I — Introduction
“The Name Mathilde Blind was once — very long ago — familiar...” So began the post card which I received from George Bernard Shaw in answer to a communication, requesting information. Although it seemed so long ago to Mr. Shaw, it was no more than a century ago that that name was familiar to all students of English literature and, in fact, to all those who read the poetry of Swinburne, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Rossetti, and William Morris. Yet the names of the latter have remained among those of poetry’s immortals, while the mere mention of Mathilde Blind produces a raised, questioning eyebrow, even in the ranks of those who know poetry. In her own time, the late nineteenth century, she was admired and praised, as a survey of newspaper reports and critical analysis of the day reveals. A study of her available works further reveals that that admiration was not misplaced.
The late Victorian era turned out to be an era of wonders — wonders of power, science, invention, and imaginative fertility; a period of humanity, free thought, political, social, and artistic reform. Mathilde Blind felt the vibrations of her time, and she reflected them more than reflected — translated them into art. So she becomes a symbol, not only of the development which was taking place during her own span of years (her ideas, like those of all true artists, were beyond her generation), but all of the years that followed, and even today her work assumes added significance and vitality, for she represents our own struggles toward freedom. It is for this reason that Mathilde Blind is worth resurrecting from the literary oblivion into which she does not deserve to have fallen. She has a message for our world. Although she never suffered from poverty, she became the spokesperson for poor exploited people. Their problems became her own. She felt them as only a sympathetic artist can feel, and she regarded it as her mission to raise her voice in her own medium, writing, to help cure the political and economic ills which degrade humanity and deter man in his march toward perfection. In the prelude to her greatest and longest work, The Ascent of Man, she states that mission:
Ascend, oh my Soul, on the wings of the wind as it blows,
Striking wild organ-blasts from the forest trees,
Or on the zephyr bear love of the rose to the rose,
Or with the hurricane sower cast seed as he goes
Limitless ploughing the leagues of the sibilant seas.
Ascend, oh my Soul, on the wings of the choral strain,
Invisible tier above tier upbuilding sublime;
Note as it scales after note in a rhythmical chain
Reaching from chaos and welter of struggle and pain,
Far into vistas empyreal receding from time.
Ascend! take wing on the thoughts of the Dead, my Soul,
Breathing in color and stone, flashing through epic and song:
Thoughts that like avalanche and snows gather force as they roll,
Mighty to fashion and knead the phenomenal throng
Of generations of men as they thunder along.
How high her ambitions soared! “But Time’s revenges are often apt to startle one,” she once said when speaking of the celebration of Shelley’s centenary in a church at Horsham. Indeed, if her own spirit returned, it would be startled to discover that almost no one knew her name. It is a duty, however, to unearth these spirits whom mankind needs so desperately to inspire him, and since the ocean tides change with the addition of a drop of water, this brief biography may aid the soul of Mathilde Blind in fulfilling its destiny.
II — Mathilde Blind, New Woman
The term New Woman denotes for most people a blatant female who made herself conspicuous and absurd by going about demanding her rights, denouncing man as her natural enemy, affecting a queer kind of dress and manners, and generally transforming herself into as unlovely and unfeminine an object as nature would permit.
In the Victorian era, the New Women were described as “blue,” a term which usually brought up the vision of an angular female, “sitting stiff and straight with her wonderfully undeceptive ‘false front’ of (somebody else’s) black hair, graced on either side by four sausage looking curls ... spectacles on nose, and dictionary in hand.” To be reputed “blue” seriously impaired a young lady’s chances for marriage. Men did not care for learned wives. The epithet “peculiar” was afterwards added to “blue”.
Mrs. Edwards, in her novel The Blue Stocking, published in 1880, puts into the mouth of one of her characters a description of the New Woman as she appeared to a considerable number of her contemporaries:
The modern Blue Stocking acknowledges few things that cannot be weighed in the balance or observed in the spectroscope. Of your own soul, if you are weak enough to fancy you possess one, she will tell you that it is but a distillation through the vegetable and animal worlds from inorganic matter. She talks familiarly of atoms, molecules, and the argument from experience. She wears her hair, if she is pretty, in a fringe upon her forehead, and invariable writes humanity with a big H.
The real New Woman was a being of a far higher order and a finer imagination.
She was the woman who saw that she had no reasonable chance of contributing her best to the world’s welfare and happiness, who courageously and hopefully stepped off the beaten track and forced a way through the thick growth of prejudices and established custom to the open regions where free development was possible. She did not regard herself as a martyr, but simply as a woman trying to show the world that a woman could do a piece of work and do it well. As for appearance, there are extremists in any movement, who easily can be caricatured. The majority did not follow that stereotyped pattern. The true New Woman was by no means a member of a majority.
Unfortunately, it is always a small minority which courageously dares to defy the prejudices of the day for a faith. Most women of the day were reading Mrs. Ellis’ Women of England Series and faithfully following its precepts. In her book, which attained a great popularity, Mrs. Ellis wrote:
The first thing of importance is to be content to be inferior to men — inferior in mental power in the same proportion that you are inferior in bodily strength.
This being so, woman must not expect or desire any great advantages in education. As to the duties of a wife, she wrote:
It is the privilege of a married woman to be able to show by the most delicate attentions how much she feels her husband’s superiority to herself - not by mere personal services ... but by respectful deference to his opinion, and a willingly composed silence when he speaks.
Woman was supposed to be a domestic servant and haloed saint. According to Christopher Kirkland, “Women’s Rights were man’s lefts.” The New Women were ridiculed by many, but the sincere idealist was not frightened or deterred. She answered:
Dare to be learned, dare to be blue,
Ours is a work that no others can do.
It is undoubtedly true that the fact that Queen Victoria was on the throne, an active woman who took an active part in government, insisted on her rights, and did the workof a man, had a stimulating and inspiring effect on the more intelligent women of England.
It does not matter that Victoria denounced the forward-looking woman. In 1800, she wrote to Mrs. Theodore Martin: “The Queen is most anxious to enlist everyone who can speak or write to join in checking the mad, wicked folly of Woman’s Rights, with all its attendant horrors, on which her poor feeble sex is bent, forgetting every sense of womanly feeling
She did not follow, by example her own beliefs. Instead she encouraged, by her example, the eager, rebellious innovators. Said Punch in 1850 when a question as to who should succeed Wordsworth as Poet Laureate was being discussed: “Hasn’t somebody said that a woman ought to have the place - especially as a woman wears the crown?”
The ambitions of the New Woman varied. One desired education equality; another, free entrance to the learned professions; a third, a share in the government of the country; a fourth, removal of conventional restrictions laid on women with regard to dress, manners, and mode of living. A fifth clamored for a new code of female morality. From the workings of the forces striving for these rights, emerged the New Woman. Mathilde Blind may be said to have embodied the New Woman in her entirety. She had all of the ambitions named above, and on one occasion she expressed her desires for the privileges and advantages of men as follows:
I did not, as most girls seemed to do, take our position for granted. I used to startle my school fellows by asking why we should not go to Universities, enter professions, have votes and sit in Parliament. I think the strongest desire of my life at that time was for independence - not to be hampered in my development by custom or convention. Life was a daily renewed fight with the prejudices of those around me. Yet, though I was nick-named Donna Quixote, most of my girlish notions as to Woman’s Rights are one by one being realized.
The New Woman that Mathilde Blind represented was a woman of intellect and culture who loved books. Keenly interested in scientific and theological questions, she studied the emerging theories which were so exciting at that time. She also studied politics with enthusiasm and read with delight and gratitude John Stuart Ellis’s article in the Westminster Review, and woman’s right to vote at all political elections she vigorously and convincingly maintained.
In 1869 John Stuart Mill wrote his pamphlet of some hundred pages which he called The Subjection of Women. Its purpose, he said, was to show “that the principle which regulates the existing social relations between the two sexes - the legal subordination of one sex to the other - is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement, and that it ought to be replaced by a principle of perfect equality, admitting no power or privilege on the one side nor disability on the other.”
The argument was clear, logical, and closely reasoned, and the case for those women who wished to enter the professions and occupations hitherto reserved for men was put with vigor:
Let us consider women only as they already are and as they are known to have been; and their capacities which they have already shown. What they have done, that at least, if nothing else, it is proved that they can do. When we consider how nebulously they are trained away from, insteadof being trained towards, any of the occupations or objects reserved for men, it is evident that I am taking a very humble ground for them, when I rest their case on what they have actually achieved. For in this case, negative evidence is worth little, while positive evidence is conclusive. It cannot be inferred to be impossible that a woman should be a Homer, or an Aristotle, or a Michelangelo, or a Beethoven, because no woman has actually produced works comparable to theirs in any of those lines of excellence. This negativefact at most leaves the question uncertain and open to psychological discussion. But it is quite certain that a woman can be a Queen Elizabeth, or a Deborah, or a Joan of Arc since this is not inference but fact. Now it is a curious consideration that the only things which the existing law excludes women from doing are things which they have proved that they are able to do. There is no law to prevent a woman from having written all the plays of Shakespeare or composed all the operas of Mozart. But Queen Elizabeth or Queen Victoria, had they not inherited the throne, could not have ben entrusted with the smallest of the political duties of which the former showed herself equal to the greatest.
The New Woman welcomed this pamphlet with joy. It is exciting to note how Mathilde Blind received it. “You may imagine how I hailed the appearance of John Stuart Mill’s Subjection of Women,” she told Frederick James Gould. “I read it one night from beginning to end, and day dawned when I closed this book whichis one of the milestones in the history of our development.” The New Women also read eagerly the social and political novels of Disraeli, Dickens, Kingsley, George Eliot, and Mrs. Gaskell. They wanted to know the ugly facts of life which had been kept from them.
They also read Darwin and Huxley in Science. As Mathilde Blind told Mr. Gould: “Darwin naturally became the chief mental factor in my development, as in that of the whole thinking world. No doubt, our century will be known in the future as the Darwinian Age. It has seen the greatest revolt in our view of the universe and man’s position in it that the world has yet seen.” They eagerly responded to Huxley’s plea in his address to the Royal Society in 1860, in which he said: on The Physical Basis of Life.
The Origin of the Species is not the first and it will not be the last of the great questions born of Science which will demand settlement from this generation. The general mind is seething strangely, and to those who watch the signs of the times, it seems plain that this nineteenth century will see revolution of thought and practice as great as those which the sixteenth witnessed … That depends on how you, the public, deal with Science; cherish her, venerate her, follow her methods faithfully and implicitly in their application to all branches of human thought, and the future of this people will be greater than the past.
It must be said that Mathilde Blind was not a member of any formal women’s group which was fighting actively for educational, social, and political equality. She may, nevertheless, be called a New Woman in that she lectured, wrote articles, and even left her fortune to Newnham College for the furthering of educational opportunities for women. She also saw the injustices of her day and wanted a share in correcting them. She understood the intellectual and scientific developments of her time and wanted a share in furthering their advance. She could write, she could speak, she could discover, she could teach, and she wanted an opportunity to utilize her talents. Those were the ideals of the New Woman. Mathilde Blind was one in the true and full sense of the term. She was a courageous pioneer.
III — Her Girlhood
Theodore Waats-Dunton, the famous critic and editor, when asked for an impression of Mathilde Blind, said of her, “I do not remember that she ever talked with me upon any subject that was not connected with poetry or art or science, or those great issues of the human story about which she thought so deeply and felt so keenly.” Those few words tell a great deal about Mathilde Blind and what she stood for. Was it accident that made her outstanding in talent and sent her thoughts soaring in the direction of progress for humanity? By no means! Her background, the influences, the people who surrounded her in early life, and the circumstances of that life, molded the thinker and poet in Mathilde.
Her childhood and adolescence were spent in an atmosphere of intellectual and political revolutionaries . Although her own father was a retired, elderly banker named Cohen, who died soon after she was born, her mother, a woman of great charm, liveliness, imagination, and beauty, remarried. Her second husband was the famous writer and radical Karl Blind, close friend of Garibaldi and Mazzini. Mathilde assumed his name.
Born in Germany on March 21, 1841, Mathilde came into a world of external peace, pervaded, however, by an inner political discontent. When Mathilde was seven years old, the French Revolution of February 1848 burst into flame. Germany caught the fire of the revolution, and various moments for freedom which were developing in different parts of that country rose to the surface. In the Grand Duchy of Baden, where the family of Karl Blind lived, there was an uprising. As an ardent republican, Blind threw himself into the forefront of the struggle and became one of the leaders of the Baden insurrection. He was arrested and imprisoned for his activities, but a mass movement for his release was organized, and the authorities were forced to free him. In 1849 a republic was formed and Blind was dispatched to represent it in Paris. However, by this time reaction had triumphed in Vienna and Berlin, and the Prince of Prussia, afterwards Emperor William I, put down the revolution in the Grand Duchy of Baden. Karl Blind and his family took refuge in Belgium, but he was forced to leave in 1852, and so, accompanied by his wife, step-children, and two infants of his own, he sought asylum in England. The exiles established themselves in St. John’s Wood, and their home became a center for political discussion where many well-known political refugees gathered. Mathilde was now eleven years old.
It can readily be seen how the thoughts of the child early turned to politics.
The conversation of visitors to the house - men of self-sacrificing patriotism, high ideals, and high achievement - must have stimulated her imagination and endowed her with a premature knowledge of the world, its ideas and ideals, not known to most girls of that period and of her age. Independence was conspicuous in Mathilde. After all, had not all circumstances blended to nurture it - the estrangement from her native land; the devotion with which her mother, attentive to her intellectual development, kept ordinary cares away from her; the general atmosphere of revolt which must pervade a family of political refugees? Admiration in such a household was for “audacity in enterprise, fortitude in adversity, enthusiasm of self-sacrificing patriotism…anything breathing unconquerable defiance of the powers that were.”
From the incomplete manuscript of her autobiography we discover some interesting facts about her schooling and early thinking. Her first schools were in Belgium. The first schools she attended in England she found very unsatisfactory. Her most reliable education came from her mother, although she states that from twelve to fourteen “I acted as my own teacher.”
Later we find Mathilde in a little school in St. John’s Wood. The mistress of the school is a clergyman’s widow, bringing up a family in narrow circumstances. She has
curled sandy hair, a washed-out complexion and pale grey eyes which gaze on the world through very dim spectacles. She spends her time meditating on the Millennium and composing an interpretation on the prophesies of Daniel. My friends and I spend much of our time here in writing novels and verses, in editing a journal and in acting Dickens.
From the autobiography from which the above quotation is taken, we receive an excellent picture of the environment; so good in fact that we are transported there momentarily. She wrote:
Whenever I think of that house, I am again conscious of the atmosphere that pervaded it. A scent of sandalwood and lavender is faintly perceptible. The partially drawn blinds diffuse a yellow half-light. The air, stealing through an open window, puffs out the white muslin curtains; lilac bushes and clematis cling to the walls outside. A girl sits at the piano with smooth, light brown hair slightly puffed on either side of her face like a dove’s wings. She is playing Mendelssohn’s ‘Songs Without Words’. The whole place breathes purity and peace. Girls in fresh spotless gowns move about the rooms. In the evening, quick steps and fresh young voices break on the stillness when the men return from the city; brothers and cousins - mostly tall and handsome, bringing with them a sense of life and movement.
The girl at the piano was Amy. She and her sister Veronica became intimate friends of the young Mathilde.
When Veronica was confirmed, Mathilde’s thoughts, never before concerned with religion, (in her own house, only ‘free thought’ was tolerated), suddenly turned to theology. A friend had lent her a Bible, and Mathilde found herself in a new world. She went through a trying period, became converted to a belief in religion, and then later, when a counter influence in the form of a new friend, Blanche, made itself, she discarded religion in favor of ‘free thought’.
After a detailed account of her religious experience, we find a gap in her autobiography. We meet Mathilde next in 1859 at Zurich in the home of her uncle, Mr. Ries. With the courage of an independent and energetic person, she attempted a walking tour alone, through Switzerland. She was only eighteen years old at the time. Most girls were being educated on Mrs. Ellis’s book, learning to drop their gaze before gentlemen. Her attempt was certainly a most unusual feat for a young girl at that time. Her great and keen enjoyment, however, of the wildest aspects of nature compensated her for the unavoidable difficulties so young and inexperienced a traveler was certain to encounter. She tells of having to instill respect for her sex on one occasion into an “impertinent man” by “boxing his ears.” Her money gave out before her journey was ended. She was forced to exist on chocolate, and just as her chocolate was giving out, destiny placed some English friends in her path. They were good enough to give her some money and “saw me to the station, and took my ticket for Zurich, for they declared I could not be trusted out of their sight until settled on the train. Otherwise I might, perhaps, turn up in the Caucasus. For I had great hankerings after that region, having heard from a traveler I met in Grundelwald that its mountain scenery far surpassed the Alps.”
With the fervor and sensitivity of a poet, Mathilde loved the Alps:
For once I felt truly free. My body, pliant to my soul, moved rhythmically to the sound of the rushing streams. The sky, of a deep sapphire, was alive with clouds, high, white clouds, changing chameleon-like as the sun and wind touched their ethereal substance. Sometimes they stood on tiptoe on top of a mountain peak like colombines balancing themselves on the shoulders of a giant. Innumerable waterfalls came rushing from invisible glaciers sometimes in a broad torrent that dashed foaming down to the streams - sometimes in a soft froth, like the milk with which the Alps, those mothers of Europe were feedingthe land. A very few things in life have exceeded my expectations. The Alps, aglow like mountains of roses round a heavenly Jerusalem, receding range beyond range into airierinfinitudes of light, a vision like the last part of Beethoven’s ninth symphony turned into visible form, and beckoning something deep down usually ignored or apparently non-existent in some depth of being below an habitual consciousness - something latent within leaping up, irresistibly yearning to that glorified region as if they two belonged to each other from everlasting to everlasting. What a sensation, momentary and yet to be kept through life as one of its treasures.
“It was a great leap,” she writes, “from the school room to the group of brilliant revolutionaries with whom, a week or two after my arrival, I was on the most intimate terms. So many witty, original, fascinating, dare-devil spirits as formed Madame Helder’s (Herwegh’s) circle, it is rare to meet together…”
Unfortunately, the next few chapters are lost. Next we read of her acquaintance with Kune Fischer and his wife, who had been brought up as a boy, knew Greek and Latin, bathed in the lake in Zurich in the winter when the ice was broken. She was an extremely well-educated woman for her day and had a great influence on Mathilde’s development. One can see them, spending long hours together, reading Latin poetry, and discussing political and scientific problems. Professor Fischer taught Mathilde philology, “taking the words as if they were human beings.”
IV — As Others Saw Her
Although one tiny photograph of Mathilde Blind remains, entombed in a scholarly book, at which scarcely anyone cares to cast an eye, we are fortunate that two people who knew her, left word descriptions.
“I wish I could chat all the chats again with ... silver penned ... gentle Miss Mathilde Blind, whose picturesque verse, alas! was untimely cut short, “ says Gould nostalgically, in his preface.
A more complete description comes from the account of the daughter of Ferdinand Freiligrath who wrote:
Mathilde Blind takes a permanent place in my girlhood life although she was several years older than I was. But our tastes and inclinations drew us together, and we had great talks on literature - that is to say, she talked and I listened - and I well remember how I looked up with admiration as she quoted Goethe and Schiller or commented on the wit and beauty of Heine. She was - at the time I am speaking of, at about the end of the fifties, well-grounded in German literature, from which afterwards, she rather drifted away. She had already commenced writing poetry, and I remember one evening when we were dining at Dr. and Mrs. Althaus’s, that she was requested to read a poem of her own. I also recollect the interest with which my father listened to the fair young poetess, as she read or recited a poem, redolent of moorland and heather. We often met at the house of mutual friends, and I was always impressed by the range of talk which Mathilde Blind easily covered. But there was one side to her nature as I knew her then, which perhaps subsequent friends will not so easily recognize in the Mathilde Blind of later years. I mean her passion for dancing. Youth is the time for dancing and I was fond of it myself, but I think I never saw anyone so absorbed by it for the time and hour as was Mathilde Blind. I had plenty of opportunities for noting this, for we sometimes had small carpet dances to which Mathilde was asked as a bright and particular star; or she would give a similar entertainment, or we would meet at some German public ball which the German Liederkrantz was wont to give annually. It is to me a pleasure to remember Mathilde Blind as she was then, nor do I recollect ever having seen more dazzling and vivid beauty than was hers. When she came into a room, were it ever so large, she would draw all eyes to her, and when, years later, I read Esmond, and came to the passage where Beatrix is described as entering the theatre and compelling all glances by her triumphant beauty, I was always reminded of Mathilde Blind. From the time of her coming into a ball-room, to the time of her leaving it, she would be besieged by numberless applicants, but I firmly believe that the homage and admiration of those boys were almost a matter of indifference to the beautiful young girl who simply danced for the enjoyment of dancing. This passionate throwing of herself into one thing with all her soul was eminently characteristic of her. She used to dress well, too, and gave thought to her raiment, which at that time, had a thread of gold hidden somewhere in its dusky masses; and her glorious eyes that were so eloquent of speech. Soon afterwards, however, Mathilde went to Germany and Switzerland and I lost sight of her for some years; and then came her long stay in Manchester with Madox Brown’s family. In her later life, I often met her again, but she was then known and admired by so large a circle of friends that our subsequent meetings as women can tell you nothing new. It is in her early girlhood and young womanhood that she stands out, a vivid memory to me for all time.
V — Garibaldi and Mazzini
A powerful stimulus to the development of Mathilde Blind was the acquaintance she enjoyed with distinguished political leaders who frequented her father’s house.
It was in 1864 that Garibaldi came to England and excited her enthusiasm. Introduced to him, she found him dignified, calm, unassuming, but deficient in the personal magnetism with which her imagination had endowed him. On rare occasions the fire flashed out. He would engage in fiery discussions on the subject of Poland (????). On one occasion he remarked that he would die rather than submit to tyrants. She records a conversation overheard between Garibaldi and Ledru-Rollin. They both agreed that they did not object to despotism so long as they were the despots. Ledru-Rollin asserted and Garibaldi agreed that the French Revolution and the Republic of 1848 perished for want of a temporary dictator.
Mazzini, a close friend of her father, Karl Blind, was her special hero. One day he reproached her with being an aristocrat, “because I had more feeling for the sufferings of celebrated people than for those of unknown persons,” she tells us in her autobiographical notes. Furthermore:
... He said I was too impatient and demanded that the aims of my life should grow up in one night like mushrooms. I ought to make myself clear about life and the world, learn to understand their plan and results in general and particular. To this end, he recommended, on the one hand, that I should carry on a serious study which should commence with astronomy, proceed to geology, and then to history from its first beginnings, in connection with philosophy, down to the present time .... On the other hand, he said that I ought to examine my own character, which task is too often neglected in the crowd of daily events, and should strive in every way to advance spiritually .... I hang with my whole soul upon his every work. I drink them all in with the same greediness with which a flower drinks in the rain.
Mazzini’s taste in scent and song is worth recording as it was noted by Mathilde. His words mirror his ascetic nature. He told her:
I do not like the smell of the rose; it is eastern, it is sensuous; there is nothing rousing or stirring in its odor.I love the smell of the lily of the valley, it is so pure and fresh; and in the jasmine, because in it the two qualities of odor are represented; there is the Eastern languishing, but also the rousing pricking essence which is needed to neutralize the first; all things that are perfect must enhance the two. I hold it quite a prejudice, this admiration of the rose and the nightingale. I love the lark far more; it is the most spiritual of birds, singing far up in the sky, and full of unutterable joy and song.
Mazzini’s influence on Mathilde was further shown by inducing her to undertake a task she hated, that of gathering for various patriotic causes.
So her social consciousness continued to be molded.
VI — Mathilde and the Pre-Raphaelites
Although Mathilde Blind’s name is not to be found in a hundred books dealing with various members of the Pre-Raphaelite group, it is nevertheless true that she was an intimate friend of many of the poets and painters connected with the group, and certainly she may have been an active participant. Undoubtedly those vital people had an influence on her own thinking. Was not Rossetti’s father also a political thinker of his day, and did not the political refugees gather in his very house? Karl Blind must often have been present, and father Rossetti must also have formed part of the active circle in the home of Blind.
Mathilde’s relationship is borne out by reference in various places to the members of the Pre-Raphaelite enthusiasts.
In the preface to her biography of George Eliot, Mathilde states that before writing the biography she visited the home of George Eliot as well as places connected with her early life. She spoke to friends and family of the author and gained easy access to them through letters given to her by William Rossetti.
Richard Garnett informs us in his preface to the Symons collection of Mathilde’s work that Mr. and Mrs. William Rossetti were her close friends. Is it not therefore likely that Gabriel and Christina were also known to her?
In her autobiographical notes, Mathilde herself mentions her relationship with Swinburne. She explains how she met Swinburne and how he used to read his poems aloud at gatherings. Surely at these meeting many others among his friends in the movement were present. In her own words:
Swinburne read to us in the evening the first part of Tristram and Iseult. I was very much struck with it; it is certainly one of the finest things he has ever written, and whenever I happen to meet Swinburne, I am struck afresh by the wonderful vitality and verve of the man’s mind. His conversation has the same bracing effect upon me in one way as sea-winds have in another, and I am conscious of a vibration after it for days and weeks together.
It was Swinburne who imbued her with an enthusiasm for Victor Hugo.
Her relationship with Ford Madox Brown and his wife leaves very little room for doubt that Mathilde was closely associated with the Pre-Raphaelites. Their home was her own for a number of years. Garnett tells us that her friendship with the painter was a beautiful one. He had great faith in Mathilde and considered her a genius. She returned the veneration. She spoke of him as being “simple and deep,” and these were two qualities which she needed. In a letter to a close friend with whom she carried on a voluminous correspondence, a Mrs. Lily Wolfsohn, she wrote:
I used to go daily to the Town Hall where Madox Brown has a tent erected in the chief room so as to protect him from the prying of passing people. At the other end of the room is a huge organ on which Mr. Pyne, the organist, practices daily. It is a wonderful instrument ... I am sure this splendid music helps to mould the picture. It seemed quite an existence apart, belonging to some higher region, to sit there and listen at twilight to the melodies of Bach and Spohr and Berlioz swelling and rolling through the great lofty hall, while two gas jets in the corner threw the colours of the fresco on which Mr. Brown is at work into strange relief.
There she also met Wilkenson and Charles Rowley, the “moving spirits of the Ancoats Brotherhood.” Mathilde was so close to Ford Madox Brown and his wife that her remains after cremation in 1896 were interred at Finchley Cemetery, near Madox Brown and his wife.
Madox Brown and Mathilde must have mutually influenced each other. His was an honest, truthful nature. He and Mathilde had a common interest, that of working for the betterment of mankind. Both were interested in the working man. He expressed his social consciousness in his painting, she in her writings. The following words of Carlyle made a deep impression on him. Is it not likely that he quoted them to Mathilde?
The spoken word, the written Poem is said to be the epitome of man. How much more the done work. Whatsoever of strength the man had in him will be written in the work he does.
Ruskin was accused, even at that time, of foul “Specialist heresy” when he wrote, “Luxury is indeed possible in the future - innocent and exquisite luxury for all and by the help of all .... Raise the veil boldly - face the light.” Brown and Mathilde took that advice. Brown’s interest in the poor was so intense that he and his wife, Emma, one dreadful winter, opened soup kitchens for the starving in their home.
His masterpiece, Work, was to be a “tribute to the millions unnamed who toiled, meagerly rewarded, often despised, though their callous hands held up the foundations of the world; to those others who created new worlds with blood and brain - only to be themselves destroyed by those whose vision they enlarged.” When the painting was completed, it occupied a whole wall. “At its center the glorified navvy, noble as a Grecian athlete, wielded his spade in a gesture of dedication, for it was for the future he was building. About him, his fellow laborers toiled or snatched a moment’s ease while at the outer circle society filed by in its ranks from wealth’s idleness to the bootless yet sweet labor of the tattered zany, clutching to himself the basket of flowers and herbs that meant his days keep. Animals and beggars, the pampered lap dog and the nondescript cur of the street Arab, the enforced idle, deadening their hunger in sleep under the embankment, told their story.”
Such were the interests of the man who was such a dear friend of Mathilde. She must have met Morris and Rossetti also when they joined with Brown in a project to produce beautiful works in the decorative arts, or when they and others of their group came to art lessons in Brown’s house.
VII — Literary Influence
What was the situation concerning women’s position when Mathilde was growing up?
“The want of ideals depressed me,” wrote Dorothea Beale, a Woman’s Rights advocate. “If I went into Society, I heard said, ‘What is the good of education for our girls? They have not to earn their living.’”
Women, as we have already noted, were not supposed to engage in literary endeavor and were often ridiculed if they did so. Mrs. Ellis, who was widely read and whose precepts were assiduously followed, wrote in her famous book that women must not expect or desire any great advantages in education. To wish to develop intellectually labelled one “peculiar.”
Mathilde rebelled against this state of affairs with her whole soul. She read voluminously, and fortunately had access to the many works in her step-father’s collection. Who were her favorites in the world of literature? Which writers shaped her thoughts and influenced her style? F. J. Gould throws some light on this phase of her development. In his interview with her, she told him that as a girl she was fond of Robinson Crusoe and other boys’ books in which the chief actors, if sometimes lacking in the cardinal virtues of her day’s fiction, were at least exciting and interesting. Her favorite was a French story of the adventures of Numa Pompillius, because the nymph, Egiria, was the inspiration of all the great things which he did. Already she was giving a hint of her later advocacy of the betterment of position of women in society. Gould noted that the early works she mentioned as having influenced her were works of the imagination, whereupon Mathilde observed, “Well, and you know Schiller’s saying that Imagination is the only thing that remains forever young.”
Who were the poets she enjoyed and followed? “The two poets who made the first indelible impression on me,” she told Gould, “were Dante and Byron .... Indeed the poets that have attempted to fashion a new world according to some ideal inherent in their own minds have always possessed a stronger attraction for me than the Greek Realists. On that account, I also loved the Visionary Blake - that inspired singer living in the prosiest part of the eighteenth century … It is not a far cry from Blake to Shelley, that exile in his century … My first literary essay was a paper at the Shelley Society comparing Shelley’s view of nature with Darwin’s .... Mrs. Browning’s Aurora Leigh gave me some of the sensation Keats has immortalized in his sonnet ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.’ But I must not speak of Mrs. Browning without alluding to her great French contemporary, George Sand. What a writer that was! What a breadth of experience! What an illimitable grace of style! Here indeed was an author who, in dealing with the sex question, grasped the problem in its entirety ....”
“And Goethe?” asked Gould.
“Of course the greatest of modern poets,” Mathilde remarked. “But that is a truism. In moving onward, the world would do well to turn to him for light and leading - ”
Gould broke in by objecting that in Faust, Goethe had employed the vehicle of
“Yes,” answered Mathilde, “but you must remember that his subject is a medieval one, and all his symbolism was a living part of the legend - the only literary garment in which he could clothe his ideas.” And what of Mathilde Blind’s interest in novels? “I was an omnivorous novel reader at one time. I now prefer the life and movement of the theatre and the concert; above all, the living romance of travel. I have been much a wanderer of late. But of all the countries, Egypt has made the profoundest impression on me. To read The Arabian Nights on the terrace of the Shepherd’s Hotel in Cairo is to become a dweller in an enchanted world where the figures moving in the streets mean the same as in the days of good Haroun al Raeschid.”
“What about English novels?” asked Mr. Gould. She replied, “You know that I have written a life of George Eliot. Her novels, at once, so true to life in their minutest detail, yet so full of philosophical grasp, have always had a strong attraction for me, though the fire and passion of Charlotte Brontë has proved more fascinating.” In the preface to her Life of George Eliot, Mathilde wrote, “There is every reason to think that women have already, and will much more largely by and by, infuse into their works certain intellectual and emotional qualities which are essentially their own.” Later, she further justified female novelists.
“Did not Fanny Burney distil the delicate aroma of girlhood in one of the most delightful of novels? Or what of Jane Austen, whose microscopic fidelity of observation has a well-nigh scientific accuracy, never equalled, unless in the pages of the author we are writing of (George Eliot) … Then turning to the Brontë, does not one feel the very heartbeats of womanhood in those powerful utterances that seem to spring from some central energy? Again, does not Mrs. Browning occupy a unique place among poets? Is there not a distinctively womanly strain of emotions in the throbbing tides of her high-wrought melodious song? And to come to George Eliot herself, will anyone deny that in the combination of sheer intellectual power with an unparalleled vision for the homely details of life, she takes precedence over all writers of this or any country?”
Mathilde told Gould that she liked long novels. “ … I like to sit down and think I shall enjoy making a writer’s acquaintance for a whole week. In a longer book, each stroke tells, and finally, you retain a lasting impression in the memory. Why do we read novels? In order that we may acquire a wider range of human experience. The great fascination of the novels lies in this - that it introduces us to many modes of life, and feeling, and thought, which otherwise we should perhaps never come in contact with.”
“Is not History a means of arriving at the same end?” asked Gould.
“Well, it enlarges our horizon in a different sense, does it not?” she asked. “We are not so much familiarized with the ways of individuals as with the working of masses of men, with the evolution of ideas through time ... though it is partly true, as a clever child once remarked when I told him to read history instead of story books, that in reading history, you never know when fact ends and fiction begins.”
As for Philosophy, she has this to say: “I never made a systematic study of it ..., I read a good deal of Kant, Schopenhauer, Spencer; Darwin naturally became the chief mental factor in my development …”
And of the essayists she recalled that “Emerson at one time had a marked influence on me. Then Pater - particularly his Renaissance essays ..., Voltaire, Renan, Strauss… I translated his Old Faith and the New into English. I also wrote the memoir which is prefixed to the third edition. To make Strauss more widely known is indeed a service to the progress of reason.”
Of plays Miss Blind proved an astute critic: “Ibsen... though admiring his genius, I consider him too much of an anatomist, who painfully lays bare skeletons which art ought to clothe with grandeur and beauty.” The Greek drama, she felt, should “purify and instruct through the sentiments of pity and terror.”
“Shakespeare… Why was England no longer merry with dance and song and maypole?” she asked and then remarked that literature had become debased into a commercial transaction; that it had lost dignity and assumed a weak and ephemeral character. It was her ideal to raise literature once again to an inspiring level.
“Literature,” she said, “should take the place of the old priesthood and assist mankind in perceiving and developing the ideal.”
It did so for her. It helped her to perceive what she felt to be Truth, and when she became capable of creating, herself, it directed her own works into the paths of the ideal. Not only did her writing have a mission - but that mission was clothed in dignity and beauty.
VIII — Life and Work Continued
On May 7, 1866, a German student, Ferdinand Cohen-Blind, declaring that Bismarck was the worst enemy of German liberty, made an attempt on his life, was caught, arrested, and imprisoned. Expressing the hope that his self-sacrifice might promote the welfare of Germany, he committed a martyr’s suicide. That was Mathilde’s brother. Richard Garnett saw her during her period of mourning and said of her, “I saw her draped in the deepest mourning and the impression of combined beauty, dignity and sorrow will never be effaced from my recollection.”
Fortunately Mathilde’s method of expressing her humane feelings was less tragic than that of her brother. She used literature as her medium. In 1867 she made her first appearance as an author. Under the pen name of Claude Lake, she had a volume of poems published. Her next work, called Blue Ogwen, was a tale for children. She gave several lectures which caused a good deal of discussion. The one which was considered most important was on the Volsunga Saga, as translated by William Morris, in May 1870.
In December 1869, she delivered a lecture on Shelley in St. George’s Hall.
This gained her the acquaintance of John Chapman, editor of the Westminster Review, and he inserted one of her articles on Shelley in the issue of the following July. The article concerned important corrections in Shelley’s text, and the most remarkable passage was an eloquent appreciation of Shelley’s Cythna as representing the ideal of emancipated and regenerated womankind. A few years later, she wrote an abridged biography of Shelley for the Tauchnitz edition. She visited Sir Percy and Lady Shelley at Boscombe and saw the Shelley relics there.
In 1871, she took a home for herself. From this point on, it is difficult to trace her life. She loved travel and went eagerly from one place to another. Garnett tells us that her health became impaired and that she had to escape the damp English winters. She had many periods of depression but always rallied. The rest of her life’s history is mainly in her writings.
Her first important work was the translation of Strauss’s The Old Faith and the New in 1873. That year also saw her first major poetical work, The Prophesy of St. Oran, a powerful work dealing with an ecclesiastical legend of the resurrection of a saint to intimate that the faith for which he died was not true. The same year also saw another fine work, The Heather on Fire, an equally eloquent tale, whose setting is in Scotland. She had visited Scotland and was much impressed with the Highland scenery. In a letter to Richard Garnett, she tells of her visits to Staffa and Iona. It was Iona which inspired St. Oran. She writes, “Iona, whose chief fascination ... is its suffusion with the ‘Celtic magic’ that clings in Ireland and Scotland to lone glens and solitary isles - dark with weeping skies, green with tender grass, and grey with ancient sepulchres.” Her two works certainly capture the spirit of those islands.
In 1881, her one romance, Tarantella, was published. It met with little success and was never popular. Yet it has an exciting story, interesting characters, easy and natural dialogue, exquisite descriptions, and much of her intense thought and feeling. Its lack of popularity was due probably to the growing interest in realism.
In 1886 she wrote the lives of George Eliot and of Madame Roland for the Eminent Women Series. Mathilde was very diligent, and the strain of her work was often exhausting. While she was working on Madame Roland, she wrote to her dear friend, Mrs. Lily Wolfsohn:
I never knew before what it was to do work under pressure in an enfeebled physical condition, with such daily, almost hourly efforts of will ... and I shall never forget the feeling when I had finished the last line of the work, and laid down my pen and felt that I might go out and actually stay out as long as ever I liked. It was a lovely afternoon. I was too tired to walk, and sat down on a bench in a little garden in front of the house, drinking in the air, the hum of insects, the colours of flowers and leaves, the glory of the sky, and it all seemed very good.
At about this time in 1886, she went to live with Ford Madox Brown. At about this time, too, she wrote a preface for her selections from Byron’s letters for the Camelot series. Occasionally she wrote articles for the Athenaeum and for Fraser’s Magazine. Wishing to celebrate in verse Darwin’s theory of evolution, which had so influenced her time, she wrote The Ascent of Man, a long poetic work dealing with every phase of the development of mankind and ending in a glorious peal of hope for the future. It was published in 1888.
In 1890 her translation of the autobiography of Marie Bashkirtseff was published.
Continued decline in health drove her more and more abroad. In 1892, she became sole heir to the fortune of her brother, Max Cohen, and life became easier in a way. She travelled to Italy and to Egypt. She became interested in the movement for preserving the temples of Philae. Her impressions of these countries are recorded in several volumes of poetry: Dramas in Miniature (1891), Songs and Sonnets (1893), Birds of Passage (1895). All of these contain many fine examples of her poetic gift. They are rich in feeling and description and show a mastery of verse formation.
In her closing years, she wished to find an institution to which she could bequeath her fortune - one which had as its ideal the education of women. She fixed on Newnham College, Cambridge.
Soon after, she had to take refuge in an invalid’s home in the South of London.
From that time on she went only in a bath chair because she was so weakened.
On November 26, 1896, she quietly and peacefully died. Her remains were conveyed to Woking for cremation and interred in the Finchley Cemetery near Madox Brown and his wife. Lanteri made a beautiful monument for her grave. And so she who had so much energy, so great an enthusiasm and aspiration for higher things, who was so absorbed in conveying beauty and truth to mankind, was buried. A few remembered her and mourned; several collections of her works were made for a posterity that has forgotten her.
IX — Religious Reflections and The Prophecy of St. Oran
Mathilde Blind’s long poem The Prophecy of St. Oran is a powerful, original, and artistic work synthesizing in itself the religious thinking of the poet and reflecting the religious questioning of the times. The theme concerns the resurrection of a saint to intimate that the faith for which he died is false. Let us for a moment view the known background of the poet and consider the experiences she underwent which finally resolved themselves in this creative work.
When interviewing her for his book, Gould asked whether she were a Nonconformist in religion, to which she replied:
I was never brought up according to the dogma of any creed. But there came a time when a sense of a void in the Universe became a torment. I tried hard to find peace in the idea of Christ, for my school mistress who belonged to the sect of Plymouth Brethren had persuaded me that the world could never justify the craving of the heart of man. But I had drunk too deeply already at the frontier of modern thought, and could find no antidote in her beliefs. While engaged in discussing Christianity with some of my friends at school, I involuntarily converted one of them to free thought, and got turned out for it.
Further light is thrown on her ideas by the autobiographical notes which were found by Richard Garnett. Mathilde, who had spent her childhood in an atmosphere of free thought among political revolutionaries, was a complete stranger to religion. When her friend, whom she calls Veronica, became confirmed, she was deeply moved. When another friend lent her a Bible, she found herself in a new world. She writes:
I had hitherto lived in a castle of dreams. I had watched the shadows of that outer world in that magic mirror we call poetry, and the reflection was more enchanted than the thing reflected, and in the vision of life, the riddle of it had never yet touched or humbled me. I lived in a region where pleasure lost its fever and pain its sting. Sensation came through a softening medium into which discords were resolved into harmony. In other words, if I did not exactly pass my youth in the Garden of Eden, it was passed in that Earthly Paradise which the poets have planted with immortelles. This way of entering the world has perils of its own. When you have once tasted life so finely, when fact has come to you, sifted of all its baser constituents, when the flowers of passion have been presented to you, tied in a nosegay by the supersensitive hand of a Shelley or a Heine, reality is apt to strike you as crude and commonplace, if not actually to inspire you with a sense of repulsion. In the daily round of life, you will sicken with a nostalgia for that ideal country to which it is difficult to return when childhood is over. You will always compare ordinary folks with those ideal types which are the final results of the finest selection by the finest minds, which is the secret of art.
Yet art, with the exception of the noble Greek drama, is not a good preparation for life. Its ethical meaning is too subtly interwoven with the very texture of the character in conflict with life. You need experience to unravel it. Religion deals with the home-truths of morality in a much simpler way, besides giving them a sanction which puts them beyond the reach of appeal. In making the love of God the basis for man’s relationship to man, it brings home to the humblest the immutability of law.
In a certain sense, I had turned Christian for a time I did not trouble my head about the evidences of Christianity. I put aside all troublesome inquiries about the possibility of reconciling its tenets with the known order of the universe. I wanted a belief; so I ignored everything that it was impossible to reconcile with the natural order and went straight to the heart of this profoundly personal religion.
Some time later, a counter-influence developed through another school friend who is called Blanche.
Blanche often broached the subject of the plenary influence of the Bible,
and as we had some books on Geology in concert, she again and again came back to the strange discrepancies between the account of the Creation in Genesis and the history of our globe as revealed to her by the rocks and stones. She prompted me to look up evidences on the subject in works to which I had access and she had none. I went to work with a headlong eagerness which kept me up night after night for many months till the small hours reading, comparing, annotating. Nothing came amiss to me, from Butler’s Analogy and Paley’s Evidences to Max Miller’s Comparative Myth. The veil of Christian sentiments in which I had tried to envelop myself dispersed like a vapor. The results of these nocturnal researches were communicated to Blanche every day during our hour of recreation and thirstily received by her when we read Cain together. One evening, the magnificent speech of Lucifer put us in such a transport that we fell into each other’s arms with a sob of delight...
Mathilde’s keen, sensitive inquiry was similar to Shelley’s when he was expelled from Oxford. She was asked whether she would give up her heretical opinions. Her answer was that she would do so upon conviction, never upon compulsion. Her answer does not surprise us. She was a person of integrity - of ideals. According to her aforementioned remark to Gould, she, too, apparently was expelled from school.
By 1873, when The Prophecy of St. Oran was written, Mathilde’s ideas were clear and mature. The theme of the poem is exciting, the nature of its treatment is controversial, and the story is told in verse forms and images that are thoughtful and beautiful. By quoting from the poem and narrating its sequence of events, I will try to show how Mathilde’s feeling for true love in the world and for freedom of thought as against religious hypocrisy and fanaticism manifests itself in this work.
The scene unfolds under the hand of one who has become an artist. St. Columba and his group of monks draw near to a little Scottish town by coracle.
The storm had ceased to rave: subsiding slow
Lashed ocean heaved, and then lay calm and still;
From the clear North a little breeze did blow
Severing the clouds: high o’er a wooded hill
The slant sun hung intolerably bright,
And spanned the sea with a broad bridge of light.
This is the setting. The boat is approaching the shore.
A few more vigorous strokes, and the sharp keel
Grates on the beach, on which, inclining low
Their tonsured heads, the monks adoring kneel;
While St. Columba, his pale face aglow
With outward light and inward, lifts on high
The Cross, swart outlined on the burning sky.
A young girl, the daughter of the dead chieftain of the Isle, throws herself moaning upon her father’s grave. One of the followers of St. Columba is Oran, the youngest, most enthusiastic and devoted of all.
Young, but most fervid of their brotherhood,
Fair Oran was, whose faith leaped like a sword
From out the sheath, and could not be subdued
When brandished in the service of the Lord,
To whom—as sparks leap upward from a fire—
His soaring thoughts incessantly aspire.
He feels that he must save the soul of the unbelieving girl.
Yea, he must save her soul, that like a bark
Drifting without a rudder, rudely tossed
On life’s rough sea, might founder in the dark,
In the abysm of hell engulfed and lost.
Thus musing, he retraced his steps once more
Towards the grave beside the sounding shore.
He returns to find her and commits the unpardonable sin of falling in love with her.
A moment has undone the work of years!
A single glance o’erthrown an austere saint!
And the clear faith, achieved with stripes and tears
And midnight fasts and vigils, now grows faint,
And like a star lost in the new-born light
Flickers a while, then fades into the night.
Now Miss Blind shows a startling handling of technique. The drama rises. The conflict grows in intensity. Oran is violently tormented. He runs wildly through the town; and he prays, prays for strength to combat the sinful emotion with which he is overcome.
When his long prayer was done, and the pale priest
Rose cold with clinging vapour, one by one
The flickering stars went out, and in the East
The dim air kindled with the coming sun,
While in illimitable sheer delight
The larks rose worshipping the holy light.
So ends Part One. The circumstances and the beginning of the conflict have been established. Part Two continues to unfold the theme.
Columba has had his chapel built in an old churchyard in the village. Oran tries to subdue his love but is unsuccessful. There is famine in the town, and in an attempt to sublimate his feelings Oran throws himself into the work of helping the diseased. One day, entering a home where someone lies ill, he recognizes Mona, his beloved. In the meantime, a storm is raging outside. Here Miss Blind makes use of the elements to build the mood of strife and storm in the hearts of the poverty-stricken people, the torment suffered by Oran, and the developing suspense. There is an exquisite description of rain, which gives the reader a striking picture of the type of storms which lash the Scottish highlands.
Fast, fast it raced before the roaring gale,
With shrieks and frenzied howlings that did shake
The very stones with long, resounding wail,
And in outlying gorges would it wake
The startled echo’s sympathetic scream,
Then whirling on would vanish like a dream,—
The introduction of the screams and groans of the storm also serves to parallel the fever and plague which are ravishing the village. The people call upon the church for help, but receive none. Here again we hear the Darwinian student, the free thinker of the late Victorian period, the humanitarian, questioning, doubting. The people speak to the priest:
“Ye say ye came to save us, save us then!
Save us if ye spake truth, and not a lie!
Famine and fever stalk among us,—men,
Women and children are struck down and die!
For lo, the murrain smites our cowering sheep,
The fishers haul no fish from out the deep.
“Ye tell us that your gods did multiply
A few small fishes, wherewithal he fed
A multitude! in sooth, if ‘tis no lie
Then come, ye holy men, and give us bread!
For they are starving by the waterside,—
Come then, and give us bread!” he loudly cried.
Oran preaches to Mona, trying to convert her to his faith. He feels that he must save the soul of the unbelieving girl. He asks her to repent for her sins, but she does not understand him, nor does she believe that she has sins. The logic with which Miss Blind presents the girl’s simple point of view is more convincing than many learned theses on the subject.
She could not understand his mournful creed,
Nor know, poor child, of what she should repent,
Nor why her heart was wicked, and had need
That some poor pitying God should once have spent
His blood for her five hundred years ago—
Ancestral voices never told her so!
Nevertheless Mona becomes enamored of Oran while he speaks to her. And now once again Mathilde portrays the unnaturalness of the situation wherein one dedicated to the robe must harden his heart against earthly love.
Oh, not for him, through all the lonely years
Never for him a woman’s love might bloom;
Her smiles would never cheer him, nor her tears
Fall softly on his unlamented tomb;
Never till quenched in death’s supreme eclipse,
His lips would know the sweetness of her lips.
But love is stronger than the combined training and will of Oran.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
And so he barters his eternal bliss
For the divine delirium of her kiss!
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
For he had striven as never mortal strove,
But than his Lord, a mightier lord was Love.
So Part Two ends with his surrender to “sin.”
Part Three opens with raging tempests and gales. Floods drive the people from their homes. Columba tells his followers that the storms are symbols of the anger of God because someone has sinned. He maintains that there is one in the group who is harbouring a secret sin.
There is a flood in the village, and Mona comes to the chapel to find Oran. Columba becomes suspicious and asks Oran if he knows her. Oran looks at her and says that he does not. Still suspicious, Columba cries:
“Seize her, and bear her to that frightful steep
Where, bristling with huge pier and jagged spire,
The spectre rock which overhangs the deep
Pierces the ghastly clouds like frozen fire;
There standing, fling her from its giddiest cone—
Into the ocean fling her, like a stone.”
The monks seize the girl and start to carry her off. Oran can stand the tension no longer. He runs after them crying,
“Hold! hold! stain not your hands with innocent blood;
I broke my vow, I am the sinner, I
Seduced the maid,—spare her and let me die.”
Columba, as a symbol of ancient consciousness is ruthless.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Thy life shall be an offering to the Lord,
he cries to Oran. And then to the monks:
“Seize him, and bear him to that dolorous site
Where mid our ruined cells the chapel stands
Whose holy walls and columns every night
Have fallen beneath the blow of dæmon hands;
There, living, bury him beneath its sod,
And so propitiate the Lord, our God.”
She portrays this interpretation of the Christian God as a cruel God, appeased with blood. So ends Part Three.
Part Four is a powerful, but beautiful condemnation. Oran has been buried alive. Now the poet sets the scene for a supernatural occurrence, a most difficult thing to do convincingly, and yet she does it exquisitely.
It is the night; across the starless waste
Of silent heaven the solitary moon
Flits like a frightened maid who flies in haste,
And wild with terror seems to reel and swoon,
As in her rear the multitudinous clouds
Follow like spectral huntsmen in their shrouds.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
And far o’er black morass and barren moor
The fitful splendour of the moonlight falls,
Its broken eddies sweep across the floor,
And dance in chequered silver on the walls,
And flood the chapel’s grave-encircled site
With sudden flashes of unearthly light.
Now that the spectral scene is met, we are ready for the shocking spectacle which is about to occur.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . when lo, behold
The grave yawns open and a bloodless face,
The face of him they knew, rose from the mould:
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Slowly he raised his voice—once rich in tone
Like sweetest music, now a mournful knell
With dull sepulchral sounds, as of a stone
Cast down into a black unfathomed well—
And murmured, “Lo, I come back from the grave,—
Behold, there is no God to smite or save.
“Poor fools! wild dreamers! No, there is no God;—
Your heaven is deaf and dumb to prayer and praise;
Lo, no almighty tyrant wields the rod
For evermore above our hapless race;
Nor fashioned us, frail creatures that we be,
To bear the burden of eternity.
“Hear it, self-torturing monks, and cease to wage
Your mad, delirious, suicidal war;
There is no devil who from age to age
Waylays and tempts all souls of men that are
For ever seeking whom he may devour.
And damn with wine and woman, gold and power.
“Deluded priests, ye think the world a snare,
Denouncing every tender human tie!
Behold, your heaven is unsubstantial air,
Your future bliss a sick brain’s phantasy;
There is no room amid the stars which gem
The firmament for your Jerusalem.
“Rejoice, poor sinners, for I come to tell
To you who hardly dare to live for fright,
There is no burning everlasting hell
Where souls shall be tormented day and night;
The fever ye call life ends with your breath;
All weary souls set in the night of death.
And now Oran pleads with the monks to face life and not be afraid of it; to love, to feel things deeply, to open themselves to every sensation. Finally, as the true humanitarian, the free thinker, Mathilde Blind, through Oran, cries out that earth itself must be made into a Paradise.
“Then let your life on earth be life indeed!
Nor drop the substance, snatching at a shade!
Ye can have Eden here! ye bear the seed
Of all the hells and heavens and gods ye made
Within that mighty world-transforming thought
Which permeates the universe it wrought—
“Wrought out of stones and plants and birds and beasts,
To flower in man, and know itself at last:
Around, about you, see what endless feasts
The spring and summer bountifully cast!
‘A vale of tears,’ ye cry—if ye were wise
The earth itself would change to Paradise.
“The earth itself—the old despised earth
Would render back your love a thousandfold,
Nor yet afflict the sons of man with dearth,
Disease, and misery, and drought and cold;
If you would seek a blessing in her sod,
Instead of crying vainly on your God
And now with the growing materialist beliefs of the Victorian era, she cries:
“Cast down the crucifix, take up the plough!
Nor waste your breath which is the life in prayer!
Dare to be men, and break your impious vow,
Nor fly from woman as the devil’s snare!
For if within, around, beneath, above
There is a living God, that God is Love.”
The monks are shocked and do not believe Oran. They seize him, desperate to
re-inter him, crying,
“Earth on his mouth—the earth he would adore,
That his blaspheming tongue may blab no more.”
The last two lines are taken almost directly from the words of the Gaelic proverb:
Earth, earth on the mouth of Oran, that he may blab no more.
This powerful poetic narrative, unified in its purpose, strong with the feeling of the idealist, the student of Darwin exemplifies the thinking prevalent at the time which in the early 20th Century gave way to its opposite in the growing interest in Philosophy and Spiritualism. The critics were unanimous in their praise. Following are some of the opinions expressed when the poem was published:
Times - September 26, 1881
There is perhaps no phase of our history more capable of poetic treatment than the sainted lives of the Irish monks who first spread the Christian faith over the western shores of Scotland, and yet it would be difficult to point a single representative poem having Saint Columba and the devoted band of his disciples for its heroes. An attempt for filling up this gap has recently be made by Miss Blind in a narrative poem devoted to the fate of St. Oran, the friend and disciple of St. Columba … Apart from the sonorous beauty of the lines, there is in her diction a straightforwardness and simplicity, with an entire absence of affectation and false sentiment, which, combined with considerable power of characterization, make her volume a remarkable contribution to English literature.
Athenaeum - July 30, 1881
To disturb the motif of a legend is always a bold, and mostly a rash proceeding, and yet, so skillfully is the story handled that the main incidents of the legend do not lose but gain by this disturbance of the motif, and the character of Oran, which was the old motif and which could only have presented the single side of the religious enthusiast, become a character exhibiting that complexity which modern taste demands … Directness of style and lucidity of narrative are the characteristic excellence of the poem. There are few contemporary poets who could have done so much dramatic business in so few lines …
Academy - July 16, 1881
It is in the domain of character that the poem is distinguished by its highest excellence. There is an ideal statuesqueness(?) embodied in the person of St. Columba such as is felt to possess a powerful appeal to the imagination.
The poem embraces many passions of which the most tender and beautiful finds expression in the exquisite creation of the radiant golden-haired girl for whose love St. Oran breaks his vow of chastity. But the really powerful contribution to our knowledge of character which this book contains is fittingly centered on St. Oran himself. A dramatic instinct of high order finds utterance in his struggles between opposing passions. Nor are the metrical excellences of the poem less conspicuous… If one were in need of some single phrase by which to denote the ultimate effect produced by this book, one might say that it seems the most mature of all recent first efforts, even of established ranks.
Pall Mall Gazette - August 22, 1881
In the choice of subject for her chief poem, she has been singularly fortunate… That a story such as this is full of poetical suggestiveness is obvious, and Miss Blind has proved herself equal to the occasion. She has avoided writing anything approaching to a “tendency poem.” She meets out justice with an equal hand to all her characters. The genuine enthusiasm and religious zeal of the monks are set forth in language as inspired as is the final protest of St. Oran against their narrow fanaticism; - one of the best passages in the book is indeed the sermon in which St. Columba announces the gospel of love and redemption to the Islanders.
British Mail - September 1, 1881
The Prophesy of St. Oran is skillfully told and vigorously written. In the description of nature and scenery; in the delineation of character; and in the management of singularly difficult positions, there is visible a firm and practised hand, a bold and unmistakable power. The Street Children’s Dance not unworthy ranks with some of the touching pieces of Hood, Mrs. Barrett Browning, and others.
Daily Telegraph - September l, 1881
... as tender and full of loving pity as Mrs. Browning’s The Cry of the Children.
Manchester Examiner and Times - July 1, 1882
The poem is rich in true description of sea and sky and mountains and glens
in sympathy with the deeper feelings which stir humanity. There has been published no poem of such creative suggestiveness as this for many a day, and we hope and believe that it is a precursor of other works by the same unfaltering hand. This poem is a true work of art, complete and beautiful. There is in the volume other work which shows the master’s touch.
Le Livre - Paris - October 10, 1881
Il y a la bien peu qu’un simple facilité de versification. Le récit du poème d’ouverture est grand et fort, la manière de raconter est pleine de poésie et d’effet. Depuis la mort de Mrs. Barrett Browning, nous n’avons point eu de poésie sussi hautement inspirée qui est jaillie d’une source feminine.
It seems incongruous indeed that this poet who had so much to say and who said it so well, who was admired, not only in England but apparently in France as well, should be so entirely lost and forgotten.
The humanitarian instincts and the reflection of religious feeling of the time are revealed in The Prophecy of St. Oran.
X — The Heather On Fire
More and more the ideas of Mathilde Blind became crystallized; more and more fluid her pen became with each succeeding work. In The Heather on Fire, her condemnation for all that keep men down, for persecution and inhumanity, is sharper, more pointed and more outspoken, more accusing.
The poem begins with the following quotation: “The foxes have holes, and the birds have nests, but the Son of Man hath not where to lay his head.” The story deals with the eviction and transplanting of whole communities of Scotch Crofters from the glens which they and their families tilled for so many generations, in order to make room for some American sportsmen. Blind herself says in her introduction:
It was but yesterday that Northern Scotland was inhabited by a brave, moral and industrious peasantry, full of poetic instincts and ardent patriotism, ruthlessly expelled from their native land to make way for sporting grounds rented by merchant princes and American millionaires.
In the period before the story was written, she visited the Isle of Aram and there spoke to a solitary Scotchman whose
simple story had a thrilling pathos, told as it was on the melancholy slopes of the North Glen Sannox, looking across to the wild broken mountain ridges called “The Old Wife’s Steps.” Here ... had dwelt the Glen Sannox people, the largest population then collected in any one spot and evicted by the Duke of Hamilton in 1832 ... For the progress of civilisation, which has redeemed many a wilderness, and gladdened the solitary places of the world, has come with a curse to these Highland glens, and turned green pastures and golden harvest-fields once more into a desert.
The poem opens on a wild Scottish coast. There is an exquisite description of the people of the glen pouring out to welcome home the fishermen. One among them, Mary, waits with particular eagerness, for she is to be wed to one of the returning boys, Michael.
Yea, though her lot was lowly, though the round
Of want’s imperious pressure hemmed and bound
The orphan’s life with those encircling walls
Wherewith predestined poverty enthralls
And stuns such toiling folk, until they ask
But food and sleep after the long day’s task—
Moments she knew when mystical, intense,
The universal soul thrilled through her inner sense.
Night falls over the glen. The people, each family in its thatched hut, lie asleep. A moving and artistically fashioned description of the moonlit scene, lovely in image and technically interesting in verse form, is presented.
Shine, quiet moonlight, shine! Relax, unloose
The sweating peasants’ over-laboured thews!
Ease their tired muscles with thy healing balm,
Breath o’er their brows a pure infantine calm,
Dissolving all their senses in the deep
Oblivion of immeasurable sleep!
Shine, quiet moonlight, shine! O’er roofs like these
Shed downier peace than falls o’er great kings’ palaces.
If the reader will read those lines aloud, he will become aware of the softness of the quality of the sounds and the strong sympathy of Miss Blind for the people.
In contrast to the hovels, the Duke’s mansion is imposing:
Against the moon with massive walls doth stand—
The lordly mansion of the lord of all that land.
Here, by using the Scottish glen situation, Miss Blind presents the injustice of all unequal ownership - where the poor own nothing but rags and the rich in the same community batten on luxury.
To him belonged the glens with all their grain;
To him the pastures spreading in the plain;
To him the hills whence falling waters gleam;
To him the salmon swimming in the stream;
To him the forests desolately drear,
With all their antlered herds and fleet-foot deer;
To him the league-long rolling moorland bare,
With all the feathered fowl that wing the autumn air.
For him the hind’s interminable toil,
For him he ploughed and sowed and broke the soil,
For him the golden harvests would he reap,
For him would tend the flocks of woolly sheep,
For him would thin the iron-hearted woods,
For him track deer in snow-blocked solitudes;
For him the back was bent, and hard the hand,
For was he not his lord, and lord of all that land?
The last two lines are pointed and bitter.
The wedding day for Michael and Mary arrives. There is a vivid description of the excitement during the days of preparation. Miss Blind takes her readers into the village. We become a part of it. We are joyous with the villagers and excited over the preparations.
The wedding takes place amid such rejoicing, and Michael and Mary settle down in their own little cottage. One day while Mary stands lovingly contemplating her house and her life with Michael, a note of warning is sounded by the author. The reader becomes aware that some tragedy is to occur.
Was there no omen, then, no warning thrill,
With curdling dread her warm young blood to chill,
To cast the shadow of a coming doom
Across the sunshine and the tender bloom
Of her new-flowering bliss?—nor anywhere
A hint of all the sorrow and despair,
The anguish, and the terror, and the strife
Which, earthquake-like, would crush and overwhelm her life?
Nine years pass. Though the Crofters’ wages are small, Michael toils with love in his heart for the soil, and so they build their lives from day to day and rear children. Once again, the elements set the stage. Black clouds hover over the village, and the storm arrives.
That time of year when, smoke-like, from the deep
Atlantic Ocean, fast ascending, sweep
Innumerably the rain-burthened clouds
Taking the sun by storm, and with dim crowds
Confusing heaven, as, flying from the gale,
They blur the lineaments of hill and dale,
Till, dashed on giddy peak and blasted scour,
Their waters breaking loose, crash in one long downpour.
Now come those who would destroy the village, and Mathilde Blind’s description of the siege might describe any tyrant’s invasion. In fact it could well have applied to the Nazi invasions.
So on from glen to glen, from hut to hut,
The hated factor came with arrogant strut
And harsh imperious voice, and at one stroke
Of house and home bereft these hapless folk,
Bidding all inmates to come forth in haste:
For now shall their poor dwellings be laid waste,
Their thatches fired, walls levelled with the leas,
And they themselves be shipped far o’er the wide, wild seas.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Ah! sore’s the day to those unhappy folk,
Whose huts must fall beneath the hammer’s stroke,
As now the thud of heavy trampling feet
Draws close and closer to their village street;
Where, hurrying aimlessly, some wildly stray,
While others stand and stare in blank dismay,
And with a sudden shout—“They come! They come!”
The neighbors rush in fear, each to his threatened home.
The soldiers go from hut to hut, heedlessly setting afire each one. Could any scene of war and plunder be more realistic? They come to the home of Mary, whose child is lying sick. She cries out to their unheeding ears:
“Cowards!” she cried once more, “thirst ye for children’s blood?”
By her description it would seem that Mathilde knew how a war-torn town,
being plundered by enemies, looked.
Where all was tumult and confusion, where
Shrill cries and wild entreaties filled the air,
And breathless folk pushed wildly to and fro,
They hardly heeded one another’s woe.
Rory, Michael’s father, is crippled and cannot get out of the house. He is bed-ridden, crying for help, when the hut is set afire. There is a heart-rending description of his bed going up in flames with its human pyre.
Long, long it seemed e’er Rory’s perilous plight
Brought him a helping hand—oh, curdling sight!
Too late, too late!—blankets and bedding blazed
Around the poor old soul, whose skinny arms upraised
Hacked feebly ‘gainst the flames that rose and fell
Hissing and crackling round him. “I’m in hell!”
He mumbled crazily, and stared with dim,
Lack-lustre eyes, struggling with palsied limb
To fly but could not:
During this time, Michael has been away with the fishing boats. The fishermen, who are longing for home, do not know the ghastly sight which is about to greet them. When they pull into shore, they find the village razed, their homes destroyed, their families dead.
Oh ghastly home-coming! Oh, cruel blow!
To find their levelled walls and huts laid low;
The soldiers, in the meantime, are rounding up the natives in order to send them out on ships to another land. The Crofters know that to put out now in the stormy sea, upon the designated ships, means certain death. Those who are left fly to the hills to hide. Michael finds Mary, and together they try to hide in the hills. She is pregnant. Her son has been killed, and others of her family and his have been murdered and burned. The struggle against the suffering and the cold is too much, and she succumbs. The soldiers find Michael, and with the remaining Crofters, he is placed aboard a ship. Very shortly after the ship sets sail, it is sunk. The whole population of this village which we have learned to know so well, all the inhabitants whose simple lives we have learned to admire with deep sympathy, are drowned.
Yea, thus once more upon the natal coast,
Which, living, those brave hearts had left and lost,
The pitying winds and waves drove back to land,
If but to drown them by the tempest’s hand,
The banished Highlanders. Safe in the deep,
With their own seas to rock their hearts to sleep,
The crofters lay: but faithful Rory gave
His body to the land that had begrudged a grave,
In this work, we see again Mathilde Blind’s keen sympathy for the people,
her awareness of their problems and of the inhuman ways in which their lives
The critics received the poem with enthusiasm.
Athenaeum - July 17, 1886
Miss Blind has produced one of the most noticeable and moving poems which recent years have added to our shelves... As a singer with a message her attempt is praiseworthy, and her performance is fairly consistent. It is eminently homogenous; the passion once felt, the inspiration once obeyed, the well-head pours forth its stream in a strong and uniform current, which knows no pause until its impulse ceases … The story is pathetic at once in its simplicity and terror … We congratulate the author upon her boldness in choosing a subject of our time, fertile in what is pathetic, and free from any taint of the vulgar and conventional. Poetry of late years has tended too much towards motives of a merely fanciful and abstruse, sometimes a plainly artificial, character; and we have had much of lyrical energy or attraction, with little of the real marrow of human life, the flesh and blood of man and woman. Positive subject-matter, the emotion which where in actual life, the very smile and the very tear and heart-pang, are, after all, precious to poetry, and we have these here. The Heather on Fire may possibly prove to be something of a new departure, and one that was certainly not superfluous.
Academy - August 7, 1886
Miss Blind has chosen for her new poem one of those terrible Highland clearances which stain the history of Scotch landlordism. Though her tale is a fiction it is too well founded in fact … It may be said generally of the poem that the most difficult scenes are those in which Miss Blind succeeds best; and on the whole we are inclined to think that its greatest and most surprising success is the picture of the poor old soldier Rory driven mad ...
Newcastle Daily Chronicle - June 3, 1886
In this versified tale of Highland clearances, Mathilde Blind has, with genuine poetic instinct, selected a family the fortunes of which form the burden of her story … Literature and poetry are never seen at their best save in contact with actual life … This little book abounds in vivid delineation of character, and is redolent with the noblest human sympathy.
Morning Post - July 30, 1886
A subject which has painfully preoccupied public opinion is, in the poem entitled The Heather on Fire, treated with characteristic power by Miss Mathilde Blind. Irish evictions have offered so convenient a theme to party strife, that the sufferings of the unhappy Highland Crofters have not always met with the compassion they were so well calculated to inspire. In eloquent and forcible verse, Miss Blind tells the tale of their wrongs, their resistance to the hard fate imposed upon them, and describes the bitter grief with which
‘Crowding on the decks with hungry eyes,
Straining towards the coast that flies and flies,’
those among them driven into exile look at the shores to which they bid an
eternal farewell. Both as a narrative and descriptive poem The Heather on Fire is equally remarkable.
Glasgow Herald - July 20, 1886
Art is no slavish follower of any poetic ‘school,’ but an unaffected and truthful expression of her own feelings … Whatever the reader’s opinion may be as the grievance, which Miss Blind throws into such fierce light, he cannot fail to be pleased with her graceful tale, so gracefully and simply told.
School Board Chronicle - July 10, 1886
Miss Blind’s poem is a tragic epic of the old evictions in the Highlands of Scotland. It is a strange fact that the general reader knows more about the siege of Troy, the Norman conquest, and the Wars of the Roses, than about such matters in the very history of our own days as the depopulation of the Highlands of Scotland by the landlords. The old story comes to the front just now by reason of the Crofter agitation. In the preface to her fine and touching epic, and in the hates at the end, Miss Blind passes in review some of the facts of the eviction of the Glen Sannox people by the Duke of Hamilton in 1832, where, as she says, ‘The Progress of Civilization, which has redeemed many wilderness and gladdened the solitary places of the world, has come with a curse to those Highland glens, and turned green pastures and golden harvest fields once more into a desert, The Heather on Fire is a poem in four cantos - or ‘Duans’ - comprising about two hundred stanzas.
Manchester Examiner and Times - September 1, 1886
We are happy in being able to extend to the present poem a welcome equally sincere and equally hearty; for it is a poem that is rich not only in power and beauty but in that ‘enthusiasm of humanity’ which stirs and moves us, and of which so much contemporary verse is almost painfully deficient. Miss Blind does not possess her theme; she is possessed by it as was Mrs. Browning when she wrote Aurora Leigh … We can best describe the kind of her success by noting the fact that while engaged in the perusal of her book we do not say, ‘what a fine poem! ‘ but ‘what a terrible story! ‘ or, more probably still, say nothing at all, but read on and on under the spell of a great horror and an overpowering pity. Poetry of which this can be said needs no other recommendation, and, therefore, we need not unduly lengthen our review of The Heather on Fire.
Scotsman - July 20, 1886
There are charming pictures of West Highland scenery, in Arrdu apparently, and of the surroundings and conditions of Highland cotter life.
Western Antiquary - August 1886
In The Heather on Fire she exhibits a clearness and beauty of such a rhythmical correctness, a grace and simplicity of style which mark her. It is written in a strain which must of necessity appeal to the sympathies, of all grades of society, and at the same time it is eminently poetical, both in thought and rhythm.
Cambridge Independent Press - August 1886
A book like this forms an admirable corrective to the harsh and cold-blooded theories of such landlords as the Duke of Argyle on the rights of his class.
Elgin Courant - August 1886
There is a sonorous beauty, a classic dignity and depth of pathos throughout her four cantos, and a vivid and thrilling description is given of the industrious hamlets, the contented happy people, and the ruthless manner in which the evictions were effected by the stewards and grand-officers.
XI — The Ascent of Man
The greatest work of Mathilde Blind, The Ascent of Man, represents her artistic and political maturity. Here is an artistic synthesis of the thinking of that exciting late Victorian period which was to be so instrumental in ushering in the era of “the Common Man.” Darwin, and Drummond who interpreted Darwin, were being discussed among the intellectuals. Science and consequently Life were assuming a new aspect. The very title of the poem suggests its inspiration. Evolution is the subject of this lengthy work; but here the poet devotes her theme to Man his physical, intellectual, and spiritual aspects as they are related to the Cosmos, to the lower forms of life, and to the Diety.
The Work is divided into three main sections: Chaunts of Life, The Pilgrim Soul, and The Leading of Sorrow. Each part has its own verse pattern and its special treatment.
The first section deals with Man’s evolution, both physical and mental from inorganic matter, his development and progress from savagery to civilization. The myriad geological forms of life are indicated, and the development culminates with the Anthropoid ape, whence Man is supposed to have descended.
Apes lifting hairy arms now stand
And free the wonder-working hand.
Man’s possession of a hand is important in sharpening his senses and improving his intellect.
And lo, ‘mid reeking swarms of earth
Grim struggling in the primal wood,
A new strange creature hath its birth:
Spurred on by want, held in by fear,
He hides his head in caverns drear.
Most unprotected of earth’s kin,
His fight for life that seems so vain
Sharpens his senses, till within
The twilight mazes of his brain,
Like embryos within the womb,
Thought pushes feelers through the gloom.
Necessity forces Man to develop skills. From his environment he starts fashioning objects that will help him.
He reaches on from stage to stage,
Through fear and famine, weal and woe
And, compassed round with danger, still
Prolongs his life by craft and skill.
With cunning hand he shapes the flint
He carves the horn with strange device,
He splits the rebel block by dint
Of effort—till one day there flies
A spark of fire from out the stone:
Fire which will make the world his own.
Arts follow. From dream arise beliefs in spirits, demons, and gods. After he has built himself a house and started to plant crops, these are destroyed by floods, tempests, fires. Therefore, he ascribes these still unfathomable mysteries to supernatural phenomena. From this belief in the supernatural develops priest craft, then chieftainship, sacrifices, conquests, and finally slavery. Man is forced to build walled cities for protection. Vast empires arise, and with them, despotism, cruelty, and bloodshed.
Yet grievous here below
And manifold Man’s woe;
Though he can stay the flood and bind the waters,
His hand he shall not stay
That bids him sack and slay
And turn the waving fields to fields of slaughters;
And, as he reaps War’s harvest grim and gory,
Commits a thousand crimes and calls it glory.
Many great empires pass away, culminating in the rise and destruction of Rome.
As realms are split and nation rent from nation,
The globe seems drifting to annihilation.
Next comes the rise of Christianity, followed by heresies and persecutions and martyrdoms.
“Peace on earth and good will!” came the word
Of the Son of Man, the Man of Sorrow—
But the peace turned to a flaming sword,
Turned to woe and wailing on the morrow
When with gibes and scorns,
Crowned with barren thorns,
Gashed and crucified,
On the Cross the tortured Jesus died.
The priests tell the people of a life hereafter so that they will not fight against their earthly miseries.
Holding Hells and Heavens in either hand
Comes the priest and comes the wild-eyed prophet,
Tells the people of some happier land,
Terrifies them with a burning Tophet;
Gives them creeds for bread
And warm roof overhead, . . .
And the people groaning everywhere
Hearken gladly to the wondrous story,
How beyond this life of toil and care
They shall lead a life of endless glory:
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Let them suffer while they live below,
Bear in silence weariness and pain;
For the heavier is their earthly woe,
Verily the heavenlier is their gain
In the mansions where
Sorrow and despair,
Yea, all moan shall cease
With the moan of immemorial seas.
The history of the church is outlined, and all the evils that have been committed in the name of Religion are dealt with.
Torture chambers of the Inquisition
Are the Church’s antidote to Hell.
The history of Europe continues, culminating in the French Revolution, which is described in its first stages as idealistically glorious.
Yea, the anguish in a people’s life
May have eaten out its heart of pity,
Bred in scenes of scarlet sin and strife,
Heartless splendours of a haughty city;
Dark with lowering fate,
At the massive gate
Of its kings it may
Stand and knock with tragic hand one day.
For the living tomb gives up its dead,
Bastilles yawn, and chains are rent asunder,
Little children now and hoary head,
Man and maiden meet in joy and wonder;
Throng on radiant throng,
Brave and blithe and strong,
Gay with pine and palm,
Fill fair France with Freedom’s thunder-psalm.
Free and equal—rid of king and priest—
The rapt nation bids each neighbour nation
To partake the sacramental feast;
And communion of the Federation:
Masses, far and wide,
Thrill to hope and start
Vibrating as with one common heart.
From the perfumed South of amorous France
With her wreath of orange bloom and myrtle,
From old wizard woods of lost romance,
Soft with wail of wind and voice of turtle,
From the roaring sea
Of grey Normandy,
And the rich champaigns
Where the vine gads o’er Burgundian plains;
From the banks of the blue arrowy Rhone,
And from many a Western promontory,
From volcanic crags of cloven stone
Crowned with castles ivy-green in story;
From gay Gascon coasts
March fraternal hosts,
Equal hosts and free,
Pilgrim to the shrine of liberty.
The revolution fails. The guillotine and all its attendant horrors follow. Part I ends with a hope that the soul of Man is developing; that his intellectual, moral, and emotional nature are struggling upward through superstitions and error towards universal sympathy and love.
Part II begins with a quotation from Plato:
Love is forever poor, and so far from being delicate and beautiful, as mankind imagined, he is squalid and withered ... homeless and unsandalled; he sleeps without covering before the doors, and in the unsheltered streets.
The Pilgrim Soul is an allegory of our modern civilization, in which wealth, pleasure, and luxury have banished sympathy and love, the only things which can secure peace and happiness. Wealth and poverty are forcefully painted and contrasted. Luxury and vice are painted with a terrible plainness. Love is pictured in the form of a child - naked, cold, and hungry, an outcast from the city of wealth and luxury. No phase of life seems unfamiliar to Mathilde Blind. Her deep sympathy for the poor and the wretched saw with clear eyes the ways of the city. Women in taverns, outcasts in basements, prostitutes, as well as the homes of the rich, are painted as with an artist’s brush. The city streets are full of
…dark yawning funnels which from foul throats forever Belched smoke grimly flaming, which outraged the air.
In the allegory the poet passes through the city to the quays by the river, “the desert end of town.” There she finds Love, a ragged bloody boy lying on the cold ground. She asks him how he came there.
“Ah,” wailed he in tones full of agonised yearning,
Like the plaintive lament of a sickening dove
On a surf-beaten shore, whence it sees past returning
The wings of the wild flock fast fading above,
As they melt on the sky-line like foam-flakes in motion:
So sadly he wailed, “I am Love! I am Love!
“Behold me cast out as weed spurned of the ocean,
Half nude on the bare ground and covered with scars,
I perish of cold here.”
He asks her to shelter him, but she tells him that she is too poor. She leads him to the bank of the river and urges him to commit suicide with her since there is no hope. Love refuses, begging her to stay with him.
“Weak as I am, on thy breast I’ll recover,
Worn as thou art, thou shalt bloom as my bride:
She accepts the challenge, takes love to shelter and nourish him, and lo! he starts to grow in stature until he becomes greater than the lost gods of the cruel city, and ultimately is its salvation.
And lo, as we went through the woe-clouded city,
Where women bring forth and men labour in vain,
Weak Love grew so great in his passion of pity
That all who beheld him were born once again.
This allegory is a beautiful, powerful literary work, full of harmony, music, and exquisite imagery. It shows an understanding and compassion that could come only after years of thinking, writing, and reading. It is Mathilde Blind at her best.
Part III, The Leading of Sorrow, again finds the poet in a “land of shadows ... haunted by despair.” She wishes for death. A veiled phantom appears, telling her that she is one of many who weep. The phantom offers to conduct her through the world and to show her the universality of sorrow and death.
On my hand the clay-cold hand did fasten
As it murmured—“Up and follow me;
O’er the thickly peopled earth we’ll hasten,
Yet more thickly packed with misery.”
Even in the ocean they see large fish lying in wait to prey on smaller ones; throughout the animal world, there is destruction and war - from the very lowest to the highest forms. The poet begs the figure to lead her away from this bloody terror to “the kindly haunts of men.” They go to peaceful hills where she paints a lovely pastoral picture. Suddenly she sees a fearful battle scene:
Faintly muttering from deep mountain ranges,
Muffled sounds rose hoarsely on the night,
As the crash of foundering avalanches
Wakes hoarse echoes in each Alpine height.
Near and nearer sounds the roaring—thunder,
Mortal thunder, crashes through the vale;
Lightning flash from muskets breaks from under
Groves once haunted by the nightingale.
Men clutch madly at each weapon—women,
Children crouch in cellars, under roofs,
For the town is circled by their foemen—
Shakes the ground with clang of trampling hoofs.
Shot on shot the volleys hiss and rattle,
Shrilly whistling fly the murderous balls,
Fiercely roars the tumult of the battle
Round the hard-contested dear-bought walls.
Horror, horror! The fair town is burning,
Flames burst forth, wild sparks and ashes fly;
With her children’s blood the green earth’s turning
Blood-red—blood-red, too, the cloud-winged sky.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Fallen lies the fair old town, its houses
Charred and ruined gape in smoking heaps;
Here with shouts a ruffian band carouses,
There an outraged woman vainly weeps.
In the fields where the ripe corn lies mangled,
Where the wounded groan beneath the dead,
Friend and foe now hopelessly entangled,
Stain red poppies with a guiltier red.
There the dog howls o’er his perished master,
There the crow comes circling from afar;
All vile things that batten on disaster
Follow feasting in the wake of war.
Famine follows—what they ploughed and planted
The unhappy peasants shall not reap;
Sickening of strange meats and fever-haunted,
To their graves they prematurely creep.
The above lines show how detailed and poignant Miss Blind can be in her descriptions.
The poet cries to the figure to take her away from this horror to the city, a law-abiding place. They go to the city, but only find conditions worse. A powerful contrast of the rich and poor is painted. The misery, want, and crime of the city are described, and the destruction and ruin that fall on poverty stricken people.
In their devious track we mutely follow,
Mutely climb dim flights of oozy stairs,
Where through gap-toothed, mizzling roof the yellow
Pestilent fog blends with the fetid air.
Through the unhinged door’s discordant slamming
Ring the gruesome sounds of savage strife—
Howls of babes, the drunken father’s damning,
Counter-cursing of the shrill-tongued wife.
Children feebly crying on their mother
In a wailful chorus—“Give us food!”
She begs the figure to take her away from “these fearful haunts of fiendish men.” The poet has lost faith. Sorrow takes her to the thunderous ocean where she cries out:
Through the crash of wave on wave gigantic,
Through the thunder of the hurricane,
My wild heart is breaking shrilled with frantic
Exultation—“Chaos, come again!
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
“Yea, let earth with forest-belted mountains,
Hills and valleys, cataracts and plains,
With her clouds and storms and fires and fountains,
Pass with all her rolling sphere contains,
Melt, dissolve again into the ocean,
Ocean fade into a nebulous haze!”
She loses consciousness. Visions of the planetary bodies whirling in space appear to her. Suddenly a voice from the cosmos is heard. It relates how it has raised Man from the slime; that the struggle toward perfection is long, that Man is still groping, and that the poet must take on the burden of all those who have striven in the past for the betterment of Mankind.
“Wilt thou judge me, wilt thou curse me, Creature
Whom I raised up from the ocean slime?
It tells how Man was raised through the first stages; through “glacial aeons and fiery earthquake shades.”
“Oh, my heir and hope of my tomorrow,
I — I draw thee on through fume and fret,
Croon to thee in pain and call through sorrow,
Flowers and stars take for thy alphabet.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
“Oh, redeem me from my tiger rages,
Reptile greed and foul hyæna lust;
With the hero’s deeds, the thoughts of sages,
Sow and fructify this passive dust;
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
“I have cast my burden on thy shoulder;
Unimagined potencies have given
That from formless Chaos thou shalt mould her
And translate gross earth to luminous heaven.
Bear, oh, bear the terrible compulsion,
Flinch not from the path thy fathers trod;
From Man’s martyrdom in slow convulsion
Will be born the infinite goodness — God.”
The voice ceases; the sun rises; the golden morningappears. The poet has awakened. She looks about her.
And beside me in the golden morning
I beheld my shrouded phantom-guide;
But no longer sorrow-veiled and mourning—
It became transfigured by my side.
And I knew—as one escaped from prison
Sees old things again with fresh surprise—
It was Love himself, Love re-arisen
With the Eternal shining through his eyes.
The poem ends, as do all of Mathilde Blind’s works, with a note of hope. The whole work is an inspiration. It is as applicable today as it was when Mathilde Blind wrote it. The breadth of her vision and the largeness of her sympathy are apparent throughout. In a way she is a Messiah. She presents the message that man himself must help the world struggle through to its betterment; that one must not give in to despair but must realize that there is a divine future before him if he will be strive to attain it.
This later work manifests a definite evolution in Mathilde’s consciousness, from material Darwinism and absence of the Divine to a creative cosmic spirituality.
In his introduction to another edition of this work, Alfred R. Wallace aptly said:
These ideas are rapidly spreading and will lead to that combined effort for social and humanitarian improvement which will, in all probability, be the great and distinguishing feature of the coming century.
The critics praised the poem.
Academy - June 15, 1889
Miss Blind traces The Ascent of Man through successive stages, until first love, and then sorrow - which is love under another guise - lead us to the highest conception of human life we can hope to reach. It is a brave, sad, glorious story, told with inimitable skill, and as only a poet who knows man’s heart, with its hopes, doubts, fears, aspirations, could possibly tell it ... The other poems in the volume are as excellent in their kind as those who give a title to it. The only difference between them is that one series is rich with human experience, and with the results of knowledge and high thinking, while the other is all aglow with the fresh delights of the outside world. These delights find an almost perfect expression ... A reviewer who is so fortunate as to light on a book like this, lays it down with regret, and fears that he has not said of it all that it deserves should be said. That is my feeling; and, lest I should have omitted any note of praise that ought to be sounded, I should like to add, by way of suggestion to all lovers of poetry - and I hope they are still many - that here is truly a book that is worth the loving.
Athenaum - July 20, 1889
The effort which Miss Blind has made is one deserving of high praise. From Chaos to Kosmos she hurries her reader along, breathless and perspiring perhaps, but never anxious to stop. We have known her book to be read on the Underground Railway, and the reader to be so absorbed in its contents, as to be carried unawares several stations past his destination … Miss Blind’s gift of song is genuine, and her imagination powerful … When all is said and done The Ascent of Man remains a remarkable poem, and cannot fail to increase its author’s reputation as a brilliant and original writer.
School Board Chronicle - June 8, 1889
There is a fine elevation of time and there is a splendid mastery of diction,
well sustained from the beginning to the end … The poems are unquestionably very beautiful.
Liverpool Mercury - June 19, 1889
Miss Blind has already a place of honor among poets, and this striking volume will make it sure. There is nothing weak or unreal about her verse, and there is much force of thought, sympathy for all, and burning scorn of luxurious vice.
Cheltenham Examiner - June 19, 1989
One of the advanced minds of the day is Mathilde Blind. I have at my side her latest book, The Ascent of Man. The poems are all earnest and high pitched in tone - they are human … Every line comes from a heart full of life’s unutterable woes, of hope’s faint, half-believing monitions.
Wit and Wisdom - August 3, 1889
To Miss Blind belongs the honor of having been the first to seriously render Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer into verse on anything like a bold and comprehensive scale. The Ascent of Man is a really remarkable poem. Its main conception is even noble, its manner of execution is brilliant and vigorous, and it abounds in passages which prove Miss Blind to possess the time poetic faculty.
Echo - August 8, 1889
In her last published volume of poems, The Ascent of Man Miss Blind has revealed qualities of imagination, enthusiasm and strength, which place her high indeed among women writers of the day.
Manchester Examiner - May 18, 1889
Miss Blind has already proved herself to be no ordinary writer of verse, and her new volume will add to her reputation The Ascent of Man is a philosophical poem, challenging comparison by its subject with the great work of Lucretius, and inevitably suggesting some of the finest passages in Tennyson.
Literary World - June 14, 1889
That Miss Blind’s volume shows signs of poetic power no careful reader can for a moment doubt.
Star - June 17, 1889
Miss Blind is an accomplished authoress, and a verse maker of remarkable skill. There is plenty of suggestion, as well as a good deal of brilliant, forcible and easy colouring, in the The Ascent of Man.
Lady’s Pictorial - June 28, 1889
This is a powerful but unequal poem but the task set to herself by the author was such a mighty one, that, even had her success been far less than it is, she might well be proud… This volume will considerably enhance Miss Blind’s reputation as a poetess.
Globe - May 22, 1889
There are some fine passages, elevated in conception and felicitous in expression ... The volume as a whole, is a considerable advance on Miss Blind’s previous poetic work, and should give much pleasure to all thoughtful and cultivated readers.
St. James Gazette - June 16, 1889
The chief merit of this fine poem is that it treats from the transcendental point of view certain conceptions and theories of life which modern science has shown us under another aspect.
British Weekly - July 12, 1889
The Ascent of Man is a volume of verse which is marked by much grace of diction.
Pall Mall Gazette -
Her descriptions of the early struggles for existence are powerful and picturesque in a high degree.
Morning Post -
Has wit of no common order due perhaps, as such to the author’s wide human sympathy as to her poetical gifts.
Watt’s Literary Guide -
The doctrines and tendencies of present-day thought are endowed with fascinating poetic form in Miss Mathilde Blind’s The Ascent of Man ... She encircles grave science with an aureole, and illuminates his grey technical pages with rainbow tints and emblazoned designs.
XII — Conclusion
The works of Mathilde Blind are still timely and deserve reading. She formed part of the exciting Victorian era. Many writers were communicating the ideas of change which had started to ferment. She was one of those whose work mirrored the progress of Science and Industrialism which came to the surface in the Nineteenth Century and has continued into our own day. Her ideas were influenced by the early Victorian writers with ideals. Carlyle, Newman, Mill, Ruskin, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, all left their mark on her development. Darwin’s Origin of the Species, which has had such a tremendous influence on modern thought, became a symbol for Mathilde Blind. She saw the theory of evolution as a key that would open the way for a better life for mankind. Arnold’s ideas she also studied and absorbed, as well as those of Huxley and Spencer.
Posterity has so far ranked other writers of her time above Mathilda Blind. Perhaps she would have been more popular had she been less ardent and more calculating. Perhaps her present oblivion is due in part to the comparatively small number of works she produced. Though she labored constantly at her art, she did not create the unexplainable volume of writings that is often characteristic of genius. Yet what she has done remainsnoble in execution and inspiration. She had energy, enthusiasm, and constantaspirationtoward higher things.
“Literature,” she said, “should take the place of the old priesthood, and assist mankind in perceiving and developing the ideal.” Perhaps Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy was the basis for her belief. She tried to carry that principle into her own writings and often succeeded in fulfilling it. “Wherever we do not understand there is darkness, sorrow, wrong,” she said, “but wherever we do understand, there is light, triumph and unity.” She tried her best to make others aware of the evils which existed, and to point out what could be done to banish them. Her method was through art. A reader of the poetry of Mathilde Blind finds that the works are far from out-dated. They are still vibrant and still needed by a blundering mankind.
Daisy Aldan (1918-2001) was a poet and translator whose career spanned nearly seven decades. With her Folder Editions, she published not only her own work, but that of Ginsberg, Rexroth and Kerouac. Her translations of French symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé are among the most respected in the world.
Mathilde Blind: New Woman is reproduced by permission of Sky Blue Press.
Published December 2016.