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  • Evolution and the Struggle of Love in Emily Pfeiffer’s Sonnets
  • Karen Dieleman (bio)

Mrs. Pfeiffer’s most abiding reputation will rest upon her sonnets, and of these the best deal with two great questions of the day—evolution and woman’s sphere,” wrote Eric Robertson in his headnote to the six Emily Pfeiffer poems he selected for English Poetesses: A Series of Critical Biographies, with Illustrative Extracts (1883).1 Robertson’s second center of interest, “woman’s sphere,” has found traction in the emerging scholarship on Pfeiffer’s poetry—a scholarship not birthed till the mid-1990s and growing but slowly, despite a nineteenth-century regard for Pfeiffer that led Robertson to group her in a chapter with Christina Rossetti, Augusta Webster, and Mathilde Blind. Questions of gender typically anchor the modern editorial introductions or headnotes on Pfeiffer, and gender also informs studies of Pfeiffer’s prose travel writing, Hellenism, and Welsh nationalism.2 In contrast, despite the expanding scholarly conversation on nineteenth-century poetry and evolutionary theory, Pfeiffer’s poetry on this subject has been little discussed. For instance, in Darwin’s Bards: British and American Poetry in the Age of Evolution, John Holmes studies numerous major and minor poets who grapple with competing Darwinian and non-Darwinian evolutionary theories but does not mention Pfeiffer, though he considers Mathilde Blind, Constance Naden, and Agnes Mary Robinson alongside an array of male poets. Fabienne Moine’s recent Women Poets in the Victorian Era: Cultural Practices and Nature Poetry helpfully brings multiple women poets with evolutionary interests into view; but her expansive coverage requires Moine to consider Pfeiffer in under two pages.3 Yet Pfeiffer’s sonnets merit more sustained attention for their vigorous critique of Darwinism within a general assent to evolutionary theory. In the present article, therefore, I revise and extend emerging interpretations of Pfeiffer’s evolutionary thought.

Emily Pfeiffer (1827–1890) was well read on this and other subjects: though not formally schooled, she maximized the opportunity to study and write afforded her by her 1850 marriage to Jürgen Edward Pfeiffer, a wealthy and supportive German merchant in London; having no children, she could devote time to literary endeavors. She and her husband frequented literary circles and [End Page 297] corresponded with British and American editors such as Theodore Watts-Dunton, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Horace Elisha Scudder. Pfeiffer published her first serious volume of poetry seven years after her marriage, followed by more than a dozen poetry collections and periodical essays—on women’s education, women’s suffrage, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti as Pre-Raphaelite poet—before her death in 1890 (Hickok, “Emily Pfeiffer”; Hickok, “Why?,” p. 374; Brown et al.). To my mind as well as to many of her contemporary reviewers, Pfeiffer’s sonnets form her best work. Pfeiffer herself seemed compelled by the form: she wrote more than ninety sonnets between 1873 and 1889, the ones most invested in evolutionary thought by 1880. Her sonnets frequently blend the Petrarchan and Shakespearean forms, perhaps implying she viewed the sonnet form as equally in flux with her evolutionary subject.4 In any case, her sonnets mostly precede now more recognized nineteenth-century poems on the subject of evolution such as George Meredith’s nature poems (1880s); Naden’s “Evolutional Erotics” (1887); Blind’s The Ascent of Man (1889); and Tennyson’s “By an Evolutionist” and “The Making of Man,” among others (1889 and 1892, respectively). As I shall demonstrate, the poet-speaker of Pfeiffer’s sonnets emerges in a position unique among these close contemporaries: she accepts Darwinian evolution as true but regards it as an enemy whose savagery must be resisted through a moral force called Love.

This claim differs from brief readings put forward by Kathleen Hickok, Trenton B. Olsen, Fabienne Moine, and Virginia Blain. Hickok interprets one of Pfeiffer’s most anthologized poems, “The Chrysalis,” as a religious poem whose phrase “the Love that saves!” refers to the love of God. She asserts that Pfeiffer believed evolutionary change to be “divinely inspired” (“Intimate Egoism,” pp. 18–19). Moine echoes this view in her interpretation of the noun phrase “Unknown God” in Pfeiffer’s “Evolution” as the “divine power” that drives evolution...


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