- Michael Field's Wordsworth
In 1894 Edith Wingate Rinder's anthology Poems and Lyrics of Nature was published as part of the Canterbury Poets series edited by William Sharp. Rinder, now most often remembered as an English translator of Maeterlinck, muse of Sharp, and member of Patrick Geddes's Edinburgh circle, had collected verse by a wide-ranging and surprising group of contemporary poets; while many were recognized nature writers, such as Roden Noel, William Canton, Charles Armstrong Fox, and Norman Gale, the volume is more noteworthy for collecting the urbane, cosmopolitan poets of Decadence and Aestheticism, including lyrics by John Davidson, Lionel Johnson, John Gray, Richard Le Gallienne, Arthur Symons, Oscar Wilde, John Addington Symonds, Ernest Rhys, and W. B. Yeats. Just as, if not more, significant was the prominent place accorded to female writers in the anthology. As Rinder explained in her introduction, "[n]ot the least remarkable feature of the evolution of Victorian poetry is the high place occupied by women, from Mrs. Browning onwards; and by women, let me add, not the least noteworthy nature poetry of our time is written."1 The female aesthetes and Decadents whose poetry featured in the anthology included Mathilde Blind, Edith Nesbit, Graham R. Tomson (Rosamund Marriott Watson), Alice Meynell, Katharine Tynan, and A. Mary F. Robinson. While Rinder had assembled a motley crew of poets, she claimed that they all shared an important context that shaped their nature lyrics in significant ways:
It is from Wordsworth that our later poets accepted the suggestion to throw away the note-book and to trust to the impression; he has taught us that it is better to record a true impression of a transient aspect or a commonplace detail keenly observed and emotionally recollected, than to describe categorically a whole landscape. It is in this sense that Wordsworth is called the father of modern poetry. He taught us to feel with nature as well as to observe her, and thus helped to free us from the lingering conventions of the academic school.(p. xxxvii)
Rinder's version of Wordsworth here is clearly inspired by Walter Pater's two essays (1874 and 1889) on the Lake Poet, but her attempts to frame him as a nascent impressionist are somewhat questionable (since impressionism is [End Page 427] predicated on trying to capture sensory experience), as is her suggestion that Wordsworth taught his reader to "feel" nature (philosophical reflection being a peculiar mode of feeling).2 Rinder's celebration of the post-Wordsworthian nature writing fell on hollow ears when Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper (who wrote as Michael Field) received their copy of Rinder's anthology on June 1st. The two women were dissatisfied with the six Michael Field poems chosen by Rinder from the first edition of Underneath the Bough (1893), and in their journal Cooper declared that "we don't touch nature yet in a truly personal way." Those poems—" Winds To-day," "Noon," "O Wind," "Great Violets," "I will Sing," and "Sunshine"—are hardly uniform, yet there is a sense in them all of a disconnect between the speaker and the natural world. Take, for instance, "Noon" in which the speaker laments that "Of all that beauty by the light defined / None shares my vision! Sharply on my mind / Presses the sorrow: fern and flower are blind" (Rinder, p. 98). The irreconcilable difference between speaker and nature is repeated in "Great Violets" where a bee is "thwarted" by a flower in "early youth / Shut still from desire" (Rinder, p. 101). In "Sunshine," the sun's significance is solely related to its role in providing Bacchus with the liquor necessary for his intoxication: "we can only be drunk with that / Kindling the wine that brims the autumn vat!" (Rinder, p. 103). The lack of harmony with nature in these poems and their reliance on stock pastoral motifs led Cooper to declare, on receipt of Rinder's anthology, that their poetry was "a little stiff before the world—not as yet warm and atmospheric as it should be." While Cooper conceded that Bradley had "done much better in the genre," she thought it was her own prose "Croquis" that had...