In grad school, I wrote a paper on a Victorian poet, Alice Meynell. I later found out that she had an important early influence on Charles Williams; indeed, she and her husband financed the publication of his first book. I thought for a while that I might publish the paper officially, but think now that I've moved beyond it, so here it is, in case it might interest anyone. Enjoy.
A Little Song that Must be Heard:
Alice Meynell’s Poetic Legacy
I come from nothing; but from where
the undying thoughts I bear?
through long links of death and birth,
the past poets of the earth,
immortality is there.
Song of Derivations 1-5)
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.
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.
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.
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,
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”).
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
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
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).
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:
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
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.
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.
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).
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,
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):
said ‘No man hath greater love than this,
die to serve his friend’?
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)
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
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.
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
come from nothing; but from where
the undying thoughts I bear?
through long links of death and birth,
the past poets of the earth,
immortality is there.
am like the blossom of an hour.
long, long vanished sun and shower
my breath i’ the young world’s air;
track the past back everywhere
seed and flower and seed and flower.
I am like a stream that flows
of the cold springs that arose
morning lands, in distant hills;
down the plain my channel fills
melting of forgotten snows.
I have not heard, possessed
own fresh songs; my thoughts are blessed
relics of the far unknown.
mixed with memories not my own
sweet streams throng into my breast.
this life began to be,
happy songs that wake in me
long ago and far apart.
on this little heart
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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