Victorian Poetry 40.4 (2002) 359-386
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"My love is a force that will force you to care":
Subversive Sexuality in Mathilde Blind's Dramatic Monologues
MALE REVIEWERS STRUGGLED TO CHARACTERIZE THE POEMS MATHILDE BLIND awarded pride of place in her 1891 collection Dramas in Miniature. Up to this time Blind was best known as an accomplished writer of sonnets and lyrics, and as a less accomplished but admirably ambitious writer of longer poems on the Highland Clearances ("The Heather on Fire," 1884) and Darwinian theory ("The Ascent of Man," 1889). 1 The eight "dramas" that begin the 1891 volume seemed a departure, and generated considerable interpretive anxiety. Eric Robertson begins his Academy review by confessing his confusion over the title: "Does it promise us real condensed drama—brief stories containing plots that a more diffuse writer might be glad to expand into a novel? Does it rather suggest a kind of toy-drama—stories of which the plots may be sharply articulated, while yet their interests are mock-heroic? Or, again, is it intended to denote nothing more than dramatic episodes?" 2 As he confronts the poems themselves, it becomes clear that Robertson's uneasiness stems more from their subject matter (adultery, prostitution, sexual violence, female sexual aggression, eroticized religious reverie) than from their generic affiliations. Robertson is especially struck by the frankness of "The Battle of Flowers," which he notes "gives us a contrasting picture of the courtesan triumphant, as she drives along the Quai Anglais at Nice":
Triumphant—without shame or fear
You air a thousand graces;
Though women turn, when you appear,
With cold averted faces;
Though men at sight of you will stop,
As if they looked into a shop;
Shall both for this not doubly pay?
Jeanne Ray! Jeanne Ray! (ll. 81-88) [End Page 359]
Blind's own fearlessness in these poems—exemplified here by her disinclination to moralize and her frank representation of commodified sexuality—leads Robertson to caution his audience. Alluding to what he considers their "low" subject matter, he avers that "most of her readers, will indeed, continue to think that Miss Blind is at her highest in the earlier study of that 'Ascent of Man,'" whose "noble strenuousness" is missing from the "less profound 'dramas' now published" (p. 531).
Arthur Symons, who four years later would feature Blind in the first issue of The Savoy, attempts to impose a "noble strenuousness" on Dramas in Miniature itself in his Athenaeum review. Asserting that all but one of the dramatic poems are rightly labeled "tragedies," he adds "they are tragedies of the kind which many people are apt to sum up, and, as they imagine, to condemn, in the one word 'painful.'" Later in the review he comes much nearer the mark when he calls them "flowers of evil," suggesting the ways in which Blind, like Baudelaire, provocatively fuses aestheticism and naturalism in several of the poems. Rather than elaborating this important insight, however, Symons ends his review by retreating to a generalization equating female creativity with artlessness—a generalization designed to reassure many male writers during the gender troubles of the 1890s. "Miss Blind is pre-eminently successful as a writer of lyrics. In her lyrics she is 'simple, sensuous, and passionate': she catches at times the heart's own rhythm in its troubled exquisite moments." 3 Given the fact that the poems under review are predominantly dramatic rather than lyric, Symons' ostensible insight into Blind's poetic "essence" must be viewed as a willful act of critical blindness, a symptom of a larger historical misconstruction of Victorian women's poetry as sentimental and lacking in formal complexity. Symons took a more active role in shaping Blind's poetic legacy a year after she named him her literary executor and a year after her death: he omitted all of her dramatic monologues from A Selection From the Poems of Mathilde Blind (1897). This editorial decision made it easier for Symons to misrepresent Blind in his introduction as "a poet...