Victorian Poetry 43.4 (2005) 435-453
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"Heir of All the Universe":
Evolutionary Epistemology in Mathilde Blind's Birds of Passage: Songs of the Orient and Occident
Robert P. Fletcher
In the "Prelude" to her Birds of Passage: Songs of the Orient and Occident (1895), Mathilde Blind tracks an autumn migration of birds in "corporate motion" from "the cliffs of England" to "the sacred Isle of Philæ" in the Nile River near Aswan, Egypt.1 When this "commonwealth in flight" arrives at its destination some eighteen lines later and perches reverently in the cracks and crevices of the temples and monuments, it unites the "fallen gods of Egypt" with "men's generations" that have "waned and vanished into night" and thus seems to bind Europe and Egypt, Occident and Orient, through the common fate of human transience, symbolized in the "shadows [the birds] cast upon their onward flight." However, the spatio-temporal organization of Blind's panorama—which encompasses Greece, Italy, and "old Egypt's desert"—also retraces an imperial geneology from present to past, West to East, inverting the conventional plot of western civilization she herself had presented in The Ascent of Man, her Darwinian epic (1889). This combination of the bird's eye view and the reverse chronology signals the double discourse of colonialism woven into Birds of Passage. On the one hand, like the "Bird of Time" from the Rubayait of Omar Khayyam, which appears in the book's epigraph, these birds in their transnational flight would seem to bridge the distance between two cultures in their recognition of vanitas. Having arrived inside the "holy halls of Death and Birth," the "gaily twittering swallows," like good tourists, "hush their breath." On the other hand, the migration to Egypt is strangely counterproductive. The birds have traveled from the "falling leaves" of England, past "fair Sicilian . . . meadows," to the Nile "seeking still an ampler light." But instead of this anticipated sunny, warm climate, they find Philæ floating "like some rapt Opium eater's labyrinthine lotos dream," strewn with "twilight-litten" ruins. In other words, the journey ostensibly allegorizes human mortality, but it also emplots the passage from West to East as a fascinating opportunity for the Western subject vicariously to "regress" and, thus, re-inscribes an Orientalist theme. [End Page 435]
This discursive double-cross is one indication of how Blind's representations of Egypt, Italy, and England in Birds of Passage participate in ideologies of imperialism despite her political radicalism and her usual emphasis in her poetry on liberatory or progressive narratives. In her book Home and Harem: Nation, Gender, Empire, and the Cultures of Travel, Inderpal Grewal suggests that "rather than debating whether middle-class Englishwomen or working-class men and women in England were anti-imperialist or not," it is more productive to examine "the way they were interpellated as subjects . . . through colonial discourses."2 Blind's Birds of Passage (1895), with its balanced opposition of "Songs of the Orient" and "Songs of the Occident," demonstrates how the subjectivity of an "independent woman" in the Victorian period3 —or at least the subjectivity constructed in a book of her verse—may be reliant nevertheless on binaries of "East" and "West" fundamental to imperialist ideology and produced through the discourses of romanticism, comparative mythology, evolutionary science, and tourism that Blind weaves into her text.
Blind's radical politics were grounded in her upbringing, developed through education, and expressed throughout her writing. She was stepdaughter to Karl Blind, a leader of the Baden insurrection of 1848, and her brother Ferdinand attempted to assassinate Bismarck in 1866, subsequently committing suicide in prison. Her family moved to England after the failure of the revolution, and their home became a gathering place for political exiles, such as Garibaldi and Mazzini. Blind's education included study at a London girls' school, a failed attempt to crash university lectures restricted to men in Zurich, and a solitary walking tour of the Swiss Alps, which she later dramatized in an autobiographical...