G. K. Chesterton Takes on
Depressing Poetry and Thomas Hardy
The death of George Meredith was the real end of the Nineteenth Century, not that empty date that came at the close of 1899. The last bond was broken between us and the pride and peace of the Victorian age. Our fathers were all dead. We were suddenly orphans: we all felt strangely and sadly young. A cold, enormous dawn opened in front of us; we had to go on to tasks which our fathers, fine as they were, did not know, and our first sensation was that of cold and undefended youth. Swinburne was the penultimate, Meredith the ultimate end.
It is not a phrase to call him the last of the Victorians: he really is the last. No doubt this final phrase has been used about each of the great Victorians one after another from Matthew Arnold and Browning to Swinburne and Meredith. No doubt the public has grown a little tired of the positively last appearance of the Nineteenth Century. But the end of George Meredith really was the end of that great epoch. No great man now alive has its peculiar powers or its peculiar limits. Like all great epochs, like all great things, it is not easy to define. We can see it, touch it, smell it, eat it; but we cannot state it. It was a time when faith was firm without being definite. It was a time when we saw the necessity of reform without once seeing the possibility of revolution. It was a sort of exquisite interlude in the intellectual disputes: a beautiful, accidental truce in the eternal war of mankind. Things could mix in a mellow atmosphere. Its great men were so religious that they could do without a religion. They were so hopefully and happily republican that they could do without a republic. They are all dead and deified; and it is well with them. But we cannot get back into that well-poised pantheism and liberalism. We cannot be content to be merely broad: for us the dilemma sharpens and the ways divide.
Of the men left alive there are many who can be admired beyond expression; but none who can be admired in this way. The name of that powerful writer, Mr. Thomas Hardy, was often mentioned in company with that of Meredith; but the coupling of the two names is a philosophical and chronological mistake. Mr. Hardy is wholly of our own generation, which is a very unpleasant thing to be. He is shrill and not mellow. He does not worship the unknown God: he knows the God (or thinks he knows the God), and dislikes Him. He is not a pantheist: he is a pandiabolist. The great agnostics of the Victorian age said there was no purpose in Nature. Mr. Hardy is a mystic; he says there is an evil purpose. All this is as far as possible from the plenitude and rational optimism of Meredith. And when we have disposed of Mr. Hardy, what other name is there that can even pretend to recall the heroic Victorian age? The Roman curse lies upon Meredith like a blessing: “Ultimus suorum moriatur”—he has died the last of his own.
The greatness of George Meredith exhibits the same paradox or difficulty as the greatness of Browning; the fact that simplicity was the centre, while the utmost luxuriance and complexity was the expression. He was as human as Shakespeare, and also as affected as Shakespeare. It may generally be remarked (I do not know the cause of it) that the men who have an odd or mad point of view express it in plain or bald language. The men who have a genial and everyday point of view express it in ornate and complicated language. Swinburne and Thomas Hardy talk almost in words of one syllable; but the philosophical upshot can be expressed in the most famous of all words of one syllable—damn. Their words are common words; but their view (thank God) is not a common view. They denounce in the style of a spelling-book; while people like Meredith are unpopular through the very richness of their popular sympathies. Men like Browning or like Francis Thompson praise God in such a way sometimes that God alone could possibly understand the praise. But they mean all men to understand it: they wish every beast and fish and flying thing to take part in the applauding chorus of the cosmos. On the other hand, those who have bad news to tell are much more explicit, and the poets whose object it is to depress the people take care that they do it. I will not write any more about those poets, because I do not profess to be impartial or even to be good-tempered on the subject. To my thinking, the oppression of the people is a terrible sin; but the depression of the people is a far worse one.
But the glory of George Meredith is that he combined subtlety with primal energy: he criticized life without losing his appetite for it. In him alone, being a man of the world did not mean being a man disgusted with the world. As a rule, there is no difference between the critic and ascetic except that the ascetic sorrows with a hope and the critic without a hope. But George Meredith loved straightness even when he praised it crookedly: he adored innocence even when he analysed it tortuously: he cared only for unconsciousness, even when he was unduly conscious of it. He was never so good as he was about virgins and schoolboys. In one curious poem, containing many fine lines, he actually rebukes people for being quaint or eccentric, and rebukes them quaintly and eccentrically. He says of Nature, the great earth-mother, whom he worshipped:
... She by one sure sign can read,
Have they but held her laws and nature dear;
They mouth no sentence of inverted wit.
More prizes she her beasts than this high breed
Wry in the shape she wastes her milk to rear.
That is the mark of the truly great man: that he sees the common man afar off, and worships him. The great man tries to be ordinary, and becomes extraordinary in the process. But the small man tries to be mysterious, and becomes lucid in an awful sense—for we can all see through him.