- Michael Field as Poet
For at least the past decade, Michael Field—the aunt and niece partnership, both romantic and professional, of Katherine Bradley (1846-1914) and Edith Cooper (1862-1913)—has attracted avid admirers, both of the writings and of the unconventional lifestyle. Yet while many articles, chapters, and one full-length monograph (by Marion Thain) have been devoted to the pair, the work itself has been reprinted only in anthology selections that can hardly do justice to the poet's variety (I follow the editors in referring to Field in the singular). Field's output included not only secular and religious lyrics (the couple converted to Catholicism in 1907), but also verse dramas and a journal, Works and Days, which was intended for posthumous publication. Michael Field: The Poet sets out to rectify this disregard and bring Bradley and Cooper before an uninitiated audience. This fascinating, well-rounded anthology will be of interest not only to students of Victorian and modernist poetics but also to people who wish to explore the fin de siècle, as it firmly locates Field within the aesthetic culture of the period.
The volume begins with a very helpful introduction that outlines the phases of the women's lives and the society in which they lived and moved; they counted among their friends and acquaintances such luminaries as John Ruskin, Robert Browning, Oscar Wilde, Bernhard [End Page 407] Berenson, Walter Pater, A. Mary F. Robinson, W. B. Yeats, and Charles Ricketts. Thain and Vadillo then proceed to offer generous selections from each of the published volumes of verse, organizing them in order of date of publication. In each case, the editors provide a head-note to the volume that both gives details of its material publication history (including descriptions—and sometimes illustrations—of the often beautiful covers that the pair had designed for them by their aesthete friends) and helps identify some of its key themes. The selections themselves are notable for following a principle of inclusion, attempting "to balance a representation of the range of different styles apparent within each ... book" with a desire to "focus on the poetry that is most successful." This same method ensures that all of the volumes of published poetry are represented, including the later, less admired religious verse. As the editors point out, the paired volumes Poems of Adoration (1912) (by Cooper) and Mystic Trees (1913) (by Bradley) are of interest not only in themselves but also for how they "allow us to compare the individual poetic styles of the women," whose work can otherwise appear as seamless collaboration. Similarly, Thain and Vadillo have chosen to include not only wide selections from the joint Works and Days (1888-1914) but also a smattering of the unpublished letters, which again give us Cooper's and Bradley's separate voices. Finally, they offer a selection of contemporary reviews of Field's work, again highlighting Field's place in the cultural scene of the day.
Throughout, Thain and Vadillo provide footnotes glossing some of the more obscure classical references used by Field and identifying the key personages in Field's circle (they include a useful "Key to Names" for the latter, as well as an index). The editors provide helpful translations of foreign phrases, such as those of the Greek epigraphs to the poems in Long Ago (1889), Field's early collection of Sapphics. And they give cultural context, as when they point to Saint Sebastian's nineteenth-century associations with "masculinity, masochism, and homosexuality." But in general, the annotations are rather sparing than obtrusive.
The poet emerges from this treatment a fully-formed power, radically original, even to a reader who has encountered Field before. From the pagan sensuality of the Hellenist Long Ago, to the "objective" ekphrastics of Sight and Song (1892), to the Elizabethan lyricism of Underneath the Bough (1893), to the bizarre campiness of Whym Chow: Flame of Love (1914) (the volume eulogizing the Field's beloved chow dog by turning it into a symbol of the lovers' Trinitarian...