The Concept of Nature in Nineteenth-Century English Poetry

By Joseph Warren Beach | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XVIII
MEREDITH

MEREDITH takes up the theme of evolutionary naturalism where Swinburne laid it down, and he carries it much farther. He is equally insistent that man's spirit is naturally derived from Earth; but his notion of what is involved in the operations of the spirit is much more comprehensive, includes more of what is implied in the term "spirituality." It takes much more into account, or lays more stress on, the demands of common morality and altruism. His tone is much less revolutionary, more in line with the constructive movement of Victorian thought. Moreover, while Swinburne merely takes for granted the development of our spiritual life out of the natural process of the world, Meredith has a great deal to say of the causes and conditions of this development, thus giving more substance and plausibility to the conception. Meredith is consequently more persuasive than Swinburne, and more helpful to earnest readers seeking direction for a spirit freed from the bonds of orthodox religion. Indeed, Meredith illustrates extremely well the way in which a view of the world built around the concept of nature may take on much of the religious fervor associated with a supernatural Weltansicht, and constitute practically a substitute religion.

There are many reasons for supposing that Meredith was inspired by the work of Swinburne. The two men were for a time closely associated as joint occupants of Rossetti's house in Chelsea. With several of the Songs Before Sunrise Meredith was acquainted before the publication of the volume; in 1866 and 1867 he was in correspondence with his friend Swinburne about these poems and Meredith novel Vittoria, which deals with the revolt in Italy. Swinburne publicly championed Meredith Modern Love against

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