A Little Song that Must be Heard: Alice Meynell’s Early Influence on CW

In graduate school, I wrote a paper on a Victorian poet, Alice Meynell. I later found out that she had an important early influence on Charles Williams; she and her husband financed the publication of his first book. The entire paper is available on my Islands of Joy blog; what follows is 1,000-word summary, without citations.

NPG 2221,Alice Meynell (nÈe Thompson),by John Singer Sargent

“Alice Meynell” by John Singer Sargent

A Little Song that Must be Heard:
Alice Meynell’s Poetic Legacy

Many lost poets lie unobserved in the pages of literary history. One overlooked writer who does not deserve to molder forever in literature’s oubliette is the passionate, quiet, Victorian Alice Meynell. Meynell (1847-1922) was a model of Victorian domesticity and femininity in her private life, a busy journalist and essayist, a brave advocate for women’s rights, an ardent lover of Christ and the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church, and a poet of great formal power and spiritual passion. Her life and work illustrate a woman’s ability to mount the heights scaled by great past (male) poets, seize the role of a sage who comprehends and communicates the reality behind nature, and wrest a place for herself as a solitary “I.”

Alice Christiana Gertrude Thompson was born in Barnes, London, in1847. She and her sister Elizabeth received an excellent, non-traditional education from their father while wandering around England and the continent, primarily Italy, in a Bohemian lifestyle. By age thirteen, Alice was seriously writing poetry and journal entries. As she matured, she became increasingly concerned with women’s limited choices of vocation. In 1872, she committed herself to the Roman Catholic faith.

In 1875, her first volume, Preludes, was published with illustrations by her sister. Their book received excellent critical acclaim from Ruskin, Rossetti, and George Eliot. In 1877, she married Wilfred Meynell; by all accounts it was a very happy union. Together they edited several magazines. Alice and Wilfred had eight children in a period of twelve years—during which time she wrote less poetry but still kept a career as a prose writer and magazine editor.

Wilfred deserves the credit for “discovering” the sad genius of Francis Thompson. Thompson, a devout Christian and brilliant poet, was ruined by opium and wandered homeless around London for three years. In 1888, he submitted an essay and poems to the Meynell’s magazine Merry England. Wilfrid Meynell not only published the submissions, but sought and found Thompson, brought him home to live in their family, and helped him to master his opium addiction to some degree. Thompson lived with or visited the Meynell family until his death in 1907. During the years of their acquaintance, Thompson encouraged Meynell’s writing nearly as much as she and her husband did his, and adored her as an invaluable friend.

Meynell’s work was immediately acclaimed by others, such as George Meredith, Walter de la Mare, and G. K. Chesterton. She published eight books of verse, eight volumes of essays, two biographies, and a weekly newspaper column. She was recommended for the position of poet laureate after Tennyson’s death, and her complete poems were published posthumously in 1923.

angel-in-the-houseSurprisingly, the majority of her contemporaries did not appreciate her work. During her lifetime, Meynell was honored more as an “angel in the house” than as a poet of any superior merit; yet her poetry is remarkable. Her command of formal elements and the euphonies of diction is at once careful and natural. Her images are rich and well-chosen. Her thoughts are profound and original. Through all of her poise and mastery surges a vital, forceful spirit of independence, passion, power, and spiritual ecstasy. At times, a tone of violence courses through her devotional work.

In the midst of dedicated poetic composition, family life, and a journalistic career, Meynell became more involved in current events as she grew older. In 1910-1912, she marched in women’s suffrage demonstrations. She was also vigorously opposed to war.

In identifying fellow Christians with Christ through partaking of His body and blood, claiming the power of her pen to evoke and even incarnate Him in words, looking beyond nature as the seer who recognizes spiritual reality, and locating herself in a long line of prophet-poets, Meynell positions herself in a very “masculine” Romantic space that was opening to Victorian women. Even so, speculation as to theological matters was still dangerous, unacceptable ground for women to tread. Meynell boldly fills the solitary, introspective place as the religious votary who knows, writes, and makes truth.

Meynell, unlike many female authors of the nineteenth century, does not write in the collective, communal, self-effacing first-person plural. She is unabashedly the “I.” Meynell seems to have leaped directly into the “male” realm of authorship. She acknowledges, embraces, and ecstatically joins her literary predecessors. She proudly stands as a solitary “I” declaiming spiritual truth.
Alice Meynell deserves to be resc
ued from literary oblivion both for her skill and her bold position as a female poet in Victorian society. She was able to acknowledge and identify with her predecessors through her original voice as a woman simultaneously happy in the domestic sphere, active in social change, and standing alone before God.

For the purposes of The Oddest Inkling, she also did the world a great service when she befriended Charles Williams, encouraged his writing, and financed his first book of poetry. For all these things, we thank her.


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About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is a writer, English teacher, and Inklings scholar. Sørina serves as Chair of the Department of Language and Literature at Signum University and teaches English at King's College and Lehigh Carbon Community College. She has published two books of poetry, "The Significance of Swans" and "Caduceus."
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5 Responses to A Little Song that Must be Heard: Alice Meynell’s Early Influence on CW

  1. Thank you so much for posting this story that is both beautiful and sad. I hope that your advocacy here will encourage people to read Meynell’s poetry. One thought comes to mind that is somewhat off the point and that is your comment on her unconventional education. I am not an advocate of home-schooling as a means of “protecting” young minds from outside influences but I remember when our children were in their early years at school that we used to note that they seemed to make more progress during holidays than in term time, especially over the long summer break when we would try to spend as much time as we could with them taking them on outings to art galleries, museums, castles or just playing in the woods. Perhaps there is a little romanticising on my part about those days but the progress was real and their passions today (music, literature, art) seem to reflect the time spent in those holidays.

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    • Sørina Higgins says:

      As someone who was homeschooled all the way through, I can relate to these comments! I know the positives and the negatives intimately. In balance, I think the negatives outweigh the positives, but since I never attended school myself, I cannot really judge. I only know that in my case, the homeschooling was extremely uneven and without academic rigor. I imagine I would have thrived (thriven?) in a setting with regular schedules, deadlines, and even requirements across the curriculum — but perhaps not. Perhaps that would have squashed me in the areas I enjoyed.

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  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    It is worth mentioning that not only does the English Wikipedia article about her have links to works by, and about, her available online, but that searching simply for Meynell at the Internet Archive yields pages of entries, most being works – in verse or prose, non-fiction or fiction – written (or edited, selected, or supplied with a preface, etc.) by Alice, Wilfrid, or one of their children (Everard, Olivia, Viola, and Francis).

    Such a search also yields a couple works about Alice Meynell. A chapter on her in The Poets’ Chantry (1913) by Katherine Bregy includes, on its second page, ” Renunciation of the beloved by the lover; […] it is never a seriously chosen and admitted strain save by the very little flock – and Mrs. Meynell has made it quite her own”!

    And a little essay on her appears in Carven from the Laurel Tree by Theodore Maynard (with the publication date appearing, through the omission of a ‘ C’, as “MDCCCXVIII”!). He will be an astonishing name in Williams’s history. In a review of Poems of Conformity (which I have never yet managed to see), he apparently attacks Williams as ” a Satanist, a phallic worshipper in a Christian dress” (Hadfield, Exploration, p. 47) – but went on to become an great enthusiast of Williams’s poetry. In fact, in Our Best Poets: English and American (first published in New York in 1922), he ranks C.W. as third among ” the twelve best contemporary English” poets, after Chesterton – and Alice Meynell (and ahead of Yeats)! It was published in England two years later, and Williams comments to Pellow of a review of it by Edward Shanks, ” I think he only means that in putting G.K.C., A.M., and Me above Yeats Maynard shows very little critical instinct. Prostate before Her, kneeling before G.K., + with my foot on my own head – I tend to agree.” (In fact, Maynard goes on to refuse his ranking too strenuously, while noting ” the strong originality and individuality of each”. (See my contribution to The Rhetoric of Vision, pp. 193-94.)

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    • Sørina Higgins says:

      Thank you for these sources!

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        You’re welcome! I mixed Hadfield titles, alas: it’s Introduction, p. 47 and Exploration, p. 29 (and note 35, p. 238), with the former giving a more vivid, detailed ( and rather arch) account and the latter showing all as sorted out by 30 July 1918, and reporting that “Maynard had asked Charles to review his new book of poems”. Presumably, he did and that is the first review by C.W. listed in Lawrence R. Dawson, Jr. and Lois Glenn’s checklists (with the second being his review of Carven from the Laurel Tree). In both books, Mrs. Hadfield misidentifies Maynard as an “American”, whereas he was an Englishman who later settled in America. The Wikipedia ‘stub’ on him links to the Internet Archive for The odyssey of Francis Xavier (1936) (whose Feast it was yesterday, as Holy Luck would have it), but there are more works by him to be found there, including his essay, “The Poetry of Charles Williams”, North American Review 210 (1 September 1919), 401-11, which he revised into the chapter, “Charles Williams: Pan and Pan-Anglicanism”, in Our Best Poets. There, he gives his own account of the matter (pp. 403-06), upon which Mrs. Hadfield drew for her vivid details. But he does not identify where he “launched [his] public attack upon Poems of Conformity.” Lois Glenn only begins her “Partial List” of reviews of books by C.W. with Windows of Night, while Lindon Huddlestone, in his thesis, only adds those from the TLS of The Silver Stair, Poems of Conformity, and Divorce (however welcome an addition that is!). I have never succeeded in discovering where Maynard launched his attack, or its extent: he says, “it was impossible to present my case fully in the columns of a newspaper”, but does not elaborate further. Perhaps the Archives of the Williams Society hold the answer; perhaps Grevel Lindop will be revealing it.

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