One of the things we like to do at Interesting Literature is find authors who aren’t as celebrated as they perhaps should be, and find some reasons why they should be better known, if not more widely read. A perfect case in point is George Meredith (1828-1909), the Victorian poet and novelist.
Although he was popular in his own lifetime, his achievements have been overlooked: as a poet he is overshadowed by Tennyson and Browning, and as a novelist he has been half-forgotten, while George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, and many of his other contemporaries are still widely read. We’ve sought out five things everyone should know about this writer, who was once a famous name in literature but is now, sadly, not so celebrated a figure.
1. He inspired Britain’s favourite piece of music. In 2011, the famous piece of classical music called ‘The Lark Ascending’ topped a British poll to find the UK’s favourite piece of music (this poll was part of an effort to discover the nation’s favourite Desert Island Discs). We know what you’re thinking: surely Ralph Vaughan Williams composed ‘The Lark Ascending’? Of course – but Meredith wrote the 122-line poem which inspired Vaughan Williams’s piece. This poem is still worth reading, not least because it includes the nice Miltonic word ‘intervolv’d’ and the rather pleasing verb ‘enspheres’. You can read the entire poem here.
2. He is the first person to have used the word ‘tweets’. As we revealed in an earlier post, Meredith provides the first recorded use of ‘tweets’ as a verb. He’s referring to the sound of birds, of course, rather than the social networking site, but this is a neat lexicographical fact all the same: Meredith was the first person ever to refer to ‘tweets’.
3. He was Thomas Chatterton. Okay, not literally, of course, but he posed for the famous portrait of The Death of Chatterton painted by Henry Wallis in 1856. Since this is the visual image of Chatterton – the proto-Romantic poet who committed suicide in 1770, aged 17 – that everyone knows, Meredith helped to develop the idea of Chatterton that we have. You can view the painting here.
4. He revolutionised the sonnet form. The sonnet is traditionally 14 lines, but Meredith chose to innovate for his 1862 sonnet sequence Modern Love by adding an extra two lines. His 16-line sonnets aimed to question the easy conclusions associated with the more traditional Shakespearean and Petrarchan sonnets (the Shakespearean sonnet conventionally ends with a couplet which wraps up, and rounds off, the ‘argument’ of the whole poem). Meredith’s sequence was also unusual in its content: instead of being in the courtly love tradition (of love unconsummated), Meredith’s sonnets were about a marriage on the rocks. We’d particularly recommend this sonnet, a response to Darwinian evolution and a new take on the ‘love sonnet’ as we usually view it.
5. He helped Thomas Hardy not to get published. This may sound like an odd reason to celebrate Meredith, but it was probably for the best. Meredith dissuaded the Bard of Wessex from publishing his first novel, The Poor Man and the Lady, since Meredith believed that the controversial subject matter of Hardy’s novel would attract harsh reactions from critics and would stop Hardy’s career dead, before it had even properly got going. Eventually, Hardy seems to have come round to his friend’s way of thinking – he burnt the unpublished manuscript, and no copy of this first Hardy novel now remains.