Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 32 (2001) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/
Jerome Beaty should have given this lecture: 1 I have spoken and written in celebration of his scholarship and record that I was sad to be speaker not listener. Taking his amusingly grandiose title I place mine after it, and discussing Middlemarch and its poetry of (and in) prosaic conditions, respect his theme. I consider George Eliot's poetic language in Middlemarch at a time when many poets and novelists are interested in generic crossing and dislocation (as they have been in different ways from modernism to post-modernism) but when critics are less concerned with George Eliot's art, and literary art in general, than they once were.2
Forty years ago, I was one of several scholars, including Jerome Beaty, W. J. Harvey, Reva Stump, and Jerome Thale, concerned to praise George Eliot's art, reacting against F. R. Leavis and Joan Bennett, the only senior modem critics who seemed sufficiently engaged to provoke argument as they underestimated her control and form. Also wanting to modify the excessive formalism of the New Critics, Beaty and I, in very different ways, analysed the aesthetic and formal powers of the novelist at a time when her art was neglected, as I think it is now. In the late fifties and early sixties, the art of fiction was in no danger of being disregarded. New Criticism was obsessed by complexity in unity, but within the parameters laid down by Henry James, for whom George Eliot was one of the large loose baggy monsters: his named monstrosities were novels by Thackeray, Dumas and Tolstoy, his Middlemarch 'a treasurehouse of detail but an indifferent whole'. The danger was not the neglect of the novelist's art but of the Victorian artist in fiction, and George Eliot was a prime example.
Our concern was not a simple interest in unity and enclosure. In Middlemarch from Notebook to Novel Beaty showed the way in which the discrete conceptions of Miss Brooke and Middlemarch came together, in craft and haphazard. I became interested in the novelist's modifications of unity, her attention to what Robert Louis Stevenson called the strange irregular rhythm of life, the narrative3 and language of the not-so omniscient and not-so impersonal narrator, and her affective form. Now I want to look at poetic language in her great novel.
Middlemarch, prose epic of middling achievement, teems with poetry. Like her other novels, it uses poetic epigraphs, some by George Eliot, some unsurprisingly by Goethe, Wordsworth, Shakespeare, Scott, and Tennyson, three startlingly by Donne, Blake and Whitman. It assimilates quotation, identified like Dray ton or unidentified like Spenser. It imagines readers of poetry. Lydgate grows up loving Scott, like his author, and refreshes Keats's pot of basil with bitter brilliance. Rosamond's favourite poem is 'Lalla Rookh'. Fred adapts Homer's Cyclops for the Garth children. George Eliot writes a lyric for Will Ladislaw, poet and musician, individualizing and placing his hymnlike love-song, '0 me, 0 me, what frugal cheer / My love doth feed upon', a rare poem written for a novel, like those composed for Mordecai in Daniel Deronda, Hardy's Ethelberta, Joyce's Stephen Dedalus, and D. H. Lawrence's Quetzalcoatl.