Alice Meynell

Poet of Poets, 1847 - 1922


Contemporary Comments and Reviews

  • Alfred Lord Tennyson, upon meeting Alice Meynell:
    "Others weary me with their sendings, but your poems I have had to get for myself."

    John Ruskin, 1819-1900

     

  • John Ruskin, in a letter to Mrs. Thompson (Alice Meynell's mother), c.1875.
    "I really think the last verse of that song ('A Letter from a Girl to her own Old Age') and the whole of San Lorenzo and the end of the daisy sonnet the finest things I've seen or felt in modern verse."

     

  • Henry James, English Writers, 1864-1914.
    "Confidence, however, as we take up Mrs. Meynell's exquisite notes on The Children, reigns both in this authoress and in her presence. We know very little what we are about, unless we promptly recognize how well she knows what she is. She has the sense of subject, and a hand that goes with it to the end. There are hundreds of feminine pens around us that carry everything before them, but only of two or three of them is it discernible that they do so by anything that more than roughly resembles writing: to such innumerable other aims is this instrument mostly directed. Mrs. Meynell's, at any rate, is one of the two or three. She is an observer of singular acuteness, and she plays with concision as a lace-maker at a bright window plays with a complicated stitch."

     

    Coventry Patmore, 1823-1896

  • Coventry Patmore, reviewing The Rhythm of Life (1892) in The Fortnightly Review.
    "At rare intervals the world is startled by the phenomenon of a woman whose qualities of mind and heart seem to demand a revision of its conception of womanhood and an enlargement of those limitations which it delights in regarding as essentials of her very nature, and as necessary to her beauty and attractiveness as a woman. She belongs to a species quite distinct from that of the typical sweet companion of man's life, the woman who is so sweet and so companionable, even because, as Thomas Aquinas affirms, 'she is scarcely a reasonable creature'... I am about to direct the reader's attention to one of the very rarest products of nature and grace--a woman of genius... In a very small volume of very short essays, which she has just published, this lady has shown an amount of perceptive reason and ability to discern self-evident things as yet undiscerned, a reticence, fulness, and effectiveness of expression, which place her in the very front rank of living writers in prose. At least half of this little volume is classical work, embodying, as it does, new thought of general and permanent significance in perfect language, and bearing in every sentence, the hall-mark of genius, namely, the marriage of masculine force of insight with feminine grace and tact of expression. Of the 'sweetness and wit' which are said, by Donne, I think, to be woman's highest attainment, there is in these little essays abundance, but they are only the living drapery of thought which has the virile qualities of simplicity, continuity, and positiveness. The essays of Emerson, of which those of Mrs. Meynell sometimes remind the reader, are not to be compared with the best of hers in these merits: moreover, the 'transcendentalism' of the American writer afforded a far easier field than that chosen by the English lady. It is very easy to speak splendidly and profusely about things which transcend speech; but to write beautifully and profitably and originally about truths which come home to everybody, and which every one can test by common sense; to avoid with sedulous reverence the things which are beyond the focus of the human eye, and to direct attention effectively to those which are well within it, though they have hitherto been undiscerned through lack of attention or the astounding imperfection of common vision for the reality of common things, is a very different attainment. Gaiety of manner with gravity of matter, truth perceived clearly and expressed with ease and joy, constitute the very highest and rarest of prose writing... In the writing of Mrs. Meynell we have brightness and epigram enough, but they are the photosphere of weighty, intelligible and simple human interest; and they never tempt her, as the possession of such wit almost inevitably tempts the male writer, to any display of scorn and contempt. She has always pity and palliatory explanation for the falsehood which she exposes so trenchantly."

      George Meredith, 1828-1909

  • George Meredith, National Review August 1896.
    "A woman who thinks and can write, who does not disdain the school of journalism, and who brings novelty and poetic beauty, the devout but open mind, to her practice of it, bears promise that she will some day rank as one of the great Englishwomen of letters."

     

  • Max Beerbohm, "Mrs. Meynell's Cowslip Wine," Tomorrow, September 1896.
    Beerbohm compares Alice Meynell's acclaim to the thrill of a crowd when the queen passes by.
    "The crowd is the reading public; the mounted policeman is Mr. John Lane; the guardsmen are the literary critics; the lady is Mrs. Meynell; the homely carriage is her new book; the stalwart Highlanders are Mr. Coventry Patmore and Mr. George Meredith."

     

    Francis Thompson, 1859-1907

  • Francis Thompson, reviewing Poems (1892) in The Tablet.
    "Foremost singer of a sex which is at last breaking the silence that followed on Mary's Magnificat, she will leave to her successors a serener tradition than masculine poets bequeathed to men. She has reared from them an unpriced precedent and she has given them the law of silence. That high speech must be shod with silence, that high work must be set forth with silence, that high destiny must be waited on with silence--was a lesson the age lacked much. Our own sex has heard the nobly tacit message of Mr. Coventry Patmore. But by an exception rare as beautiful, the woman's calm has been austerer-perfect than the man's."

     

  • E. K. Chambers, Academy, 2 January 1897.
    "In the realm of the more liberal essay, whose criticism is of life rather than of letters, Mrs. Meynell is admittedly queen."

     

  • Pall Mall Gazette review of Later Poems, 1901.
    "She has accustomed us to look for quality rather than quantity and we are not disappointed. The rarity of her verses, measured by the gross test of counting pages and lines, is paralleled by the uncommon beauty of the poetry they embody, and the distinction wherewith it is expressed."

      Jack London, 1876-1916

  • Jack London, The Sea Wolf, 1903-04.
    London has his hero, Humphrey Van Weyden, compliment the poet Maud Brewster by declaring her "the American Mrs. Meynell." She calls the compliment "too, too flattering."

     

  • J. L. Garvin, reviewing Collected Poems in the Pall Mall Gazette, May 1913.
    "We are even tempted to wish that the poems of Mrs. Meynell were written by another in order that she might have been their due critic in her own prose. Only that could assure the memorable and delicate thing about them which still waits to be said.... With an exquisite singleness of genius, she stands apart and escapes the categories. She has few affinities, and none of this day."

     

  • Walter de la Mare, Times Literary Supplement, 29 May 1913.
    "Even in the earliest sonnets, with all their delicate sensitiveness, their restrained ardour, we are always conscious of a kind of native wisdom of thought that is not so much the chance and sudden flower of a happy and unforeseen moment, but that has been pondered over and proven. 'But not a flower or song I ponder is My own, but memory's.' It is this serene poise of mind, this consistent refusal to fall captive to caprice of mood and wandering impulse, that gives Mrs. Meynell's verse its rarest quality. It is a restraint not only of art, but of life; a selection not only from among the richer things of a personal life, but from among the rarest... But though Mrs. Meynell is one of the comparatively small number of poets who actually think in verse, and though now and then her poems are weighed down with their burden, her work is always lyrical. There is nothing far-fetched, only the close-treasured; nothing obscure or learned or exotic, only that which is abstruse because it needs diligent search to find it and to be sure of it... There is sadness in her verse, but no melancholy; resignation but not despair. Above all, her poems are, we feel (in spite of the exquisite craftsmanship of a true artist that ensures for the moment lastingness), only notes, as it were, by the way. They tell much, but not all. And as each poem's essential beauty dwells behind rather than in its expression, so her work in its completeness is only the partial witness to a life's whole trend, a rare spirit's daily experience."

     

  • Dixon Scott, reviewing Collected Essays in the Liverpool Courier, 1914.
    "I am soberly convinced that the prose of Alice Meynell is absolutely the most perfect produced in our language for at least the last twenty years. There have been louder instruments than hers; there has been orchestration more complex; and there have been artists, no less honourable, who have parted with some purity of tone for the sake of a wider range of keys or strings. But unless it be some of the early work of Mr. W. B. Yeats (the essays he wrote in Ideas of Good and Evil) I can think of no prose-tissue -- no, not even that of Mr. James -- which presents a surface so free from the faintest falsity or blur, and that clings with so exquisite a closeness and transparency to the rippling body of the swiftly moving thought."

     

  • T. P.'s Weekly, 19 June 1914.
    "Women have of course written in prose before; but when they have been noticeable as stylists, it has been as men prose writers have been noticeable as stylists; at other times they have shown only one side of a woman's nature--generally the easiest, the emotional. But we have never had a woman stylist before Mrs. Meynell. In her essays you realize that a woman may have ideas as well as feelings, reasons as well as intuitions--and that these may be expressed in a prose as sensitive and as close knit as that of the most exacting male prosodist. And to its further distinction may be added the permanence of its femininity."

     

    G. K. Chesterton, 1874-1936

  • G. K. Chesterton, Dublin Review, 1923.
    "All the talk about her fastidiousness and fine shades and delicate verbal embroideries is quite beside the mark. The point of her poetry was not that she chose this or that sort of adjective, or even cast it in this or that sort of style. The point about her poetry, as compared with most modern poetry, was this; that she never wrote a line, or even a word, without putting brains into it; or, in the most exact sense, meaning what she said. She never wrote a line, or even a word, that does not stand like the rib of a strong intellectual structure; a thing with the bones of thought in it.... Therefore in any anthology or magazine of minor poets, her work always stood out as something inevitably and imperatively interesting. It was like being startled amid the chatter of birds by the spoken words of a man."