Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics, and Politics

By Isobel Armstrong | Go to book overview

15

MEREDITH AND OTHERS

Hard, gem-like dissidence

When Meredith began to seek a literary career in London in 1849 he sought out Richard Hengist Horne, who was still writing in the cause of popular poetry. 1 Horne’s last poem, The Poor Artist, was published in 1850: his A New Spirit of the Age (1844) was modelled on Hazlitt’s Spirit of the Age, the Unitarian writer whom the Monthly Repository had seen as creating some of the central terms of its critical debate. Horne put him in touch with Dickens’ Household Words, and his first poems were published there. Horne probably also introduced him to the liberal/radical intellectual journal, The Leader, founded by Thornton Hunt and G. H. Lewes (its contributors included the exiled Mazzini and Harriet Martineau). A quotation from Horne’ Orion is an epigraph to Meredith’s Poems (1851). 2 Always edgy about his background, and writing with a restlessly paradoxical and quizzical detachment, Meredith is difficult to place politically. It would be an exaggeration to say that Horne played the part of ‘literary God-father’, as Browning described Fox’s relation to himself, but, an early supporter of Hungarian and Italian republicanism, Meredith continued to be in touch with liberal thought, and indeed, with his responsiveness to the Russian revolution of 1905, bridged humanitarian liberal nationalism and revolutionary thought. Always an iconoclastic, dissident voice, it is yet hard to place him in sexual politics as much as in radical politics, because of his deconstructive sharpness and ironised equivocation. He read Mill’s On the Subjection of Women (1869) at a sitting and wrote the equivocal ‘A Ballad of Fair Ladies in Revolt’ (published in the Fortnightly Review, 1876) in response to it. 3 Like Browning in later life, he was happy to move in aristocratic circles, but his friends numbered among them H. M. Hyndman, the socialist who popularised Marxist ideas, and James Thomson and his atheist circle. The man of whom Hardy said that Westminster Abbey would need ‘a heathen annexe’ for him when he died had an ambiguous attitude to class and to women (he disliked the suffragettes though some were his friends), 4 but he continued to write poems about war and revolution and anti-imperialism to the end of his life. But the very intensity of his awareness of these issues enabled him to approach

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