Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Doglike, hoglike, horselike now he raced - describing George Meredith's poetry

Wasn’t that fun, writing about those amusing Dickens stories that once were and could still be read and enjoyed by ordinary, non-obsessive readers?  Let’s make sure we never do that again.  Now: the poetry of George Meredith.

“Dirge in Woods” (1870) is a good one.  It will give both the right and wrong idea about Meredith.

A wind sways the pines,
                       And below
Not a breath of wild air;
Still as the mosses that glow
On the flooring and over the lines
Of the roots here and there.
The pine tree drops its dead;
They are quiet, as under the sea.
Overhead, overhead
Rushes life in a race,
As the clouds the clouds chase;
                        And we go,
And we drop like the fruits of the tree,
                        Even we,
                        Even so.

The first lines are banal but the moss is good and the pine needles excellent.  The move underwater is surprising.  The meaning of the end is a commonplace, but here musically expressed.

The right idea about Meredith: this is one of his great subjects, and this is his kind of thinking.  Nature as some sort of commentary on human meaning.  Thomas Hardy greatly valued Meredith, and I believe this poem shows the affinity well.  The inventiveness with form shown here is also typical, just as it is with his peers Swinburne and the Rossettis.

The wrong idea: the poem is short and clear.  A Meredith poem is usually long or cryptic or both.  Where Swinburne is characterized by a baroque too-muchness, Meredith’s signature is compression.  The ballad “King Harald’s Trance” (1887) is a good example:

Sword in length a reaping hook amain
Harald sheared his field, blood up to shank:
       ‘Mid the swathes of slain,
       First at moonrise drank.

Thereof hunger, as for meats the knife,
Pricked his ribs, in one sharp spur to reach
        Home and his young wife,
        Nigh the sea-ford beach.

I feel like words are missing, but it seems they are not.  King Harald, after a successful battle, becomes hungry and wants to go home.  Once he is home (I am moving forward), he eats so much that he falls into a trance (“Mountain on his trunk \ Ocean on his head”).  He can still hear, however, so he discovers that his subjects mock him and his wife has a lover.  The story will obviously end badly for several of the characters.  This is the mockery:

Burial to fit their lord of war,
They decreed him: hailed the kingling: ha!
        Hateful! but this Thor
        Failed a weak lamb’s baa.

And this is the king in the trance, a description of his internal state:

Doglike, hoglike, horselike now he raced,
Riderless, in ghost across a ground
        Flint of breast, blank-faced,
        Past the fleshly bound.

The king is animal and human, still yet in motion, flesh and spirit.  Pretty strange and possibly, at least in that dog-hog line, ridiculous, but interesting, in this sense exactly like Meredith’s novels.


  1. You continue to impress with the entertainment value & the insight of your poetry posts over the years, Tom. I, coward-like, choose not to embarrass myself in public with poetry (prose embarrassments strangely don't faze me at all), but I may make an exception for Baudelaire, Martín Fierro or Nicanor Parra should I get to any of those before the end of the año. Until then, well done & thanks for the introduction to this Meredith fellow!

  2. Thanks - though the poets do most of the work.

    Those would all be outstanding exceptions. I never really wrote anything about Baudelaire's poems - I just wrote around them.

  3. I really like the repetition in the Dirge in the Woods poem of "overhead" and "clouds." It happens so close together that it gives a pleasant surprise and I expected it to happen a third time with "and we go" and actually misread it, stopped, went back, and then was pleasantly surprised again that he refused my expectations. The Harald poem is more difficult to read but interesting too in its own way.

  4. Ha and baa: rhymed onomatopoeia! This looks tasty; once again, you've piqued my interest...

  5. The repetition (and pseudo-repetition) is especially good there, isn't it? That must be one of Meredith's best poems.

    Doug, Meredith came up with some surprises, didn't he? It has taken me a while to see them well, but these Silver Age poets have been growing on me.