George Eliot: “I Grant You Ample Leave”
Is a poet-novelist the same as a novelist-poet? When we think of the writers who have attempted both genres, we are likely to think of them either as a poet first, novelist second (Forrest Gander, Philip Larkin) or as a novelist who has written poetry (Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, and Denis Johnson—though all first published as poets). The novel is a relatively young genre, and it was only recently that a “poem” meant more or less a lineated display of lyrical compression often no longer than a page. Many of the most popular poems during the 19th century—Paradise Lost, Idylls of the King, Browning’s The Ring and the Book—acted in ways we now ascribe as peculiar to novels: they featured characters who developed, a steady march of events unfolding through time, even plot twists. To modern eyes, such long, narrative poems may not seem like “poetry”—that is, lyric poetry. But Victorian readers recognized a clear difference between poems—even narrative poems—and novels. Here is a good summary of the general Victorian attitude toward poetry: “In Poetry—which has this superiority over all the other arts, that its medium, language, is the least imitative, and is in the most complex relations with what it expresses.”
That statement was made by the great George Eliot. Yes, the novelist-poet George Eliot. Rarely read now, George Eliot’s poetry has been condemned, like her historical novel Romola, as the product of too much labor and not enough art. Certainly she wrote some long, tedious verse (The Spanish Gypsy is five volumes long). But her contemporary Richard Holt Hutton’s assessment that “Verse to her is a fetter, and not a stimulus” is a little unfair, especially in light of Bernard Paris’s 1959 discovery of a notebook crammed with unpublished poems and prose. Eliot’s poetry can suffer from the sins of Victorianism—turgid rhyming, leaden meters, frequent ponderousness—but in her poems we can also see her continued efforts to chip away at the problems that so preoccupy her novels. Eliot used her poetry as a way to arrive at new understandings of the issues she struggled with in her criticism, her fiction, and her life: how do we know that we understand the world, and other people, correctly? What are the promises, and problems, of science? What is the role of women? Her poetry doesn’t dramatize these conflicts as much as expose them. In her brilliant, short philosophical lyric “I Grant You Ample Leave,” Eliot manages to gather together most of the buds of her thought on perception, consciousness, and language, creating in 21 short lines a stunning bouquet of intellect, argument, and hypotheses. While the poem addresses themes found in her long poem “A College Breakfast-Party,” and even touches upon some of the great debates in Middlemarch, the brevity of “I Grant You Ample Leave” powers it forward. Its dense compactness, adept handling of scientific language, and unexpected rhymes demonstrate an understanding of poetry’s potential to render “complex relations” in a form that feels shockingly modern—especially coming from the woman who, for many, epitomized Victorian high-minded seriousness.
George Eliot was serious, and high-minded, but her life was quite “improper” by many good Victorians’ standards. She stopped attending church as a young woman in Coventry, a cause for grave concern in provincial 1840s England. Then she moved to London by herself at the spinster’s age of 31 to take on the editorship of the liberal magazine Westminster Review. There, she wrote scathing reviews of her contemporaries’ misguided Calvinism, novel-writing, and much else. Worse than all these was her relationship with George Henry Lewes, a philosopher, amateur scientist, and enthusiastic writer of popular tomes—a sort of Victorian Malcolm Gladwell—with whom she lived and worked closely for over 20 years. Though she took his surname, they never married. They couldn’t. Lewes remained married though estranged from his wife, Agnes, until his death in 1878. Lewes exerted an enormous influence on Eliot as a writer and thinker, and their relationship was fundamentally collaborative. “I Grant You Ample Leave” is the product of Eliot’s engagement with Lewes’s scientific theories. In fact, part of what makes the poem so good is that it doesn’t feel like poetry. It feels like a fragment, an outpouring, not something plotted and straitjacketed into verse; it feels so fragmentary that Bernard Paris believed this poem was once part of the longer “A College Breakfast-Party,” though he wasn’t certain why Eliot cut it. But the very form of the poem does suggest that it has been plucked from midair. The poem begins with a shortened line of six syllables before sliding into blank verse, and is offset by quotation marks:
“I grant you ample leave
To use the hoary formula ‘I am’
Naming the emptiness where thought is not;
But fill the void with definition, ‘I’
Will be no more a datum than the words
You link false inference with, the ‘Since’ & ‘so’
That, true or not, make up the atom-whirl. [ . . . ”]
Though it begins as a potentially ironic concession—to grant someone “leave” is to allow them their opinion; “ample leave” suggests a large opinion indeed—it uses a series of rhetorical turns to complicate our understanding of both the original position and the proffered alternative. The question the poem asks—what is consciousness, “the emptiness where thought is not”?—is so large that even Eliot’s most complicated arguments, robed in her most strenuous syntax, can’t solve it. The poem ends with a question mark.
Lewes and Eliot were thoroughly immersed in the evolving nature of scientific thought. Historical criticism of the Bible had cast doubt on the reality of God; science increasingly seemed to provide a grand design that could potentially explain all. Examining nature systematically revealed structures of great complexity—but how to account for the least structured, most complex “organism” of them all: humans and human society? It was a question Lewes and Eliot both took up with gusto. “I Grant You Ample Leave” starts with that concession, though the admission quickly doubles back into denial. The poem begins its complicated argument with a point about the poverty of language: using a “hoary formula” to describe the great “void” of consciousness is to bring the mystery down to the level of “datum”—something given or granted. There could be no worse prospect for the scientifically minded George Eliot. Investigating, ascertaining, and constant judging were the paths to truth, mere acceptance was not. The “false inference” in line six may make up the next line’s “atom-whirl,” but note the odd flavor of that pair: while the poem is salted with scientific language, “atom-whirl” combines all kinds of registers at once. In the medieval period, an “atom” referred to the smallest unit of time; to the ancient Greeks (and Eliot read Greek), it was one of the ultimate particles of matter and indivisible; by Eliot’s day, it was understood to mean a particle that, in the aggregate, composed materiality itself. Eliot would have known all these definitions, and meant them all, but by attaching that crazed, unscientific, onomatopoeic “whirl,” she swiftly undermines the very world her listener believes in.
Such large, complex points get made on a linguistic level throughout the poem. The next lines read: “Resolve your ‘Ego’, it is all one web / With vibrant ether clotted into worlds.” Again, “resolve” could mean to declare but also to dissolve or break up; “Ego” in pre-Freudian parlance simply meant a conscious, thinking subject. Eliot seems to be advising not the solidification required by “definition” but the dispersal of subjectivity in order to understand life’s great “web” filled with ether, a substance then believed to be the medium through which light moved. Using “ether” as a metaphor for other kinds of illumination, Eliot depicts light clotting to produce “worlds.” That plural is significant: for Eliot, and Lewes, one problem of subjectivity was that it depended upon a limited set of sense perceptions—the world as small and crowded and dirty for one person, but expansive, wealthy, and well ordered for another. But the various worlds of the world could be unified only through the very subjectivity that produced the problem in the first place. For Eliot and Lewes, imagination became the key to envisioning the world as it truly was; through the scientifically grounded imagination, you could inhabit other experiences and gain a perspective from which the world did indeed resemble “one web.” The next lines demonstrate the cost of such a perspective:
Your subject, self, or self-assertive ‘I’
Turns nought but object, melts to molecules,
Is stripped from naked Being with the rest
Of those rag-garments named the Universe.
Gaining an accurate understanding of the world meant turning “your subject, self, or self-assertive ‘I’” into an “object,” allowing it to melt to “molecules” (another old word that was gaining new meanings by the late 19th century) and recognizing that much of what we think of as the “Universe” is simply “named”—reality is covered by the “rag-garments” of language. Eliot’s poem contains, as her novels also do, the seeds of a nearly postmodern understanding of self and world: as things composed of language, made of perspectives, and so inherently unstable.
But the poem keeps turning, anticipating possible rebuttals and counterarguments. Fighting against such a conception of the cosmos means foregrounding the “Ego” by making it nearly godlike, the “weaver of the etherial light” in line 15. Here “etherial” points backward, to its older meaning as the heavens. Eliot, after her early battle translating Richard Strauss’s Life of Jesus, no longer believed in the divinity of God. Attempting to account for “Space, motion, solids & the dream of Time” with God, a creation of the human “Ego,” can’t account for line 17’s “Being looking from the dark.” As a system that explained everything, religion couldn’t explain individual consciousness, the reasons we all experience our “bubble-worlds” of “sense, pleasure, pain” in unique ways. But the poem doesn’t seem quite certain that science can explain them either. “What are they,” the speaker finally asks in the poem’s penultimate line, “but a shifting otherness / Phantasmal flux of moments?“ Lewes ultimately believed in the self as the product of a set of relationships, and Eliot’s novels are well noted for the ways in which they demonstrate how individuals are shaped by their communities. The interaction between a “self” and its “surroundings” was, for Eliot and Lewes, linked to their understanding of the interaction between an “organism” and its “medium”—each made the other, and in doing so made itself. Eliot’s poem ends with a gesture toward that idea of unity between subject and object, but after the near-technical precision of the poem’s earlier language clashes with the imprecision of phrases like “shifting otherness” and “Phantasmal flux.” The poem’s word choice seems to demonstrate that the world remains mysterious, even as it acts upon “Being.” The poem’s rhymes and end-words mimic its struggle with explicability: full rhymes occur at huge intervals and across paired words, like “atom-whirl” with “bubble-world”; chains of near-rhymes get set up—“light,” “Time,” “pain”—and yet nothing quite matches, not even the final pair, “otherness” and “moments.” There are aural similarities, but nothing as tidy as perfect end rhymes. Its three sentences are crammed with clauses and all manner of punctuation, and inside them is an intricate argument in the form of a question about the self that’s posed to no one. Part of the reason the poem feels so “modern,” I suspect, is because it demonstrates one of the main tenets of modernism, and later postmodernism: its form reflects its content.
George Eliot noted to one of her many correspondents her struggle to “make certain ideas thoroughly incarnate” in her work, always careful that the thought would never “lapse anywhere from the picture to the diagram.” And in her essay “Notes on Form in Art,” she makes a distinction between poetry and poetic form: “Poetry begins when passion weds thought by finding expression in an image; but Poetic Form begins with a choice of elements, however meagre, as the accordant expression of emotional states.” One of the strangest poems Eliot ever wrote, “I Grant You Ample Leave” addresses the full range of Eliot’s formal concerns: how to incarnate an idea, how to wed passion and thought, how to develop an emotional state, and finally, how to be beautiful. For above all, “I Grant You Ample Leave” is a beautiful-sounding poem, and its lines are easily remembered, if not memorized without much effort. And yet, the short shock of this unpublished poem brings into relief the full brunt of Eliot’s undertaking, her determination to feel deeply, clearly, and honestly, and to convey that feeling in her art. Poets are often accused of writing “poets’ novels”—short on plot, long on language. And while Eliot’s odd fragment couldn’t be called a “novelist’s poem,” the broadness of its reach and the inventiveness of its form do call to mind the heft and weight of her novels. But, as Eliot herself said, “What is fiction other than an arrangement of events or feigned correspondences according to predominant feeling? We find what destiny pleases; we make what pleases us—or what we think will please others.” Whether she wrote it to please herself or another, thank goodness George Eliot also wrote poetry.
Hannah Brooks-Motl was born in Wisconsin and earned an MFA at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of the poetry collections The New Years (2014) and M (2015). Her criticism has appeared in the Kenyon Review Online and The New Republic/The Book, among other places. With Stephen Burt...