Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 34 (2003) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/
The death of George Eliot on 22 December 1880 occasioned many prose obituaries and also a number of verse tributes.' I have located eleven of these in all, along with a twelfth poem published in her lifetime: nine poets are represented, of whom four are women and five men (assuming J. S. Dawson and 'K. G.' to be male). Together, the poems provide a sidelight on her reputation. Elegy frequently mourns dead poets and establishes poetic genealogies: while George Eliot's fame depends on her fiction rather than her poetry, her eminence in letters as well as her moral and intellectual stature are commonly praised in these poems. As a group they are studiously ' poetic ', working with traditional elements of lament, praise and consolation while for the most part remaining scrupulously secular. They offer standard elegiac sentiments using a particular range of imagery (light and darkness, the seasons, the tides), in some cases drawing on arcane and inflated vocabulary. There are also of course individual differences among the poems on which I will comment presently. There is a preponderance of sonnets (eight of the twelve), with four of them presented in linked pairs. Three of the remaining poems are short - sixteen, eighteen and twenty-three lines respectively: one is longer, at seventy-three lines. The formality of the sonnet probably recommended it to these diverse poets, who deploy a number of variations mainly on the Petrarchan form (only two of them use the closure by a couplet characteristic of the Shakespearian sonnet). The revival of the sonnet in the late eighteenth century issued in new currency and status for the form in the nineteenth century because of Wordsworth's interest in and extensive practice of it. The vogue for the sonnet of sensibility in the 1780s, and in particular the influence of Charlotte Smith's immensely popular Elegiac Sonnets (1784), may have suggested a mode of moral reflection adopted in some of the elegies for George Eliot.
A. C. Swinburne (1837-1909) is the best-known of the poets who eulogized George Eliot. His sonnet on 'The Deaths of Thomas Carlyle and George Eliot' first appeared in the Athenaeum on 30 April 1881 (Carlyle died 5 February 1881). Swinburne was no devotee of George Eliot, famously describing her as 'an Amazon thrown sprawling over the crupper of her spavined and spur-galled Pegasus'. 2 In A Note on Charlotte Bronte (1877), he compared her unfavorably, and at length, with Charlotte Bronte: in essence, George Eliot had intellect but lacked genius. His accusation that she had plagiarized Elizabeth Gaskell's The Moorland Cottage in The Mill on the Floss rankled with George Eliot, who as it happened admired at least some of Swinburne's poetry.' Swinburne did allow her a dimension of superiority to '[t]he fiery-hearted Vestal of Haworth' : 'No man or woman ... outside the order of poets, has ever written of children with such adorable fidelity of affection as the spiritual mother of Totty, of Eppie, and of Lillo.'4 In his valedictory sonnet he develops a less hostile but quite consistent attitude. After five lines on Carlyle, The stormy sophist', the poem moves on to 'one whose eye could smite the night in sunder' in quest of the light of loving-kindness. George Eliot's sternness in pursuit of duty and righteousness is softened by 'The light of little children, and their love'. The poem's quasi-Christian orientaton is strongest in this closing allusion to the Jesus who would '[s]uffer little children . . . to come unto me' (Matthew 19: 14) to whom George Eliot appears to be analogous.