George Meredith: Biography & Poems

Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

Success in life doesn't come easy, especially when you have to make it on your own. But stories like those of Victorian author George Meredith prove it can be done. Learn more about Meredith's story and works in this lesson!

Self-Made Merit: A Brief Biography of George Meredith

If we want to get ahead nowadays, most of us have to do it ourselves rather than being able to rely on our parents' wealth or social standing. However, just because you're not a prince or an heiress doesn't mean you don't have any merit; just ask George Meredith.

George Meredith, OM (1828-1909), Victorian English poet and novelist
Portrait of George Meredith

Humble Beginnings

George was born into a family of tailors above their shop in Portsmouth, England on February 12, 1828. His father inherited the business and while trying to live extravagantly beyond his means, ran the shop into bankruptcy. Meredith's mother, however, who died when he was five, had left some funds for his education. He was enrolled in boarding schools until his mother's money ran out. An aunt then made it possible for him to attend school in Neuwied, Germany.

Meredith returned to England at age 16, and his schooling in Germany was the last formal education he'd ever receive. Young and relatively untrained, he was still able to secure a job assisting an attorney, which he maintained for five years. During that time, he also began to write poetry, taking much of his earliest influence from the works of John Keats and Lord Tennyson.

Meredith also admired famed Victorian author, Thomas Love Peacock, and was able to meet his children, Edward and widowed Mary Nicolls. In the 1840's, George and Edward collaborated in publishing the Monthly Observer, in which Meredith would publish his own poems. George went on to wed Mary in 1849.

Rocky Marriage

Plagued with money troubles and personal squabbles, the couple's marriage was neither a long nor a happy one. In an effort to alleviate some of their monetary marital troubles, George published his first collection of Poems in 1851 at his own expense - which sales never recouped. The couple was forced to move in with Thomas in 1853 after their son Arthur's birth. Tensions continued to mount, and by 1856 the couple had separated, and Mary abandoned the little family entirely in 1858.

Over the next few years, Meredith's romantic and other relationships were rocky at best; nevertheless, he'd been able to start making an income by writing for magazines. He also began writing novels with mixed popular and critical reception, but by the 1860's George was able to start supporting himself and his son on the money he made from writing.

A Writer's Life

In 1864, Meredith married his second wife and settled at Box Hill, Surrey - his home for the rest of his life. Over the next decade or so, George became increasingly receptive to criticism, seeking to improve his novels with each attempt. These innovative novels such as The Egoist, Diana of the Crossways, and The Amazing Marriage were popular and have even been argued to be the peak of Victorian novel writing. However, Meredith often felt that his work as a novelist was merely to pay for his true passion for poetry.

Meredith produced several poetry collections aside from his first failed attempt, including A Reading of Earth, Poems and Lyrics of the Joy of Earth, and his ever-famous Modern Love, and Poems of the English Roadside. As in his novels, Meredith used his poetry to explore many ideas his contemporaries found shocking: perhaps most importantly some very feminist views concerning equality in marriage.

Legacy

At times referred to as the 'last Great Victorian,' George Meredith's literary career demonstrated just how far a self-made talent could go, especially when he became one of the original recipients of the Order of Merit (OM) - a British royal honor given to distinguished persons in the military, literature, arts, and sciences - just four years before his death on May 18, 1909.

Poems by Meredith

'Lucifer in Starlight'

Have you ever been in a situation where you had to play 'the Devil's advocate?' For many intellectuals of the Victorian era, this was an everyday occurrence as they encouraged their contemporaries to start seeing the world through a more rational and scientific lens as opposed to one purely of faith. However, many who talked about these sorts of things still used language that was accessible to their predominantly Christian audiences.

For instance, Meredith's 'Lucifer in Starlight' uses an old image of evil familiar to Christians while actually attempting to have readers feel sympathy for the Devil. We're meant to feel some pity for Lucifer who, despite the great wounds he suffered in his ancient revolt, is still unable to avail against 'the army of unalterable law.'

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