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  • Queer Poetry and Darwin at the fin de siècle: Mathilde Blind, Constance Naden, and Laurence Hope
  • Barbara Barrow (bio)

In her 1895 poem "Spring in the Alps," Mathilde Blind celebrates the joyful, unapologetic queerness of dandelions:

The dandelion puffs her balls,  Free spinsters of the air,Who scorn to wait for beetle calls  Or bees to find them fair;But breaking through the painted walls  Their sisters tamely bear,Fly off in dancing down, which falls  And sprouts up everywhere.

(ll. 17–24)1

Through these anthropomorphized "spinsters," Blind merges two different accounts of reproduction from Charles Darwin's works. The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication (1868) discusses spontaneous plant budding, while The Descent of Man (1871) describes how male animals vie for females' attention through display, dance, and song.2 Yet here, on this "lusty green" (l. 2), it is the spinster dandelion who "puffs her balls" in display, not to solicit a mate's attention, but for her own pleasure. The seeds "Fly off in dancing down" in language that hints at Darwin's male suitors, but heterosexual reproduction is not the aim of this performance. The poem uncovers the queer possibilities of nature, possibilities that celebrate nonreproductive desire while defying, even "scorn[ing]," the male / female binary found in the Descent.

Blind joins her late Victorian contemporaries Constance Naden and Laurence Hope in crafting a Darwinian poetics that draws on evolution and [End Page 97] sexual selection to uncover nature's queer possibilities. While the traffic of Darwin's ideas with misogynistic and homophobic rhetoric is well known, less attention has been paid to how his theories could also unsettle conventional accounts of gender, sexuality, and reproductive teleology.3 In this essay, I mean "queer" in Holly Furneaux's sense of "that which differs from the life-script of opposite-sex marriage and reproduction."4 All three poets lived lives that challenged this life script. Blind and Naden were both New Women who never married.5 Laurence Hope, less well known among literature and science scholars, was the pen name of Adela Florence Nicolson, wife of a colonel in the Bengal Army. She scandalized her contemporaries with her erotic verse and disregard of feminine modesty, and would dress herself—problematically—as a Pashtun boy in order to follow her husband out on his military campaigns.6

For these three poets, male pseudonyms were a means of crossing gender lines and facilitating publication. Blind wrote under "Claude Lake" for her first volume of poetry and Naden sometimes used "C. Arden" or "C.A." for her scientific writing.7 Nicolson kept the pseudonym Laurence Hope even after its status as a pseudonym was likely known.8 And all three poets worked with intertexts that explored ideas about gender and sexuality, especially a tradition of evolutionary verse that included works by Alfred Tennyson and Algernon Charles Swinburne. Hope's poetry also takes inspiration from bhakti verse, a tradition of Hindu devotional poetry that, as Rohit K. Dasgupta and Rima Bhattacharya have shown, challenges heterosexual norms.9 Together, their late-century scientific poems offer a testimony to the imaginative possibilities of Darwin's ideas, ideas that they used to decenter heterosexual marriage and to imagine a more gender-inclusive present.

The "plastic Universe": Blind's Malleable Nature

In Queer Natures, Queer Mythologies, Sam See writes that the subject of Darwin and sexuality is shaped by the legacy of Michel Foucault's The History of Sexuality, which "condemns 'science' primarily through the example of fin de siècle sexology."10 Foucault rightly claims that sexologists used taxonomies and eugenics to change or destroy people, but it is important to note that "sexology and eugenics represent only a portion of the biological sciences" and that "Darwin himself did not naturalize nature" (p. 17). See discovers a radical indeterminacy at the heart of Darwin's thinking:

For Darwin, nature is not an essentialist category. As expressed most famously in his challenge to teleological evolutionary theories with the [End Page 98] claim that "species are not immutable," Darwin maintained that biological forms undergo an unpredictable, perpetual process of change. Even as natural selection temporarily stabilizes some species' physical traits, Darwin avers...