- The Figure of Watteau in Walter Pater’s “Prince of Court Painters” and Michael Field’s Sight and Song
Angela Leighton has suggested that Walter Pater was “the single most important influence” on the poetry Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper published as their collaborative persona Michael Field.1 In a way, one might even say that Bradley and Cooper initiated Michael Field’s career as poet in 1889 with the collection Long Ago as the lyric counterpart of Pater’s 1873 essay collection The Renaissance.2 Much as Pater’s Winckelmann recovers the erotic aesthetic of classical Greek culture from fragments of antique sculpture, the poetry in Long Ago seeks to revive Sappho’s spirit from the extant fragments of her original lyrics. Hoping that Pater would recognize the affinities of their homoerotic lyrics with his early essays, Bradley and Cooper sent Pater a copy of Long Ago soon after its publication. On 5 July 1889 Bradley recorded the receipt of “[a]n exquisite letter from Walter Pater.”3 That correspondence from perhaps Britain’s most prominent man of letters at the time seemed to promise an important relationship for this ambitious literary couple.4 In Pater’s “exquisite letter” he not only praised Michael Field as “a true poet” with “calm attic wisdom,” he also offered an invitation to his Kensington home, explaining that “[i]t is natural to wish to meet those whose work interests one.”5
That interest appears to have all but disappeared three years later.6 Responding to the similar gift of Sight and Song in May 1892, Pater barely disguises his indifference to their writing. Cooper and Bradley had mailed the book to his London address, but Pater had momentarily returned to Oxford, where he apparently received the accompanying letter but not the book. This strange turn of events allowed Pater to write them politely of his “[s]incere thanks for the gift” without having to respond to the book’s preface and poems.7 His actual lack of interest [End Page 451] in their poetry quickly wears through the thin layer of good manners, though. Even as he claims “to look forward to find[ing] it on [his] return [to London],” he in effect apologizes in advance for not reading the book: “I read almost no contemporary poetry: have, alas! almost no time to do so....”8 In his letter responding to the gift of Sight and Song, Pater does not even refer to the title correctly. Perhaps unwittingly, he again reveals his lack of attention to their writing calling the collection “Italian Pictures.”9
Though Pater showed little interest in Sight and Song (or in any of Michael Field’s writings after Long Ago), Cooper and Bradley prepared this second collection of poetry through a close dialogue with Pater’s works. Initially, at least, Sight and Song appears to replace the literary homage of Long Ago with a pointed attack. Though not explicitly mentioning Pater or his works, the preface to this second collection alludes to the terms, echoes the phrasing, and specifically contradicts key assertions of his 1873 preface to The Renaissance. Pater first established his place in Victorian aesthetic discourse by attacking Arnold’s notion of seeing the object as it “really is,” claiming instead that “the first step towards seeing one’s object as it really is, is to know one’s own impression as it really is, to discriminate it, to realise it distinctly.”10 In the preface to Sight and Song, Michael Field challenges Pater’s focus on the perceiver of art: “The aim of this little volume is, as far as may be, to translate into verse what the lines and colours of certain chosen pictures sing in themselves; to express not so much what these pictures are to the poet, but rather what poetry they objectively incarnate.”11 Rather than a process of recovering one’s own impressions, Cooper and Bradley argue for a process that refines away the viewer’s “mere subjective enjoyment” in an effort to “eliminate our idiosyncrasies.”12
Just how to situate Cooper and Bradley’s writings in the context of late-nineteenth-century British literature has been a...