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George Eliot (1819–80)

Eliot, George 1819–1880

George Eliot was raised by a strict Methodist family, whose views she accepted until she later befriended Charles Bray and Charles Hennell, two skeptical philosophers who ultimately led her to challenge and eventually reject her family's rigid religious principles. This questioning of her upbringing inspired her first published work, a translation of Das Leben Jesu (The Life of Jesus) by the German religious philosopher D. F. Strauss.

After her father's death, Eliot moved to London and became an assistant editor to John Chapman, editor of the Westminster Review. Through Chapman she met the philosopher Herbert Spencer and the writer George Henry Lewes. Although Lewes was married and refused to divorce his wife, he and Eliot ended up living together until Lewes's death in 1878, openly defying the rigid morality of the Victorian era. Lewes encouraged Eliot to write fiction, which she did under the pseudonymous "George Eliot." By the time of her death, Eliot was regarded as one of the greatest English novelists.

Although she is less well known as a poet, Henry James praised The Spanish Gypsy, her book of dramatic verse, for its "extraordinary rhetorical energy and elegance." Another dramatic poem of hers, "Armgart," has been acclaimed for its "understanding of the psychological aspect of human characters and their internal conflicts and desires." Eliot's poetic themes include religion and morality; her poems reflect her rural English background, her travels abroad, and her study of Jewish customs and religious beliefs.

Eliot's poetry has generally taken a back seat to her novels. And yet The Spanish Gypsy has been praised for its "authentic presentation of the struggles of the Jewish 'gypsy' in Spain" and seems to have laid the foundation for her later novel, Daniel Deronda, while The Legend of Jubal and Other Poems is now considered a necessary step in the evolution of Eliot's later novels and essays.

Two Lovers

Two lovers by a moss-grown spring:
They leaned soft cheeks together there,
Mingled the dark and sunny hair,
And heard the wooing thrushes sing.
O budding time!
O love's blest prime!

Two wedded from the portal stept:
The bells made happy carolings,
The air was soft as fanning wings,
White petals on the pathway slept.
O pure-eyed bride!
O tender pride!

Two faces o'er a cradle bent:
Two hands above the head were locked:
These pressed each other while they rocked,
Those watched a life that love had sent.
O solemn hour!
O hidden power!

Two parents by the evening fire:
The red light fell about their knees
On heads that rose by slow degrees
Like buds upon the lily spire.
O patient life!
O tender strife!

The two still sat together there,
The red light shone about their knees;
But all the heads by slow degrees
Had gone and left that lonely pair.
O voyage fast!
O vanished past!

The red light shone upon the floor
And made the space between them wide;
They drew their chairs up side by side,
Their pale cheeks joined, and said, "Once more!"
O memories!
O past that is!

O May I Join the Choir Invisible

Longum Illud tempus, Quum Non Ero, Magis Me Movet, Quam Hoc Exiguum.—Cicero, Ad Att., Xii. 18

O MAY I join the choir invisible
Of those immortal dead who live again
In minds made better by their presence: live
In pulses stirr’d to generosity,
In deeds of daring rectitude, in scorn
For miserable aims that end with self,
In thoughts sublime that pierce the night like stars,
And with their mild persistence urge man’s search
To vaster issues.
        So to live is heaven:
To make undying music in the world,
Breathing as beauteous order that controls
With growing sway the growing life of man.
So we inherit that sweet purity
For which we struggled, fail’d, and agoniz’d
With widening retrospect that bred despair.
Rebellious flesh that would not be subdued,
A vicious parent shaming still its child,
Poor anxious penitence, is quick dissolv’d;
Its discords, quench’d by meeting harmonies,
Die in the large and charitable air.
And all our rarer, better, truer self,
That sobb’d religiously in yearning song,
That watch’d to ease the burthen of the world,
Laboriously tracing what must be,
And what may yet be better,—saw within
A worthier image for the sanctuary,
And shap’d it forth before the multitude,
Divinely human, raising worship so
To higher reverence more mix’d with love,—
That better self shall live till human Time
Shall fold its eyelids, and the human sky
Be gather’d like a scroll within the tomb
Unread forever.
                 This is life to come,
Which martyr’d men have made more glorious
For us who strive to follow. May I reach
That purest heaven, be to other souls
The cup of strength in some great agony,
Enkindle generous ardor, feed pure love,
Beget the smiles that have no cruelty,
Be the sweet presence of a good diffus’d,
And in diffusion ever more intense!
So shall I join the choir invisible
Whose music is the gladness of the world.

The following is excerpted from an article by Esther Cameron, co-editor of the Deronda Review:

... the quintessential Victorian writer, George Eliot (Marian Evans), concluded her career with a novel [Daniel Deronda], in which the hero discovers and affirms his Jewishness and returns to his ancestral land. Eliot was nothing if not a universalist. She seems to have had no definite religious creed. But her writings exemplify the sense of responsibility, the commitment to human betterment, which informed the best of Victorian culture. That sense and that commitment are at the heart of the Jewish tradition. And so it is no coincidence that after various novels that probed the human heart and surveyed the state of human society she came at last to the threshold of Judaism, of a culture that was deeply foreign to her world and yet somehow central to it.

Daniel Deronda was an immensely influential work. It is said to have inspired not only Arthur Balfour, author of the 1917 Balfour Declaration that was a significant step toward the establishment of the Jewish state, but also Eliezer Ben Yehudah, whose dictionary is credited with reviving Hebrew as a living language. To adopt this title is to express a hope of reinvoking some of the – social as well as artistic – creative energy that Daniel Deronda incorporated and released.

For this to occur, two things, we believe, are necessary. First, poets must recover some of the spirit of Victorian idealism, that spirit which perhaps was best expressed by George Eliot herself in her poem "O May I Join the Choir Invisible." We must have the courage to cast off the self-protective irony of modernism, to rebuild trust, to think of the word again as something to be given and kept. And second, there is need for a deeper understanding of Judaism, precisely in the light of universal concerns. In December 2006 Susannah Heschel wrote in a Newsweek article, “Nativity of the Jews”:
The nativity saga of the Jews […] is about all of us, and the work we must take on […]  From our birth in Exodus, we learn that God did not simply call us into being, but continually has expectations of us.  We were brought into being as a people with a collective conscience.
The Exodus narrative (“let my people go”) has been incorporated into the consciousness of many peoples. The Sinai narrative – the confrontation with the Creator (or, if one prefers, with the destiny of humankind and the planet) and the acceptance of collective responsibility – has been less readily absorbed. Yet it must be absorbed; there is simply no sustainable alternative. And part of the process of absorbing it must be, as said, a deeper understanding of, a closer acquaintance with, the culture of those who have carried the Sinai narrative through the centuries and the millennia.

Esther Cameron, Editor, Deronda Review
Mindy Aber Barad, Co-editor for Israel

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