Alice Meynell

Poet of Poets, 1847 - 1922


Introduction to the Works

Alice Meynell saw in poetry, in “ultimate poetry,” an extra-linguistic, extra-symbolic capacity. She asserted the Godlike creative power of poetic language, and used it both to explore religious mysteries and the ways in which humans comprehend those mysteries, and to transform the role of the poet. Through exploring a Christian, sacramental universe Meynell rearranges a human, political universe; as G. R. Hamilton writes, “She breathed of a spiritual world, and she brought it, close but not familiar--real and desirable--into the world of everyday” (330).

It has always been difficult to classify the poetry of Meynell with respect to period. But Meynell's discipline in expression, her fastidiousness of phrase, is simultaneously representative of and anomalous to the Victorian period, and perhaps this paradoxical quality of Meynell's most noticeable stylistic characteristic has provoked critics' repeated attempts to define and classify it. She is a woman poet but a restrained poet; she writes of faith but demands intellectual rigor; she explores traditional ritual but uses it to explore feminist and even socialist views; she is a Victorian, but she is not completely a Victorian. Alice Thompson was born in 1847, and while her first volume of poems, Preludes, was published in 1875, she wrote the majority of her poetry after Queen Victoria's death, much of it, indeed, in the decade before her own, in 1922. Comparison with her gender counterparts from earlier decades poses problems; comparison with her chronological counterparts, the Decadents of the nineties, seems even more difficult. As G. K. Chesterton put it, “she differed from most of the advanced artists of the period in the detail that she was facing the other way, and advancing in the opposite direction” (11).

To set Meynell beside conventional Victorian “lady” poets is to observe a few similarities in their common adherence to poetic standards that were labeled “feminine”: topics such as nature, love, and motherhood; pretty, delicate diction; limited prosodic experimentation; euphony. In Preludes Meynell touches on lovers bemoaning their separation, contemplates the fallen leaves of autumn, and writes of Christ's coming in “Advent Meditation.” In this volume appears the sweet, meditative, vaguely Romantic sonnet “To a Daisy,” which Ruskin singled out for admiration. The poem which made Meynell's name, perhaps unfortunately, is “The Shepherdess”.

She walks--the lady of my delight--
	A shepherdess of sheep.
Her flocks are thoughts.  She keeps them white;
	She guards them from the steep;
She feeds them on the fragrant height,
	And folds them in for sleep.  (ll.1-6).

John Anson trenchantly notes, “the ladylike ideal which [Meynell] formulates in 'The Shepherdess' seems almost a parody of everything we would disparagingly describe as 'Victorian'” (37). Circumspect primness does, in fact, characterize some of Meynell's poetry; her contemporaries valued coy gracefulness more than do modern critics. Coventry Patmore, to whom femininity was a heavenly attribute, lauded “the marriage of masculine force of insight with feminine grace and tact of expression” in his review of Meynell's volume of essays, The Rhythm of Life (1892). Hoxie Neale Fairchild calls Meynell's work “ladylike”; Angela Leighton notes Meynell's “preference for a prettily trimmed lyricism to any epic volubility” (Writing Against the Heart 255).

Yet two key points of departure mark Meynell's distinction from the spontaneous outpourings of Eliza Cook or L. E. L.: stylistic control and emotional control. Meynell's verse does not, by way of flourish or exaggeration, emphasize its poeticalness. Meynell eschews jingling rhymes, strings of adjectives, and any metaphor that sounds cliché. She is formally severe; her departures from the regularly rhyming quatrain are relatively few, and her second most favored poetic form is the Italian sonnet. An example of her striking spareness may be found in “I am the Way,” a poem that strips itself down to a meditation on simple nouns.

		Thou art the Way.
Hadst Thou been nothing but the goal,
		I cannot say
If Thou hadst ever met my soul.

I cannot see-- I, child of process--if there lies An end for me, Full of repose, full of replies.
I'll not reproach The road that winds, my feet that err. Access, Approach Art Thou, Time, Way, and Wayfarer.

Meynell's own writings on the poetic craft help to direct us toward a more nuanced evaluation of her poetry. Along with constant journalistic work, Meynell edited a truly impressive array of anthologies and selections from the work of such as Wordsworth, Tennyson, Arnold, Christina Rossetti, and Jean Ingelow. Her critical introductions were discriminating and opinionated, condensing her views on poetic style and communicating her preference for perfection of achievement over epic range. Of Elizabeth Barrett Browning she wrote, “her poetry has genius. It is abundant and exuberant, precipitate and immoderate; but these are faults of style and not deficiencies of faculties. When she is gentle she is classic and all but perfect.” Meynell offers a short defense of her preferred “gentle” literary style in a famous essay entitled “Rejection.” She praises simplicity and discrimination (“rejection” in the essays serves as a synonym for discrimination), noting the sacrifices entailed in the exercise of our critical judgment, but emphasizing the rewards. When she refuses the “joys of decorators,” and pointedly asks, “When we write, what hinders that we should refrain from Style past reckoning?”, she deliberately sets herself apart from the unwieldy past female “tradition” (Rhythm of Life 81).

Meynell's studied avoidance of uncurbed style is related on a profound level to her avoidance of uncurbed emotion, producing in her verse what Leighton has described as “an impersonal, intellectual register” (Writing Against the Heart 244). While many of her themes are common to earlier women poets, her determinedly unsentimental treatment of these themes is not. Motherhood, an ideal treated with much floweriness by many Victorian women poets, offers Meynell a subject to be explored with spare restraint and emotional complexity.

The child not yet is lulled to rest.
	Too young a nurse, the slender Night
So laxly holds him to her breast
	That throbs with flight.

He plays with her, and will not sleep. For other playfellows she sighs; An unmaternal fondness keep Her alien eyes. (“Cradle-Song at Twilight” 86)

This lack or even avoidance of sentiment differentiates Alice Meynell from many forerunners. For Meynell, the expected poetic flourish could smack of habituation and insincerity. The poetic word is, for Meynell, to be disciplined, exact, and necessary, “the organic articulation of means in which metre, diction, pause, rhyme, phrase, are not accidental but essential” (quoted Tuell 181). Her essay on the prose of Mary Russell Mitford criticizes many elements characteristic of Victorian women's verse, including generalized diction and overuse of adjectives. Mitford “prattles,” and Meynell stingingly rebukes her meaningless epithets: “There is convention and convention.... the most lifeless is that which uses a poor vivacity” (Wares of Autolycus 83). In “The Courts,” the poem which serves as epigraph for this chapter, Meynell does admit the beauty of poetic techniques but makes clear that such decorations -- “beautiful similes, 'fair and flagrant things,'/ Enriched, enamouring,-- raptures, metaphors/ Enhancing life” (ll.5-7) -- are only “approaches” or “paths,” courts before the inmost temple of simple, perfect, “ultimate poetry.” Simplicity, however, is not the same as easiness. Meynell's emphasis on the redemptive capacities of language is bound up with using the 'right,' powerful word.

Chesterton and most of the other critics quoted in this chapter define Meynell in terms of negatives, and indeed, the extreme discipline of her style and subject matter seems to require consideration of what she does not do and what she does not say. However, as is true of the women poets analyzed in earlier chapters, Meynell's is a productive poetic denial. She curtails herself in order to expand in other directions. A close examination of the intersection of Meynell's disciplined expression and profundity of religious thought sheds light on the complexity with which she explores the role of ritual, and the function of ritualistic language. To analyze properly what Meynell sees as the redemptive quality of language, it is necessary to examine her prosodic manipulation of language closely; what she does with words is integral to what she is saying about words. Meynell herself rebuked those who viewed words as merely decorations overlying the important thought, those who “separate a building from its architecture” (quoted Tuell 181). Through her examination of the sacred word, through her deployment of prosody, Meynell examines the function of ritual and ritualistic language in religious experience, and goes on to problematize the role of gender within the linguistic construction of belief, making striking assertions about women's abilities to utter God.

As Meynell considers the meanings of communion, she explores the ways in which ritualistic language disperses power and creates community in a provocative reassessment of religious experience as both personal and political. In poems including “In Portugal 1912,” “A General Communion,” and “The Fugitive,” religious language functions in a democratizing fashion, breaking down difference between God and human as well as difference between male and female. Partaking of the elements of Communion provides the means of experiencing individual epiphany as well as participating in a kind of world mind -- or God mind -- that transcends the personal. Unlike Moeyes, who sees Meynell's poems as fundamentally about individual aloneness (158), I argue that Meynell's poems explore, through sacramental language, identification -- the sanctification of the everyday, the God in every one. By emphasizing the participatory function of deploying language, Meynell can explore feminist and socialist ideals within a Christian context; deploying words means becoming something different, becoming part of something new, becoming part of the broader Christian body, but also becoming a part of the Mystery of God.

While her stylistic and semantic choices are profoundly related to Meynell's religious concerns, both are informed by her views on gender politics. As Beverly Schlack has argued, Meynell is deeply concerned with issues of creativity and gender, but these concerns are developed and complicated in a religious context. What happens, in Meynell's poetry, when the creator, the maker of the word, is a woman? In Meynell's exploration of the sources of inspiration and the sacredness of the word, her poems rework an orthodox Christian hierarchy. The poet is aligned with the priest, and even finds in her identity as wordsmith a corollary of the divine function.

Meynell is keenly conscious of her poetic and religious forebears, and both stresses and complicates the un-originality of her verse, through epigraphs, through highly conscious revisions of the Romantics, and through quotation of liturgy and scripture. Ritual language, which provides for Meynell the means for an expansion of identity and diminution of difference, also creates a space which transcends gender and temporal boundaries, in effect unwriting the poetic lineage that is so much a concern. By this means, Meynell's examination of the giving and receiving of inspiration is feminized in new and powerful ways. Through problematizing the separability of the roles of creator and created, Meynell collapses the active/passive binary, presenting the figure of a woman poet who both receives and acts, who conceives, creates, and carries the God-words. One way she emphasizes this dual, expanded role is through strategic repetitions, through taking up passages from the Bible and the Catholic Mass to rework them, thereby simultaneously participating in a tradition and rewriting that tradition from within. She makes words new and resonant by directing attention to the fact that they are set words, historically-charged words, yet words that she can speak in her own voice. By taking on the old words and making them her own, Meynell writes herself and her gender into Christian ritual.

-- copyright 2000 F. Elizabeth Gray