News & Notes

The “Unified Volume Theory” & Mathilde Blind’s Late Poetry

While annotating Mathilde Blind’s last three volumes of poetry for the Jewelled Tortoise series of fin-de-siècle texts, I was struck by the ways in which Blind structured each book so that the whole is greater than (or extends the implications of) the sum of its separate parts. Below are slightly revised passages from my introduction to Mathilde Blind: Selected Fin-de-Siecle Poetry and Prose that describe her arrangement of the poems in volume (for a more detailed discussion, complete with full citations, see the entire “Introduction” on pages 1-46).

The Ascent of Man (1889)

The Ascent of Man consists of three sections–the title poem, “Poems of the Open Air,” and “Love in Exile.” The poems in the latter two sections exist in an implicitly dialogical relationship to the title poem. Most of the verses in “Poems of the Open Air” hearken back to (and elicit nostalgia for) a pre-Darwinian conception of nature (as the epigraph from Coleridge that heads the section suggests). In so doing they invite the reader to confront the epistemic shifts that occurred in the long nineteenth century when pantheistic visions of nature gave way to scientific perspectives. As Blind put it in Shelley’s View of Nature Contrasted with Darwin’s, she and her late-century contemporaries were forced to acknowledge “the oppression, strife, and cruelty, which seem to pervade all organic beings according to that dread law formulated by Darwin: ‘Let the strongest live and the weakest die”’ (p. 243). The sequence of poems in the ‘Love in Exile’ section, which includes twenty numbered poems subtitled ‘Songs’ followed by four individually titled lyrics, registers this seismic cultural shift through intimate expressions of personal loss. This section begins with an epigraph from Tennyson’s In Memoriam A. H. H. (1850), whose famous phrase “Nature, red in tooth and claw” anticipated the troubling implications of Darwin’s theory. Tennyson’s poem grieves both the loss of a loved one and of faith in a benign universe, and thus Blind’s allusion to Tennyson in the final section of The Ascent of Man is doubly appropriate. The lyrics in “Love in Exile” give voice to feelings of isolation, exile, and unrequited love that echo those of Tennyson’s lyric speaker. They also implicitly link these personal griefs to broader cultural dislocations engendered by an increasingly naturalistic world view.

Dramas in Miniature (1891)

This volume is divided into two sections, the first labelled “Dramas in Miniature” and the second “Lyrics.” By subsuming both her “dramatic” and “lyric” poems in a volume titled Dramas in Miniature, Blind is intentionally blurring the distinction between these two poetic genres. In effect, she is inviting her readers to think of all these poems as what Monique Morgan calls “‘lyric narrative hybrids.” Isobel Armstrong’s concept of the ‘double poem’ is also relevant here — a poem in which the speaker’s utterance is always also “the object of analysis and critique. It is, as it were, reclassified as drama in the act of being literal lyric expression.” In this regard it is worth noting that its position as the last “drama” of the first section allows “Scherzo” to function as a kind of bridge to the “lyrics” that make up the second. A monodrama of female erotic desire, ‘Scherzo’ in one sense fully embraces the Romantic tradition of direct subjective expression. It begins with a direct expression of the speaker’s desire for the presence of a lover: “Oh, beloved, come and bring | All the flowery wealth of spring!” (p. 172). But in the second half of the poem, this speaker relates the story of Diana’s love for Endymion as a way of validating this desire. Blind thus makes use of narrative and dramatic elements that serve to “objectify” the speaker’s lyric effusion.

As Carol Christ notes, Victorian (and Modernist) poets reacted against the subjectivity they associated with Romanticism “by attempting to objectify the materials of poetry,” often turning to “structures of myth and history which provide a narrative that contains and gives significance to personalities.” Of the fifteen “lyrics” in the volume three are narratives or include narrative elements; one (“A Child’s Fancy”) contains dialogue; and many rely on metaphorical indirection to express the speaker’s feelings, from the use of vividly detailed landscape tableaux, to comparisons of the speakers to sleepwalkers, Tantalus, even a viola d’amore. Furthermore, the lyrics in this section employ a wide array of metrical patterns and verse forms, including iambic and trochaic dimeter, trimeter, tetrameter, and pentameter; quatrains, quintets, sexains, octets, and Spenserian stanzas, which foreground the formal qualities of each poem. Indeed, one of these lyrics, a sonnet, is titled “Sonnet,” verbally objectifying its form.

This “Sonnet” alludes to Shakespeare’s sonnet 18, whose speaker assures his beloved that “thy eternal summer shall not fade” thanks to his immortalizing verse, which will live “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see.” The speaker in Blind’s sonnet, seeking to “shield” the beloved “from time’s fraying wear and tear,” asks “How save you, fairest, but to set you where | Mortality kills death in deathless art?” (p. 176).  Like many of the “lyrics” in the section, this poem registers Blind’s acute awareness of the tradition of English lyric poetry in which she is writing. Some ten months before she published Dramas in Miniature, Blind’s friend and fellow poet Edmund Gosse published the essay “Is Verse in Danger?” Gosse writes that contemporary poets are so haunted by the poets of the past that the “activity of the dead is paramount and threatens to paralyse original writing altogether,” adding that many “suggest that poetry has had its reign, its fascinating and imperial tyranny, and that it must now make way for the democracy of prose.” But Gosse goes on to assert the vitality of verse, and speculates that the “poetry of the future” will represent more successfully than fiction the nature of human consciousness, those “ephemeral shades of emotion which prose scarcely ventures to describe,” those “divisions and revulsions of sensation, ill-defined desires, gleams of intuition and the whole gamut of spiritual notes descending from exultation to despair.” Because “untroubled by the necessity of formulating a creed, a theory, or a story,” this poetry “will describe with delicate accuracy, and under a veil of artistic beauty, the amazing, the unfamiliar, and even the portentous phenomena which it encounters.” Gosse could here be describing the poems in Dramas in Miniature.

Birds of Passage: Songs of the Orient and Occident (1895)

Birds of Passage is divided into five sections: “Prelude,” “Songs of the Orient,” “Songs of the Occident,” “Shakespeare Sonnets,” and “Miscellaneous Pieces.” Because of its musical connotations, “Prelude” may seem to apply only to the second and third sections. In fact, it frames the entire volume, both in its imagery and themes. Most importantly, the literal avian migration that is the controlling imagery in the poem — the “passage” from one region to another, followed by a return — becomes a metaphor for a cosmopolitan vision and a transnational impulse the entire volume embraces. So too does the poem’s celebration of the “undaunted wing” of the birds’ journeys as they “face the fluctuant storm‐winds and the elemental night” express the volume’s embrace of both imaginative risk-taking and acceptance of fate. The final stanza of the “Prelude,” with its reminder of personal mortality, anticipates the final two poems in the volume’s final section. The “Prelude,” along with the poems “Rest” and “Mystery of Mysteries,” are fittingly valedictory expressions of Blind’s antitheism and aestheticism (she died a year after this volume appeared), and a reminder that, like her friend Helen Zimmern, she was a close reader of Nietzsche. Nietzsche expressed his conception of amor fati (love of fate) in terms that describe the sensibility everywhere apparent in Birds of Passage: “I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who make things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth! I do not want to wage war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse those who accuse. Looking away shall be my only negation. And all in all and on the whole: some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer” (from The Gay Science, originally published in 1887 as Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, and sometimes translated as The Joyful Wisdom or The Joyous Science)

Mathilde Blind: Selected Fin-de-Siècle Poetry and Prose now available

I am delighted to announce the publication of Mathilde Blind: Selected Fin-de-Siècle Poetry and Prose — an annotated edition of the three major volumes of poetry Mathilde Blind published between 1889 and 1895 (The Ascent of Man, Dramas in Miniature and Birds of Passage: Songs of the Orient and Occident). This new edition also contains several of Blind’s reviews; her essay “Shelley’s View of Nature Contrasted with Darwin’s”; and reviews of Blind’s writing by Arthur Symons, Arnold Bennett, and Edith Nesbit, among others. It is available in both hardback and paperback.

My sincere thanks to series editors Catherine Maxwell and Stefano Evangelista for their support, expert guidance, and close readings; Simon Davies for his superb copy editing; and Gerard Lowe, Senior Publishing Manager for the Modern Humanities Research Association for guiding this project through all stages of writing, revision and production.

Mathilde Blind Selected  Poetry and Prose

Rough Crossings: The Transatlantic Fate of Elizabeth Robins Pennell’s Life of Mary Wollstonecraft

Elizabeth Robin Pennell: Critical Essays

It took two years from submission to publication, but my essay on Elizabeth Robins Pennell’s biography of the pioneering feminist Mary Wollstonecraft is finally in print. It is featured in a new collection of essays on Pennell published by Edinburgh University Press titled Elizabeth Robins Pennell: Critical Essays, edited by Dave Buchanan and Kimberly Morse Jones. The volume appeared in April 2021.

As my essay argues, Pennell’s biography is actually two books. The first, published by the American firm of Roberts Brothers, appeared in 1884 under the title The Life of Mary Wollstonecraft. When the English publisher W. H. Allen bought the rights to publish an edition of the biography in England the following year, editor John H. Ingram “cut it down to our limit, viz. about two thirds of original size.” He did so without consulting with Pennell about these cuts. He also changed the title (to Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin) so as to subsume Wollstonecraft’s name under her husband’s surname. In response, Pennell took to the social media of her time — the letters section of the Athenaeum — to excoriate Ingram and disown this bowdlerized edition. “Though my name is on the title page, the book is not mine as I wrote it, and as it appeared in the American edition.”

And thereby hangs a fascinating, complicated tale. The book in which this tale appears is now available for online ordering, but here is a summary of my focus and thesis:

My essay analyzes Elizabeth Robins Pennell’s first book — the Life of Mary Wollstonecraft. I discuss its troubled passage into print in England, its equally troubled reception history, and how these troubles illuminate two larger, interrelated cultural phenomena. The first is the rise of professional women writers in the Victorian era, and their struggles with the male-dominated publishing industry, which Pennell’s experiences, especially with C. Kegan Paul and Ingram, exemplify. A related phenomenon—which the subject of Pennell’s first book renders inextricable from the first—is the turn to the republican politics and aesthetics of Romanticism among many late-century intellectuals and artists. Mary Wollstonecraft is central to both developments. She served as an inspiration to women of various political orientations seeking to gain agency and autonomy by the pen; she also inspired those who shared her radical ideas of social change. Since Pennell did not share Wollstonecraft’s radicalism, her biography met with far more resistance than she anticipated in its journey from Boston to London. It appeared in England at a time when women were in the process of wresting the narrative of Wollstonecraft’s life and work from the firm grip of male writers and editors who sought to make Wollstonecraft safe for the patriarchy, God, and country. Three radical women in particular—Mathilde Blind, Olive Schreiner, and Millicent Fawcett—wrote counter-narratives that to varying degrees challenged the “domestication” of Wollstonecraft, as well as Pennell’s role in this process. Pennell’s biography, its reception in England, and her subsequent essays on Wollstonecraft and the Woman Question offer a remarkable window on the contentious gender politics of late-Victorian England. 

Mine is one of 12 commissioned pieces on various facets of Pennell’s writing career, including these notable essays:

  • “The Modern Woman as a ‘Scholar-Gypsy’: Elizabeth Robins Pennell’s To Gipsyland,” by Holly A. Laird
  • “The Gourmand as Essayist: Irony and Style in the Culinary Essays of Elizabeth Robins Pennell,” by Alex Wong
  • “The Curious Appetite of Elizabeth Robins Pennell,” by Alice McLean
  • “Elizabeth Robins Pennell as Early Champion of Popular Art,” by Kimberly Morse Jones
  • “At the Museum comme a l’ordinaire’: Elizabeth Robins Pennell and Exhibition Culture,” by Meaghan Clarke
  • “Elizabeth Robins Pennell’s War-time Prose: Nights and The Lovers,” by Jane S. Gabin

Molly Youngkin reviews Mathilde Blind: Late-Victorian Culture and the Woman of Letters

I am grateful to Molly Youngkin for her thoughtful, detailed review of Mathilde Blind: Late-Victorian Culture and the Woman of Letters for The Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies (vol. 29, Fall 2020, pp. 102-06). Her first paragraph succinctly summarizes my major goals in writing the book:

This . . . biography of the politically radical woman aesthete Mathilde Blind is important for several reasons. It changes the way we think about aestheticism, since it shows how women such as Blind were central in aesthetic circles that have been traditionally presented as male dominated, and it characterizes aestheticism as more politically aware than has typically been acknowledged. In addition, it provides a more nuanced view of the relationship between the New Woman and male decadents by indicating the complex relations between New Women such as Blind and decadents such as Arthur Symons. Finally, it adds significantly to our awareness of how literary criticism about the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley developed, since Blind (who wrote in a variety of genres, but is known primarily for her poetry) contributed significantly to this development in the 19th century.

My thanks to Professor Youngkin and The Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies for this review.

Uncollected letters from Mathilde Blind

Today a new section of the website has been added, featuring letters from Mathilde Blind to various correspondents. The first of these, in chronological order, is her first known letter to her contemporary and friend Lucy Madox Rossetti (see excerpt above), part of Oscar Wilde scholar Michael Seeney’s personal collection of late-Victorian literary manuscripts. 

The next set of excerpts come from a series of letters Blind wrote in 1873 to her friend Richard Garnett, then Assistant Keeper of Books in the British Library, while on an extended visit to the Hebrides archipelago on the west coast of Scotland. These letters are of particular interest because three of Blind’s poems–“The Prophecy of St. Oran,” The Heather on Fire, and “The Ascent of Man,” drew inspiration from this trip.

The 1889 letter is the only known letter from Blind to Lady Wilde, Oscar Wilde’s mother, born Jane Francesca Agnes in 1821 (she became Lady Wilde in 1864, when her husband, the surgeon Dr. William Wilde, was knighted for his involvement with recording births and deaths in Ireland). This letter is also reproduced thanks to the generosity of Michael Seeney, who has granted me permission to publish it here along with the letter to Lucy Rossetti.

The individual letters and excerpts:

Dispatches from the Isle of Skye, August-September 1873

Visiting Fingal’s Cave, September 1873

Visiting Iona, the setting of “The Prophecy of St. Oran,” September 1873

Mathilde Blind’s first letter to Lucy Rossetti, 15 July 1875

Letter to Lady Wilde, 9 May 1889