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Victorian Poetry 43.1 (2005) 109-154

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Looking Strategically:

Feminist and Queer Aesthetics in Michael Field's Sight and Song*

Ut pictura poesis.
If the lesbian sees the women, the woman may see the lesbian seeing her. With this, there is a flowering of possibilities. The woman, feeling herself seen, may learn that she can be seen; she may also be able to know that a woman can see, that is, can author perception… .The lesbian's seeing undercuts the mechanism by which the production and constant reproduction of heterosexuality for woman was to be rendered automatic.
—Marilyn Frye, The Politics of Reality2

In 1892, collaborative poets and lovers Katharine Harris Bradley and Edith Emma Cooper, under the joint pseudonym "Michael Field," published Sight and Song, a collection of thirty-one picture-poems depicting paintings viewed during their travels to some of Europe's finest galleries. The paintings are both secular and sacred, most by Grand Masters of the Italian Renaissance. The poems lack fixed forms, although some can be described, like many of Field's other lyrics, as variations on the sonnet. The small body of critical study on Sight and Song asserts its artistic merit and importance in establishing the "ontology and value" of the picture-poem as a subgenre; and has observed that the text's explorations of female beauty negate traditional notions of space and temporality and negotiate dualities such as transience and permanence, pleasure and pain, emotion and intellect.3 Yet most critics address their difficulty in discerning an overriding theme, especially since the poems are not organized by artist or gallery.

In contrast, my discussion here begins with the observation that Sight and Song opens up space for something other than a traditional, phenomenological way of reading that assumes the stable essence of an object and [End Page 109] universality of perception. Following Laura Mulvey's foundational theories about the problems and politics of feminist spectatorship, as well as Alexander Doty and David Halperin's arguments about "queer-ing" as a reception practice that perceives the world from an anti-heteronormative point of view, this essay posits Sight and Song as a series of resistant readings that critique Victorian ideologies regarding sex, gender, and aesthetics from what today might be called feminist and queer perspectives.4 While Michael Field depict canonical paintings, the picture-poems refer to the paintings, along with related art criticism and history, in a way that reclaims previously objectified female images and resists contemporary notions of sex and gender. Thereby, I contend, these author-spectators who "swore / Against the world to be / Poets and lovers evermore"5 challenge sexism and heteronormativity.

This paper juxtaposes selected Michael Field picture-poems with both the original paintings and nineteenth-century discourse about the images, in order to examine the "gaps" between Sight and Song's interpretations and the other representations. Thus, I analyze how the picture-poems expose what Judith Butler would call the "citationality" of sex and gender, that is, the reiteration of a set of norms or laws that naturalizes the sex/gender conventions being repeated or "cited," and thereby dissimulates the fact of the repetition.6 Notably, in considering the ways that citational discursive practices might subvert, rather than reinforce, ideology, Butler asks: "What would it mean to cite the law to produce it differently, to 'cite' the law in order to reiterate and coopt its power, to expose the heterosexual matrix and to displace the effect of its necessity?" (p. 15). The following argues that the queer-feminist aesthetic of Sight and Song provides a fivefold response to the spirit of Butler's question. The picture-poems: (1) criticize the silencing of the female model; (2) move female figures from margin to center; (3) celebrate women's autoeroticism and homoerotic bonds; (4) critique Victorian sex/gender ideology through the figure of the boy; and (5) code both male and female homoerotic love through the figure of Saint Sebastian. These strategic themes throughout Sight and Song demonstrate how Michael Field...


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