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The Pleasures of Looking and the Feminine Gaze in Michael Field’s Sight and Song

From: Victorian Poetry
Volume, 51, Number 2, Summer 2013
pp. 147-175 | 10.1353/vp.2013.0012

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Artistic form in all the arts tends toward music; artistic matter in all of them towards painting. It is pictures alone in which the technique is harmonious as a musician’s score that lend themselves to poetry.

—Edith Cooper

The above lines are taken from an 1891 letter from Edith Cooper to her friend and renowned art critic Bernard Berenson. In the same year the letter was penned, Edith was traveling with her lover and aunt, Katharine Bradley, on a tour of Europe’s major art galleries. During their tour, both women collaborated on poetic translations of the paintings and major art works they viewed. A year later, in 1892, the women published these poetic translations in a collection titled Sight and Song, which they then signed with their shared pseudonym, “Michael Field.” In just a few lines to Berenson (excerpted above), Edith hints at what will become the central theory driving the authors’ experiment in poetic translation: “artistic form in all the arts tends toward music.” While all artistic matter might tend “towards painting,” art’s true form is musical. Though the original works, paintings and sculptures suggest a visual medium or experience, the poets’ true apprehension is an aural experience. By extension, then, the poets-as-translators must apprehend and therein reproduce, through poetry, the art work’s music or “song.” Hence the title of the poets’ collection: Sight and Song. Indeed, as Cooper tells Berenson, the picture’s technique is not unlike the “musician’s score,” and thus the painting lends itself to poetry or poetic song.

In less than a year after her letter to Berenson, Cooper drafted the preface to Sight and Song outlining the aesthetic methodology guiding Sight and Song’s experiment in poetic translation. Not surprisingly, the preface echoes Cooper’s letter and, specifically, the emphasis on aesthetic experience as aural. However, in a new twist, this preface also stresses the importance of the art work’s original integrity and thus autonomy, a move which therefore leads the poets to equate song with objectivity and sight with subjectivity. As the preface explains, the translator must record the song emanating from the artwork itself. The subsequent poems then “translate into verse what the lines and colours of certain chosen pictures sing in themselves.” Aesthetic experience is not a question of sight, for even the visual matter of “lines and colors” is transformed into sound images that sing out to the poet-as-translator. But first, in order to hear and record the painting’s song, Field-as-translator must suppress all subjectivity: the poetic translations must “express not so much what these pictures are to the poet, but rather what poetry they objectively incarnate” (p. v). Translation is not interested in one’s impression or enjoyment of the work. Rather, the poet-as-translator must practice a mode of objective apprehension in order to hear and record the painting—its original lines and song—without appropriation or distortion. Subjects and collaborators Bradley and Cooper must therefore disappear so that the original work of art can take center stage.

Despite the preface’s claims to objective song, Field’s translations, the poems themselves, offer what I will show to be highly subjective and even erotic expressions of sight. It is perhaps for this reason that the preface ends with the following admission: “When such effort has been made, honestly and with persistence, even then the inevitable force of individuality must still have play and a temperament mould the purified impression” (p. vi). The poets-as-translators make an “effort” to be objective, and yet that force of “individuality” is still an inevitable component in the poets’ aesthetic experience or “impression.” This article asks why Field’s project folds back on such expressions of subjectivity. The answer, I argue, lies in the relationship between form and aesthetic experience. Though the preface suggests that the form of all true art is music, Field’s translations cannot quite wrest the works free from their visual matter. Hence, the poems themselves must record the painting’s visual form and, thus, aesthetic experience as an experience of looking, or sight. And sight, as Field’s translations show us, is indeed...



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