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.
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.
Surprisingly, 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 rescued 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.