2

The Internet Archive (see my tips for using this website at the end of this question) has in it's entirety J. B. Priestley's biography of George Meredith. On page 115 Priestley says that the first five lines of Meredith's "Ode to the Comic Spirit" are:

Sword of Common Sense !—
Our surest gift : the sacred chain
Of man to man : firm earth for trust
In structures vowed to permanence :—
Thou guardian issue of the harvest brain !

The anomalous extra white space characters within the lines are copied faithfully from Priestley's quotation of Meredith in the biography, for the sake of strict accuracy in quoting him. Almost certainly, they don't mean anything, but it's better to err on the side of caution, I think.

On Poetry Nook website, you can see the entire poem (minus the anomalous white space characters).

There's a 1938 paper that is behind a paywall (one can see the first page for free) on JSTOR by E. Arthur Robinson called "Meredith's Literary Theory and Science: Realism versus the Comic Spirit" which contains, at the very beginning, the claim that:

At the present time, Meredith's fame rests primarily upon his conception of the Comic Spirit, brilliantly elaborated in the Essay on Comedy and exemplified in many of the novels.

Note that "the Essay on Comedy" refers to Meredith's An Essay on Comedy and the Uses of the Comic Spirit, originally published in April 1877 (Using Gareth Rees answer to this question, I was able to find it on the Internet Archive).

So my question is: what is the meaning of: "Thou guardian issue of the harvest brain !" ?

P.S. The Internet Archive can be infuriatingly difficult to use. Here are some tips for newbies:

The Internet Archive is easier (I only know about Windows) to read, firstly, in single page mode, and secondly in full screen mode, and thirdly when the size of the text is adjusted by placing the mouse pointer on the text while holding down the control key and then turning the mouse wheel. Also, the Windows Screen Magnifier (Windows Key held down while equals sign key is pressed) magnifies everything.

1 Answer 1

3

Except for the word “harvest”, the line is not difficult. “Thou” is the addressee of the ode, that is, the “Comic Spirit”, a phrase peculiar to Meredith, by which he means clear-sighted apperception and gentle ridicule of human folly. In his essay ‘On the Idea of Comedy’ (1877) he explained the concept thus:

If you believe that our civilization is founded in common-sense (and it is the first condition of sanity to believe it), you will, when contemplating men, discern a Spirit overhead; not more heavenly than the light flashed upward from glassy surfaces, but luminous and watchful; never shooting beyond them, nor lagging in the rear; so closely attached to them that it may be taken for a slavish reflex, until its features are studied. […] Men’s future upon earth does not attract it [the Comic Spirit]; their honesty and shapeliness in the present does; and whenever they wax out of proportion, overblown, affected, pretentious, bombastical, hypocritical, pedantic, fantastically delicate; whenever it sees them self-deceived or hoodwinked, given to run riot in idolatries, drifting into vanities, congregating in absurdities, planning short sightedly, plotting dementedly; whenever they are at variance with their professions, and violate the unwritten but perceptible laws binding them in consideration one to another; whenever they offend sound reason, fair justice; are false in humility or mined with conceit, individually, or in the bulk—the Spirit overhead will look humanely malign and cast an oblique light on them, followed by volleys of silvery laughter. That is the Comic Spirit.

George Meredith (1877). ‘On the Idea of Comedy and of the Uses of the Comic Spirit’. In The New Quarterly Magazine (April 1877). Reprinted (1897) in An Essay on Comedy and the Uses of the Comic Spirit, pp. 88–90. Westminster: Archibald Constable.

In the ode, the Comic Spirit is the “issue” (meaning offspring or product) “of the brain” because it is a product of human culture, and it is a “guardian” because it defends society from the “affected, pretentious, bombastical, hypocritical, pedantic” and so on, by ridiculing them. Hence Meredith gives it the epithet “sword of Common Sense” in the first line of the ode.

This leaves us with “harvest”. I have two suggestions. The first is that Meredith uses this as an adjective with a meaning along the lines of “ripe, mature, ready to be harvested”. The problem is that the required sense does not appear in dictionaries (I consulted the Oxford English Dictionary, Merriam–Webster and Chambers). However, the word does appear in something like this sense in the phrase “harvest-field”:

harvest-field, n. A field in which the corn is being reaped or gathered in; a cornfield in harvest.

Oxford English Dictionary.

And so it is not unreasonable for a poet to analyze this phrase and recover an adjective “harvest” meaning, “in the process of being harvested”.

My second suggestion is that Meredith is using hypallage, a rhetorical device in which “a modifier is syntactically linked to an item other than the one that it modifies semantically” (Wikipedia). Under this suggestion, the line means “Thou guardian issue, harvest of the brain” (where “harvest” is synonymous with “issue”), but the modifier “harvest” has been transferred from the item it properly modifies (“Thou”, meaning the Comic Spirit) to another (“brain”).

The two suggestions are not mutually exclusive: the compressed language of poetry often generates ambiguities of phrasing, the multiple senses of which all contribute to the overall effect.

P.S. The “anomalous extra white space” that the question expresses some concern about is just a typographical convention and has no particular significance. This convention was very common up to the mid-20th century, for example, in 1954, a typographical manual advised, “Spaces are used before some punctuation points, such as question marks, etc. Thin spaces are placed before colons, interrogations, semi-colons, or exclamations, when these follow a word.” (John Southward, Modern Printing: The Practice and Principles of Typography and the Auxiliary Arts, volume 1, p. 179.) This convention was mostly superseded over the second half of the 20th century by the modern convention in which there is no additional space in these positions.

2
  • +1 That's an ingenious pair of explanations. "If you believe that our civilization is founded in common-sense (and it is the first condition of sanity to believe it), you will, when contemplating men, discern a Spirit overhead;[...]" There are two remarkable claims here. I wonder whether there is a non-pejorative name for this style of writing. I can think of quite a few pejorative ones. Oct 1, 2023 at 0:29
  • I hasten to add that I think that the pair of explanations here are not only ingenious, but also very likely correct. Oct 14, 2023 at 0:19

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.