Home  »  Volume XIII: English THE VICTORIAN AGE Part One The Nineteenth Century, II  »  § 5. Style in prose and in verse

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

XIV. George Meredith, Samuel Butler, George Gissing

§ 5. Style in prose and in verse

The general effect of oracular illusiveness in Meredith’s style appears, on examination, to arise mainly from incidental comment, in which the figurative and aphoristic elements, due, in some degree, to the influence of Carlyle and, therefore, indirectly of Jean Paul Richter, abound to such a degree that we often seem to be looking at similes and metaphors instead of at the thing which was to have been said. On the other hand, the narrative prose, and that directly expressive of character, has, in general, a fine precision, an almost ostentatious felicity of phrase and diction. The writings of La Bruyère, Saint-Simon and Stendhal are parallels and, sometimes, models, for the clear exposition of intricate psychological and moral situations, and for the predilection for wit and epigram, which overflow into receptacles such as “The Pilgrim’s Scrip” and “Maxims for Men.” The pervasive irony, exultancy and poetic distinction of Meredith’s writing are native to his own mind. In his middle years, he seems to have retorted upon public indifference by a wilful disregard for the convenience of his readers; he avoids simplicity and indulges in fantastic circumlocution; he sacrifices more and more of the narrative quality, of which, on occasion, as in the duel in the Stelvio pass, he is a master, in favour of effects derived from witty and ironical analogy; there is a wasteful fusillade of phrases which do not carry us forward; imagery, at all times too prodigal, becomes bewildering in its protean transformations. It is unfortunate that these excesses culminate in the early part of One of Our Conquerors, and thus bar the way to Meredith’s most delicate and poetic study of awakening womanhood, the character of Nesta Victoria Radnor. His poetic style has other features, due, in part, to a revulsion from the manner of Idylls of the King, in part to the concentration which was his declared method of craftsmanship. Unessentials are shorn away until words are left to stand side by side, each preserving, sphinx-like, the secret which connects it with other words; it is certain that not all the satisfaction which comes with comprehension arises from poetic sources. At the same time, as in all poets of insubordinate intellect—Donne, Chapman, Browning and others—there are supreme imaginative passages, pellucid in diction, and of radiant beauty and entrancing music.