Literature, Poetry

Five Reasons Everyone Should Know George Meredith

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.

meredith2. 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.


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  4. Oops. “My bad,” as the kids around here say. Meredith was on my Ph.D. reading list, but I never quite got around to reading him. (True confessions.) I will rectify that soon!

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  9. Let me quote Oscar Wildes’ opinion on Meredith,”As a writer he mastered everything except language;as a novelist he can do anything except tell a story” (Jan.1888) quoted in The Decay of Lying. When a clemency petition was to be drawn up on Wilde’s release Meredith flatly refused to put his signature.

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  11. So, which one should I read? (not poetry please, I can’t read poetry in English)

  12. I love George Meredith for the whole brooding poetic persona conveyed in ‘Modern Love’ – says a good deal about how and what poetry should be, I think.

    • I agree wholeheartedly. He did something subtly different in that sequence, and many of the poems are really powerful and still carry a punch. They are, next to much of the rhetoric and excessive emotion of Tennyson, decidedly modern…

  13. Reblogged this on 1WriteWay and commented:
    Five fun facts about George Meredith at Interesting Literature!

  14. He stopped Hardy from publishing his first novel?! The idea that his very first novel was of a controversial subject matter and so was unpublishable makes me smile. Perhaps in the first unpublished novel, Tess and her Angel escape the authorities and live happily ever after. You know, I think I have some George Meredith in my house; now I’ll have to read him. Thanks for another great post!

    • Thanks as ever, Marie – I know, oh to be able to read that first, lost novel of Hardy’s! Doubtless he did rework some of its themes in later novels, especially Tess, so I think you’re right there – I know Tess revisited (and treated more directly and bluntly) some of the subject matter explored in his earlier novels. Good luck in your quest for some Meredith; I hope you enjoy him!

  15. Fascinating. I hadn’t even heard of Meredith until now. I must see what works of his I can track down.

    • Thanks! I’d definitely recommend Modern Love as a starting point, but ‘The Lark Ascending’ is also delightful. The Egoist is probably the best place to start with his fiction (though I’m relying on others here as shamefully I haven’t read it). The Ordeal of Richard Feverel was also, once upon a time, very popular…

  16. I remember reading The Egoist many years ago probably because of its depiction of the way women are traded by their fathers like sheep as well as the ridiculously self-absorbed Sir Willoughby. It was brilliant commentary and great fun. I never knew the bit about Meredith and Hardy. Most delightful. I think I’ll have to re-read the Egoist and go on a Meredith hunt.

    • Fantastic – thanks for the comment, Sarah. You’ve inspired me to go away and read The Egoist (a work I’ve encountered a great deal without ever getting round to reading). I’d definitely recommend his sonnets, which are wonderfully written, moving, innovative, and perhaps the only great sonnets to come out of the Victorian era.

  17. A fascinating post. Perhaps it will be the beginnings of a George Meredith revival. I have to confess I had never even heard of him.

    • Thanks, Guy – I appreciate that. And a Meredith revival would be wonderful! He deserves it. If this post could play a small part in that, then what an honour that would be: he certainly left an important mark on the literature of his time, and his work is still worth reading (and his poetry is very readable in particular).

  18. Now I must read the poem while listening to the music it inspired! And I’d like to read Diana of the Crossways.

    • Good plan – I think I’ll listen to Vaughan Williams’s piece while rereading Meredith’s poem. As I was reading it the other day, in preparation for writing this post, I found myself ‘hearing’ Vaughan Williams’s music as I read…

  19. I’ll have check him out. Good piece!

  20. I just did a casting call for “Red Clay and Roses”. I love it when books inspire movies and songs or vise a versa!

  21. What a lovely piece – fascinating!

  22. Some have even said George Meredith was the model for the ‘famous writer’ in Somerset Maugham’s book “Cakes and Ale’ … who’s to say? I think Thos. Hardy was a more likely target …

    • Now I didn’t know that. Good fact! Thanks, Angela. I’ll have to look into it. And, of course, I need to read Cakes and Ale – I’ve only read The Magician…

      • I read Cakes and Ale after seeing the drama on the TV years ago. There was Maugham’s usual sly humour about it as well as pathos and an unexpected character reveal. I’d love to know what you think, IL.

  23. I enjoyed the lark poem. Lark=Alouette.

  24. Wonderful stuff! I’ve never finished The Egoist but I really should crack on with it.

    • Thanks, and you’re ahead of me – I’ve not even started The Egoist! Will have to give it a go. I love Meredith’s poems, especially the Modern Love sonnet sequence. There’s a good, rather unhappy one about playing a game called ‘hiding the skeleton’ too.