Alfred H. Miles, ed. Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century. 1907.
Critical and Biographical Essay by James Ashcroft Noble
Alice Meynell (18471922)
ALICE C. MEYNELL is the younger of two daughters of the late Mr. T. J. Thompson, her elder sister (now Lady Butler) being the distinguished painter of The Roll Call, and other remarkable pictures of military life and action. Mr, Thompsons name is familiar to all readers of Forsters Life of Charles Dickens as that of one of the great novelists most intimate friends; and his daughters in their childhood and youth were provided not merely with the ordinary acquirements of an adequate home education, but with those ampler and subtler aids to a large culture, given by sojourn and residence among the historic sites and art centres of the continent. In Miss Alice Thompson the intellectual and the spiritual instincts seem to have awakened early and simultaneously. While engaged in the writing of her girlish verses she was also pondering the problems which never lose their power of appeal to earnest spirits, and the result of her pondering was that while still a girl she was received into the Roman Catholic Church, into which the young convert was followed by the elder members of her family. In the year 1875 Miss Alice Thompson published the volume entitled Preludes, illustrated by her sisters drawings. The material success of the slender book was greater than that attained by the maiden efforts of most young and unknown poets; but its true success was that made manifest by the verdicts of the few who spoke not as irresponsible reviewing scribes, but as men having authority. Mr. Ruskin wrote emphatically, The last verse of that perfectly heavenly Letter from a Girl to her own old age, the whole of San Lorenzos Mother, and the end of the sonnet, To a Daisy, are the finest things I have yet seen or felt in modern verse. Nor was the praise of poets wanting. A most genuine little book of poems, containing sonnets of true spiritual beauty. I must send it to you, wrote Dante Rossetti to Mr. Hall Caine, who adds: He took to it vastly. He knew by heart, and was fond of repeating the Renunciation sonnet, which, according to Mr. William Sharp, he ranked as one of the three finest sonnets written by women. The little book, again Rossetti wrote, is all deep-hearted speech. Besides being beautiful, it is equal almost throughout, and full of artistic charm. Mr. Browning, after reading in an indifferent notice some extracts from the poems, conceived the desire to read the rest for myself, which he did with real pleasure, being struck by their beauty, he tells us, even beyond what the indifference of the reviewer should have prepared me for. Mr. Aubrey de Verethe friend of Wordsworthwas the young poets earliest intimate acquaintance among men of letters, and by him she was introduced to Mr. Coventry Patmore and Lord Tennyson. In 1877 Miss Alice Thompson was married to Mr. Wilfrid Meynell, the editor of the Weekly Register and Merry England.
During the years which have elapsed since her marriage, Mrs. Meynell has uttered her thought and vision in various formschiefly in essay writing, which, by reason of the constructive imagination always to be found in it, has a certain creative quality, but of her singing voice she has been all too frugal; and though she has from time to time during the decade of 188090, contributed to ephemeral literature some brief strain of penetrating music, these later melodies remain uncollected, and her place in the Victorian choir has, practically, to be determined by the poems of her early maidenhood which compose the volume of Preludes. There are few living poets who would suffer less than Mrs. Meynell from a provisional estimate based exclusively on adolescent performances. Of what is ordinarily called cruditythe quality of artistic work in which the power of adequate execution lags behind the power of inspiring conceptionthere is hardly any trace whatever, even in those poems which we may guess to be of earliest date. There is, indeed, a marked prevalence of maturity, and we miss it only in a very few poems where the singing, so to speak, dominates, and tends to overpower the song,that is, where the instinctive lyrical impulse is not reinforced by a sufficient body of thought or emotion, and where, consequently, the momentum of the motive is more or less exhausted prior to the exhaustion of the singing impulse itself. Elsewhere than in these infrequent pages, Mrs. Meynells verse recalls the memorable passage in which Mr. Pater speaks of poetry and all other representative arts as aspiring towards the condition of music, in which the distinction between matter and form, between the thing expressed and the manner of its artistic expression, is all but obliterated; that is, it is work in which the informing thought, emotion, or sentiment is not clothed in an imaginative vesture, but rather incarnated in an imaginative body, from the life of which its own life is inseparable. The motives of her poems are neither obvious nor far-fetched; they never quite lack the charm of things familiar, and yet they always possess the charm of things that are new, not with the novelty of inherent strangeness, but with the finer, rarer novelty of strongly individualised apprehension and presentation. In her landscape the poet sees what we ourselves have seen, but sees it with a difference that at once recalls and supplements our own remembrance; in her moods of emotion or reflection she feels and thinks as we may have thought or felt, and yet by the imaginative individuality of the thinking or feeling gives to the utterance of it a certain uniqueness which touches us to delightful surprise. Here and there, as in A Young Convert, A Meditation, or A Letter from a Young Girl to her own old age the mere burden of the poem has a separate interest and impressiveness of its own, but the special character of her work is given to it by that perfect co-ordination of body and spirit always found in either picture or poem, which is of imagination all compact. Greater poets than Mrs. Meynell are still with us,greatness is not the word suggested by her winning achievement; but few of our generation have exhibited in more finely balanced harmony the qualities in virtue of which essential poetry is what it is.