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Evolution and the struggle of love in Emily Pfeiffer's Sonnets.

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 Jurgen 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 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 A scent 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 (p. 249). But, as I shall demonstrate, there are no strong grounds in "The Chrysalis" or "Evolution"--nor the volume in which they appear--for interpreting Pfeiffer's "Love that saves" or "Unknown God" this way, nor for taking infrequent expressions of evolutionary hope as Pfeiffer's established stance. Olsen more accurately observes that several Pfeiffer sonnets express dismay at how evolutionary thought overturns Wordsworthian ideas of Nature's benevolence. However, he also reads an upward trajectory across his selected sonnets, concluding that Pfeiffer ultimately celebrates evolution for keeping alive the sacred instinct in humans (pp. 36-41). Contra these readings, by considering Pfeiffer's entire sonnet collection within its nineteenth-century context, I demonstrate the poet-speaker's ultimate determination to combat evolutionary savagery. This view comes closer to that of Virginia Blain, who detects an unresolved stance toward evolution in Pfeiffer's sonnets. The poetry, Blain writes, expresses "interesting shifts in perspective... from poems which celebrate the power and mystery of Nature... to those which contemplate with some dismay the new scientific ideas of its mindless force and alienation from man." But while Blain likely intends otherwise, her phrase "interesting shifts in perspective" damns with faint praise not helped by the apparent explanation, "No doubt all of these ideas formed part of the debate internalized by many intelligent Victorians" (p. 86). This remark unfortunately implies that Pfeiffer's literary discrepancies arise out of the poet's unconscious absorption of conflicting theories that then leak into the poetry. But Pfeiffer's rigorous, multiyear self-education on topics of the day contests this implication.

My own interpretation of Pfeiffer's evolutionary thought arises from a close reading of some two dozen of her sonnets published between 1874 and 1880. These sonnets concede evolutionary theory, rage against its implications, and strain toward an alternative hope--a hope that frequently collapses under such straining but that eventually settles on an ethic of Love as the restructuring force of the universe. This ethic of Love is not rooted in Christian belief, despite Pfeiffer's regular use of biblical phraseology and imagery. That is, Pfeiffer does not adopt the optimism of the mid-Victorian poets that Charles LaPorte examines in Victorian Poets and the Changing Bible, namely, the sense that the higher biblical criticism's reconfiguring of the Bible as literature, particularly as poetry, inversely actuated modern poetry's sacred power. (5) Pfeiffer, by contrast, generally dissociates biblical language from religious meaning, reducing scripture to an ordinary intertext and making no claim about poetry's religious power, either. For her, Darwinism simply erased religious possibilities. In her journey within and against evolutionary theory, she consistently protests Darwinian materialism, provisionally adopts Spencerian teleology while rejecting its evolutionary ethic, and ultimately, antedating Huxleyan theory, calls for moral combat against cosmic evolutionary forces. A far cry from Alice Meynell's conviction in "Christ in the Universe" (1901) that the myriads of stars will, "in the eternities," unroll the "million forms of God" (11. 21, 27)--or even from Tennyson's reconciliation of Christian faith and evolution in "The Making of Man" (where those who look closely can see the slow escape from primal beginnings and know that all shall one day sing "choric/Hallelujah to the Maker")--Pfeiffer's thinking also differs from contemporary poets who preferred environmental, ethological, paleontological, or sexual evolutionary themes. She repeatedly foregrounds the implications of evolution for human meaning in the world. She is akin to Meredith in aiming to transcend the conditions of natural selection; but unlike him, she rarely threads motifs of joy or optimism or faith in nature's beneficence into her thinking about evolution. Her despair is sometimes as dark as Blind's, though not as apocalyptic or vindictive; her vision sometimes as hopeful, though less aimed at divine ends.


Before examining Pfeiffer's initial poetic responses to evolutionary (especially Darwinian) thought, I wish briefly to establish the importance of reading Pfeiffer's sonnets as sets, or series, more than as single poems, since the latter approach leads to misinterpretations, such as Hickok's on "The Chrysalis." Pfeiffer's continual thinking on the evolution question is reflected in the fact that as she sent a finished poem to a periodical, she was often developing its subject in her next poem. For instance, Pfeiffer published three sonnets in the July 25, 1874 issue of The Spectator, her first publication in that journal. (6) She headed them with a long title, "To Nature in her Ascribed Character of Unmeaning and All-Performing Force," enumerated them I to III, and individually subscribed them with what I take to be their composition dates: June 19, June 20, and June 23. She followed up the theme in August with a pair of untitled sonnets, enumerated I and II but not subscribed with dates. In September, she published a single sonnet, subscribed July 30, again with an evolutionary theme and unwieldy title, this one oddly bracketed: "[To the Blind Architect of the City of Life, Whose Humble Homes are the Creatures of Earth, Water, and Air, and Whose 'Meeting-House' is Man.]" If Pfeiffer composed the sonnets in the same order that she published them, which seems likely, she wrote the untitled middle pair between June 23 and July 30. The six sonnets, then, written sequentially over five weeks and published sequentially over three months, can be seen as a thematic series. Pfeiffer emphasized their thematic unity when she arranged them for her 1876 Poems, an arrangement repeated in Sonnets and Songs (1880). (7) In each volume, Pfeiffer joined the July trio to the first of the untitled August sonnets and numbered the latter as IV in that series. Pfeiffer then headed the remaining August sonnet as "Broken Speech" and paired it with the previously single "To the Blind Architect" through linguistic echoes. She then inserted a new sonnet between "To Nature: IV" and "Broken Speech" to strengthen the thematic connection between the now numerically linked set of four and the linguistically linked set of two. The new sonnet, titled "Past and Future," develops the preceding poem's depiction of man as the child of "Mother Dust" (1. 9) by opening with an Eden reference, and it concludes with "The golden age of science and endeavour" (1. 14) as precursor to the next sonnet's opening line, "Ripe fruit of science" (1. 1). These revisions all intensify the original sense of the sonnets as a sustained grappling with evolutionary thought, a purposeful assemblage, if not visibly a series.

What, then, do these assembled sonnets convey about Pfeiffer's early thoughts on evolution? In short, an intermixed acceptance of it as the new reality under which we must live, a dismayed protest against that reality, and--at this early stage--an unsuccessful effort to envision alternatives. The fluctuating and sometimes contradictory ideas expressed in these early sonnets have, as mentioned, been taken as poetic inattention, but Pfeiffer's careful sequencing and revising practices suggest otherwise. In any case, as Holmes observes, "Poets are not obliged to be self-consistent." Holmes considers Charles Algernon Swinburne a poet who engages evolutionary themes in his 1871 Songs before Sunrise without advancing "a single coherent scientific world view" (p. 47). Holmes even accuses Swinburne of an "act of bad faith" when, within a single poem, Swinburne "invokes Social Darwinist arguments he knows to be untenable within his own morally neutral vision of nature" (p. 49). Pfeiffer, one of the few women poets writing on this subject in the same decade as Swinburne, cannot be accused of bad faith; although her terms, like his, do not always cohere, her poems openly reveal a morally inflected but unsettled vision of nature, testifying not to perspectival manipulation but to the genuine turmoil accompanying an emerging belief in the world as nonteleological and amoral. In spite of this turmoil, Pfeiffer's modern critics, as described earlier, tend to emphasize the hopeful rather than the apprehensive phrases of these initial evolutionary poems. At least one early reviewer did the same. Upon their volume publication in 1876, The Westminster Review observed, "Mrs. Pfeiffer must not for one moment be confounded with the crowd of writers who imagine that they can put down the doctrine of natural selection by personal abuse of Darwin and Herbert Spencer." The reviewer selected two poems as Pfeiffer's "best" and continued, "In these Mrs. Pfeiffer appears to fling away some of the fears and regrets that have held her, and to see some, at least, of the blessings which Science promises the world." (8) In reaching this conclusion, the reviewer draws attention away from the fears and regrets of the very sonnet that follows his selections. Taken as a whole, however, Pfeiffer's first seven assembled sonnets on evolution neither critically collapse under nor celebrate the new science. Instead, they dramatize Pfeiffer's intellectual and impassioned encounter with Darwinism. That is, her poems wrestle mainly with the metaphysical implications of evolutionary thought.

Though her series at first intimates that the speaker has not fully accepted evolution ("To Nature: I" queries, "can it be that joy is fled,/And bald unmeaning lurks beneath thy smile?" [11. 5-6]), the speaker soon discloses that, in spite of her implied resistance, she has accepted the evolutionary principle so central to Darwin's Origin of Species, namely, that the universe is not divinely created along harmonious principles, but species evolve through a competitive process Darwin termed "natural selection" and Herbert Spencer later called "the survival of the fittest." (9) When the speaker asks, "can it be.../That beauty haunts the dust but to beguile,/And that with Order, Love and Hope are dead?" (11. 7-8), she is conceding that Order is dead even as she protests a concomitant loss of beauty, Love, and Hope. The protest, however, seems to admit that even these latter virtues no longer reside in nature; all the "To Nature" sonnets apostrophize nature in despairing terms: "Weird Nature!" "Pitiless Force," "Dread mother" (1.5, 9, 10); "Dread force," "Dull fount of joy" (II.1, 9); "Blind Cyclops," "Dead tyrant" (III.1, 9). Even when the speaker appeals to nature as mother, she recognizes her own appeal as vain, for this "Mother Dust" (IV.9) is a dread and pitiless force, "deaf and blind" to all prayer (1.14). In like character, the "Blind Cyclops" of the third sonnet "hurl[s] stones of destiny.../In mere vacuity of mind and will" (III.1, 3). Unmoored from Wordsworthian mothering care, the world is necessarily also "unfathered" (1.10), that is, no longer the creation of God the Father. Instead, nature's forces move "restless as the ocean,/Filling with aimless toil the endless years--/Stumbling on thought, and throwing off the spheres,/Churning the Universe with mindless motion" (II.5-8).

Despite these repeated assertions of nature's unmeaning, the speaker finds operating under this understanding of nature's character difficult. She rails against nature as if it acted by choice: "Thou crownedst thy wild work with foulest wrong/When first thou lightedst on a seeming goal,/And darkly blundered on man's suffering soul" (11.12-14). The speaker here elevates nature to a moral force the dark opposite of the divine creator of the world (who had crowned his work with the creation of man). She further implies that nature did not, after all, toil aimlessly; it seized a goal when it stumbled upon one, as if its latent agency suddenly found direction. In "To Nature: IV," the speaker invokes the "sacred" parent-child bond operative in all creatures to berate nature for contrarily laboring toward a "would-be matricide" by cutting off "man's loving heart" from "Mother Dust" (11. 10, 14, 12, 9). Again, nature is more than mindless motion here; it is malevolent, or at least, heartless. The rage against nature here anticipates Blind's outcry against nature's "monstrous strife" in The Ascent of Man, but Pfeiffer does more than rage. (10) Unable to withhold moral critique, her speaker also threatens counterattack. She rebels outright against "tyrant" Nature, reworking Blake's Satanic Mills of industry into Nature's remorseless crush: "Man's soul revolts against thy work and thee!"; though enslaved by a "despot, conscienceless and nil," humanity "still might rise, and with one heart agree/To mar the ruthless grinding of thy mill!" ("To Nature: III," 11. 4, 5, 7-8). How might humans defy the process of natural selection? In his chapter on natural selection, Darwin depicts evolution as a tree of life, whose buds, twigs, and branches battle for supremacy: "The green and budding twigs may represent existing species; and those produced during former years may represent the long succession of extinct species. At each period of growth all the growing twigs have tried to branch out on all sides, and to overtop and kill the surrounding twigs and branches, in the same manner as species and groups of species have at all times overmastered other species in the great battle for life" (p. 129). But Pfeiffer turns Darwin's image against itself to suppose that, if twigs and branches can overmaster and kill each other, a "fatal flower" might outdo them both and wage war on the entire tree:

   Man, cutting off from each new "tree of life"
   Himself, its fatal flower, could still defy thee
   In waging on thy work eternal strife,--
   The races come and coming evermore,
   Heaping with hecatombs thy dead-sea shore. (11. 10-14)

A hecatomb, originally an ancient Greek sacrifice of one hundred cattle, here means any great number of persons devoted to destruction for the cause, while "dead-sea shore" evokes the destruction of Pharaoh's hosts narrated in Exodus 14-" Through these grim images, Darwin's tree of life becomes in Pfeiffer's hands a tree choked in death by bodies that, self-destroying, thwart the otherwise unchallenged process of natural selection. At this point in the sonnet group, Pfeiffer's speaker braves the Darwinian process by threatening to turn savage against it.

Not every sonnet insists on this extremity. Threat sometimes subsides into lament. In "To Nature: IV" the speaker elaborates on her earlier description of humanity as "befooled" slaves:

   If we be fools of chance, indeed, and tend
   No wither, then the blinder fools in this:
   That, loving good, we live, in scorn of bliss,
   Its wageless servants to the evil end. (11. 1-4)

This first quartet registers the moral dilemma that a Darwinian universe presents the speaker: why do good if it offers no reward? The very impulse to love the good mocks us, for the good must be a tyrant if it does not reward those who serve it, and how could we possibly love a tyrant? Yet, in the speaker's formulation, we do so almost naturally, by loving good. This conundrum--of which Pfeiffer appears more aware than Swinburne of his when he casts the unvolitional earth-force named Hertha as desiring human freedom (see Holmes, pp. 48-49)--prompts the second quatrain's question, one that indicates the collapse of the threatened revolt:

   If, at the last, man's thirst for higher things
   Be quenched in dust, the giver of his life,
   Why press with growing zeal a hopeless strife,--
   Why--born for creeping--should he dream of wings? (11. 5-8)

The speaker is spiraling downward into resignation, even despair, perhaps tinged with anger. The question is premised on an "If," but the two forceful "whys," reinforced by another two across the sestet, suggest a speaker nearly pounding the ground in frustration: "Why has man's loving heart alone outgrown [the mother-child bond]?" (1. 12); "Why hast thou [Mother Dust] travailed so to be denied?" (1. 13). The "To Nature" poems that initiate the larger assemblage of seven end in this mix of rage and despair.

In the next two sonnets, the speaker seemingly takes a deep breath and tries to believe in a potential good in the evolutionary process. It is a fragile effort, much different from Meredith's conviction in "Woods in Westermain" (1883) that "Spirit shines in permanence" through earth's evolutionary changes, at least, for those receptive to nature's mystery. (12) Unlike Meredith's optimism that "Change is on the wing to bud/Rose in brain from rose in blood" ("Woods," p. 198), Pfeiffer's effort in "Past and Future" is shattered in subsequent sonnets. Still, it lays early ground for a later, stronger hope (to be discussed in section three). It draws on the preceding sonnet's images of man as made from dust to evoke the Edenic garden, where, each evening, the man and woman felt

   The voice which compassed them, a-near, a-far,
   Which murmured in the fountains and the breeze
   Which breathed in spices from the laden trees
   And sent a silvery shout from each lone star. (11. 5-8)

In spite of the Edenic allusion, the speaker does not attempt a Tennysonian reconciliation of evolutionary processes with divine purposes. Her vision of Eden is more Romantic than biblical, the voice that addresses the man and woman emerging nebulously from water, wind, tree, and star rather than from the clearly named, present God given in the Genesis text: "Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day." (13) In Pfeiffer's sonnet, the voice floats as in a dream, pleasant but detached, like the incomplete sentence that expresses it. "[T]hough a dream," the speaker asserts, it "has helped us when our faith was weak" (11. 9-10) (14)--a faith in the good that she locates not in the past, as a loss, but in the future, in the age of progress:

   We wake, and still it holds us, but would seem
   Before us, not behind,--the good we seek,--
   The good from lowest root which waxes ever,
   The golden age of science and endeavour. (11. 11-14)

The speaker carries this tentative hope straight into the next sonnet, which opens, "Ripe fruit of science--demonstrated fact--/We grasp at thee in trembling expectation,/We humbly wait on thee for explanation" ("Broken Speech," 11. 1-3). But for all her trust in science as demonstrated fact, the speaker sees the natural world as only partially articulating a larger, still uncertain truth; as indicated in the poem's title, the universe consists, not of clear lines that "dear Earth designs/Shall speak her life on ours" (Meredith, "Outer and Inner," 11. 31-32), but of pregnant yet broken speech:

   Words of the Universe, enshrined in act!
   Words, pregnant words, but only parts of speech
   As yet, curt utterance such as children use,
   With meanings struggling through but to confuse
   And hinted signs which soar beyond our reach. (11. 4-8)

Nature has no Meredithian voice whose "good decree" we can accept as we move, "mid career/From torrent source.../To heaven-reflecting currents clear" (Meredith, "The Thrush in February," 11. 21, 26-28). Rather, Pfeiffer's speaker more tentatively calls the "children of the time" to lend their "faltering modes to Nature's voice" in hopes of "some prize sublime" (11. 9, 10, 11). Though far from joyful, the speaker seems partly recovered from distress, self-encouraged to believe that the unmeaning Darwinian world may not rule out a meaningful, moral future.

"To the Blind Architect of the City of Life, whose Humble Homes are the Creatures of Earth, Water, and Air, and whose 'Meeting-House' is Man" is the last of the seven 1874 sequential sonnets; it begins--but does not end--in this more optimistic mood. Tellingly, the speaker replaces Darwin's metaphor of an organic tree of life with one of a conscious, if blind, builder of a city of life: a designer. The new metaphor may represent a brief turn to natural theology (the idea that God's existence can be inferred through empirical study and reason without support from revelation or sacred texts,) (15) especially as the description of the Builder recalls the mystical voice in the Edenic garden of "Past and Present"; the speaker suggests that "all things which be" (1. 3) are as

   moving thoughts of some high whole which looms
   Above us in the star-dust and the mist,
   Around us in the voices of the night,
   Within us in quick glimpses of love-light. (11. 4-7)

Still, the speaker does not align the blind Builder with God but with some dimly sensed force not truly in keeping with the concepts of natural theology. One might expect a speaker disillusioned by Darwinian evolution and uninclined toward natural theology to adopt a non-Darwinian concept of guided evolution (the metaphor of a Blind Architect almost suggests it), but the speaker does not do so. Instead, she develops her earlier attention to the natural world as broken speech by declaring, "beasts, fishes, birds,/All things which be, they are as bodied words" (11. 2-3). Because the Builder's art is "true" (11. 1, 9), these bodied words tell their "unmeant meanings" (1. 9)--the "unmeant" underscoring the Builder's nonpurposiveness, the "meanings" distinguishing action from result. The growing optimism of these last three sonnets propels the speaker to declare at the start of this final sestet, "But true thy art,.../Blind Builder of the city, on whose crown/Man stands--a temple for a God's indwelling,/ Thy finest--" (11. 9-12). Momentarily excited, the speaker imagines humanity as the Builder's chief feat. She even draws on the Bible's description of the believer's body as a temple of the Holy Spirit to communicate humanity's special nature--though she replaces the definite article with the indefinite when she mentions God (see 1 Cor. 6:19). A temple, of course, designates a holy place of worship, conceived as more sacred than church, chapel, or meetinghouse. Yet the sonnet's full title, which names man as meetinghouse instead of temple, either rebukes the enthusiastic speaker in advance or identifies her starting point in order to underscore her later mistake. For mistake it appears to be. At the moment of highest expression, the entire optimistic project of the last three sonnets collapses, and the speaker returns to the despairing exclamations and pounding questions that marked "To Nature," declaring man "Thy finest--no! thy sole false work--Cast down/The lying altar, raze it to the sod,--/What means a temple where there is no God?" (11. 11-14). Bodied words, it turns out, can lie. Scriptural words again carry no metaphysical force: a temple has no meaning in a universe that has dispensed with God. Man may be something more than other creatures, but not much more: a mere "meetinghouse," diminished through scare quotes. Thus, having travelled from dismay to rage to lament to hope and near meaning, the speaker topples her emerging optimism and exits the series of seven on a despairing question that marks the intensity of Pfeiffer's initial response to Darwinism.

Persistent Disquietude

As if she then needed to gain distance--at least publicly--from the evolutionary theme that had occupied her for several months, Pfeiffer took up other subjects in her next nine published sonnets. (16) Privately, however, she continued to explore evolutionary thought, for when Poems appeared in January 1876, it contained fourteen previously unpublished sonnets, of which half, in part or whole, continued the earlier theme; these include the two now most mentioned as evidence of her evolutionist faith ("A Chrysalis" and "Evolution"). (17) The fourteen sonnets sometimes achieve a measure of peace regarding humanity's fate but also often express an ongoing disquietude that spurs the search for a good not found in evolutionary thought. This disquietude marks Pfeiffer's difference from several contemporary women poets who use evolutionary theory either to promote attention to flora and fauna or to query established gender discourses. Moine details, for instance, how Mary Howitt's 1873 volumes of nature poetry "expel[] humans from their central position" by attending almost exclusively to environmental and ethological themes (p. 237); to similar purpose, in her 1880s poetry, May Kendall wittily "uses extinct species and antediluvian skeletons to challenge the validity of human notions of innate superiority" (p. 239). Holmes, among others, describes how Constance Naden satirically critiques Darwinian theories of sexual selection in her 1887 "Evolutional Erotics" (pp. 191-197). But Pfeiffer attends minimally to plants, animals, fossils, or questions of gender in her sonnets on evolution. For her the central issue remains the meaning and purpose of humanity in an evolutionary world. No other issue entices her to sidestep this one; and her tone never approaches the witty or satirical.

For despite the occasional annotation that the paired sonnets entitled "To a Moth That Drinketh of the Ripe October" subtly express female sexual delight (Blain, p. 86), these two poems actually reenact the movement displayed across the last three 1874 sonnets, namely, a rising hope that crashes to an end. In the first sonnet, the speaker imagines the moth drinking "ambrosia from the cool-cupped flowers/.../To drop at last in unawaited death," its "pent-force--[its] bounded life--set free/[To] [f]ill larger sphere with equal ecstasy" (1.5, 6, 8, 13-14). The second sonnet widens the scope, imagining not only the moth but also other creatures to be "glad-voiced" as they "freely course" their environments (II.4, 9, 8). The speaker's heart "lightents] at the sum/Of Nature's joy; its half-unfolded fate / Breathes hope--" (11.11-13), presumably hope for humanity's equal ecstasy of living, for a sense of transcendence from the material world. Here, Pfeiffer's rapt creatures correspond to Meredith's joyous lark, who enables the "better heart of men" to "feel celestially": "For singing till his heaven fills,/'Tis love of earth that he instils" ("The Lark Ascending," 11. 83, 84, 65-66). However, as in "To the Blind Architect," Pfeiffer's speaker cannot sustain her belief in such joyful connection between nature and humans; she crashes across another broken line ("Breathes hope--") to exclaim that no such hope exists for "those beneath the ban,/The slavery accurst, of tyrant man!" (11.13-14). The poem does not specify what constitutes the tyranny, and feminist critics understandably see the lines as Pfeiffer's protest against male dominance. But Blain glosses the line differently, and her reading makes equal sense, given the larger contexts explored here: "Probably an allusion to man as scientific investigator." (18) Possibly to underscore this meaning, Pfeiffer places as her next sonnet the earlier-written "The Winged Soul," which opens by lamenting the speaker's nonflight (non-moth-like) experience: "My soul is like some cage-born bird." However, it is the next sonnet, "The Gospel of Dread Tidings"--composed newly for the volume--that heightens the sense that "slavery" and "tyranny" in "To a Moth" might indict the evolutionary theories that have shattered a Romantic view of moths and souls alike.

As had "To the Blind Architect," "The Gospel of Dread Tidings" adapts biblical phraseology to protest evolutionary implications while still refusing Christian belief in the deity. In contrast to biblical descriptions of Christ's saving work as a gospel of "glad tidings," Pfeiffer pitches evolution as a gospel of dread tidings. (19) As with earlier sonnets, the speaker does not assert this dread gospel to be untrue--merely unwelcome. Though she admits its unstable foundation ("only guesses on a broken clue" [1. 4]), she also calls it a "creed" taught by "honest men and true" (1. 1). What she fears is that this "sad creed" (1. 1) will "in the end quench all the blue/Above us" (11. 5-6)--that is, reduce life to a material quotidian where aspirations of the soul mean nothing. Not for Pfeiffer is Kendall's playful wish, in "The Lay of the Trilobite," to return to trilobite simplicity. Pfeiffer is utterly, even desperately, serious. The Apostle Paul notes that those who disbelieve the resurrection of Christ must conclude they also will have no afterlife; he then adds, "If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable" (1 Cor. 15:19). Pfeiffer's speaker alludes to this idea that the greater the delusion, the greater the despair:

   If such should in the end quench all the blue
   Above us, then the saddest souls were they
   Who knew and loved the most, and could not lay
   The ghost of Hope, and hold the grave in lieu. (11. 5-8)

As before, the sonnet then attempts to overcome the material limits of natural selection theory--but its argument hangs on a possibility that Pfeiffer does not actually believe in, namely, that Christ could return to reassert his gospel's truth for the sake of doubters. Since, in the sonnet's own construction, Christ is merely highest man and not God, he cannot return. Consequently, all must live on under illusion, whether of glad or dread tidings. No wonder that in the next sonnet the speaker, "vexed with waking thought," sometimes dreams of a "Will supreme/.../not working by its sole decree" but "wrestl[ing] with a counter-stream" ("Dreaming," 11. 1, 5-8). Here, Pfeiffer seems to evoke contemporary evolutionist Alfred Russel Wallace's argument that human consciousness or will presupposes a higher will, since consciousness cannot derive from matter. Wallace thought it probable that "the whole universe, is not merely dependent on, but actually is, the will of higher intelligences, or of one Supreme Intelligence." (20) Pfeiffer admits, though, that her "Will supreme" struggles against Darwinian unmeaning, such that she yearns to "spurn back the ground/ And through the reeling world be charged to fly,/With but one word to help Him in the fight" (11. 11-13). In these lines, the personal pronoun "Him" jars with the impersonal "Will supreme" and may lean back to the Christ of the preceding sonnet; but if it does, the speaker's desire to "help Him in the fight" implies again her sense of Christ as highest man, not God. Perhaps for this reason, she does not appeal to him again in either of the volumes under study.

Instead, the ocean imagery that opened "Dreaming" prompts a new meditation in "The Chrysalis," which, of all Pfeiffer's sonnets, is the one most open to the idea of evolution as progress (and interpreted as such by Hickok and Olsen, as noted earlier). The poem represents Pfeiffer's testing out of a non-Darwinian theory of evolution. Unlike the "To Nature" sonnets, "The Chrysalis" affirms evolution as leading to improvement, particularly moral improvement. Though Darwin had in The Descent of Man argued that natural selection also produces rising moral standards, (21) it was Herbert Spencer who more systematically theorized moral evolution, as early as 1851, asserting, "The modifications mankind have undergone, and are still undergoing, result from a law underlying the whole organic creation; ... [A]s surely as a blacksmith's arm grows large, and the skin of a labourer's hand thick;... so surely must the things we call evil and immorality disappear; so surely must man become perfect." (22) Unlike Darwin, Spencer conceived a teleology in evolution, an achievable purpose in its processes. In spite of her title, it is this evolutionary teleology that Robinson represents in "Darwinism": "and now the same unrest/Goads to the same invisible goal,/Till some new gift, undream'd, unguess'd, / End the new travail of the soul" (11. 21-24). In his 1863 Evidence As to Man's Place in Nature, Thomas Henry Huxley similarly espoused a progressive evolution, and Pfeiffer may have adopted her chrysalis image from his "human larva" metaphor. Huxley compared "the mental progress of the race" to a developing pupa when he wrote, "History shows that the human mind, fed by constant accessions of knowledge, periodically grows too large for its theoretical coverings, and bursts them asunder to appear in new habiliments, as the feeding and growing grub, at intervals, casts its too narrow skin and assumes another." Huxley felt the ideal outcome to be still far off, but he attributed recent progress to science: "Truly the imago state of Man seems to be terribly distant, but every moult is a step gained.... [W]ithin the last fifty years, the extraordinary growth of every department of physical science has spread among us a mental food of so nutritious and stimulating a character that a new ecdysis [act of moulting] seems imminent." (23) "The Chrysalis" adopts--or, at least, tries on--this view of evolutionary progress:

   When gathering shells cast upwards by the waves
   Of Progress, they who note its ebb and flow
   Its flux and reflux, surely come to know
   That the sea-level rises; that dark caves
   Of ignorance are flooded, and foul graves
   Of sin are cleansed; albeit the work is slow;
   Till, seeing great from less for ever grow,
   Law comes to mean for them the Love that saves!
   And leaning down the ages, my dull ear,
   Catching their slow-ascending harmonies,
   I am uplift of them, and borne more near,
   I feel within my flesh--laid pupa-wise--
   A soul of worship, tho' of vision dim,
   Which links me with wing-folded cherubim.

The octave relies on the "as surely ... so surely" formula that Spencer uses to bolster a belief in inevitable progress, while the sestet recalls the chrysalis image of the title (and Huxley's metaphor) to describe the speaker's own growth process: though yet a pupa in body, she feels the stirrings of internal metamorphosis (as per Spencer's law of intelligence that required inner-outer correspondence). (24) The metamorphosis produces "a soul of worship" that, along with the latently winged pupa body, links her, not to originating beasts, but to angelic figures who represent a transcendent human future. The image of "wing-folded cherubim" answers at last the final line of "To Nature: IV," which had asked, "Why--born for creeping--should he dream of wings?" The speaker can dream now of wings because the evolutionary model she is here assuming allows for moral and spiritual progress, whereas the Darwinian framework of "To Nature" had not. Consequently, "The Chrysalis" expresses more evolutionary optimism than any other of Pfeiffer's sonnets--even as its religious language (soul, worship, cherubim) avoids any specific Christian referent.

Still, the poem's careful phrasing suggests its speaker does not completely achieve the quietude she claims. The disconcerting pronoun distinction between octave and sestet, together with the exclamation that ends the octave and the uncertainty of the "vision dim," all suggest a speaker working rather hard to achieve her faith in progress. In other sonnets, the speaker typically uses first-person voice, either singular or plural, throughout; but in "The Chrysalis" she distances herself from the "they... who surely come to know," as well as from their eventual belief that the law of progress is "the Love that saves!" The exclamation mark potentially denotes surprise, even incredulity, at the conclusion that an inevitable process could represent a force of Love, one, moreover, that saves. To be sure, the speaker leans down and catches the "slow-ascending harmonies," riding the wave, as it were, until she feels linked to cherubim. But even then, she does not concede that the Law of Progress equals a Love that saves. She seems willing to catch the vision without accepting the equation. Pfeiffer seems to underscore this measure of uncertainty in a later revision to the poem. For the Sonnets and Songs version, she changed the title from "The Chrysalis" to "A Chrysalis," the indefinite article indicating a now loose identification between speaker and metamorphosing experience (much as Paul's "God" became Pfeiffer's "a God" in "To a Blind Architect"). These details suggest that "A Chrysalis" represents more of an experiment in progressive evolutionary thinking than a point of arrival.

The remaining sonnets in the Poems collection substantiate this suggestion. After a number of poems in a slightly different vein--some of which I consider in the final portion of this article--Pfeiffer concludes Poems with five sonnets, a pair and a trio, that consider evolution once more. She establishes

"The Hunger of Life" and "Evolution" as a pair through a repeated rhyme scheme and, again, verbal continuities, some of which extend to "A Chrysalis." Since no anthology includes both poems, I give them in full, their shared conversation emboldened, their echoes of "A Chrysalis" underlined:

The Hunger of Life

   If Life is but a hunger to attain,--
   A longing for some unattested Good,
   Whose secret has been whispered to the blood,
   Which bears upon its way each gathered gain,
   And leaves our questionings in dumb disdain,
   Then in fulfilment, life itself must cease,
   Nearer to death related than to peace,
   And as it slowly waxed, must slowly wane.
   Dim consciousness, whose cradle was the ocean,
   How high art thou uplifted since thy birth!
   On the twin arches of man's feet, his motion
   Is as a god's upon the subject earth;
   Life hath fulfilled itself, played out its part:
   Will refluent hunger turn to eat its heart?


   Hunger that strivest in the restless arms
   Of the sea-flower, that drivest rooted things
   To break their moorings, that unfoldest wings
   In creatures to be rapt above thy harms;
   Hunger, of whom the hungry-seeming waves
   Were the first ministers, till, free to range,
   Thou mad'st the Universe thy park and grange,
   What is it thine insatiate heart still craves?
   Sacred disquietude, divine unrest!
   Maker of all that breathes the breath of life,
   No unthrift greed spurs thine unflagging zest,
   No lust self-slaying hounds thee to the strife,
   Thou art the unknown God on whom we wait:
   Thy path the course of our unfolded fate.

As with "A Chrysalis," "Evolution" read singly conveys optimism. The speaker casts evolution as a hunger that "unfoldest wings/In creatures" much as the chrysalis metamorphoses from pupa to cherubim. Though we must "wait" to see the future (recall: "the work is slow"), hunger's apparently insatiable appetite is actually a "divine unrest." Our fate remains "unfolded" (recall: "vision dim"), but we need not fear, since this hunger is not motivated by "unthrift greed" or "lust self-slaying" (recall: flooded-out "caves of ignorance" and "graves of sin"). Rather, as hunger has expanded its range from sea-flowers to the Universe (recall: "great from less for ever grow[s]"), so it will reach what it ultimately craves.

But, any optimism the speaker intimates in "Evolution" depends on her refusal to return to the question that ended "The Hunger of Life," the question of what happens when hunger reaches the end of its appetite, when longing becomes the "unattested Good." If, "[i]n fulfillment, life itself must cease, /... must slowly wane," if consciousness has "played out its part," will life, with nothing else to hunger after, "now turn to eat its heart?" "Evolution" purports to answer this question, but the speaker actually avoids it. First, she recasts the question in less dangerous terms (see line 8). Second, in naming an "Unknown God," she alludes to Paul's address to the Athenians to imply a divine guidance she has earlier rejected ("Men of Athens, I found an altar with this inscription, to the unknown god. Whom ye therefore ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you" [Acts 17:22]). It's a sleight of hand, really. Close reading reveals that the speaker casts not a divine entity but insatiate hunger as the "Unknown God" now revealed; and the lingering question about hunger's self-destructive insatiability construes the revelation as another gospel of dread tidings. Indeed, the unaddressed questions preceding the exclamatory phrases in line 9 make the latter throw their weight on the nouns of unease rather than the adjectives of faith: "Sacred disquietude, divine unrest!" It seems that a view of evolution as a gradual amelioration of the human condition does not, in the end, satisfy Pfeiffer.

She does not readily give up the model, however; in the trio that closes Poems, Pfeiffer's speaker attempts a progressive view of civilization, which Spencer had insisted upon as the social corollary of biological evolution, a process not restricted to natural selection but involving human agency (Social Statics, pp. 62-63, 215, 474-475). Critical attention on this theme has gone mostly to Blind's The Ascent of Man, with its vivid account of civilization's moral failure. In Jason Rudy's analysis of that poem, what humans learn in the process of evolution "does little to save humankind from a history of passion and violence, and the poem proceeds for several hundred lines recounting, among other brutal historical episodes, the fall of Rome and the Reign of Terror" [such that] 'the spasm of life' still wrests control from the human species." (25) Thirteen years before Blind, Pfeiffer chose regular rather than spasmodic rhythms to pose the same question about civilization's progress. Her "Love and Joy" celebrates the flowering of Greece as "young Love and Joy [who] could scarce go wrong" (1. 13); but "Love and Sorrow" then describes how "evening followed on this palmy noon;/The Roman came, and.../Wrenched [away] the glad cup." Eventually, "drunken," he dropped "cup and wine together" and ushered in another "morrow" of "sorrow" (11. 9-10, 11, 12, 13, 14). The third sonnet asserts that, unlike these civilizations, "Our house of life.../Yet stands on its foundations" (11. 1, 4). But the speaker is uneasy rather than confident about (British) progress; she asks, "But what of these swift motions that still throng/Its courts, these longings, these disquietudes, / As of a restless presence that still broods,/Or prisoner making protest against wrong?" (11. 5-8). (26) These phrases recall the unease of "The Hunger of Life" and "Evolution" (e.g. "longings," "disquietudes," "restless"). The speaker cannot convince herself that current (British) civilization will get much farther than Greece and Rome did. Though she does not become as existentially despairing as Blind's narrator later does, her protesting prisoners of life are far removed from the evolving chrysalides imagined earlier. Looking outward, the speaker asks, "are we eyeless, or is nought to see?" (1. 10); the "dim vision" of "A Chrysalis" has apparently worsened into blindness. In fact, the speaker unites blindness and hunger with an image of torture as she seeks, unsuccessfully, some inner response to the brooding disquietudes of "Our house of Life": "We turn within, and straight upon the tense/Rack of blind hunger for some thing to be,/Are stretched again" (11. 11-13). Some thing to be: anything more than what is, apparently--another far cry from "wing-folded cherubim" ("Chrysalis," 1. 14) and a "motion /... as a god's upon the subject earth" ("Hunger of Life," 11. 11-12). Progressive optimism has again failed. Faith in an "Unknown God" has led to unknowing. As I demonstrate in the final portion of this article, in the sonnets she composed between 1876 and 1880--a period when most of the other poets named in this study had not yet published on the subject--Pfeiffer moved still further away from theories of progressive evolution to develop an ever stronger sense that the brutalities of Darwinian natural selection must be opposed, not with threats of a fatal flower attacking the tree of life, but with an ethic of Love.

The Struggle of Love

In her sonnets of the late 1870s, Pfeiffer developed her view of Love as a moral necessity opposing evolution. In doing so, she anticipated a position explored by Blind in The Ascent of Man and elaborated by Huxley in the 1890s in his "Evolution and Ethics." Whereas Darwin situated human moral progress as the outcome of instinctive responses in the process of natural selection, and whereas Spencer argued for a teleological social progress, Huxley argued that history demonstrated human effort to overcome primitive conditions. That is, the claim for an evolutionary ethic was false, because the evolutionary process allowed immoral as well as moral values to survive; social progress occurred only because humans struggled to achieve it. "Let us understand, once for all," Huxley wrote, "that the ethical process of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it." And also, "In place of ruthless self-assertion, it demands self-restraint; in place of thrusting aside, or treading down, all competitors, it requires that the individual shall not merely respect, but shall help his fellows; its influence is directed not so much to survival of the fittest, as to the fitting of as many as possible to survive." (27) Huxley did not append a name to this ethical process--as an agnostic, he did not link it to Christian values, and neither did Pfeiffer--but it seems that Pfeiffer conceptualized it as an active force of Love.

In doing so, she does not adopt the theological frame of Alexander Anderson's 1878 "Move Upward," which affirms that man can "move himself up to that nature of his/Which, though trampled and trod in the dust,/Still shows.../The finger of God through its crust" ("Move Upward," 1878, 11. 33-36). Nor does she query if a divine purpose even exists, as does Hardy's "Nature's Questioning" (1898) or Louisa Bevington's "Egoisme a Deux" (1882): "When the warm swirl of chaos-elements/Fashioned the chance that woke to sentient strife," "Was it foreseen that you or I should be?" (11. 9-10, 3; cited lines from Anderson, Hardy, and Bevington in Blyth, poems 335, 625, and 320). Much less does she suggest, as Blind later would, that Love will ultimately enable humans to become divine or to experience the poetic rapture that Rudy identifies as Swinburne's and Blind's highest hope (p. 140). Rather, for Pfeiffer, the divine is a nonstarting and nonending point, because Darwinism has ruled out God and any associated purpose. What is left is for humans to acknowledge the world as a bleak, unloving place, and yet muster up Love anyway--not by turning one to another, as Arnold's speaker suggests in "Dover Beach," but by drawing on some cosmic, unpurposive force of Love inexplicably available to combat evolutionary force. In contending for this force, Pfeiffer, unlike Blind, projects no future, only a necessary response to the present.

Her early effort toward this position appears in four sonnets preceding any discussed so far, published in her first volume of poetry after her extended self-education. Gerard's Monument (1873) concludes with six sonnets, two of which now regularly appear in anthologies because of their focus on gender (they both begin with the phrase "Peace to the odalisque"). But the other four are more significant here. They again comprise a conversational group. All personify Love as a spiritual agent in the world. The first addresses Love as the "only champion of the soul blasphemed/By arrogant young science!" (11. 5-6). Neither the sonnet nor Gerard's Monument clarify what science the speaker takes to be arrogant, but "young"--as well as the hindsight offered by later poems--suggests the new geological and biological sciences as likely. The speaker calls on Love to be "pure" and "strong" "in this latter day of doubt and dread" (11. 3, 2). The sestet reiterates the call and hangs the whole weight of human survival on Love as "the one evangel, through all forms/Of change surviving, riding out all storms," including the waxing and waning of "creeds" (11. 13-14, 11). But in what by now seems typical Pfeiffer fashion, subsequent sonnets in the set do not sustain this opening move. Angst intensifies in the second and third sonnets, until the last sonnet speculates that if Love looked into the future and saw "the generations halting past, /.../Still onward, onward, upward nevermore," he would wish "the weird world were wrecked upon the sun!" (11. 8, 11, 14). Once again, the speaker loses confidence. Perhaps for this reason, Pfeiffer omitted these sonnets from Poems and relegated them to a back-end, separate section in Sonnets and Songs. Still, the first sonnet of the four marks an early moment when Pfeiffer imagines Love as a moral force that "champion[s]" the soul in the face of a materialist science.

Her subsequent volumes, though much distressed by evolutionary dilemmas, gradually recover that early belief and even move beyond it to imagine the individual as able to side with Love in the battle of life. In Poems, though, the speaker does not turn to the forces of Love until two-thirds of the way in, and even then, the initial turn is wishful thinking. In the poem following "A Chrysalis," the speaker encourages children of the age, "Born in a tragic moment," to "lose not that child-spirit [that] / Smiles in Death's face if only Love be near" but rather "Hold fast the sacred instincts which approve/A fatherhood divine" so that their "clear child-eyes/May light the groping progress of the wise" (11. 3, 6, 9, 12-14). This disingenuous appeal requires that children not learn what the speaker of "To Nature: I" has already conceded, namely, that the world is "unfathered"; to ask children to hold to a "fatherhood divine"--a Creator God--asks them to hold to an illusion for the sake of adults who know better but still depend on the illusion. In the next poem, the speaker gains more faith in Love as a real presence. In an antimaterialist move, she asserts that "forms" remain dormant unless "some wandering love... / Some waft of life endues the Fact with power" ("An Invocation," 11. 1, 5-6). She then appeals, not to children and their illusions of fatherhood divine, but to "fire divine" (1. 9) that can, however fragilely, "touch our thoughts with light/Of lyric love, that they once more may tremble/Into new life" (11. 10-12). The speaker has not yet recovered a sense of Love as champion of souls blasphemed by science, but she invokes a spiritual or metaphysical force of some kind to reinvigorate minds and lives toward "unimagined goals" (1. 14). Shortly thereafter, in a sonnet addressed to a recent widow, the speaker casts the "fire divine" of Love as operative at cosmic as well as personal levels: "Love, great Love, he knows not such control/Of law as binds the planet to his sphere" (11. 5-6). (28) Whatever uncertainties of past and future arise, "With Love 'tis ever now, and always here" (1. 7; italics original). For the first time in the volume, the speaker asserts Love as a moral force to be reckoned with. The poem initiates a universal assertion that intensifies in the poems Pfeiffer composed in ensuing years and eventually placed behind the Poems sequence in Sonnets and Songs.

Of these twenty-two new sonnets, fourteen were first published in periodicals between February 1876 and August 1879; presumably, the remaining eight were also composed during this period; almost none speak directly to evolutionary themes. (29) Instead, social, political, classical, Pre-Raphaelite, and Keatsian subjects emerge. (30) Even muted, however, the evolutionary question reverberates, though perhaps only for readers of the entire volume. For instance, the paired poems entitled "To the Friends of Love" recall the assertion that Love is greater than natural law. The first poem reminds auditors, again by evoking "Dover Beach," that "though the world its hail of pity fling" (1. 6), Love cannot be overthrown. The speaker also evokes Christ's resurrection from the grave to imagine Love's triumph over grief: "Death leaves but empty cerements in a heap,/And Love for love still rolls away the stone" (11. 13-14). The second sonnet adds that though Love's servants "hold sad commune o'er some vanished chief' (1. 6), they also know their Love cannot be found among the dead (1. 10). The speaker concludes that Love deserves praise, for it alone can "reframe/The universe" (11. 13-14). The claim counters materialism as the only frame operating the universe as well as amelioration as the process of change. Instead, it suggests, a metaphysical or moral agent acts as the restructuring force.

The eight poems that conclude the sonnet sequence in Sonnets and Songs increasingly urge an ethic of Love as a necessary combatant to a pitiless, materialist world. The paired sonnets titled "To Dr. Wilhelm Jordan: The Great German Poet and Apostle of the New Faith" lead the way. Wilhelm Jordan was recognized in the nineteenth century as the poet who "introduced the new Weltanshauung of evolution into German lyrics." (31) Pfeiffer was familiar with his work, perhaps because her marriage opened up German connections. An 1876 letter by Pfeiffer's husband reveals that Jordan admired Pfeiffer's poetry; Edward wrote, "the sonnets (especially the last few on Evolution) have scarcely been mentioned at all [in the London papers]+yet the great Poets of my own country were so much struck with them--for instance Jordan that he translated them into German+sent us the manuscrips [sic] as a token of his admiration." (32) Pfeiffer's two Jordan sonnets acknowledge but qualify her reciprocal admiration. Playing Jordan's name against two biblical narratives (of Israel's crossing of the Jordan River into the promised land after slavery in Egypt and desert wanderings; also of Moses's view of that land from the Pisgah mountaintop), Pfeiffer places her speaker on the "shore" of Jordan's mind in the first sonnet and on the "Pisgah of young thought" in the second. Having read Jordan's evolutionary poetry with its soaring confidence, the speaker trembles in hope at the promise of rest from discordant thoughts; but, like the wearied Israelites who refreshed themselves at the river but still "quailed" before its might (1. 8), she feels dangerously close to losing the proffered peace:

   Jordan, I stand a-gaze upon the shore
   Of that deep mind of thine, and trembling hold
   My breath the while thy paeans glad and bold
   Above the wild world's discord rise and soar.
   So came the desert-wearied ones of yore,
   To rest and breathe refreshment manifold,
   Beside thy sweet-voiced name-stream, as it rolled;
   So paused, and quailed its sounding depths before.
   Yes, looking down thy stream of thought, so clear,
   So clear, yet bottomless, my mortal hand
   Clips the frail growths around--the first thing near--
   To stay my feet, else from that giddy stand
   My soul could fall with one blind plunge and sheer
   Quit of thy boundless hopes and promised land!

On one hand, the speaker finds Jordan's thought--evolutionary thought--"clear"; it answers questions about the world's origins and condition. On the other hand, she finds it frighteningly unbounded and perhaps ungrounded ("yet bottomless"), so that she experiences vertigo in contemplating it. In the partner poem, she remains "perplexed with desert wandering" (1. 1) and so climbs "that Pisgah of young thought, from whence/New prophets glass for us a scene immense--/Vast beyond hope or reach of seraph's wing" (11. 2-4). The expression "young thought" recalls the earlier "arrogant young science," while "New prophets" surely includes Wilhelm Jordan, given the context. Yet, as with the first sonnet of the pair, the vast claims of evolutionary science cause the speaker unease rather than rest; the "scene immense" appears a promised land beyond access even of a seraph (or a chrysalis-turned-cherubim). The speaker feels "the void of every cherished thing" (1. 8). Consequently, in the sestet of the poem, she plunges, not toward evolutionary vistas but toward Love, come what may. She declares, Love "is all my business and delight,/ And I elect with him to live or die!" (11. 13-14). Though not yet strong enough to overcome the world's discord, Love remains for the speaker the best promise for a meaningful future. Accordingly, she--using a theologically resonant language of election to life or death--chooses Love as her labor and joy, a choice that implicitly rejects Jordan's evolutionary "paeans glad and bold." Notably, she does not reject evolutionary theory itself; it remains for her "so clear,/So clear." But in choosing to side with Love, she, for the first time, establishes a firm position. No longer trembling on shorelines, she elects to battle those forms of evolutionary science that either discard transcendence altogether or claim an evolving moral growth. She will instead advocate an ethic of Love as necessary for life.

This she proceeds to do in the paired "In Love's Eclipse" poems that follow, first published in The Spectator in August 1878. The poems assert that while the natural elements in the cosmos may temporarily darken each other, that darkness passes; likewise for Love when death and sorrow darken its path. Moreover, Love has an advantage over the planets in that, when struck by death, it can turn within to generate light. The speaker then apostrophizes Love in the language of Psalm 24:7 (which reads "Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in."): "O Love that cometh, Love that may depart,/The gates of life are set so wide by thee,/The lord of Love can enter where thou art" (11.12-14). The biblical psalm rejoices over God's creating and sustaining of the world, then instructs Jerusalem's gates to receive the Lord God as King. Pfeiffer's poem, as usual, does not identify with the God of this biblical text but substitutes a more generic moral force as generating meaningful life. The substitution produces a somewhat inexplicable final line (who is the lord of Love in this configuration?) but maintains the source text's sense of praise and celebration.

The speaker's avowed allegiance to Love, along with her confidence that Love will overcome all in the battle of life, propels, finally, the closing four poems of the 1880 sonnet collection. "To S. J." declares faith in immortality; "A Partnership" acknowledges sorrow's ongoing presence but not the dominance it earlier had in the speaker's life; and the two sonnets on Edward Burne-Jones's Annunciation painting allegorize Christ once more into Pfeiffer's own concept of Love and then declare that Love an Abrahamic blessing to the entire world. Though "borne in so great heaviness," Love "shall the nations bless:/Love that shall set man's bounden spirit free,/The 'Holy Thing' that still is born of thee" ("Suggested by the Picture of the Annunciation," 11. 10, 12-14). Published first in Eraser's Magazine in August 1879, this sonnet was likely Pfeiffer's last composition as she compiled Sonnets and Songs (advertised in January 1880 and reported on February 14, 1880, as received by The Academy).' (33) Thus by late 1879--ahead of and often different from most other poets named in this study--Pfeiffer had discarded any faith in evolution as contributing to inner human progress, and, indeed, believed the opposite enough to place her hopes in an ethic of Love to which humans actively contributed through their choices--an ethic that would, without projecting any physical, intellectual, or moral improvement, give life meaning.

In reaching this conclusion, I do not claim to have the final word on Pfeiffer's evolutionary poetry or, indeed, her faith position generally. A recent dissertation places Pfeiffer as a central Anglican, and though I find little support for a Christian posture or poetics in the sonnets I've studied here, I do not discount the possibility that some later sonnets (as well as other poems) bear traces of Christian thought. (34) In addition, Pfeiffer published periodical pieces and volumes of poetry to which I could not attend in this essay, close study of which might reconfigure my analysis. Nonetheless, the sonnets studied here testify that Pfeiffer did not find evolutionary science a discovery to celebrate nor did she always found the ethic of Love fully satisfactory for thinking about life. But in grappling in her sonnets with the issues raised by multiple evolutionists across the 1850s to 1870s, she revealed herself as an intelligent Victorian critically and artistically engaged in the vanguard of the debate.


(1) Eric S. Robertson, English Poetesses: A Series of Critical Biographies, with Illustrative Extracts (London: Cassell, 1883), p. 350.

(2) See the headnotes to Pfeiffer and/or the selected poems in the following poetry anthologies for evidence of primarily feminist and occasionally evolutionary critical interest: Angela Leighton and Margaret Reynolds, eds., Victorian Women Poets: An Anthology (Oxford & Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1995), pp. 338-343; Isobel Armstrong and Joseph Bristow, eds., with Catherine Sharrock, Nineteenth-Century Women Poets: An Oxford Anthology (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1996), pp. 494-508; Margaret Randolph Higonnet, ed., British Women Poets of the 19th Century (New York: Meridian, 1996), pp. 388-391; Virginia Blain, ed., Victorian Women Poets (Harlow: Longman, 2001), pp. 85-110; Katie Gramich and Catherine Brennan, eds., Welsh Women's Poetry, 1460-2001: An Anthology (Dinas Powys: Honno, 2003), pp. 113-116; Caroline Blyth, ed., Decadent Verse: An Anthology of Late Victorian Poetry, 1872-1900 (New York: Anthem, 2009), pp. 209-213; and Michael J. Allen, ed., Anthem Anthology of Victorian Sonnets, 5 volumes (New York: Anthem, 2011), 3: 287-91,4: 21, 70-73, 212-17,375-86, 5:46-48.

See the following articles and book chapters for more sustained discussions on Pfeiffer's work: Kathleen Hickok, "'Intimate Egoism': Reading and Evaluating Noncanonical Poetry by Women," Victorian Poetry 33, no. 1 (1995): 13-30; Kathleen Hickok, "Why Is This Woman Still Missing? Emily Pfeiffer, Victorian Poet," in Women's Poetry, Late Romantic to Late Victorian: Gender and Genre, 1830-1900, eds. Isobel Armstrong and Virginia Blain (New York: Macmillan, 1999), pp. 373-389; Catherine Brennan, "Emily Jane Pfeiffer and the Dilemma of Progress," in Brennan's Angers, Fantasies and Ghostly Fears: Nineteenth-Century Women from Wales and English-Language Poetry (Cardiff: Univ. of Wales Press, 2003), pp. 143-169; T. D. Olverson, "'A world without women in any true sense': Gender and Hellenism in Emily Pfeiffer's Flying Leaves from East and West," in Women Writing Greece: Essays on Hellenism, Orientalism and Travel, eds. Vassiliki Kolocotroni and Efterpi Mitsi (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2008), pp. 113-134; Mike Hawkins, "Social Darwinism and Female Education, 1870-1920," subsection on Emily Pfeiffer, in Darwinismus, Bildung, Erziehung, eds. Florian Bernstorff and Alfred Langewand (Berlin: Lit Verlag, 2012), pp. 23-25; T. D. Olverson, "Worlds without Women: Emily Pfeiffer's Political Hellenism," in Olverson's Women Writers and the Dark Side of Late-Victorian Hellenism (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), ch. 3; and Churnjeet Mahn, "Image Conscious: The New Lady Traveller at the Fin de Siicle," in Mahn's British Women's Travels to Greece, 1840-1914: Travels in the Palimpsest (Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2012), pp. 99-138.

See also Kathleen Hickok, "Emily Pfeiffer," in Dictionary of Literary Biography 199: Victorian Women Poets, ed. William B. Thesing (Detroit: Gale Research, 1999), pp. 233-242, for other critical possibilities that have not yet--or scarcely--been taken up, including Pfeiffer's dramatic and narrative methods, approach to fantasy and realism, satire, use of imagery, view of childhood, Pre-Raphaelitism, and more. Susan Brown, Patricia Clements, and Isobel Grundy provide another strong overview in their entry on Pfeiffer in Orlando: Women's Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press Online, 2006),

The items in this note constitute the sum sustained, published criticism of Pfeiffer's work that I am aware of at time of writing. Extended considerations of the poetry also inform at least two recent dissertations: Prudence Brand's "Emily Pfeiffer and Victorian Women's Religious Poetry" (PhD diss., University of London, 2012; privately published as Emily Pfeiffer: Poet, Feminist, Iconoclast [Anna Trussler, 2015]) and Trenton B. Olsen's "Entangled Influence: Wordsworth and Darwinism in the Late Victorian Period" (PhD diss., University of Minnesota, 2014), pp. 36-41.

(3) John Holmes, Darwin's Bards: British and American Poetry in the Age of Evolution (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. Press, 2013); Fabienne Moine, Women Poets in the Victorian Era: Cultural Poetics and Nature Poetry (Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2015), pp. 19, 215, 249.

(4) All except four of the sonnets discussed in this essay open with the Petrarchan abba followed by a variation (acca or baab or cddc, etc.), while about two-thirds of the sestets follow the Shakespearean pattern, to end with a couplet. For more on sonnets and flux, see Natalie M. Houston, "Towards a New History: Fin-de-Siecle Women Poets and the Sonnet," Essays and Studies 56 (2003): 149, 154.

(5) Charles LaPorte, Victorian Poets and the Changing Bible (Charlottesville: Univ. of Virginia Press, 2011).

(6) For this and all further citations of The Spectator, see The Spectator Archive at http://

(7) Pfeiffer repeated the thirty sonnets printed in Poems, with some textual revision, in Sonnets and Songs, as well as six sonnets from her 1873 volume, Gerard's Monument, and Other Poems. Sonnets and Songs included twenty-four new sonnets, as well as seventeen other lyrics set apart as the "Songs" of the volume title. Where significant, I discuss variants across periodical and volume versions of a poem. Unless otherwise noted, all citations come from Sonnets and Songs (London: C. Kegan Paul, 1880).

(8) The Westminster Review 105, no. 208 (April 1876): 283.

(9) Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species (London: John Murray, 1859), ch. 4, in The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online, ed. John van Wyhe (2002-),; Herbert Spencer, Principles of Biology (London: Williams and Norgate, 1864), I: 444-445. In 1871, Pfeiffer wrote to Darwin regarding one of his claims in Descent of Man. See Letter 7411, Pfeiffer to Darwin, Darwin Correspondence Database, University of Cambridge,, accessed April 14, 2015; her poetry suggests that she assiduously read Origin of Species.

(10) Mathilde Blind, The Ascent of Man (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1899), p. 88.

(11) "hecatomb, n.," OED Online, Oxford Univ. Press, accessed March 24, 2015.

(12) George Meredith, The Poetical Works of George Meredith, ed. G. M. Trevelyan (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1912), p. 200.

(13) Gen. 3:8. For the link between man as dust and the Garden of Eden, see Gen. 2:7. All Bible quotations are from the King James Version (KJV), most used in Pfeiffer's time.

(14) The 1876 version of the poem had "if a dream" instead of "though a dream": Pfeiffer's conviction clearly intensified.

(15) James Brent, "Natural Theology," in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://, accessed March 27, 2015.

(16) The nine are as follows, all published in The Spectator: the four "Aspiration" sonnets, which develop the theme begun in "The Soul As a Bird of Passage" (November 1874; retitled thereafter as "The Winged Soul") in January 1875; the two "On Hearing the Introduction to Lohengrin" sonnets in March 1875; "To the Unknowable" (later retitled "The 'Sting of Death'") in April 1875; and "Among the Glaciers" in September 1875.

(17) The fourteen are "To a Moth That Drinketh of the Ripe October: I and II," "The Gospel of Dread Tidings," "Dreaming," "A Chrysalis," "The Children of Light," "An Invocation," "To L.E.S." (later "To L. C. Smith"), "On the Thuner See," "The Hunger of Life," "Evolution," "Love and Joy," "Love and Sorrow," and "The Prisoner in the House of Life."

(18) Blain renders the final line as "Of the inquisitor and tyrant, man," as does Higonnet. Blain cites the 1876 Poems, and Higonnet the second edition of 1878, but the line actually appears this way only in the enlarged and revised volume edited by Pfeiffer's husband in 1886 and is therefore not authoritative. Poems and Sonnets and Songs both give "The slavery accurst, of tyrant man." Still, I concur with Blain's inclination to read the line as an anxiety about science rather than gender.

(19) See, for instance, Luke 1:19, Luke 8:1, Acts 13:32, and Rom. 10:15.

(20) Alfred Russel Wallace, Contributions to the Theory of Natural Selection (London: Macmillan, 1871), p. 368.

(21) Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (London: John Murray, 1871), 1: 166, 105, in Complete Works. On natural selection raising moral standards, Darwin wrote,

There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to give aid to each other and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection. At all times throughout the world tribes have supplanted other tribes; and as morality is one element in their success, the standard of morality and the number of well-endowed men will thus everywhere tend to rise and increase.

(22) Herbert Spencer, Social Statics, or the Conditions Essential to Human Happiness (London: Chapman, 1851), p. 65.

(23) Thomas Henry Huxley, Evidence As to Man's Place in Nature (London: Williams and Norgate, 1863), pp. 72, 73.

(24) In The Principles of Psychology (London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1855), p. 105, Herbert Spencer asserted as a "law of intelligence" the correspondence between an organism's internal order and the environment's external order.

(25) Jason Rudy, Electric Meters: Victorian Physiological Poetics (Athens: Ohio Univ. Press, 2009), p. 159.

(26) Spencer, too, for all his confidence in social progress, criticized British self-complacency: "Here we sit over our tea tables, and pass criticisms upon national character, or philosophize upon the development of civilized institutions, quietly taking it for granted that we are civilized--that the state of things we live under is the right one, or thereabouts." All who think such, he added, are "uniformly mistaken" (Social Statics, p. 186).

(27) Thomas Henry Huxley, Evolution and Ethics, and Other Essays (New York: Applecon, 1897), pp. 83, 81-82.

(28) In Poems, this sonnet is titled "To--." In Sonnets and Songs, it becomes "To L.E.S.," but the middle initial is incorrect. In the 1886 expanded and revised edition, the error is corrected, and the title given as "To L.C.S." with further identification: "widow of the author of Thornedale"--that is, to Lucy Caroline Smith.

(29) These sonnets appeared in periodicals, in The Spectator, unless otherwise noted: "Transfiguration" in February 1876, "To Immortal Music" in March 1876, "To the Friends of Love: I and II" in January 1877, "A Protest" (beginning "This is the Sabbath season") in July 1877, "To a Fledgling Robin" and "To the Same, On Beginning His Song" in September 1877, the four sonnets headed "Studies from the Antique" in June 1878 (in the Contemporary Review), "In Love's Eclipse: I and II" in August 1878, and "Suggested by the Picture of the Annunciation, by E. Burne Jones" (not to be confused with "To E. Burne Jones, On His Picture of the Annunciation") in August 1879 (in Fraser's Magazine). The remaining sonnets appear to have been written expressly for the 1880 volume.

(30) As Houston reminds us, in spite of famous amatory sonnet sequences, most Victorian sonnets focused on subjects other than romantic relationships; "moral or political reflections on specific events or issues" were common (p. 148). Pfeiffer's multiple other interests during these years also led to two volumes of narrative poetry (Glan-Alarch, His Silence and Song [1877] and Quaterman's Grace, and Other Poems [1879]) and an essay critiquing proscriptions on women's dress ("The Tyranny of Fashion," Cornhill Magazine, 1878). Pfeiffer wrote more essays on the "Woman Question" in the 1880s.

(31) Alexander Tille, Modern German Lyrics: An Introduction to German Songs of Today and Tomorrow (London, 1896), pp. xxx-xxxi.

(32) J. E. Pfeiffer to Theodore Watts-Dunton, May 10, 1876, Theodore Watts-Dunton Collection, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin.

(33) A massive fire at the warehouses of her publisher, C. Kegan Paul, on April 17, 1880, apparently destroyed most of Pfeiffer's bound work, but some volumes must have survived or been reprinted, because an advertisement for Sonnets and Songs reappeared in The Academy on October 30 of that year. On the fire, see Leslie Howsam, Kegan Paul, A Victorian Imprint (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1998), pp. 85-86.

(34) I think, for instance, of "The God of the Living" and "Of Such Is the Kingdom of Heaven," both published in Pfeiffer's Flowers of the Night (London: Trubner, 1889).
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Author:Dieleman, Karen
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Date:Sep 22, 2016
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