Thursday, April 16, 2009

National Poetry Month, Day 17

Today's entry is unusual on several levels. As you may have noticed, I have fallen into a thematic fancy (which actually began accidentally but is now deliberate) of alternating between a male and a female poet. Today, we have a female poet, which is correct according to my pattern, who rejoiced in a male name for her entire literary career. She is also a poet who is primarily a novelist, but whose poetry is significant enough that she is listed as both a poet and a novelist. As all of you know, I am myself immersed in conundrums of this kind both in my own life, and my work. So it's fun to have found someone (not the only possibility, either) who slips through all the filters. Enjoy!

George Eliot ~ MARY ANN EVANS

Mary Ann Evans was born at Griff House, England, near Nuneaton, November 22, 1820. Upon reaching womanhood, she married the eminent English author, George H. Lewes. By his suggestion, she commenced to write fiction. Her literary name was George Eliot, and by that name we shall know her in the world of letters. She died in London, December 22, 1880.

Her father, Mr. Robert Evans, was able to give his daughter an exceptionally good education. There were and are so many bad schools for girls that it was a piece of singular good fortune that Mrs. Wellington, at Nuneaton, and afterward Miss Franklin, at Coventry, undertook her education. To Mrs. Wellington, the writer in the "Graphic" thinks that George Eliot owed some of the beauty of her intonation in reading English poetry. Besides the studies at school, she was fortunate in finding a willing instructor in the then head master of Coventry Grammar School, Mr. Sheepshanks; and motherless as she was, she possibly studied more deeply than a mother's care for a delicate daughter's health would have permitted. However this may be, the years that she spent in Coventry, on her father's removal to Foleshill, till his death in 1849, were years of excessive work, issuing in a riper culture than that attained by any other prominent English woman of our age, and only approached by that of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Her first introduction to serious literary work was brought about by Mr. and Mrs. Bray, of Coventry. Mrs. Bray's brother, Mr. Charles Hennell, was interested in a translation of Strauss' "Leben Jesu," which had been entrusted to the lady he was about to marry, and who had performed about one-fourth of the work. When the lady was married, the work of completing the translation was turned over to our author, who performed her duty most acceptably.

On Mr. Evans' death, in 1849, his daughter went abroad with the Brays, and staid behind them at Geneva for purposes of study. Some time after her return to England she became a boarder in the house of Mr. -- now Dr. -- Chapman, who with his wife, was in the habit of receiving ladies into their family. She assisted Mr. Chapman in the editorship of the "Westminster Review," and her literary career in London was fairly begun. Her work on the "Westminster Review" was chiefly editorial. During the years in which she was connected with it she wrote far fewer articles than might have been supposed. The most important of them were the following, written between 1852 and 1859, inclusive: "Women in France," "Madame De Sable;" "Evangelical Teachings" (on Dr. Cumming); "The Natural History of German Life;" "German Wit" (on Heine); "Worldliness and Other Worldliness" (on Young and Cowper).

While in London she formed numerous valuable acquaintances among literary persons, among whom may be mentioned Herbert Spencer, Mr. Pigott, and George H. Lewes. Her acquaintance with Lewes resulted in her marriage to him. These two eminent scholars lived together most happily; and each profited by the companionship of the other.

Her own somewhat somber cast of thought was cheered, enlivened and diversified by the vivacity and versatility which characterized Mr. Lewes. Was the character of Ladislaw, to ourselves one of very great charm, in any degree drawn from George Henry Lewes, as his wife first remembered him? The suggestion that she should try her hand at fiction undoubtedly came from Mr. Lewes. Probably no great writers ever know their real vein. But for this outward stimulation, she might have remained through life the accurate translator, the brilliant reviewer, the thoughtful poet, to whom accuracy of poetic form was somewhat wanting, rather than as the writer of fiction who has swayed the hearts of men as no other writer but Walter Scott has done, or even attempted to do.

In the maturity of her life and intellectual powers she became known as a writer of fiction. There are those who regard the "Scenes of Clerical Life" as her best work. Beautiful as they are, that is not our opinion, and, at any rate, the "Scenes" failed to attract much notice at first. The publication of "Adam Bede," in 1859, however, took the world by storm. Five editions were sold within as many months. Considerable anxiety was manifested as to the authorship of the novel. In this matter, the actual author was greatly complimented, for the popularity of her work induced one Joseph Liggins to copy the entire book, and then, by exhibiting his manuscript, to claim the authorship. The impostor received some money by subscription before the authorship of "Adam Bede" was fully settled. In 1859 also appeared "The Mill on the Floss," a work fully up to the standard of her former production; and in 1861, "Silas Marner" sustained George Eliot's reputation as a powerful writer. In 1863 she published a more ambitious work than any before attempted. It was an historical novel of Italian life in the days of Savonarola, entitled "Romola." By many this is considered her greatest intellectual effort. She published "Felix Holt, the Radical," in 1866; "Middlemarch, a Study of English Provincial Life," 1871-'72; "Daniel Deronda," a story of modern English life, 1876; "The Gypsie Queen," an elaborate dramatic poem, 1868; "Agatha," a poem, 1869. In 1878 her husband died, thus leaving her alone. The loss was deeply felt by her, but she soon commenced to enter society again, when she married Mr. J. W. Cross. Although many of her friends were not favorable to the new union, yet it proved to be a happy one. In company with Mr. Cross, she visited Italy, and her health seemed greatly benefited by that sunny clime. Upon returning to England, however, the severe winter which followed was most unfavorable. She moved to her new home in Chelsea, but from the effects of a severe cold, died within two weeks of the change, and was laid to rest by the side of Mr. George Henry Lewes.

The complete works of George Eliot have been issued in this country, in eight volumes. While she has written some verses of considerable merit, yet her fame rests upon her prose works. There is probably no question but what she is the greatest female novelist England has produced, and a large class of critical writers deem her the greatest that ever lived.

God Needs Antonio

Your soul was lifted by the wings today
Hearing the master of the violin:
You praised him, praised the great Sabastian too
Who made that fine Chaconne; but did you think
Of old Antonio Stradivari? -him
Who a good century and a half ago
Put his true work in that brown instrument
And by the nice adjustment of its frame
Gave it responsive life, continuous
With the master's finger-tips and perfected
Like them by delicate rectitude of use.
That plain white-aproned man, who stood at work
Patient and accurate full fourscore years,
Cherished his sight and touch by temperance,
And since keen sense is love of perfectness
Made perfect violins, the needed paths
For inspiration and high mastery.

No simpler man than he; he never cried,
"why was I born to this monotonous task
Of making violins?" or flung them down
To suit with hurling act well-hurled curse
At labor on such perishable stuff.
Hence neighbors in Cremona held him dull,
Called him a slave, a mill-horse, a machine.

Naldo, a painter of eclectic school,
Knowing all tricks of style at thirty-one,
And weary of them, while Antonio
At sixty-nine wrought placidly his best,
Making the violin you heard today -
Naldo would tease him oft to tell his aims.
"Perhaps thou hast some pleasant vice to feed -
the love of louis d'ors in heaps of four,
Each violin a heap - I've naught to blame;
My vices waste such heaps. But then, why work
With painful nicety?"

Antonio then:
"I like the gold - well, yes - but not for meals.
And as my stomach, so my eye and hand,
And inward sense that works along with both,
Have hunger that can never feed on coin.
Who draws a line and satisfies his soul,
Making it crooked where it should be straight?
Antonio Stradivari has an eye
That winces at false work and loves the true."
Then Naldo: "'Tis a petty kind of fame
At best, that comes of making violins;
And saves no masses, either. Thou wilt go
To purgatory none the less."

But he:
"'Twere purgatory here to make them ill;
And for my fame - when any master holds
'Twixt chin and hand a violin of mine,
He will be glad that Stradivari lived,
Made violins, and made them of the best.
The masters only know whose work is good:
They will choose mine, and while God gives them skill
I give them instruments to play upon,
God choosing me to help him.

"What! Were God
at fault for violins, thou absent?"

He were at fault for Stradivari's work."

"Why, many hold Giuseppe's violins
As good as thine."

"May be: they are different.
His quality declines: he spoils his hand
With over-drinking. But were his the best,
He could not work for two. My work is mine,
And, heresy or not, if my hand slacked
I should rob God - since his is fullest good -
Leaving a blank instead of violins.
I say, not God himself can make man's best
Without best men to help him.

'Tis God gives skill,
But not without men's hands: he could not make
Antonio Stradivari's violins
Without Antonio. Get thee to thy easel."

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