Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)

 
 
Introductory Note to "The Ascent of Man"
by Mathilde Blind (S574: 1899)

 
Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: Wallace's Introduction to this epic poem by Mathilde Blind. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S574.htm


     [[p. v]] The subject of Evolution offers grand material for the poet of the future, but hitherto few have taken advantage of it. Tennyson was the first, and still remains unsurpassed in those exquisite verses of "In Memoriam" which deal with it. The late F. T. Palgrave in his poem, "The Voices of Nature," made use of it in special relation to the spiritual nature of man, and in "The Reign of Law," "Vox Dei," and one or two other short poems, he refers to it. But it was reserved for the authoress of this volume to make it the subject of an important and lengthy poem, devoted more especially to Man--physical, intellectual, and spiritual--in his relation to the Cosmos, to the lower forms of life, and to the Deity.

     Her treatment of the subject, if not altogether satisfactory--and it is doubtful whether any living writer could treat it in a manner and with a power fully worthy of the theme--is undoubtedly poetical, and is imbued with modern ideas, though, as was perhaps inevitable, it deals more with the social and spiritual [[p. vi]] aspects of the subject than with those which are purely scientific, though these latter are by no means neglected.

     She appears to have taken her main inspiration from Darwin's "Descent of Man," and she anticipated Professor Drummond both as to his title and in some of his main conceptions.

     A brief outline of the poem in its subject-matter and mode of treatment, with a few illustrative passages, will enable the reader to form some idea of its nature and scope, and to determine whether it in any way comes up to his conception of what such a poem should be. It consists of three main divisions, respectively entitled, "Chaunts of Life," "The Pilgrim Soul," and "The Leading of Sorrow," each with its special versification and treatment. The first and most important of these is that which deals with physical and mental evolution, from inorganic matter to man, and specially with man's development and progress from savagery to civilisation. In the first ten pages the whole course of evolution, from the lowest forms of life up to man, is sketched out with considerable force and beauty, and with due regard to the keynote of the whole poem--that Life, Love, and God are essentially one.

     The beginning of life is thus described:--

"And vaguely in the pregnant deep,
Clasped by the glowing arms of light
From an eternity of sleep
Within unfathomed gulfs of night,
[[p. vii]] A pulse stirred in the plastic slime
Responsive to the rhythm of Time.

Enkindled in the mystic dark
Life built herself a myriad forms,
And, flashing its electric spark
Through films and cells and pulps and worms,
Flew shuttlewise above, beneath,
Weaving the web of life and death."

     The geological succession of life is then rapidly indicated with some vivid touches, culminating in the anthropoid apes, whence arose man.

"And lo, 'mid reeking swarms of earth
     Grim struggling in the primal wood,
A new strange creature hath its birth:
     Wild--stammering--nameless--shameless--nude;"

His helplessness, and the possession of a hand, sharpen his senses and improve his intellect, till--

"With cunning hand he shapes the flint,
     He carves the horn with strange device,
He splits the rebel block by dint
     Of effort--till one day there flies
A spark of fire from out the stone;
Fire which shall make the world his own."

     [[p. viii]] Then follows the development of the various arts; from dreams arises the belief in spirits, demons, and gods; priestcraft soon follows; then chieftainship, sacrifices, conquests, and slavery. Man builds walled cities for protection; vast empires arise with their despotisms, cruelties, and bloodshed, culminating in the giant power and the destruction of Rome. Then the rise of Christianity, of heresies with persecutions and martyrdoms, and the history of Europe is briefly sketched down to the epoch of Napoleon and Waterloo.

     There follows a short but effective description of the development of the soul of man--of his intellectual, emotional, and moral nature struggling upwards through superstition and errors towards universal sympathy and love.

     The second part--"The Pilgrim Soul"--is an allegory of our modern civilisation in which wealth and pleasure and luxury have to a large extent banished that sympathy and love which can alone secure general happiness and peace. The contrasts of wealth and poverty, of luxury and vice, are painted with a terrible force and plainness. Love is pictured in the form of a child, naked, hungry, and cold, and outcast from the city of wealth and luxury. She who finds him takes him home, shelters and nourishes him, he grows and becomes greater than the lost gods of the cruel city to which he returns for its ultimate salvation.

     In the third part--"The Leading of Sorrow"--a veiled phantom [[p. ix]] conducts the writer through the world to show her the universality of sorrow and death. We have first a vivid picture of the destruction and war ever going on in the animal world, from the lowest to the highest forms. The pessimistic view of the pain and misery thus arising is that taken by the author--one entirely opposed to that of Darwin and the present writer. Hence she says--

"Cried I, turning to the shrouded figure--
     'Oh, in mercy veil this cruel strife!
Sanguinary orgies which disfigure
     The green ways of labyrinthine life.
From the needs and greeds of primal passion,
     From the serpent's track and lion's den,
To the world our human hands did fashion,
     Lead me to the kindly haunts of men."'

At first this seems fair and peaceful. The cornfields and orchards, the vineyards and farms with their happy peasants, the towns in the valley with its contented citizens are brightly described; but suddenly the sounds and sights of an invading army are brought before us, the country is devastated, the town burnt, and all the horrors of war prevail: --

"Fallen lies the fair old town, its houses
     Charred and ruined gape in smoking heaps;
Here with shouts a ruffian band carouses,
     There an outraged woman vainly weeps."

[[p. x]] "'Hence'--I cried in unavailing pity--
     'Let us flee these scenes of monstrous strife,
Seek the pale of some imperial city
     Where the law rules starlike o'er man's life."'

But this is found to be only going from bad to worse. It is true there is law and order, wealth and luxury, but along with these is the most intense misery, want, and crime, not as occasional incidents at more or less distant intervals, but perpetually present as a part of the regular order of human life. She sees the

"Rich folk roll on cushions softly swelling
To the week-day feast and Sunday prayer."

But also the

". . . human rubbish, gaunt and squalid,
Whom their country spurns for lack of room."

Then follow some powerful sketches of the destruction and ruin that so often falls on good and happy lives, calling forth a burst of indignant protest:--

"'Hence, ah, hence'--I sobbed in quivering passion--
     'From these fearful haunts of fiendish men!
Better far the plain, carnivorous fashion
     Which is practised in the lion's den."'

"Yea, let earth be split and cloven asunder
     With man's still accumulating curse--
Life is but a momentary blunder
     In the cycle of the Universe."

[[p. xi]] Then she loses consciousness, and sees a vision of the stars and nebulæ, and suns and planets in their complex motions and developments as a mighty whole; and she hears a Voice, saying--

"Wilt thou judge me, wilt thou curse me, Creature
     Whom I raised up from the Ocean slime?

And the grand course of evolution is grandly described, culminating in the production of man--

"'I have climbed from reek of sanguine revels
     In Cimmerian wood and thorny wild,
Slowly upwards to the dawnlit levels,
     Where I bore thee, oh my youngest Child!

"'I have cast my burden on thy shoulder;
     Unimagined potencies have given
That from formless Chaos thou shalt mould her
     And translate gross earth to luminous heaven.'"

Then the Voice ceases; the seer awakes; the sun rises--

"And beside me in the golden morning
     I beheld my shrouded phantom-guide;
But no longer sorrow-veiled and mourning--
     It became transfigured by my side.
And I knew--as one escaped from prison
     Sees old things again with fresh surprise--
It was Love himself, Love re-arisen
     With the Eternal shining through his eyes."

     [[p. xii]] Many readers will, no doubt, consider this presentation of the subject too fragmentary, too fanciful, and altogether inadequate. But the writer knew her own strength, had her own ideas, and has evidently taken great pains to develop them in the manner and to the extent best adapted to her own genius and powers of expression.

     And, if carefully considered as a whole, the poem will be found by many to have a fascination and completeness that does not at first appear, and to express in picturesque and forcible language many of those ideas as to the place of man in the great Cosmos, and as to the fundamental cause of the terrible evils that disgrace our civilisation, which permeate the writings of our greatest modern poets, moralists, and thinkers. These ideas are rapidly spreading, and will lead to that combined effort for social and humanitarian improvement which will, in all probability, be the great and distinguishing feature of the coming century.

ALFRED R. WALLACE.


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