or national regeneration of their fellow-men for its object. Dinah and Savonarola are more of the nature of prophets; Zarca and Mordecai of that of patriots. Among these the fair Methodist preacher, whose yearning piety is only a more sublimated love of her kind, is the most vividly realised; while Mordecai, the patriot of an ideal country, is but the abstraction of a man, entirely wanting in that indefinable solidity of presentation which gives a life of its own to the creations of art.

On the whole, Zarca, the gipsy chief, is perhaps the most vividly drawn of George Eliot's purely ideal characters—characters which never have the flesh-and-blood reality of her Mrs. Poysers, her Silas Marners, and her dear little Totties and Eppies. Yet there is an unmistakable grandeur and power of invention in the heroic figure of Zarca, although, in spite of this power, we miss the convincing stamp of reality in him, and not only in him, but more or less in all the characters of the 'Spanish Gypsy.' George Eliot's feeling for the extraordinary and romantic was very subordinate to that which she entertained for the more familiar aspects of our life. For, although she here chose one of the most romantic of periods and localities, the Spain of Ferdinand and Isabella, with the mingled horror and magnificence of its national traditions, she does not really succeed in resuscitating the spirit which animated those devout, cruel, fanatical, but ultra-picturesque times. The Castilian noble, the Jewish astrologer, Zarca, and the Spanish Inquisitor, even the bright, gloriously-conceived Fedalma herself, think and speak too much like sublimated modern positivists. For example, would, could, or should any gipsy of the fifteenth century have expressed himself in the following terms:

"Oh, it is a faith
Taught by no priest, but by this beating heart:
Faith to each other: the fidelity
Of fellow-wanderers in a desert place,
Who share the same dire thirst, and therefore share
The scanty water: the fidelity
Of men whose pulses leap with kindred fire,
Who in the flash of eyes, the clasp of hands,
The speech that even in lying tells the truth
Of heritage inevitable as birth,
Nay, in the silent bodily presence feel
The mystic stirring of a common life
Which makes the many one: fidelity
To the consecrating oath our sponsor Fate
Made through our infant breath when we were born
The fellow-heirs of that small island, Life,
Where we must dig and sow and reap with brothers.
Fear thou that oath, my daughter—nay, not fear,
But love it; for the sanctity of oaths
Lies not in lightning that avenges them,
But in the injury wrought by broken bonds
And in the garnered good of human trust."

The poetic mode of treatment corresponds to the exalted theme of the 'Spanish Gypsy,' a subject certainly more fitted for drama or romance rather than for the novel, properly so called. Nothing could apparently be better adapted for the purposes of a noble, historical poem than the conception of a great man such as Zarca, whose aim is nothing less than the fusion of the scattered, wandering, lawless gypsy tribes into one nation, with common traditions and a common country: the romantic incident of the discovery of his lost daughter in the affianced bride of Silva, Duke of Bedmar: the supreme conflict in Fedalma's breast between love and duty, her renunciation of happiness in order to cast in her lot with that of her outcast people: Silva's frantic grief, his desertion of his country, his religion, and all his solemn responsibilities to turn gypsy for Fedalma's sake, and having done so, his agony of remorse on seeing the fortress committed to his trust taken by the gypsies he has joined, his dearest friends massacred, his nearest of kin, Isidor, the inquisitor, hanged before his very eyes, a sight so maddening that, hardly conscious of his act, he slays Zarca, and so divides himself for ever, by an impassable gulf, from the woman for whose sake he had turned apostate.

Clearly a subject containing the highest capabilities, and, if great thoughts constituted a great poem, this should be one of the greatest. But with all its high merits, its sentiments imbued with rare moral grandeur, its felicitous descriptions, the work lacks that best and incommunicable gift which comes by nature to the poet. Here, as in her novels, we find George Eliot's instinctive insight into the primary passions of the human heart, her wide sympathy and piercing keenness of vision; but her thoughts, instead of being naturally winged with melody, seem mechanically welded into song. This applies to all her poetic work, although some of it, especially the 'Legend of Jubal,' reaches a much higher degree of metrical and rhythmical excellence. But although George Eliot's poems cannot be considered on a par with her prose, they possess a distinctive interest, and should be carefully studied by all lovers of her genius, as affording a more intimate insight into the working of her own mind. Nowhere do we perceive so clearly as here the profound sadness of her view of life; nowhere does she so emphatically reiterate the stern lesson of the duty of resignation and self-sacrifice; or that other doctrine that the individual is bound absolutely to subordinate his personal happiness to the social good, that he has no rights save the right of fulfilling his obligations to his age, his country, and his family. This idea is perhaps more completely incorporated in Fedalma than in any other of her characters—Fedalma, who seems so bountifully endowed with the fullest measure of beauty, love and happiness, that her renunciation may be the more absolute. She who, in her young joy suddenly knows herself as "an aged sorrow," exclaiming:

"I will not take a heaven
Haunted by shrieks of far-off misery.
This deed and I have ripened with the hours:
It is a part of me—a wakened thought
That, rising like a giant, masters me,
And grows into a doom. O mother life,
That seemed to nourish me so tenderly,
Even in the womb you vowed me to the fire,
Hung on my soul the burden of men's hopes,
And pledged me to redeem!—I'll pay the debt.
You gave me strength that I should pour it all
Into this anguish. I can never shrink
Back into bliss—my heart has grown too big
With things that might be."

This sacrifice is the completer for being without hope; for not counting "on aught but being faithful;" for resting satisfied in such a sublime conviction as—

"The grandest death, to die in vain—for love
Greater than sways the forces of the world."

Limit forbids me dwell longer on this poem, which contains infinite matter for discussion, yet some of the single passages are so full of fine thoughts felicitously expressed that it would be unfair not to allude to them. Such a specimen as this exposition of the eternal dualism between the Hellenic and the Christian ideals, of which Heine was the original and incomparable expounder, should not be left unnoted:

"For evermore
With grander resurrection than was feigned
Of Attila's fierce Huns, the soul of Greece
Conquers the bulk of Persia. The maimed form
Of calmly-joyous beauty, marble-limbed,
Yet breathing with the thought that shaped its limbs,
Looks mild reproach from out its opened grave
At creeds of terror; and the vine-wreathed god
Fronts the pierced Image with the crown of thorns."

And again how full of deep mysterious suggestion is this line—

"Speech is but broken light upon the depth
Of the unspoken."

And this grand saying—

"What times are little? To the sentinel
That hour is regal when he mounts on guard."

Quotations of this kind might be indefinitely multiplied; while showing that exaltation of thought properly belonging to poetry, they at the same time indubitably prove to the delicately-attuned ear the absence of that subtle intuitive music, that "linked sweetness" of sound and sense which is the birthright of poets. If an intimate and profound acquaintance with the laws and structure of metre could bestow this quality, which appertain to the elemental, George Eliot's verse ought to have achieved the highest success. For in mere technical knowledge concerning rhyme, assonance, alliteration, and the manipulation of blank verse according to the most cunning distribution of pauses, she could hold her own with the foremost contemporary poets, being no doubt far more versed than either Shelley or Byron in the laws governing these matters.

How incalculable she felt the poet's influence to be, and how fain she would have had him wield this influence only for the loftiest ends, is well shown in a beautiful letter, hitherto unpublished, now possessing an added pathos as addressed to one who has but lately departed, at the very time when his rare poetic gifts were beginning to be more widely recognised. James Thomson, the author of "The City of Dreadful Night," a poem which appeared first in the pages of the 'National Reformer.' with the signature of "B. V.," was thus addressed by George Eliot:

"Dear Poet,—I cannot rest satisfied without telling you that my mind responds with admiration to the distinct vision and grand utterance in the poem which you have been so good as to send me.

"Also, I trust that an intellect informed by so much passionate energy as yours will soon give us more heroic strains, with a wider embrace of human fellowship, such as will be to the labourers of the world what the Odes of Tyrtæus were to the Spartans, thrilling them with the sublimity of the social order and the courage of resistance to all that would dissolve it. To accept life and write much fine poetry, is to take a very large share in the quantum of human good, and seems to draw with it necessarily some recognition, affectionate, and even joyful, of the manifold willing labours which have made such a lot possible."

These words are of peculiar interest, because, although the writer of them is almost as much of a pessimist as its recipient, they are so with a difference. The pessimism of "The City of Dreadful Night," in its blank hopelessness, paralyses the inmost nerve of life by isolating the individual in cold obstruction. Whereas George Eliot, while recognising to the utmost "the burthen of a world, where even the sunshine has a heart of care," insists the more on the fact that this common suffering binds man more indissolubly to man; that so far from justifying him in ending his life "when he will," the groaning and travailing generations exact that he should stand firm at his post, regardless of personal consideration or requital, so long only as he can help towards making the fate of his fellow mortals less heavy for them to bear. In fact, the one is a theory of life, the other a disease of the soul.

The same stoic view, in a different form, finds expression in this answer to a dear friend's query: "I cannot quite agree that it is hard to see what has been the good of your life. It seems to me very clear that you have been a good of a kind that would have been sorely missed by those who have been nearest to you, and also by some who are more distant. And it is this kind of good which must reconcile us to life, and not any answer to the question, 'What would the universe have been without me?' The point one has to care for is, 'Are A, B, and C the better for me?' And there are several letters of the alphabet that could not have easily spared you in the past, and that can still less spare you in the present."

This lesson of resignation, which is enforced more and more stringently in her writings, is again dwelt upon with peculiar emphasis in the interesting dramatic sketch entitled 'Armgart.' The problem here is not unlike that in 'Silas Marner.' It is that of an individual, in exceptional circumstances, brought back to the average condition of humanity; but whereas Silas, having sunk below the common standard, is once more united to his fellow-men by love, the magnificently endowed Armgart, who seems something apart and above the crowd, is reduced to the level of the undistinguished million by the loss of her peerless voice. 'Armgart' is the single instance, excepting, perhaps, the Princess Halm-Eberstein, where George Eliot has attempted to depict the woman-artist, to whom life's highest object consists in fame—

"The benignant strength of one, transformed
To joy of many."

But in the intoxicating flush of success, the singer, who has refused the love of one for that "sense transcendent which can taste the joy of swaying multitudes," loses her glorious gift, and so sinks irretrievably to a "drudge among the crowd." In the first delirium of despair she longs to put an end to herself, "sooner than bear the yoke of thwarted life;" but is painfully startled from her defiant mood by the indignant query of Walpurga, her humble cousin—

"Where is the rebel's right for you alone?
Noble rebellion lifts a common load;
But what is he who flings his own load off
And leaves his fellows toiling? Rebel's right?
Say rather the deserter's. Oh, you smiled
From your clear height on all the million lots
Which yet you brand as abject."

It may seem singular that having once, in 'Armgart,' drawn a woman of the highest artistic aims and ambitions, George Eliot should imply that what is most valuable in her is not the exceptional gift, but rather that part of her nature which she shares with ordinary humanity. This is, however, one of her leading beliefs, and strongly contrasts her, as a teacher, with Carlyle. To the author of 'Hero Worship' the promiscuous mass—moiling and toiling as factory hands and artisans, as miners and labourers—only represents so much raw material, from which is produced that final result and last triumph of the combination of human forces—the great statesman, great warrior, great poet, and so forth. To George Eliot, on the contrary—and this is the democratic side of her nature—it is the multitude, so charily treated by destiny, which claims deepest sympathy and tenderest compassion; so that all greatness, in her eyes, is not a privilege, but a debt, which entails on its possessor a more strenuous effort, a completer devotion to the service of average humanity.