Libidinous Laureates and Lyrical Maenads: Michael Field, Swinburne and Erotic Hellenism

By Olverson, T. D. | Victorian Poetry, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Libidinous Laureates and Lyrical Maenads: Michael Field, Swinburne and Erotic Hellenism


Olverson, T. D., Victorian Poetry


In 1889 "Michael Field"--the pseudonymous identity of Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper--published Long Ago, a volume of lyric poetry based on the extant Sapphic fragments. In deference to the poet whom they called the "guardian" of the "Lesbian lyrics," Bradley and Cooper sent a copy of Long Ago to Algernon Swinburne, together with a short letter:

   With flaming sword you have kept guard over the Lesbian lyrics; I
   have passed by you & touched the sacred things, & though I know my
   rifling to have been "sad & mad & bad," it has been to me "so
   sweet" that, unrepentant as I recross the barrier, I lay my spoil
   in your hands.

      Fiery vengeance take if you will, Poet of Anactoria. I shall not
   strive but remain as before

Yours in sincere admiration,
Michael Field (1)

This brief note is illuminating in a number of respects, not least because Michael Field reveal that they were devotees of the work of Swinburne. In fact Bradley and Cooper considered Swinburne to be the best poet in England and a worthy successor to the Poet Laureate. Sharing Swinburne's love of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, the women were avid readers of Swinburne's critical writing and they were interested in the same kind of dramatic models. In a number of cases, Michael Field treated the same dramatic subjects as Swinburne, including Mary Stuart, Sappho, and Tristan de Leonois.

Inspired by Swinburne's poetics and aesthetic creed, I suggest that Bradley and Cooper were moved to emulate and to refashion the work of their poetic precursor. As we shall see, many of the central characters of Michael Field's early dramas suffer their desires. In most cases, these classical characters suffer not because their desires are shockingly aberrant, but because of the intensity of eros. This seemingly paradoxical combination of pleasure and pain, heavily reminiscent of Swinburne's poetry, can be seen to form the basis of Michael Field's Hellenic aesthetic. If Swinburne was, as John Morley memorably described him, the "libidinous laureate of a pack of satyrs," I suggest that Bradley and Cooper can be seen as complementary lyrical maenads. (2)

As "Michael Field," Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper forged one of the most fascinating and productive literary collaborations of the nineteenth century. (3) Together, aunt and niece produced eight volumes of poetry, twenty-seven plays, and thirty-six foolscap volumes of their joint journal. Their career lasted for over thirty years and they enjoyed the company and respect of some of the most famous artists and writers of the late nineteenth century. In recent years Michael Field, much like Swinburne, has been rediscovered as an important voice within late Victorian movements such as Aestheticism and Decadence. (4) In the following pages I intend to emphasize Bradley and Cooper's contributions to Victorian Hellenism, and in so doing highlight the relationship between Michael Field's poetry and Swinburne's influential Hellenic poetics.

Like many of their male contemporaries, Michael Field employed Hellenism as an authoritative and scholarly discourse through which they could subversively celebrate (same-sex) sexual pleasure. Aside from the transgressive potential of ancient Greek literature and myth, Hellenism presented Bradley and Cooper with a philosophical and spiritual resource through which they could explore such subjects as religion, power, identity, sexuality, and gender. In the Greek drama Callirrhoe. (1884), for example, Bradley and Cooper incorporate such themes as the anguish of religious conversion, the pains and pleasures of forbidden love, the prevalence of sexual violence, and the virtues of sensual passion. At once life-affirming and utterly tragic, Callirrhoe represents the paradoxes of passion.

Almost twenty years earlier, Swinburne had similarly employed Hellenic subjects in his dramatic poem Atalanta in Calydon (1865) and in his first, now notorious, volume of poetry, Poems and Ballads (1866). …

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