Alfred H. Miles, ed. Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century. 1907.
Critical and Biographical Essay by Richard Garnett
Mathilde Blind (18411896)
MATHILDE BLINDS career illustrates the saying that persons exist whom to have known is an education. She was profoundly influenced by the eminent men with whom she came in contact from the days when she sat at the feet of Mazzini, as she has told us in reminiscences as remarkable for their good taste and reticence as for their interest. She also connected her name with women of genius, Madame Roland and George Eliot, of whom she was the skilful and admiring biographer; and Marie Bashkirtseff, whom she discovered for the English public, and whose journals she has translated with remarkable ability. A traveller, continually on the move from land to land, she accumulated the impressions derived from many different regions, and many different societies. Yet her original work bears few traces of the impress of other minds. She occupies, indeed, an exceptional place among female poets, alike in her strong points and her weak ones. As a rule, it is the merit of poetesses to be easy and fluent: their fault to go playfully rippling round the difficulties with which they ought to grapple. Miss Blind, on the contrary, seems to have composed with difficulty, and to have beat out her verses upon the anvil. Cyrene wrestling with the lion will be an apt vignette for her poems when they attain an illustrated edition. But the lion is thrown. Whatever difficulty it may have cost the authoress to work out her Prophecy of Oran, or her The Heather on Fire, the thing is done, and the impression on the readers mind is nothing short of indelible. If the effect of The Ascent of Man is less definite, the cause is the comparative vagueness of the subject, and the necessary absence of the wonderful local colouring of the Highland poems. Dramas in Miniature, her next publication, deals again with humanity in the concrete, and is full of dramatic passion and lyrical impulse. Miss Blinds feeling for nature was far beyond that which merely prompts clever descriptive passages; her local poems are steeped in a local atmosphere which produces a perfect illusion. The same feeling for nature breathes through her lyrics, whose fault it is to be overcharged with the pictorial element. Her poem The Sower, from Poems of the Open Air, may be quoted in this connection.
The winds had hushed at last as by command;
The quiet sky above,
With its grey clouds spread oer the fallow land,
Sat brooding like a dove.
There was no motion in the air, no sound
Within the tree-tops stirred,
Save when some last leaf, fluttering to the ground,
Dropped like a wounded bird:
Or when the swart rooks in a gathering crowd
With clamorous noises wheeled,
Hovering awhile, then swooped with wranglings loud
Down on the stubbly field.
For now the big-thewed horses, toiling slow
In straining couples yoked,
Patiently dragged the ploughshare to and fro
Till their wet haunches smoked.
Till the stiff acre, broken into clods,
Bruised by the harrows tooth,
Lay lightly shaken, with its humid sods
Ranged into furrows smooth.
There looming lone, from rise to set of sun,
Without or pause or speed,
Solemnly striding by the furrows dun,
The sower sows the seed.
The sower sows the seed, which mouldering,
Deep coffined in the earth,
Is buried now, but with the future spring
Will quicken into birth.
Oh, poles of birth and death! Controlling Powers
Of human toil and need!
On this fair earth all men are surely sowers,
Surely all life is seed!
All life is seed, dropped in Times yawning furrow,
Which with slow sprout and shoot,
In the revolving worlds unfathomed morrow,
Will blossom and bear fruit.
When she does sing as the bird sings, no voice is sweeter. Of all lyrical forms, however, the most congenial to her powerful mind was the grave and weighty sonnet, which it is hardly possible to overload with import. Miss Blind was far more fortunate than sonnet-writers in general in finding thoughts great enough to fill fourteen lines, and some of her sonnets deserve no meaner praise than that of sublimity. Her besetting fault was one not unlikely to accompany conscious strength: an inattention to finish and polish which frequently annoys the sympathetic reader, and gives a needless handle to petty critics. Born on the 21st of March, 1847, she began to write at a very early age, while still a child filling copybooks with her juvenile efforts in fiction, poetry, and the drama. One of these, A Tragedy on the Death of Robespierre, secured a word of commendation from Louis Blanc, the French historian. Her first publication was an article on Shelley, contributed to the Westminster Review; her first volume, The Prophecy of Oran, a narrative poem treating of the story of St. Columba and his disciples and their mission to the Hebrides, was published in 1881. The Street Childrens Dance, one of her most popular poems, appeared in this volume. Her next volume, The Heather on Fire, a poem which deals with the removal of the Skye Crofters, was published in 1886. About the same time appeared her one novel Tarantella, a highly imaginative romance, full of life, movement, and poetry, far too little known.
The Ascent of Man upon which she was engaged for many years, followed in 1889. This latter is in many respects her most important work; in it she has endeavoured to describe the evolution of Nature through the ages, showing the development of vegetable and animal life, the growth of man and the progress of society. The first part, Chants of Life, is a series of wonderfully vivid pictures of this progress from the first germs of life in brute, formless claws, to the realisation of poetic hopes for the future of the world. Two noble sonnets conclude this part, which is followed by The Pilgrims Soul, an allegory of the redemption wrought through Love, leading up to and concluding with the powerful Leading of Sorrow.
Later publications were Songs and Sonnets (1893), and Birds of Passage (1895). Her Poetical Works, edited by A. Symons, were published in 1900, and Shakespearean Sonnets in 1902. She died on the 26th of November, 1896.