Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. V. Browning to Rupert Brooke
Critical Introduction by Thomas Humphry Ward
George Eliot (Mary Ann Cross) (18191880)
[Mary Ann Evans, who wrote novels and poems under the name of George Eliot, was born in 1819 at Arbury Farm, Warwickshire, her father being a builder and estate agent. As a child and young girl she was chiefly remarkable for her passionate love of reading, and in the second degree, for her religious enthusiasm. Her first published writing was a religious poem which appeared in the Christian Observer, January, 1840. Her views became liberalized after her fathers removal to Coventry in 1841, owing to her intimacy with the related families of Bray and Hennell, the heads of which were known as writers of rather heterodox books; and the result of this change of thought was her translation of Strausss Leben Jesu (1846). A period of travel followed, and in 1851 Miss Evans came to London to act as assistant editor of the Westminster Review. This brought her into contact with many advanced literary people, and especially with G. H. Lewes, with whom, in 1854, she entered into marital relations which continued till his death, twenty-four years later, Lewess domestic circumstances making a legal marriage impossible. Two years later, after long travel abroad, she wrote the first of her stories, and this, as all the world knows, was in due course followed by books which placed her at once in the front rank of English novelists. The curious thing is that the first period of George Eliots immensely successful novels lasted less than seven years (Adam Bede, 1859; Felix Holt, 1866); and afterwards the author during the greater part of four years devoted herself to writing poems. She published The Spanish Gypsy in 1868, and in 1869 there followed The Legend of Jubal, which some years afterwards was issued in a volume with various miscellaneous poems. The second period of George Eliots novels followed immediately; it included Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda, both of which met with amazing success. In 1878 G. H. Lewes died; in May, 1880, she married Mr. J. W. Cross, but died seven months later, on December 22, 1880.]
LESLIE STEPHEN has put it on record that neither critics nor general readers have been convinced that George Eliot was properly a poet, though she may be allowed to represent almost the highest excellence that can be attained in verse by one whose true strength lies elsewhere. The history of her first serious poem, The Spanish Gypsy, is a proof that verse composition did not come naturally to her, for she found the difficulties immense, almost insuperable; after eight months work she became ill and very miserable; and finally Lewes induced her to give up the poem and to turn back to prose. So Felix Holt was written and published (18656); but afterwards, as she told Frederic Harrison, she found it impossible to abandon the poem, though she, who had never recast anything before, found it necessary to recast and alter, which she did most thoroughly. Originally it had been written as a five-act drama; the new version, which occupied her for a couple of years, was a hybrid affair, the dramatic scenes being oddly connected by long passages of narrative. The result is as though some commentator on Shakespeare or Sophocles were to run his notes into metrical form, and print them in the text, between the scenes. We need dwell no longer on The Spanish Gypsy, leaving it with the remark that it shows, as might be expected, much learning, and that it abounds in passages of sonorous rhetoric. A higher claim to purely poetic distinction is made by some of the miscellaneous verse that followed later, especially by The Legend of Jubal and some of the poems now bound up with it. They all want spontaneity; of a lyrical gift there are few signs; but to say that they are too much interfused with philosophy is only to say that they express the thoughts which, ever since she and George Lewes came together, possessed the authors mind. We quote some passages from Jubal and the well-known O May I Join the Choir Invisible.
The Jubal extracts embody really poetical visions, the former of the first consciousness of death in the primeval world, and the latter of one of the first dawnings of civilization; while the Choir Invisible is noteworthy both for the quality of the blank verse and for its concentrated and beautiful expression of some of the central beliefs of the author and of the thousands of minds with which she was in close intellectual sympathy.