- “The one question is not what you mean but what you do”: Michael Field’s Ekphrastic Verse
As poets, dramatists, and life writers, Michael Field (Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper) have already been much rehabilitated into the late-nineteenth-century canon, with conferences, critical essays, collected editions, and monographs dedicated to their work. Sight and Song (1892) has attracted particular attention.1 Twenty-first-century critics have highlighted the revolutionary aspirations of that volume but tend not to dwell on the fact that the volume consolidates the downturn in Michael Field’s literary career begun by their preceding verse drama, The Tragic Mary (1890). Through three comparative analyses of poems from Sight and Song with poems from Algernon Charles Swinburne’s First Series, I examine the possible aesthetic reasons for the (arguably justifiably) lukewarm response from those contemporary aesthetes and art critics whom Michael Field had most wished to impress with their efforts to challenge existing aesthetic practice and produce an original poetics.2 In doing so, I highlight how the volume reflects the aesthetic and creative hurdles that Michael Field faced operating in that strongly male homosocial milieu.
In brief, I argue that Michael Field’s ekphrastic poetry suffers because of their preemptive efforts to insulate themselves from the gendered criticism that their lived experiences had conditioned them to expect. Michael Field failed to distinguish themselves as fin-de-siècle art critics—and to repair their reputation as poets3—with Sight and Song precisely because they were so eager to do so. Sight and Song sought to establish its poems as representative of how one should respond to art objects, as a model to be followed, but comes instead to exude a Stimmung of fixity that found little favor with the contemporaries whose decisive aesthetic judgments Michael Field were aping.
I here deploy Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht’s theory of Stimmung as a pervasive mood that emerges from the reading of a text, even centuries after its writing, which he associates in particular with the fin de siècle. For moods to become so pervasive that they are “articulated in texts other than on the level [End Page 345] of representation,” Gumbrecht argues that there must be a “requisite density of feeling” in the social context around their production that amounts to “forms and tones” becoming “‘charged,’ as if by electricity.” That is to say, wherever we detect a Stimmung, whatever it might be, “we may assume that a primary experience has occurred [to the author] to the point of becoming a preconscious reflex.”4 Sight and Song’s Stimmung of fixity, in respect of both art interpretation and representation, I argue, reflects a “preconscious reflex” in Michael Field, conditioned by their experiences of being aesthetically instructed and corrected by Walter Pater, John Ruskin, Bernard Berenson, and others.5
The forms of art criticism prevalent during the late-nineteenth century, such as the public lecture or published commentary, were strongly associated with masculinity. Although numerous studies have highlighted the growing participation of women in the field in the second half of the nineteenth century,6 it remains true that “the Victorian art critic’s voice as a public noise can be generalized as a male voice, and those individual critics whose voices have been distinguished from the chorus by later generations . . . were all men.”7 To Swinburne, as Stefano Evangelista suggests, “the art gallery is a workshop in which the sensibility of the literary man is modified by its sensuous experience of the visual arts in their material form.”8 As women, however, Michael Field seem to have been more used to having their aesthetic sensibilities “modified” not just by their encounters with art objects but also by male counterparts. Cooper records an experience of being under the pressure of possible “modification” from such a “male voice” when visiting the National Gallery with Berenson, Mary Costelloe, and others: “we are taken to the Giorgione—in the dimness I cannot find out which is the picture—I mistake it and try to work up enthusiasm for a poor figure above,” reflecting, she says, “what an awful element of sham there is in mortals.”9