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  • The Poets of the Nineties
  • Benjamin F. Fisher (bio)

No great amount of significant scholarship for nineties' figures has appeared this year, though what has is of superior quality. Although most of her work appeared earlier, Mathilde Blind was taken up as something of a cause during the Nineties, with writers usually associated with the era, for example, Arthur Symons, promoting her work. Thus one should not miss James Diedrick's "A Pioneering Female Aesthete: Mathilde Blind in The Dark Blue" (VPR 36, no. 3: 210-241), an overview of her contributions to a magazine often bracketed with the aesthetic movement late in the nineteenth century. He covers matters relevant to 1890s students: Blind's admiration for the revival of interest in Norse and "antique" subject matter, spurred by Morris and Magnusson, which stimulated some of her own work; and her correspondence with Swinburne (which extended beyond the nineties).

Another female poet, "Michael Field," according to Jill Ehnenn, published a signal collection of poems, Sight and Song (1892), in which significant issues of gender and creative art have been overlooked by previous critics (who have, however, established the book's importance in contributing to recognition/analysis of the picture-poem subgenre) ("Looking Strategically:Feminist and Queer Aesthetics in Michael Field's Sight and Song" [VP 42, no. 3: 213-259]). Following leads by recent theorists, notably Laura Mulvey, Ehnenn argues that Field's book addresses paintings viewed by this writer-couple while traveling through Europe.Their poetic responses to these works of art certainly did not hew to Victorian heteropatriarchal ideals, in which the feminine in particular was customarily neutralized—perhaps because Ruskin's shadow long hovered over much theory about art—or else was presented as the object of male desire. The Field duo were more readily inclined to express in these poems a same-sex lovers' viewpoint toward the paintings. Their presentation, Ehnenn states, "conveys new authority upon the possibilities of [End Page 367] a female gaze" (p. 217), and this stance places Field in the vanguard of much 1890s cultural ferment, just as Sight and Song expands the canon of Victorian poetry. Illustrations of relevant paintings accompany Ehnenn's text, making her critique user-friendly. Ranging over paintings that, for Michael Field, at times foregrounded figures silenced by male interpreters of what they beheld, at others subsumed male figures and promoted the importance of females, to Giorgione's Sleeping Venus (as transmuted through the Field poetic alembic) as drama of masturbation, on to the cult of the boy as exemplary of same-sex love, Ehnenn offers persuasive analyses of Field's poems inspired by these paintings—analyses that locate Field in the center of 1890s outlook and practice. The feminization or androgyneity evident in the St. Sebastian figure (at once phallic and feminized) is thus eminently representative. Ehnenn's assessment is, like Diedrick's, a valuable study, drawing together, convincingly as it does, many currents that have made (at least one segment of) the 1890s the "1890s" for many enthusiasts. Although she reasonably charts Field's attitudes toward Ruskin's theories, others ought not to forget that he cheered for the Pre-Raphaelites in an earlier era, and, thus connections come to mind about the minglings of visual with poetic textures under that umbrella, and that they continued, if often vestigially, on into the 1890s and beyond. Ehnenn's work might well compliment E. Warwick Slinn's Victorian Poetry as Cultural Critique: The Politics of Performative Language and Catherine Maxwell's The Female Sublime from Milton to Swinburne, both treated by David G. Riede in the 2004 "Year's Work" (pp. 315ff.).

Another article charting passages from the 1890s on into the twentieth century, Daniel Brown's "Wilde and Wilder" (PMLA 119, no. 5: 1216-30), traces intentness on "formal conditions of its art" (p. 1228) in Wilde's Salomé and Billy Wilder's film, Sunset Boulevard (1950). Textual evidence reveals that Wilder had Wilde's Salomé clearly in mind as he composed his own work. In both play and film, moonlight is conducive to madness (albeit Salomé's rapturous kissing of the lips in Iokanaan's decapitated head might instead be designated by some 1890s purists...


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