A Little Song that Must be Heard:
Alice Meynell’s Poetic Legacy
I come from nothing; but from where
Come the undying thoughts I bear?
Down, through long links of death and birth,
From the past poets of the earth,
My immortality is there.
(A Song of Derivations 1-5)
Many lost poets lie unobserved in the pages of literary history, whether from lack of publication, mediocrity of verse, or unremarkable personal life. One overlooked writer who does not, by dint of any of those considerations, deserve to molder forever in literature’s oubliette is the passionate, quiet, Victorian Alice Meynell.
Mrs. Meynell (1847-1922) was a model of Victorian domesticity and femininity in her private life, a busy journalist and essayist, a brave advocate for women’s rights, an ardent lover of Christ and the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church, and a poet of great formal power and spiritual passion. Her life and work illustrate a woman’s ability to mount the heights scaled by great past (male) poets, seize the role of a sage who comprehends and communicates the reality behind nature, and wrest a place for herself as a solitary “I,” passionate in her love of man and God.
Alice Christiana Gertrude Thompson was born in Barnes, London, in 1847 (“Spartacus,” Gray 160). She and her sister Elizabeth received an excellent, non-traditional education from their father while wandering around England and the continent, primarily Italy, in a Bohemian lifestyle conducive to the development of artistic thought. Elizabeth and Alice read voraciously, met Charles Dickens, participated in their parents’ conversations, learned several languages, and dabbled in writing and art. Elizabeth (Butler) went on to become a noted painter, primarily of martial scenes.
By age thirteen, Alice was seriously writing poetry and journal entries. As she matured, she became increasingly concerned with the condition of women, especially in their limited choices for acceptable vocations. In 1864, the Thompson family settled in England so that the young ladies might be properly introduced into British society. Alice temporarily threw her energies into the glittering life of a socialite, but soon succumbed to a deep depression brought on by the superficiality of such an existence. Finally, she turned back to composing poetry and there found fulfillment (Hanson). In 1872, she committed herself to the Roman Catholic faith (Catholic Encyclopedia). All her life she would derive strength and poetic inspiration from her faith, most vividly embodied in participation in the Holy Eucharist (Gray 164, 176).
In 1875, her first volume, Preludes, was published with illustrations by her sister. Their book received excellent critical acclaim from such noted writers as Ruskin, Rossetti, and George Eliot (Hanson). Elizabeth, the eldest by a year, and Alice shared a close literary-artistic relationship, a sort of sisterly “salon” conducive to creative collaboration (ibid.). Throughout her life, Alice found or made supportive communities in which to nurture intellectual conversation, faith, and writing. One early influence was a young Jesuit priest who mentored her in entering the Catholic church and in her writing; unfortunately, their friendship threatened to become a sexual involvement, and was broken off, to Alice’s profound sorrow (Hanson). However, in 1877 she married Wilfred Meynell; by all accounts it was a very happy union. Together they edited several magazines, including “The Pen,” “The Weekly Register,” and the Catholic periodical “Merry England”. Alice and Wilfred had eight children in a period of twelve years—during which time she wrote less poetry but still kept a career as a prose writer and magazine editor (“Spartacus”).
Another man who profoundly encouraged Meynell, and on whom she and her husband had an unquestioned influence, was Francis Thompson. Wilfred, indeed, deserves the credit for “discovering” this sad genius. Thompson, a devout Christian and brilliant poet ruined by opium, was a failure in every attempt at education or career, and finally wandered homeless around London for three years. In 1888, he submitted an essay and poems to the Meynell’s “Merry England.” Mr. Meynell not only published the submissions, but sought and found Thompson, brought him home to live in their family, and helped him to master his opium addiction to some degree. Thompson lived with or visited the Meynell family until his death in 1907. In 1895, he published a volume of verse, Sister Songs, dedicated to the Meynell ladies. His poem, “Love in Dian’s Lap” has been thought to honor Alice (“Oliveleaf”). In 1916, Meynell’s son Evrard published a definitive biography of Francis Thompson (Core). During the years of their acquaintance, Thompson encouraged Meynell’s writing nearly as much as she and her husband did his, and adored her as an invaluable friend. He once wrote of her, “’It is something to have own the admiration of men like Rossetti, Ruskin, Rossetti’s bosom friend Theodore Watts, and shall I add, the immortal Oscar Wilde” (“OldPoetry”).
Meynell’s work was immediately acclaimed by others, such as George Meredith, Walter de la Mare, G. K. Chesterton, were among her admirers (“OldPoetry,” Hanson). During her lifetime she published eight books of verse; eight volumes of essays on literary, artistic, philosophical, religious, and political issues; biographies of Holman Hunt and Ruskin (Hanson), and a weekly column for the “Pall Mall Gazette” (“Spartacus”). Her complete poems were published posthumously in 1923 in both England—London: Burns, Oates & Washbourne ltd.—and America—New York: Scribner (Meynell). She was recommended for the position of poet laureate after Tennyson’s death (Hanson).
Surprisingly, in light of the above, the majority of her contemporaries did not appreciate her work. During her lifetime, Meynell was honored more as an “angel of the house” than as a poet of any superior merit:
…she remained more influential as a hostess and as a friend and supporter of her fellow authors than as a creative figure in her own right, and her work rarely received credit for being a shaping force on others. Her contemporaries tended to focus instead upon her ability to conform so perfectly to the late-nineteenth-century feminine ideal. They praised Meynell as a wife and mother and noted admiringly the quality of grave and beautiful spirituality…” (“Beyond Oscar Wilde”).
Indeed, she measured admirably against the standard of “…the Victorian ideology of the ‘woman’s sphere.’ This domestic ideology insisted that a middle-class woman, as a leisured Angel in the House, occupy herself by ministering to the moral and spiritual needs of her husband and children while undertaking tasks… that were largely ornamental” (Harrison 90). Remarkable, then, was her ability to achieve success in two, usually culturally exclusive, realms. Both as a model of womanly virtue at home and as a politically minded, socially active, religiously devout poet, she excelled: availing herself of the new space for women in Victorian literary culture (although it usually applied to prose writers). According to Thaϊs Morgan, “Sage discourse enabled women like Nightingale, Brontë, Barrett Browning… to break out of the confining Victorian idealization of the ‘feminine’…” (Morgan 6). Meynell wrote her discourse from within that idealization.
And her poetry is remarkable. It has often been characterized by such terms as “restraint,” “elegance,” “delicacy;” “very precise choice of language” (Hanson), “control and religious emotion” (Catholic Encyclopedia), and a “subtle meditative style” (Blain). It is all of these, and more. Her command of formal elements and the euphonies of diction is at once careful and natural. Her images are rich and well-chosen. Her thoughts are profound and original. Through all of her poise and mastery surges a vital, forceful spirit of independence, passion, power, and spiritual ecstasy. At times, a tone of violence, like that of John Donne—to whom she has been compared—courses through her devotional work. For example, “The Unexpected Peril” closes with the lines: “Menace me, lest indeed I die, / Sloth! Turn; crush, teach me fear again!” (poems quoted through Core). It speaks loudly in Meynell’s favor that although “Nineteenth-century religious verse by women enjoys a dispiriting reputation… it too frequently displayed a tendency to narrow the Romantic sensibility into piously sentimental versifiying or the expressions of a limited range of acceptable postures and attitudes…” (Jay 259), hers can be charged with none of these. It is fresh, visceral, and varied.
In the midst of dedicated poetic composition, family life, and a journalistic career, Meynell became more involved in current events as she grew older. In 1910-1912, she marched in women’s suffrage demonstrations. Her writings and public speaking upheld the cause of women seeking the vote (Gray 161). She was a member of the National Union of Suffrage Societies, one of the first members and later vice president of the Women Writers Suffrage League, and a member of the Executive Committee of the Catholic Women’s Suffrage Society (“Spartacus,” Gray 161).
Meynell was also vigorously opposed to war, although (or because) her son fought and her son-in-law was killed in World War I (Hanson). However, her position on military action is somewhat conflicted. “Summer in England, 1914” is perhaps her most famous work; its tone and images clearly denounce the brutality of war:
The armies died convulsed. And when
This chaste young silver sun went up
Softly, a thousand shattered men,
One wet corruption, heaped the plain,
After a league-long throb of pain.
Yonder are men shot through the eyes. (14-18, 21)
Yet at the end of the poem, Meynell sees these very deaths as ultimate sacrifices for the love of Christ, and “directly transforms soldiers into Christs” (Gray 173):
Who said ‘No man hath greater love than this,
To die to serve his friend’?
So these have loved us all unto the end
Chide thou no more, O thou unsacrificed!
The soldier dying dies upon a kiss,
The very kiss of Christ. (25-30)
In Meynell’s love of all suffering humanity, seen in this poem and many others, F. Elizabeth Gray sees a belief that “Christ became the representative of every human… we are all one in Christ, which means not just that we all partake in Christ’s nature (that is, we are Christ) but also that we are, inescapably, each other…. [Meynell] grants to humankind through this inclusive vision an expanded dignity and potential, even an kind of salvific power, and in so doing also coopts the traditional Romantic formulation of poet as speaker for mankind” (Gray 172). Indeed, in identifying fellow Christians with Christ through partaking of His body and blood, in claiming the power of her pen to evoke and even incarnate Him in words (i.e., “The Courts,” “The Lord’s Prayer,’ c.f. Gray 162 ff.), in looking beyond nature as the seer who recognizes spiritual reality, and (as we will examine more closely) in locating herself in a long line of prophet-poets, Meynell positions herself in a very “masculine” Romantic space that was opening to Victorian women: as the sage whose discourse is a dialogue between herself and her audience about an ideology she wishes to establish as true (Morgan 3). Even so, speculation as to theological matters was still dangerous, unacceptable ground for women to tread (Jay 255-257). Meynell boldly fills the solitary, introspective place as the religious votary who knows, writes, and makes truth.
Meynell, unlike many female authors of the nineteenth century, does not write in the collective, communal, self-effacing first-person plural. She is unabashedly the “I.” As Kathleen Anderson has it, “She has discovered and clutches an exclusive sensibility, through which she translates the worlds’ unspoken messages into lyrics for the deaf non-poets. She boasts of her literary leadership…. She proudly declares the value of her contributions to literary tradition” (Anderson 266). Meynell seems to have suffered no anxiety of authorship, but to have leaped directly into the “male” realm of anxiety of influence. She acknowledges, embraces, and ecstatically joins her predecessors, sometimes wearied by their weight, but unafraid to name herself as one of them. Her assurance of influence is perhaps most clear in the seventh poem of the “A Poet’s Fancies” sequence, “A Song of Derivations,” quoted here in its entirety.
I come from nothing; but from where
Come the undying thoughts I bear?
Down, through long links of death and birth,
From the past poets of the earth,
My immortality is there.
I am like the blossom of an hour.
But long, long vanished sun and shower
Awoke my breath i’ the young world’s air;
I track the past back everywhere
Through seed and flower and seed and flower.
Or I am like a stream that flows
Full of the cold springs that arose
In morning lands, in distant hills;
And down the plain my channel fills
With melting of forgotten snows.
Voices, I have not heard, possessed
My own fresh songs; my thoughts are blessed
With relics of the far unknown.
And mixed with memories not my own
The sweet streams throng into my breast.
Before this life began to be,
The happy songs that wake in me
Woke long ago and far apart.
Heavily on this little heart
Presses this immortality.
As a woman without many fore-mothers and –sisters, Meynell has no substance from which to start as an example. Yet she believes that “Poetry precedes supposed ‘great poets,’ who drink it from the same cup available to all” (Anderson 265). The songs she will sing are already resonating in the universe, and she merely takes dictation. Notwithstanding, all of her thoughts have been thought before; all her knowledge of the Divine “great mystery” (“The Daisy”) belongs to the human cycle of birth, death, and poetic knowledge. Her reputation is linked with all poet-prophets who have captured and communicated the same messages to mankind. Meynell knows she, as a frail human being (with weak health and eight children moreover), will not last long on earth. She is “like the blossom of the hour” whose is nearing the end of its brief time. The birthing sun and rain are forgotten: but her ancestors are not. Their chain of influence, “seed and flower and seed and flower,” stretches back indefinitely into the—her—past. Yet, though transitory, Meynell as poet is full, overflowing with inspiration. She is “like a stream that flows / Full…” whose source is all the “forgotten snows” of her predecessors. Her poetry, however, is original and new: “My own fresh songs.” She feels no lessening of her power by this reliance; such voices from the past are blessings or ancient treasures given to her (“relics of the far unknown”). She has a Platonic concept of pre-existent ideas that corresponds to her belief in the universe’s precantations, expressed in “memories not my own.” The songs that she writes, while happy and fresh, were already reverberating before her birth, “Before this life began to be….” Finally, in the last two lines, a hint of burden and sorrow emerges: “Heavily on this little heart / Presses this immortality.” But her “little heart” can bear the weight, for, as she boldly cries in “The Poet to the Birds,” “I shall not hold my little peace.” Little her heart may be, and small her poetic output may seem compared to Dante or Wordsworth (see “Two Boyhoods”), but she will not be silenced, and she bravely holds her work up to that of former geniuses. As Anderson observes, “Meynell’s refreshingly egotistical self-aggrandizement is unusual, even for a late-Victorian woman writer” (273). She proudly stands as a solitary “I” declaiming spiritual truth.
Alice Meynell deserves to be rescued from literary oblivion, then, both for her skill and her bold position as a female poet in Victorian society. She was able to acknowledge and identify with her predecessors through her original voice as a woman simultaneously happy in the domestic sphere, active in social change, and standing alone before God.
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