Friday, September 27, 2013

Meredith's storm scene - speculating on how the butterflies and moths saved their coloured wings from washing

The artificiality of The Ordeal of Richard Feverel is most obvious in the chapters where he suddenly switches rhetorical modes, when his writing no longer looks like it belongs in a novel of 1859, or any time.  A chapter title like “Ferdinand and Miranda” (I.18), for example, is a signal.  To portray the hero and heroine falling in love, he drops them into The Tempest.  This is the opposite of allegory.  Objects outside of the novel are made to refer to things inside it.

I want to skip to another example, another tempest, my favorite part of the novel, right at the end, Chapter III.11, “Nature Speaks.”  Richard Feverel has gone to Germany for flimsy reasons – it is part of his ordeal – and upon hearing bad, or actually, good, news he plunges into the moonlit Rhineland woods, accompanied only by a little dog, previously unmentioned.  “Something of a religious joy – a strange sacred pleasure – was in him.”  So this is why the scene has shifted to Germany, to plunge into Romantic Nature at its source.

Here where the brook tinkled it was no cool-lipped sound, but metallic, and without the spirit of water.  Yonder in a space of moonlight on lush grass, the beams were as white fire to sight and feeling…  Now and then a large white night-moth flitted through the dusk of the forest…  On a barren corner of the wooded highland looking inland stood grey topless ruins set in nettles and rank grass-blades.  Richard mechanically sat down on the crumbling flints to rest, and listened to the panting of the dog. Sprinkled at his feet were emerald lights: hundreds of glow-worms studded the dark dry ground.

Of course, a ruin, what else.  Perhaps Romanticism is not the right reference.  Richard seems to have wandered in to a Poussin painting, or a Giorgione.  Perhaps I need to drag in Edmund Burke again.  So far, so Picturesque.  It is time for some Sublime.

All at once the thunder spoke. The mountain he had marked was bursting over him.

Up startled the whole forest in violet fire.  He saw the country at the foot of the hills to the bounding Rhine gleam, quiver, extinguished.  Then there were pauses; and the lightning seemed as the eye of heaven, and the thunder as the tongue of heaven, each alternately addressing him; filling him with awful rapture.

Yet the experience of the storm is also an “awful pleasure.”  Soon, “groping about” in the dark, Richard discovers and picks up a living creature, “a tiny leveret” (to the footnotes: “A young hare”).

Now things get really strange:

The rain was now steady; from every tree a fountain poured. So cool and easy had his mind become that he was speculating on what kind of shelter the birds could find, and how the butterflies and moths saved their coloured wings from washing. Folded close they might hang under a leaf, he thought. Lovingly he looked into the dripping darkness of the coverts on each side, as one of their children. He was next musing on a strange sensation he experienced. It ran up one arm with an indescribable thrill, but communicated nothing to his heart. It was purely physical, ceased for a time, and recommenced, till he had it all through his blood, wonderfully thrilling.

The latter is the little bunny licking Richard’s hand.  “What did it say to him?”  The rain passes, Richard comes across a forest chapel , and he exits the woods.  The ordeal is over.  Whatever it was.

So I barely understand what is going on in this scene.  It is amazing but baffling.  I am convinced that it is full of referents that I have not caught.  The famous storm from Virgil’s Georgics, Book I, is in there:

Earth feels the motions of her angry god:
Her entrails tremble, and her mountains nod,
And flying beasts in forests seek abode:
Deep horror seizes every human breast;
Their  pride is humbled and their fear confessed  (tr. John Dryden)

But there must be a number of other storms and forest idylls blended in, poems, paintings, songs, ideas.  Did Meredith invent that bunny, or borrow it?  Or experience it himself, but now it is in fiction, so he converted into invention.

One of the most puzzling mixes of the familiar and the strange that I have ever come across, and thus an achievement.  That is not a bad description of the entire novel.


  1. "a tiny leveret...the little bunny licking Richard’s hand."
    A "bunny" is a rabbit, a completely separate species to a hare. I wonder if this one is connected to William Cowper's pet hares Puss, Tiney and Bess (all males, despite their names), who inspired several poems.

  2. I suspect it will be best to take the word "bunny" as the kind of colloquial usage that is common in informal writing.

    I like the idea of a link to Cowper. Gilbert White has a leveret, too - a leveret reared (nursed!) by a mama cat. But the role of the hare as a pet does not fit the Meredith scene well, or anyway I don't see it. The reach back to the 18th century is consistent with other parts of the book. And "Epitaph on a Hare" does have "approaching showers," a storm, and feeding from the poet's hand. I don't know.

    It may well not be a reference at all. But it looks like one.