Leonard D. Abbott, “A Priestess of Pity and of Vengeance” (1912)


ON June 19 Voltairine de Cleyre died in Chicago. The daily papers in most cases did not even record the fact. The news reached the radical public through the medium of her friends and through memorial meetings held in Chicago and New York. Very few realize even yet that one of the most remarkable characters of our time has passed on. Her reputation, I venture to predict, will last for centuries. She was an Anarchist, “a priestess of pity and of vengeance,” as W. T. Stead once called Louise Michel. In the sad sisterhood of Anarchism three names stand out above all others—Louise Michel, Emma Goldman and Voltairine de Cleyre.

If Louise Michel was the humanitarian, the friend and benefactor of all who suffered and who needed her help, if Emma Goldman is the fiery and emotional agitator, Voltairine de Cleyre can best be described as the poet and thinker. Her style glows with a certain passion of the mind. Her voice has a vibrant and somber quality that, so far as I know, is unique in literature. Crimson as blood, black as hate, are some of her lyric utterances. Night birds flap their wings, “the whipped sky shivers,” and the wind roars from the depths of the sea, in the ghostly visions she invokes. Several of her best poems cluster about the memory of the Chicago Anarchists. One of her noblest pays tribute to Governor Altgeld, who pardoned three of the Anarchists and thus, as she says, sacrificed his political career to an act of justice.

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Her prose writings have been translated into many tongues. They are clear and direct, and convey always the workings of a mind of the first order. Anarchism is often regarded in this country as an exotic. In her “Anarchism and American Traditions” Voltairine de Cleyre shows that many of the ideas most typical of the Anarchistic philosophy are rooted deep in the spiritual fiber of America. Her “Crime and Criminals” is a plea for the regeneration, rather than the punishment, of the criminal. “Let us have done,” she says, “with this savage idea of punishment, which is without wisdom. Let us work for the freedom of ma.n from the oppressions which make criminals, and for the enlightened treatment of all the sick.” Her essay, “They Who Marry Do Ill,” is a memorable statement of an attitude that has always fascinated a few, but is hardly likely to penetrate to the many. Her mind was alive right to the very end. One of her last published lectures is devoted to the present burning issue in the labor movement—-“direct action” versus political action. Another recent lecture deals in masterly fashion with the Mexican Revolution. “Hail to the Mexican Revolution,” she cries, “victorious or defeated. And hail to the next that rises!”

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She wrote a hauntingly beautiful essay called “The Dominant Idea.” Every life with any dignity, she affirms, must have its dominant idea. The reign of nature is a reign of dominant ideas. She illustrates the principle by telling of a morning-glory vine that climbed over the window of the room in which she lived, and that, by mishap or chance, was suddenly snapped near the roots. The leaves hung limp, the sappy stem wilted and began to wither; in a day it was all dead,—all but the top which still clung longingly to its support, with bright head lifted. “I mourned a little,” she says, “for the buds that could never open now, and pitied that proud vine whose work in the world was lost. But the next night there was a storm, a heavy, driving storm, with beating rain and blinding lightning. I rose to watch the flashes, and lo! the wonder of the world! In the blackness of the mid- NIGHT, in the fury of wind and rain, the dead vine had flowered. Five white, moon-faced blossoms blew gaily around the skeleton vine, shining back triumphant at the red lightning. Over death and decay the Dominant Idea smiled: the vine was in the world to bloom, to bear white trumpet blossoms dashed with purple; and it held its will beyond death.”

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Voltairine de Cleyre’s life was dedicated to a dominant idea. Her guiding star was principle. She lived and died poor, and she shrank from notoriety. Like many powerful characters, she showed at times paradoxical traits. This ardent freethinker, who reacted violently from the Roman Catholic faith in which she was reared, and condemned Christianity in toto, applied Christian ethics in some of the crises of her own life. She refused, for instance, to prosecute the half-crazed boy who shot her in Philadelphia some years ago. She returned good for evil. She did not know the meaning of fear, and took her ground firmly even when she knew that imprisonment awaited her. I feel in her a tragic and tortured spirit. She fought without illusions, but she fought to the end. She lies in Waldheim Cemetery beside the men who were executed in 1887.

Leonard D. Abbott, in The International.

Leonard D. Abbott, “A Priestess of Pity and of Vengeance,” Mother Earth 7, no. 7 (September 1912): 230-232.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2701 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.