A Bounded Field: Situating Victorian Poetry in the Literary Landscape
Gray, Erik, Victorian Poetry
thy province [is] not large, A bounded field, nor stretching far. --Tennyson, In Memoriam XLVI
The greatest development in the field of Victorian poetry studies over the past fifteen years has been the renewal of interest in women poets, both those who were already familiar but not yet sufficiently acknowledged, like Christina Rossetti, and those who had been all but forgotten by twentieth-century readers. Among the latter perhaps the most intriguing "newcomer" is Michael Field, the pen-name and poetic persona used by Katherine Bradley and her niece Edith Cooper. Field had already begun to draw the attention of queer criticism in the 1980s, (1) but her life and poetry were brought to the notice of most critics of Victorian poetry only with the publication in 1992 of Angela Leighton's crucial study Victorian Women Poets: Writing Against the Heart. (2) I wish to look briefly at the decade of criticism that has followed, which shows trends that are typical of the study both of Victorian women's poetry and of Victorian poetry as a whole, in order to suggest what direction these studies may take in the future.
Leighton dedicates to Field one chapter out of the eight that comprise her book, each concerned with a different woman poet, from Felicia Hemans to Charlotte Mew. Field first broke into the pages of this journal in articles by Holly Laird and Yopie Prins which formed part of a 1995 special issue dedicated to "Women Poets." (3) In both cases, then, the setting for the discussion of Field's poetry was the same. And yet as Leighton points out, "Michael Field, in many ways, belongs altogether outside the tradition of Victorian women's verse. As poets, they lack both the sociopolitical commitment of Barrett Browning and Webster and the sentimental attitudes of desire and repression which characterise Hemans, L.E.L. and Rossetti" (p. 204). For all their extensive reading, Bradley and Cooper seem to have paid relatively little attention to these precursors, as they "very rarely mention other women poets in their journal" (p. 211). Nevertheless, Leighton does frequently compare Field's poetry to that of the other authors she discusses in her study, if only to differentiate them. This makes perfect sense: Leighton is introducing this poet to her readers and wishes to explore Field's relation to her immediate context. An investigation of the wider contexts of Field's poetry--a lengthy discussion of Greek poetry, or of Renaissance painting--would clearly have been out of place in Leighton's book.
And yet as much as any poet, Michael Field demands to be read against a large and varied artistic background. The first two books of lyrics to be published under the name "Michael Field" (4) both parade their participation in age-old traditions. The first, Long Ago (1889), consists of translations and expansions of the fragments of Sappho, one of which (in Greek) heads each of the poems. The second volume, Sight and Song (1892), consists of a series of ekphrases: each lyric describes a single Old Master painting and is headed by the title of the painting, the name of the painter, and the museum that houses it. Both of these interests, in Sappho and in Renaissance painting, are typically late Victorian; but they also implicate the work of these Victorian women poets into artistic traditions that are not solely Victorian--nor solely female, nor solely poetic. The next step in the critical history of Michael Field has therefore been to expand the contexts in which her poetry is discussed. Several writers have pursued the analysis of Field's poetry in the context of queer writing or of literary collaborations over the centuries. (5) In Victorian Sappho (1999), Yopie Prins situates Long Ago in an extensive tradition beginning with the Sapphic fragments themselves. (6) And in a recent article, Ana I. Parejo Vadillo has begun to perform the same service for Sight and Song, reminding us that this volume, as much as its predecessor, presents itself as a "translation" of antique artworks. …