Richard Vallance.

This month, Richard Vallance reviews
The Dead by Mathilde Blind

Introduction and background information

Recently, I asked Sara Russell if she would be interested in taking me on as a regular reviewer for Poetry Life and Times. Well, she agreed, and I must say I am grateful, to say the very least, for this honour, privilege and, above all, responsibility, she has granted me. I in turn hope to do justice in my reviews:

1. of historical poets, who have written in English: whether they were English, Scottish, Irish, Welsh, American, Canadian, Australian, or of whatever national origin. Occasionally, I shall also review a few poems by such greats as the French poet Laureate and contemporary of William Shakespeare, Pierre de Ronsard, presenting you with my own translation of each poem I reivew, along with thetext in the original French.

2. of contemporary poets, many of whom are regular contributors to Poetry Life and Times, or to my own Poetry Discussion Forums on Yahoo Groups, viz.:

2.1 Describe Adonis

- dedicated entirely to the sonnet

2.2 Le Jeune Matelot

- where only poetry written in French is posted.

2.3 additionally, you may find more poetry by many talented writers on the Yahoo Poetry Discussion Forum of my close American Friend, Scotty Snow, aka. "Big Heaven". His group is:

Narcissus Reflects

Should any of you, who are current contributors to Poetry Life and Times, wish to join in on the fun, and become new members of any of the aforementioned Poetry Groups, please feel free to do so.

A Brief Note on Canadian Spelling:
While you will find that most Canadian spelling closely mirrors British spelling, there are some notable exceptions.

First and foremost, Canadian English is far more influenced by French than any other brand of English. Secondly, Canadian English prefers to spell the following British orthographies according to American practise:

American & Canadian British civilization = civilization
organization = organisation

There are other seeming anomalies, but, hey, that's what makes life fascinating, eh?

The Review - Related Poetry Styles

For my first review, I have chosen a sonnet by a relatively unknown British poet of the latter half of the Nineteenth Century, a "Post-Romantic" writer, whose style, concerns, and psychological preoccupation with dark themes closely mirror the same in such writers as Thomas Hardy and Matthew Arnold. We recall the profoundly tragic and deeply disconcerting lines which terminate (and that is the best way to describe it, not "finish") his magnificent dirge, Dover Beach where he laments:

But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath of the night wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.


Needless to say, Arnold, like a great many poets throughout the ages, possessed a marked Intuitive Insight into the future, which he was quite able to "read from" the conditions which already persisted in his own times. The brutal Crimean War, after all, had already left its garish scars on the once all-powerful British Empire.

But, his poem foreshadows much more than that. In the garish lines,

And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Arnold, unconsciously and unwittingly, was describing all the horrors and brutal inhumanities of both World Wars of the 20th. Century, and indeed, he presaged all too accurately, the heinous brutishness, which pervaded that entire Century.

Now, of course, as we stand on the "beach" of, not only a new Century, but even a new Millenium, we are forced to ask ourselves, not simply this: what sort of hard breaker will strike our shores next? But even, what 1,000 year tsunamai? Such is the inevitable fate of suffering mankind. Is there to be any relief in sight, or, for that matter, in mind, heart or spirit? We stand at a threshold and desperately wait.

Which brings me to Mathilde Blind (1841-1896)

She was a notable Victorian poet, biographer, editor-translator, whose pseudonym was Claude Lake. Born in Mannheim, Germany, she adopted her stepfather's name, Karl Blind. He had been a revolutionary in the German uprising of 1848-49, and that fact clearly influenced her decision. She was educated by her mother, as well as at schools in Belgium and England. Politically active, she excelled at many of genres of writing. She published her first poems in 1867. Then came, Shelley: A Lecture (1870). Devoted to his name and fame, she also edited a selection his poems (1872), and went on herself to compose a long poem on a Scottish legend, The Prophecy of Saint Oran (1881) -- much in the same vein as Sir Walter Scott's The Lady in the Lake She also published a biography of George Eliot, a romance Tarantella (1884), an epic poem, The Ascent of Man (1889), a translation of Russian emigré Marie Bashkirtseff's Journal (1890), followed by four more poetry books.

Blind was, of course, passionately dedicated to bettering the status of women, frequently calling for educational opportunitiesfor them. Upon her death, she bequeathed her estate to Newnham, Cambridge's women's college.

And, now, read on, for here you find one of her many remarkably brilliant and psychologically disturbing sonnets,

The Dead

The dead abide with us! Though stark and cold
Earth seems to grip them, they are with us still:
They have forged our chains of being for good or ill;
And their invisible hands these hands yet hold.
Our perishable bodies are the mouldIn which their strong imperishable will--
Mortality's deep yearning to fulfil--
Hath grown incorporate through dim time untold.
Vibrations infinite of life in death,
As a star's travelling light survives its star!
So may we hold our lives, that when we are
The fate of those who then will draw this breath,
They shall not drag us to their judgment bar,
And curse the heritage which we bequeath.

Mathilde Blind

Now, for someone whose surname is "Blind", she does display the most amazing perspicacity, where the fine line between life and death, the threshold we all must eventually cross, comes ineluctably and forcefully to our unwilling attention, clearlyor otherwise. Death is no easy pill to swallow. It never has been. It never will be.

The nebulous darkness, which permeates this entire sonnet, echoes the spirit-play of Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" so compellingly that I myself found myself stunned by the psychological similarities, if not by the language in which they were couched. The wording is neither here nor there. The imagery and the symbolism is.

This seemingly peculiar sonnet betrays a depth of soul-searching uncommonly rare, and practically unfathomed and undiscovered, though without a shadow of a doubt, unconsciously experienced, by the better part of humanity. In fact, Blind's poetic writing seems almost a predilection of the ideas that the early Twentieth Century French Philosopher, Teilhard de Chardin, would espouse and expound on concerning this very subject, the intimate-unbreakable spiritual bond between all of humanity's dead and those of us who still remain alive, at least in corporeal substance.

Now, this "crazy-glue" spiritual bond bores down through all the ages past to the "present day" (meaning, her own day, and by projection, ours as well, and on through to all agesfuture to come). The sphere of the dead, which Teilhard de Chardin claims -- no, not claims, profoundly believes, with his deep Christian faith -- surrounds and cloaks the Earth at both her physical and spiritual levels, is called the "noosphere". This word is derived from two ancient Greek phonemes: "noos" = mind, spirit, thought + "spheros", which of course, means"sphere" or "globe". It is not to be thought otherwise, for de Chardin knew and read ancient Greek, and the ancient Greeks knew the world was a sphere, and had measured its circumference to within 500 miles, at 24,500 miles!

That measurement was not merely mathematical. It was philosophical, rational and profoundly Greek, in otherwords, paradoxical. But de Chardin was in no way referring to the rational minds of living humans, or even to the phenomenological abstraction, The Rational Mind, but to the Over Mind, or the Mind that "cannot be defined" or delimited in any "sub-stantial' way. This is the para-human aspect or "Face", as it were, of the Eternal Mind, which wecommonly refer to as God.

Blind's sonnet powerfully conveys this sense of those who are The Immortal Souls, who haunt our lives before our own deaths transpire, and do so, in absolutely everything we think, see, hear, or do. These spiritual immanences affect us to the very core(s) of our being(s) at every probably, every possible level, however remote: sensorially, psychologically, and, of course, to the "sheer guts" of our individual souls, to the visceral of the Human Soul.

Shades of Soren Kirkegaard abound.

We note, for instance, how Blind's relentessly saccadic rhythms and bold alliterations, as in:

dead abide /... to grip (dentals) (notice the grammatical correctness of this hidden "phrase", which I am certain the poetess penned deliberately however subtly.

Or we find further such alliterations as:

dim time untold. dentals (sounds emitted with the teeth) infinite of life in death, fricatives (blowing, windy sounds) and

  sibilants     /       labials      /       sibilants
As a star's / travelling light / survives its star!
(sibilants being hissing sounds, s, z and soft c, and labials being: l m and n)

In all truly efficacious alliterative poetry, the alternation of sibilants with labials conveys a subtle, but strong synergy.

And again, we are bound (and I mean also, literally,bound) to hear:

dim time untold. mutes + Dentals, softened by the mutes.

All such instruments serve to re-inforce and drive home all the more forcefully the unpredictable ethical impact the deceased have on us, and we on them! The Deceased live on in us; in reciprocity, we in them.

Thus, her sonnet manages to quite transcend the bounds of finity, by directly addressing the boundless realms of the Infinite. In these four verses, Blind reveals quite starkly how we as "perishable" yet living beings have caused the Will(s) of the Dead to grow, and yet, glow, incorporeally dim down through the annals of time. To glow dun, yes, but never to be snuffed out. For she insists:

Our perishable bodies are the mould
In which their strong imperishable will
Mortality's deep yearning to fulfil
Hath grown incorporate through dim time untold.

This use of imagery is, to my mind, at least, far more effective than that of most ghost or vampire poems, for the simple reason that the poetess is directly addressing, not only our unconscious fears and hopes, but those of the collective unconscious, of the dead, dying, living, embyronic, nascent and of those as yet unborn, those future souls, who, in the fabric of Eternity, like ourselves, and like everyone who has ever existed before us, are alive and dead simultaneously. This is pretty mind-boggling stuff to have to stare in the face. But, if we are to take ourselves seriously as beings/Being, and if we are to take death head on, as one would a bull by the horns, then we must. And if we don't, it will hit us hard anyway, just like a bull in an arena.

There is simply nowhere (in the infinite sense of that word) to run. Carl Jung would have assuredly approved. And then come these two (pardon the statement!) "mind- blowing" verses!

Vibrations infinite of life in death, As a star's travelling light survives its star!
(or - E = MC sqared - in very poetic terms!) Or why not simply put it this way, E = MC sqared - in poetic terms! It reveals a mind whose knowledge of the principles of astronomy is remarkable. Here we find ourselves face to face with a poet, not a scientist, uttering metaphorically the language of Einstein's Theory of Relativity. Quite astonishing!

But, what really takes me aback is the fact that there are so many extremely brilliant poets like Blind, who are for the most part unknown or ignored in today's "fast" world, which hasn't the time (What a joke!) to read anyone else but the most illustrious of poets, if folks read any poetry at all! Mark me, it is not fame which marks a poet as brilliant. It is her flame, or onrushing spirit of Creativity, otherwise known as Inspiration (with a capital "I"!). Poets are also often held to be "Intuitive", but here again, this Intuition is not small "i" intuition -- in the sense of that mindless beaten-to-death generalization, "Women are more intuitive than men."

As far as Invention (to use Alexander Pope's phrase- ology), or Creativity, or Inspiration, or Intuition are concerned, in the Mind and Spirit of the Poet, these are all one and the same phenomenon. But Blind has taken this whole idea much further.She declares outright that -

And their invisible hands these hands yet hold.

- meaning, of course, that, not only are the hands (and therefore the "metiers" of all living humans) bound to those of the Dead, but also, by the same token, it is they who actually guide the hands of artists, writers and the poet.

Well, as a poet myself, I for one, believe that without reservation. How could I otherwise? Now, I should like to end with a comment one of my fellow members of Describe Adonis made concerning yet another of Blind's driving sonnets,

On the Lighthouse at Antibes

where he says (and I believe he is understating his case!)

"Very nice; Thanks for digging these out of the vault."

That last word, "vault", is significant.

Now, just to give you a taste of how far her genius does go, permit me to quote this sonnet in its entirety. It too is an overwhelming and remarkablework of art.

On the Lighthouse at Antibes

A stormy light of sunset glows and glares
Between two banks of cloud, and o'er the brine
Thy fair lamp on the sky's carnation line
Alone on the lone promontory flares:
Friend of the Fisher who at nightfall fares
Where lurk false reefs masked by the hyaline
Of dimpling waves, within whose smile divine
Death lies in wait behind Circean snares.
The evening knows thee ere the evening star;
Or sees that flame sole Regent of the bight,
When storm, hoarse rumoured by the hills afar,
Makes mariners steer landward by thy light,
Which shows through shock of hostile nature's war
How man keeps watch o'er man through deadliest night.

Mathilde Blind

Now, I ask you, dear readers, just whom do those last four lines remind us so starkly of? Well, of course, Matthew Arnold. And of his own equally bleak and genocidal conclusion:

And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
I say: "Veritas omnium vincit."
Truth conquers all.

© by Richard Vallance,
August 20th., 2001 for Poetry Life and Times, September, 2001

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