Poetry Turnst(y)le: Voltairine de Cleyre


It was an almost startling delight to stumble across the writings of Voltairine de Cleyre. Though Voltairine was considered among the most significant thinkers ~ c. 1900 anarchist circles (partic. in the U.S.), her work has received little attention or recognition. Indeed, despite an active interest in female anarchist figures of this period, I had never heard of her. Thankfully I made an impromptu purchase over the web and came into the possession of ‘The Voltairine de Cleyre reader’ (2004 AK Press California). The following poem, titled ‘The Toast to Despair’ (1892) is from pp. 205-206:

We have cried, – and the Gods are silent;
We have trusted, – and been betrayed;
We have loved, – and the fruit was ashes;
We have given, – the gift was weighed.
We know that the heavens are empty,
That friendship and love are names;
That truth is an ashen cinder,
The end of life’s burnt-out flames.
Vainly and long we have waited,
Through the night of the human roar,
For a single song on the harp of Hope,
Or a ray from a day-lit shore.
Songs aye come floating, marvelous sweet,
And bow-dyed flashes gleam;
But the sweets are Lies, and the weary feet
Run after a marsh-light beam.
In the hour of our need the song departs,
And the sea-moans of sorrow swell;
The siren mocks with a gurgling laugh
That is drowned in teh deep death-knell.
The light we chased with our stumbling feet
As the goal of happier years,
Swings high and low and vanishes, –
The bow-dyes were of our tears.
God is a lie, and Faith is a lie,
And a tenfold lie is Love;
Life is a problem without a why,
And never a thing to prove.
It adds, and subtracts, and multiplies,
And divides without aim or end;
Its answers all false, though false-named true, –
Wife, husband, lover, friend.
We know it now, and we care no more;
What matters life or death?
We tiny insects emerge from earth,
Suffer, and yield our breath.
Like ants we crawl on our brief sand-hill,
Dreaming of ‘mighty things’, –
Lo, they crunch, like shells in the ocean’s wrath,
In the rush of Time’s awful wings.
The sun smiles gold, and the plants white,
And a billion stars smile, still;
Yet fierce as we, each wheels toward death,
And cannot stay his will.
The build, ye fools, your might things,
That Time shall set at naught;
Grow warm with the song the sweet Lie sings,
And the false bow your tears have wrought.
For us, a truce to Gods, loves, and hopes,
And a pledge to fire and wave;
A swifter whirl to the dance of death,
And a loud huzza for the Grave!

Voltairine was described by Emma Goldman as ‘the most gifted and brilliant anarchist woman America ever produced.’ I would venture to suggest (with little evidence to support the claim) that her work has been overlooked (in large part) because she refused to play into partisan politics and/or align herself politically with anyone but…… herself. Perhaps if Max Stirner had lived another decade or so  they might have shared tea and talk together.


Filed under Poetry turnstile

7 responses to “Poetry Turnst(y)le: Voltairine de Cleyre

  1. Bentley.james

    you are so full of sweetness….

  2. D.

    de Cleyre and Goldman drifted apart after de Cleyre aligned herself with Most’s supporters following the attempted assassination of Henry Clay Frick.

    Possibly looking a little harder in a certain bookstore in Brisbane would have revealed the very same AK Press reader on the shelf.

    Ahem. Overlooked indeed.

  3. I recognise that tone of writing anywhere – hahe – yes, indeed I am guilty of overlooking her writing also. But then, that certain bookstore in Brisbane never really a perusing space for me. More like an overcrowded family dining room space 🙂

    Who did de Cleyre align herself with after she and Goldman drifted apart? They seem to have had a great deal of admiration and respect for one another. The sense I get is that de Cleyre was far more of an individualist-anarchist than Goldman who always seemed to be in a clique of one kind or another.

    Voltairine is by far among the most eloquent and forceful writers on anarchism available. She has such a uncompromising and nuanced perspective and yet her writing has a very literary sway, which makes it more than just a polemic.

    Have you read Dworkin ‘The theory and practice of autonomy?’ I’m off to borrow it from the library.

  4. D.

    I think you need to reread Goldman.

  5. I’m quite confident in my opinion of Goldman and my reading of her works.

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