Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 33 (2002)
In June 1990, the Revd Dr Edward Carpenter gave this address, exactly ten years after he, as Dean of Westminster, conducted the service when the stone memorializing George Eliot was unveiled. In his address Dr Carpenter reminded his audience that permission for an Abbey burial had been denied Eliot on religious grounds, but that it gave him 'great satisfaction and a unique pleasure' to help memorialize her a hundred years later. She was, he said, 'a person whom, in "character; manner and style", it is almost impossible to praise over much' .1.
It gives me great satisfaction and pleasure, as well, to see Eliot remembered in Poets' Comer, Among
... those immortal dead who live again
In minds made better by their presence: live
In pulses stirred to generosity,
In deeds of daring rectitude, in scorn
For miserable aims that end with self,
In thoughts sublime that pierce the night like stars,
And with their mild persistence urge man's search
To vaster issues.2
The poem, 'O May I Join the Choir Invisible', and some of the editorial details surrounding its publication, clearly show that Eliot saw it as expressing the summum bonum of her life's philosophy,' and it is, therefore, very fitting that she finally attained her rightful place among this particular 'choir' of great artists.
Her determination to join others in '[urging] man's search/ To vaster issues' was the result of a lifetime of study and reflection. And yet there was a time when she struggled to hold even Shakespeare in unreserved esteem. In one of her very early letters to Maria Lewis, dated 16 March 1839, she told her old teacher that writers of fiction should be approached with great care. Shakespeare, she said,
has a higher claim ... on our attention but we have need of as nice a power of distillation as a bee to suck nothing but honey from his pages. However as in life we must be exposed to malign influences from intercourse with others if we would reap the advantages designed for us by making us social beings, so in books.