Alice Meynell

Poet of Poets, 1847 - 1922


Alice Meynell was born in 1847 to Thomas and Christiana (nee Weller) Thompson. Her only sibling, Elizabeth, was born a year earlier. Elizabeth, whom everyone called Mimi, was later to become Lady Elizabeth Butler, the celebrated painter. Mimi and Alice spent much of their childhood in Italy with their rather bohemian parents; Alice spoke fluent Genoese dialect to the end of her life, and was immensely proud of it. Throughout her childhood and adolescence she was plagued with often alarmingly ill health, and all through her life she suffered from migraine headaches, which she referred to as "wheels."

One of the most important events of Alice's early life took place on 20 July, 1868, when Father Augustus Dignam received her into the Catholic Church. Of no less moment than her religious commitment was her passionate attachment to the handsome, intellectual priest; this entirely hopeless love gave rise to some of her most moving poetry, including "After a Parting" and the justly famous "Renouncement." Alice and Father Dignam corresponded for two years, after which their contact became only occasional.

Mimi was the first sister to achieve fame. In 1873 her large oilpainting of the Crimean War, "The Roll Call," was accepted by the Royal Academy. Immense crowds thronged to see the vivid, emotionally-charged depiction of wounded soldiers, and Queen Victoria herself bought the painting. John RuskinMimi's instant fame as an artist helped sell copies of Alice's first venture into publication, the 1875 volume of poems entitled Preludes, for which Mimi provided "illustrations and ornaments." Although she was later to joke that people only bought the book for Mimi's illustrations, Alice received high praise for her poetry from such luminaries as Ruskin and Tennyson.

In 1876 Alice began some journalistic work, which was to absorb almost all of her adult life. Wilfrid Meynell in 1877In this year she met Wilfrid Meynell, a writer and critic some five years her junior, and despite the initial objections of her father on the grounds of Meynell's slender means, on April 16, 1877, they were married. They moved into a small house in Kensington and embarked on a lifetime of serious journalistic endeavour, and the raising of eight children (seven survived to adulthood.) In 1881 the Meynells began editing the Weekly Register, a Catholic periodical, on which they worked for eighteen years. Mrs Meynell was a popular and prolific columnist, and she contributed regularly to The Spectator, The Saturday Review, The World, The Scots Observer, The Tablet, The Magazine of Art, and The Art Journal. Amidst all this she gave birth to Sebastian, Monica, Everard, Madeleine, Viola, Vivian (who died at three months), Olivia, and Francis. For twenty years, Alice Meynell wrote poems only infrequently, and tended to disparage her earliest verse as immature. But the poetry she produced during this time (slender volumes were published in 1893, 1895, and 1902) demonstrates her growing mastery of what one critic described as a "chastened" form. She manipulated economy of syntax and rare felicity of expression, within the demanding discipline of the orthodox sonnet and quatrain.

Francis, the Meynell's last child, was named for his godfather, Francis Thompson. Francis ThompsonWilfrid Meynell had first met the destitute, addicted Thompson in 1888 after Thompson had sent him some poetry. Recognizing the great worth of those poems, the Meynells undertook a task of staggering humanity. They literally rescued Thompson from the streets, sending him to a hospital to help him recover from the ravages of his opium addiction, and supporting him financially and emotionally his whole life. That Thompson survived to write such flawed masterpieces as "The Hound of Heaven" is due entirely to the love and generosity of the Meynells. He loved Alice Meynell deeply and referred to her as "Lady," "Mother," and even "Madonna Alice."

Coventry Patmore In 1892 began Alice Meynell's friendship with Coventry Patmore, a relationship she called "the greatest friendship of my life." The two praised each other's work in print and then in person, and the married, elderly Patmore became Mrs Meynell's most fervent champion. George Meredith They spent much time in each other's society, made freqent and extended visits, called each other by their first names, but Patmore's frequent fits of violent jealousy eventually led Alice to end the relationship in the middle of 1895. Patmore was disconsolate though he remained devoted, and a sign of this continuing devotion was his resentment of Alice Meynell's new literary friend, George Meredith, whom she met in 1896. The famously temperamental novelist was enchanted by Alice, whom he called Portia, and she in turn called him The Master.

Alice Meynell's close friend Agnes Tobin took her to America in 1901, where a short visit stretched into several months. Meynell gave lectures in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Indianapolis, and Boston, and was much feted wherever she went. She arrived back in England in 1902. In the early decades of the twentieth century Alice worked committedly for the Women's Suffrage Movement. Never physically strong, and always professionally stretched by her journalistic commitments, she wrote, spoke, and marched on behalf of the movement.

Alice Meynell was become a name. In 1913 her Collected Poems was published to strong sales and great praise; for the second time, her name was mentioned for the Laureateship.

World War I brought much sorrow to the Meynells. In 1916 their son-in-law Percy Lucas, Madeleine's husband, was killed in France at the Battle of the Somme. Their son Francis, a socialist and conscientious objector, was arrested and imprisoned for refusing to serve his country in any, even non-combatant, capacity. He promptly began a hunger-strike, and was soon released.

Very frail in her last years, Alice Meynell died on the 27th of November, 1922, after a series of illnesses. She kept writing to the end of her life. In her own estimation her essays were of superior quality to her poems, and many of them are both penetrating and eloquent, but her husband never wavered in his belief that her poems were incomparable, and many others, from Tennyson to Chesterton to Walter de la Mare, have agreed.

Alice Meynell, 1921

A portrait of Alice Meynell drawn in 1921 by her daughter, Olivia Sowerby.