George Eliot. (1819–1880). The Mill on the Floss.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
I. By Frederic W. H. Myers
And then again, when in moments of more intimate converse some current of emotion would set strongly through her soul, when she would raise her head in unconscious absorption and look out into the unseen, her expression was not one to be soon forgotten. It had not, indeed, the serene felicity of souls to whose childlike confidence all heaven and earth are fair. Rather it was the look (if I may use a Platonic phrase) of a strenuous Demiurge, of a soul on which high tasks are laid, and which finds in their accomplishment its only imagination of joy.
I do not wish to exaggerate. The subject of these pages would not tolerate any words which seemed to present her as an ideal type. For, as her aspect had greatness, but not beauty, so too her spirit had moral dignity but not saintly holiness. A loftier potency may sometimes have been given to some highly favored women in whom the graces of heaven and earth have met; mowing through all life’s seasons with a majesty which can feel no decay; affording by her very presence and benediction an earnest of the supernal world. And so, too, on that thought-worn brow there was visible the authority of sorrow, but scarcely its consecration. A deeper pathos may sometimes have breathed from the unconscious heroism of some childlike soul.
It is perhaps by thus dwelling on the last touches which this high nature was dimly felt to lack—some aroma of hope, some felicity of virtue—that we can best recognize the greatness of her actual achievement, of her practical working-out of the fundamental dogma of the so-called Religion of Humanity—the expansion, namely, of the sense of human fellowship into an impulse strong enough to compel us to live for others, even though it be beneath the oncoming shadow of an endless night. For she held that there was so little chance of man’s immortality that it was a grievous error to flatter him with such a belief; a grievous error at least to distract him by promises of future recompense from the urgent and obvious motives of well-doing—our love and pity for our fellow men. She repelled “that impiety toward the present and the visible, which flies for its motives, its sanctities, and its religion to the remote, the vague, and the unknown,” as contrasted with “that genuine love which cherishes things in proportion to their nearness, and feels its reverence grow in proportion to the intimacy of its knowledge.” These words are from the essay on “Worldliness and Other-Worldliness,” which has been alluded to, and which contains a forcible condemnation of the view—advanced by the poet Young in its utmost crudity—according to which the reason for virtue is simply the prospect of being rewarded for it hereafter. So far as moral action is dependent on that belief, so far, she urges, “the emotion which prompts it is not truly moral—is still in the stage of egoism, and has not yet attained the higher development of sympathy.” And she adds to this a moving argument, which in after life was often on her lips and in her heart. “It is conceivable,” she says, “that in some minds the deep pathos lying in the thought of human mortality—that we are here for a little while and then vanish away, that this earthly life is all that is given to our loved ones and to our many suffering fellow men—lies nearer the fountains of moral emotion than the conception of extended existence.”
It was, indeed, above all things, this sadness with which she contemplated the lot of dying men which gave to her convictions an air of reality far more impressive than the rhetorical satisfaction which is sometimes expressed at the prospect of individual annihilation. George Eliot recognized the terrible probability that, for creatures with no future to look to, advance in spirituality may oftenest be but advance in pain; she saw the somber reason of that grim plan which suggests that the world’s lifelong struggle might best be ended—not, indeed, by individual desertions, but by the moving off of the whole great army from the field of its unequal war—by the simultaneous suicide of all the race of man. But since this could not be; since that race was a united army only in metaphor—was, in truth, a never-ending host
This stoic lesson she would enforce in tones which covered a wide range of feeling, from the grave exhortation which disdained to appeal to aught save an answering sense of right, to the tender words which offered the blessedness of self-forgetting fellowship as the guerdon won by the mourner’s pain.
I remember how, at Cambridge, I walked with her once in the Fellows’ Garden of Trinity, on an evening of rainy May; and she, stirred somewhat beyond her wont, and taking as her text the three words which have been used so often as the inspiring trumpet-calls of men—the words God, Immortality, Duty—pronounced, with terrible earnestness, how inconceivable was the first, how unbelievable the second, and yet how peremptory and absolute the third. Never perhaps, have sterner accents affirmed the sovereignty of impersonal and unrecompensing Law. I listened, and night fell; her grave, majestic countenance turned toward me like a sibyl’s in the gloom; it was as though she withdrew from my grasp, one by one, the two scrolls of promise, and left me the third scroll only, awful with inevitable fates. And when we stood at length and parted amid that columnar circuit of the forest trees, beneath the last twilight of starless skies, I seemed to be gazing, like Titus at Jerusalem, on vacant seats and empty halls—on a sanctuary with no Presence to hallow it, and heaven left lonely of a God.—From “George Eliot,” in the “Century Magazine” (November, 1881).