Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 21 (1990)
"Undoubtedly much the greatest poem of any wide scope and on a plan of any magnitude, which has ever proceeded from a woman"(1) This was the critical acclaim that George Eliot's "The Spanish Gypsy" received on its publication in 1868. It was a surprise to the writer herself, who had been prepared for criticism. This is evident in a letter to a friend following the completion of the poem (2). She notes in this her belief that many people would despise her for writing a work which would bring her little in the way of financial remuneration when she could have made 'easy' money from publishing another novel. She also felt that many of her critics would accuse her of being foolish in adopting a change in form and methodology. Both these assumptions were proved ill-founded but George Eliot was right in her perception that people had become accustomed to her primarily as a novelist, someone whom 'they hitherto have found readable and debatable' (3). And this, surely, is our perception of George Eliot today. She is taught and read as a novelist to the exclusion of her work as a nineteenth century poet. Her achievements in "The Spanish Gypsy" and in her collected poems in The Legend of Jubal and Other Poems are largely ignored (4).
"The Spanish Gypsy" continues to be the most neglected work by George Eliot. This poem, described as "a tragic play in blank verse, laid in 1498" (5) ran into five editions during the nineteenth century. There is no modern edition of the verse drama and there are very few references to it in critical appraisals of George Eliot's career. Such a fate seems strange in the light of its reception on publication. For example, a reviewer in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, June 1868, stated that "it is emphatically a great poem, great in conception, great in execution" and concludes that few' 'will fail to share our conviction that the author who holds so lofty a place among novelist", must also infallibly, and immediately, take high rank among poets". This has not been the case. George Eliot as a nineteenth century poet has gone largely unexplored.