Friday, October 4, 2019

Michael Field: The Work and Lives of a Victorian Poet

The poet Michael Field was not actually a man. Or a woman. Michael Field was the pen name of two women who lived in Victorian England, Katharine Bradley (1846–1914) and Edith Cooper (1862–1913). The story is even more complicated than that. Katharine Bradley was Edith Cooper’s aunt, and they were lovers who lived together as a couple. The two were accomplished authors who collaborated to write eight books of poems and numerous verse dramas.

Michael Field: Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper

Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper, like many women writers of their time, published under a man’s name as a way to be taken seriously. In fact, once the secret got out that they were really a female writing duo, their work was reviewed less earnestly by critics, as the novelist and critic Emma Donoghue documents in her engaging and beautifully written biography, We Are Michael Field.

In their time, “the Michael Fields,” as they were called by their circle, were befriended and accepted by many of the leading writers of the day, including Robert Browning, Oscar Wilde, and Havelock Ellis. They were true eccentrics who actually wrote a book of love poems to their deceased lap dog. Their work fell out of fashion toward the end of their lives and has only recently received new attention. I’m extremely grateful to Professor Pearl Chaozon Bauer of Notre Dame de Namur University, who acquainted me with their writings and is part of a new wave of scholars reviving the work of Michael Field.

The work of Katharine Bradly and Edith Cooper declined in renown partly because of sexism and homophobia. Their poetry also dropped out of favor because the Michael Fields accepted many of the conventions of Victorian style. They preferred “thou” to “you,” “doth” to “does,” and used poetic interjections such as “O!” The pair often wrote in rhyme, meter, and form. Since their careers ended right at the same time that modernism was purging poetry of the cliché language of the nineteenth century, the poetry of the Michael Fields was lost in the tidal wave of new writing that discarded more traditional diction.

Then why is it important to give the work of the Michael Fields another look? Because their poetry still feels contemporary and exciting in many ways. They were clear-sighted writers who saw with a fresh and free-thinking perspective. Here is a poem of theirs I particularly like:

Nests in Elms

The rooks are cawing up and down the trees!
Among their nests they caw. O sound I treasure,
Ripe as old music is, the summer's measure,
Sleep at her gossip, sylvan mysteries,
With prate and clamour to give zest of these—
In rune I trace the ancient law of pleasure,
Of love, of all the busy-ness of leisure,
With dream on dream of never-thwarted ease.
O homely birds, whose cry is harbinger
Of nothing sad, who know not anything
Of sea-birds’ loneliness, of Procne’s strife,
Rock round me when I die! So sweet it were
To die by open doors, with you on wing
Humming the deep security of life.

It’s so unexpected that cawing crows become for the speaker of this poem a reassuring presence, affirming the calm persistence of life. I often think of crows as annoying, noisy, dirty birds, but Michael Field surprisingly sees their vitality and tenaciousness. The crows stimulate the poets to write in runes of “the ancient law of pleasure,/of love”—a pagan and joyous celebration of the carnal side of life. Not what I think of as Victorian poetry, at all! Even within the confines of this Petrarchan sonnet, Michael Field manages to include thrilling language: “Rock round me when I die!”

Sadly, both Katharine and Edith succumbed to the family illness of cancer, Katharine dying at 67, and her niece Edith at 51, predeceasing her aunt by ten months.

If you don’t know the writing of Michael Field, take the time to seek out their work. They’ll surprise you with the sensuality and depth of their poems.
Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies
Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe

Other recent posts on writing topics:

How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry