- George Meredith's Early Verse:A New Manuscript in His First Wife's Hand
Although his first collection of Poems (1851) received a fair measure of praise from reviewers and a handsome compliment from Tennyson, George Meredith soon came to regard the book as an embarrassment and later wished he could suppress it entirely. He is said to have destroyed the unbound sheets for some three hundred copies of the Poems,1 and he told John Lane that he destroyed the manuscript of an intended volume of "British Songs" after John W. Parker and Son declined to publish it at their expense in July 1855.2 He must also have destroyed numerous loose manuscripts of individual poems, for nearly all of his early verse that survives in manuscript is contained in three bound volumes: two quarto notebooks in the Altschul Collection at Yale and an interleaved copy of his Poems in the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library.3
Meredith's revulsion against his early verse was based on personal as well as aesthetic grounds, for much of it was inevitably associated with his first wife, Mary Ellen Nicolls, née Peacock. His earliest known poems date from his association with Mary Ellen and other members of the Charnock circle in the production of their manuscript periodical "The Monthly Observer." Most of his early love lyrics were inspired by Mary Ellen, and his Poems were dedicated "To Thomas Love Peacock, Esq., with the profound admiration and affectionate respect of his son-in-law." After Mary Ellen left him and bore a son by their mutual friend Henry Wallis, Meredith sought to distance himself from his own unpublished verse by treating it ironically in The Ordeal of Richard Feverel (1859), where he ascribes brief snippets to his adolescent hero and some longer passages to the sentimental poetaster Diaper Sandoe, Sir Austin's former friend and Lady Feverel's lover. On more than one occasion Meredith was willing to stretch the truth with respect to his early poetry. In a letter of November 13, 1861, he told his friend Augustus Jessop that the poems in "my boy's book" were "written before I was twenty" (Letters, 1:109-110), when in fact most of them were written when he was twenty-one or twenty-two. Near the end of his life, when his anonymous contributions to Household Words were [End Page 257] identified from entries in the contributors' book, he even suggested privately that most of them were written by his first wife—a view that his son William Maxse Meredith later argued publicly.4
Since Mary Ellen was, in one way or another, the inspiration for much of his early work as a poet, it is interesting to find a manuscript in her hand containing transcripts of his early verse, including "The Three Maidens" and six untitled poems or fragments, several of them previously unpublished. This manuscript was acquired by the Beinecke Library at Yale in 1975 as part of a miscellaneous collection of papers that once belonged to Mary Ellen's daughter Edith Nicolls Clarke.5 Meredith scholars may have since overlooked its significance because the Yale cataloguer described "The Three Maidens" as a "manuscript poem possibly by Mary Ellen Meredith," despite the fact that it was published by George Meredith in 1859 and included in a collected edition of his Works in 1898. Of the untitled poems that occupy the remaining space in the manuscript, three can be found, either complete or in fragmentary form, in Meredith's Red Quarto Notebook at Yale.6 Hence there is no reason to doubt that the previously unknown poems and fragments are also the work of George rather than Mary Ellen.
Mary Ellen's transcripts fill all four pages of a double sheet of octavo notepaper with the watermark "Pirie & Sons | 1855." Since she apparently had access to a larger collection of her husband's manuscript verse, her copies must have been made while she was still living with Meredith—probably in 1856, or at any rate prior to the summer of 1857.7 "The Three Maidens" may have been transcribed from a fair copy, for...