Dear Friends and readers,
Let me spend this night remembering Alice Meynell, how I “met” her: I found a book of her poems in a used bookshop, and then in another bout of looking and buying, a memoir of her by her daughter, and my knowledge of her since coming on line.
I like her longer blank verse and triple rhyme poems best. This is my favorite. It’s an experience I often re-enact, especially in the bleak dark days of winter. It’s the opening of a long three-parter:
In three monologues, with interruptions
Among the first to wake. What wakes with me?
A blind wind and a few birds and a star.
With tremor of darkened flowers and whisper of birds,
Oh, with a tremor, with a tremor of heart –
Begins the day i’ the dark. I, newly waked,
Grope backwards for my dreams, thinking to slide
Back unawares to dreams, in vain, in vain.
There is sorrow for me in this day,
It watched me from afar the livelong night,
And now draws near, but has not touched me yet.
In from my garden flits the secret wind –
My garden — This great day with all its hours
(Its hours, my soul!) will be like other days
Among my flowers. The morning will awake,
Like to the lonely waking of a child …
It’s really very beautiful and deeply uneasy verse with a lot of repetition in rhythms, imagery. A rich lush description of the garden follows with the disquieted child in it, whose mother “had come and wept and gone …”
One of the latter:
A Letter from a Girl to her own Old Age
Listen, and when the hand this paper presses,
O time-worn woman, think of her who blesses
What thy thin fingers touch, with her caresses.
O mother, for the weight of years that break thee!
O daughter, for slow time must yet awake thee,
And from the changes of my heart must make thee!
O fainting traveller, morn is grey in heaven.
Dost thou remember how the clouds were driven?
And are they calm about the fall of even?
Pause near the ending of thy long migration,
For this one sudden hour of desolation
Appeals to one hour of thy meditation …
Listen: — the mountain winds with rain were fretting
And sudden gleams the mountain-tops besetting
I cannot let thee fade to death, forgetting.
What part of this wild heart of mine I know not
Will follow with thee whre the great winds blow not
And where the young flowers of the mountain grow not ..;
Oh, in some hour of thine my thoughts shall guide thee.
Suddenly, though time, darkness, silence, hide thee,
This wind from thy lost country flits beside thee, –
Telling thee …
And we, so altered in our shifting phases,
Track one another ‘mid the many mazes,
By the eternal child-breath of the daisies.
I have not writ this letter of divining
To make a glory of thy silent pining,
A triumph of thy mute and strange declining …
O hush, O hush! Thy tears my words are steeping.
O hush, hush, hush! So full, the fount of weeping?
Poor eyes, so quickly moved, so near to sleeping?
Pardon the girl, with strange desires beset her.
Poor woman, lay aside the mournful letter
That breaks thy heart, the one who wrote, forget her.
The one who now thy faded features guesses,
With filial fingers thy grey hair caresses,
With morning tears thy mournful twilight blesses
Yes, this is another foremother poet blog, this one linking to last week’s of Adelaide Anne Proctor: they linked by era, by the importance of Catholicism to them and by the lyrical nature of their poems and their social idealism.
Meynell’s most famous poem reprinted poem:
I must not think of thee; and, tired yet strong,
I shun the thought that lurks in all delight –
The thought of thee — and in the blue Heaven’s height,
And in the sweetest passage of a song.
Oh, just beyond the fairest thoughts that throng
The breast, the thought of thee waits hidden yer bright;
But it must never, never come in sight;
I must stop short of thee the whole long day.
But when sleep comes to close each difficult day,
When night gives pause to the long watch I keep,
And all my bonds I needs must loose apart,
Must doff my will as raiment laid away, –
With the first dream that comes with the first sleep
I run, I run, I am gathered to thy heart.
I first came across Alice Meynell in Alice Meynell: Prose and Poetry: Centenary volume, edd. F.P, F.M., O.S., F.Ma. (London: Cape, 1947), a book of selections from her work in a secondhand book shop in Alexandria, Va (the kind that in the US where I live has been killed by the Internet). F.P, F.M., O.S., F.Ma are her hostile non-legatees, family members who turn up at funerals and not otherwise. The book contains also a biographical sketch and critical introduction by Vita Sackville-West.
I was drawn much more to her prose, which is reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s: sketches of literary and artistic people, belletristic descriptions with philosophical and literary critical undercurrent, with an accent on women (Johnson’s wife, Christina Rossetti, the Brontes, Joanne Baillie, Elizabeth Inchbald, Arbella Stuart), but also the famous poets of her day (whom she knew and who read and praised her work, including Tennyson, Browning) and
depictions of places: Walls, Wells, the Colour of Life. I like all the above very much, especially the ones on “minor” unknown or outcast women, and places.
Here is a poem showing her doing justice to her foremothers, combining memories of a court 17th century poet with hatred of war:
A Father of Women
Ad Sororem E.B.
“Thy father was infused into thy blood..”
Dryden: Ode to Mrs. Anne Killigrew
Ou father works in us,
The daughters of his manhood. Not undone
Is he, not wasted, though transmuted thus,
And though he left no son.
Therefore on him I cry
To arm me: “For my delicate mind a casque,
A breastplate for my heart, courage to die,
Of thee, captain, I ask.
”Nor strengthen only; press
A finger on this violent blood and pale,
Over this rash will let thy tenderness
A while pause, and prevail.
”And shepherd-father, thou
Whose staff folded my thoughts before my birth,
Control them now I am of earth, and now
Thou art no more of earth.”
”O liberal, constant, dear,
Crush in my nature the ungenerous art
Of the inferior; set me high, and here,
Here garner up thy heart!”
Like to him now are they,
The million living fathers of the War–
Mourning the crippled world, the bitter day–
Whose striplings are no more.
The crippled world! Come then,
Fathers of women with your honor in trust;
Approve, accept, know them daughters of men,
Now that your sons are dust.
As an essayist and biographer she’s interested in childhood private lives and especially women. (Meynell’s relatives watched her on the shore from the safety of their houses. Her world seems very like that of the Stephens family, Mary Ward, the Stracheys.
She is presented as marrying at age 30, having had a pack of children (8) who, together with her disciplined adherence to journalism, engulfed her days until the last twenty when she was at last free and had some money and went to Italy. I feel this sonnet reflects her Italian studies of Renaissance poetry:
To One Poem in a Silent Time
Who looked for thee, thou little song of mine?
This winter of a silent poet’s heart
Is suddenly sweet with thee. But what thou art,
Mid-winter flower, I would I could divine.
Art though a last one, orphan of they line?
Did the dead summer’s last warmth foster thee?
Or is Spring folded up unguessed in me,
And stirring out of sight,–and thou the sign?
Where shall I look–backwards or to the morrow
For others of thy fragrance, secret child?
Who knows if last things or if first things claim thee?
– Whether thou be the last smile of my sorrow,
Or else a joy too sweet, a joy too wild.
How, my December violet, shall I name thee?
She apparently had a way of addressing them all indiscriminately as “child.” From the book I originally found (and which was all I had) I learned how much she loved Italy late in life. There are quite a number of poems which show how much the experience meant to her, how fulfilling she found it. As someone at the time embarked on a project to translate Italian women’s poetry this attracted me too.
In those days (early 1980s), for me to find anything like this
was a tremendous treat.
Years later, the early days of my time on the Internet I leapt onto a life of Meynell, A Memoir written by her daughter, Viola Meynell. There is nothing compares without seeing people in their milieu.
Alice Meynell, a portrait photograph
Now with the Net and finding circles of people like myself I realize much more about her beyond her family, famous friends and conversion to Catholicism and supporting of the religious Catholic poet, Francis Thomson. For example, she was politically active, a staunch supporter of non-militant suffragists. However, although she detested war, as far as I can see from her poetry, when it came to a particular one (WW1), she supported it in public and print. There’s one poem encouraging the “conscript” among those I have in my book.
Her poetry remains mostly personal and lyrical. She treats motherhood as oppressive, and children with unsentimental control: Leighton and Reynolds in Victorian Women Poets say her poems about family life “bring to the topic a notably modern sense of uncertainty and foreboding.” (They include a small well-chosen selection.) She has Victorian currents: guilt, shame, meditation about God, Doubts, a poem on the theme of the sexually “fallen” woman. This one is unusual though because she shows a relationship between a mother and son. Her interest in childhood moves away from the older treatment of neglected, outcast, over-disciplined, miserable traumatized children we find in the Victorian books. The loss of childhood is a loss to be regretted and she bathes her memories in a Woolfian way. The real problem with her poetry is she uses clichéd language. That last poem, “A letter from a Girl to her own Old Age” to think with (!), seems to me like Swinburne, and while others sound like the imagery of the fin-de-siecle, “The Study” is more like Caroline Bowles Southey.
There has been a biography: June Badeni’s The Slender Tree: A Life of Alice Meynell, with a publisher which suggests it’s a sort of semi-private or vanity publication.
My life on the Net has enabled me to go to conferences, and at an MLA conference I heard a paper about Meynell: Stephanie Johnson’s paper on her poetry; Meynell was said to look upon her poems as her children, to connect women’s poetry to domesticity, to regard poems as creating an order of beauty (reflecting the “divine” world?). Johnson rehearsed religious ideals she found in Meynell’s life and poetry. I connect her adherence to Catholicism with her depressions which are central to her poetic mood, e.g.
Dear fool, be true to me!
I know the poets speak thee fair, and I
Hail thee uncivilly.
O but I call with a more urgent cry!
I do not prize thee less,
I need thee more, that thou dost love to teach—
Father of foolishness—
The imbecile dreams clear out of wisdom’s reach.
Come and release me; bring
My irresponsible mind; come in thy hours;
Draw from my soul the sting
Of wit that trembles, consciousness that cowers.
For if night comes without thee
She is more cruel than day. But thou, fulfil
Thy work, thy gifts about thee—
Liberty, liberty, from this weight of will.
My day-mind can endure
Upright, in hope, all it must undergo.
But O afraid, unsure,
My night-mind waking lies too low, too low.
Dear fool, be true to me!
The night is thine, man yields it, it beseems
Thy ironic dignity.
Make me all night the innocent fool that dreams.
To the Body
Thou inmost, ultimate
Council of judgement, palace of decrees,
Where the high sense hold their spiritual state,
Sued by earth’s embassies,
And sign, approve, accept, conceive, create;
Create–thy senses close
With the world’s pleas. The random odours reach
Their sweetness in the place of thy repose,
Upon thy tongue the peach,
And in thy nostrils breathes the breathing rose.
To thee, secluded one,
The dark vibrations of the sightless skies,
The lovely inexplicit colours, run;
The light gropes for those eyes.
O thou august! thou doest command the sun.
Music, all dumb, hath trod
Into thine ear her one effectual way;
And fire and cold approach to gain thy nod,
Where thou call’st up the day,
Where thou awaitest the appeal of God.
Here is an edition of her poems online. See also Beverly Ann Schlack, “The Poetess of Poets: Alice Meynell rediscovered: Women’s Studies 7 (180):111-126.
See also foremother poetry.