Monthly Archives: May 2014

“You are in good company”

By James Diedrick (Agnes Scott College)

Writing to Mathilde Blind on 2 November 1895, Richard Garnett reported that an American friend had sent him an advance copy of Edmund Stedman’s poetry collection A Victorian Anthology 1847-1895. Garnett, Keeper of Printed Books in the British Library and a close friend of Blind’s, informs her that two poems from her 20-poem sequence “Love in Exile” (originally published in her 1889 volume The Ascent of Man) are included, along with two others from her 1881 collection The Prophecy of St. Oran and Other Poems (1881). He then adds: “You are in good company, between Michael Field and Louis Stevenson.”

More about the Stedman anthology shortly. Because this is a blog in advance and anticipation of the Michael Field Centennial conference, I want to begin by explaining how I became interested in late-century woman poets, and how I found myself in the “good company” of the many scholars who have sustained and guided my interest in these writers over the years.  Like many American academics who did their graduate work in the 1970s, and who concentrated on the Victorian era, I was assigned Jerome Buckler’s 1973 anthology The Major Victorian Poets: Tennyson, Browning, Arnold in my single graduate course on Victorian poetry. The “Browning” in Buckler’s anthology is of course Robert, not Elizabeth Barrett, and aside from EBB and Christina Rossetti, I read few Victorian women poets during my graduate career (my dissertation focused on the novels of Dickens, Trollope and Eliot). When I began teaching, and regularly offered the 18th-19th century British literature survey course, I usually included these five poets on my reading list. Things changed, however, in 1997, when the editor of the Victorian Women Poets volume in the Dictionary of Literary Biography asked me to write an entry on one of the poets in the list of proposed entries and I chose Mathilde Blind, knowing only that she had written the first biography of George Eliot. Thus began a fifteen-year (and counting) project to help recover the career and work of Blind, and contribute to the re-mapping of the late-Victorian literary landscape.

My research was initially aided by the e-texts of Blind’s poetry at Indiana University’s Victorian Women Writers Project (launched by Perry Willett in 1995), and then by the manuscript holdings in the British Library (especially the letters exchanged between Blind and dozens of Victorian men and women of letters, most importantly her 26-year correspondence with Richard Garnett). Since the research and writing of this first essay,  I have met, corresponded with and learned from a remarkable group of scholars, librarians, writers and even composers (in 2003 Trainer Fraser composed “Canticum,” a choral setting of three Blind sonnets). Among the many pleasures of this work has been my discovery of important, remarkable poetry by once mostly neglected or undervalued women poets— May Kendall, Amy Levy, Constance Naden, Edith Nesbit, Mary F. Robinson, Graham R. Tomson, Michael Field—and the many scholars of these poets in whose “good company” I have had the pleasure of working—Virginia Blain, Joseph Bristow, Linda Hughes, Ana Parejo Vadillo,  Charles LaPorte, Margaret Stetz, Angela Thirlwell, Marion Thain, Martha Vicinus (to name a few).

The Stedman anthology—and specifically the poems by Blind and Michael Field he selected for inclusion—is one way to note how recent scholarship has influenced our thinking about these poets and their poetry. In addition to the Blind poems noted above, he includes the following Field poems: “The Burial of Robert Browning”; “Wind of Summer”; “The Dancers”; “Lettice”; “Earth to Earth”; “An Aeolian Harp”; “Iris”; and selections from the verse drama “Canute the Great.” With the exception of “Canute the Great,” most of the Field poems come from the 1893 edition of Underneath the Bough. Stedman might have favored Field’s 1889 collection Long Ago or their 1892 volume Sight and Song, just as he could have selected from Blind’s 1891 volume Dramas in Miniature. Feminist and queer studies in particular have illuminated the radical implications of these collections (both formal and ideological) in recent years.

To note one example of these implications: Blind and Field were central figures in London’s community of avant-garde women writers, and were united in their resistance to the patriarchal order. Blind attended many salons and outings with lesbian writers in the late 1880s and 1890s, from Vernon Lee to Michael Field, and spent several months in 1893 traveling and living with Mona Caird.  Blind’s affinity with Field, Lee, Caird and other sexual noncomformists engendered poems whose ambiguously gendered speakers and “feminised sensory tableau” (to use Linda Hughes’ phrase) accommodate lesbian or bisexual readings, including “Scherzo,” published in Dramas in Miniature. The “queer aesthetics” of Sight and Song have been thoroughly analyzed, by Jill Ehnenn among others. (What Ehnenn says about the value of a “queer reading” of Sight and Song in her 2005 Victorian Poetry essay can also be applied to Blind: “. . .  in negotiating the constraints of the sex/gender system of their time, women such as Michael Field anticipated feminist and queer strategies of seeing and being in the world that are only beginning to be explored today.”)

Stedman’s selections from the work of these women poets represent assumptions and preferences common among his male contemporaries. Arthur Symons, who took an active role in shaping Blind’s poetic legacy after her death, omitted all of her dramatic monologues from A Selection From the Poems of Mathilde Blind (1897). This editorial decision made it easier for Symons to misrepresent Blind in his introduction as “a poet, almost in spite of herself … it was direct, and not directed, emotion which gave her verse its share of that rapture without which poetry cannot exist.” Richard Garnett wrote a “Memoir” of Blind for The Poetical Works of Mathilde Blind (1900) that praises the person at the expense of the poems, which he asserts “are far from expressing the entire force and depth of her nature.” He goes on to claim that Blind’s best poems are her lyrics, a judgment rooted in a view he held of women poets more generally—at least throughout the nineteenth century. In his 1897 Dictionary of National Biography entry on Christina Rossetti, for instance, Garnett concludes that except for “Goblin Market” “she is, like most poetesses, purely subjective, and in no respect creative.”

By 1905, however, Garnett’s views seemed to have shifted, and the evidence for this  returns us to Michael Field. In this year Garnett brought out an anonymous volume of 252 aphorisms on love titled De Flagello Myrteo—subtitled Thoughts and Fancies on Love—that simultaneously reflect his classical erudition, his pagan aestheticism, and his infatuation with Violet Neale, to whom he privately dedicated the volume. In the preface, itself aphoristic, Garnett says this about women poets: “Woman’s emotion was ever more intense than man’s, but until lately, with rare exceptions, her powers of expression have been unequal to his. Now she has learned to give it voice, and the poet is beginning to pale before the poetess.”

We know Garnett dedicated what he called “our book” to Neale from one of many letters he wrote her after his wife’s death in 1903. On 25 August 1905 he wrote her a letter addressed to “My Violet” which begins by recounting his visit to “Michael Field”:

After lunch we went to the ladies’ sitting room, where I saw our Book lying on the table. I took no notice, of course, but by and by one of the ladies picked it up and asked whether I had seen it? Yes. Did I know the authorship? Well, I said, in allusion to the title, I might possibly have some “thoughts” and “fancies” on the subject, and, after a little fencing, I confess that you never heard such a scream as they jointly gave. The information was evidently the greatest surprise to them: they assured me that the idea had never entered their minds. They had come to the conclusion, in fact, that it was the production of a woman! Although they admitted that one or two things, such as the Tiresias sentence, had rather staggered them. I told them with perfect sincerity that they had in my opinion thus paid one of the highest compliments in their power. The first surprise over, they congratulated me very warmly, and one of them read aloud some sentences which had struck her. . . . They had already shown the book to a friend who they thought might help them to discover the author, and they would show it to others. I enjoined the strictest discretion, which they promised.

Garnett adds that as a result of his visit “I have found out more about my friends than I ever knew before. Long as I have known them, I have never made out till now which was Miss Bradley and which was Miss Cooper.”  (Garnett corresponded with Field in the 1880s and 90s, and presentation copies of two of their books appear in the Catalogue of the Library of Richard Garnett—Noontide Branches and Sight and Song).

While there are many interesting details in this letter, from Garnett’s report of the couple’s joint “scream” upon discovering Garnett is the author of the book to the conspiratorial agreement to maintain the mystery of the book’s authorship, I want to conclude with a few words on the Tiresias comment. The “Tiresias” sentence Bradley and Cooper are referring to is aphorism CXLVIII, which reads: “When Teiresias recovered his original sex after seven years, the women were in dismay: for, “of a surety,” they thought, “he has the key to all our bosoms.” “Fear not,” he said, “for in learning to receive love as a woman, I have forgotten how to make it as a man.” Garnett comments: “I do not think that ‘Michael Field’ meant anything more about the Tiresias thought than that it was unlikely to have occurred to a woman, which it certainly is.” But perhaps what “staggered” Bradley and Cooper was not the idea of a woman imagining a man forgetting his male heterosexual drives and desires. Perhaps it was the idea that a writer of Garnett’s adamantly heteronormative identity could imagine the complete erasure of such an identity from the mind of a male once he inhabits a female consciousness. Perhaps, too, it was the shock of recognition—of ideas they had explored and expressed in greater depth sixteen years earlier in a poem Garnett does not seem to know. In “LII” from Long Ago (1889), Michael Field imagines what happened when Tiresias found that “womanhood was round him thrown”:

He trembled at the quickening change,

He trembled at his vision’s change,

His finer sense for bliss and dole,

His receptivity of soul;

But when love came, and, loving back,

It seemed that he had broken free

Almost from his mortality.

And more than almost from his masculinity. The entirety of “LII” enacts a radical decentering of gender and sexual identity that is simultaneously startling, bracing, and hauntingly beautiful. Had Garnett read and considered this poem before his visit to “Michael Field,” what a rich, strange and interesting letter he might have composed.

Richard Garnett himself was “in good company”—better than he may have been able to imagine.

jdiedrick 2012

James Diedrick is Professor of English at Agnes Scott College (a women’s college in Atlanta, Georgia USA) where he teaches courses on 19th-20th century British literature and culture and film. His scholarship includes a co-edited anthology of essays on Stanley Kubrick, Depth of Field: Stanley Kubrick, Film and the Uses of History (University of Wisconsin Press, 2006), and a critical monograph Understanding Martin Amis (University of South Carolina Press, first edition, 1995; revised and expanded edition, 2004). He has published essays on Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens, John Ruskin, and Mathilde Blind, and is currently working on a biography of the late-Victorian poet and woman of letters Mathilde Blind.


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Wolfie, Whymmie, and Wagner: The Road to Michael Field

By Donna S. Parsons (University of Iowa)

Wolfie. How can a rottweiler so deeply enrich the adventure we call life? Ask Michael Field. In diary entries, letters to and from friends and most poignantly in Whym Chow: Flame of Love we learn about the influence a dog can have on one’s creativity and notion of the material world. In fall 1997 I was a graduate student at the University of Iowa and had enrolled in Florence Boos’s seminar on “The Other Nine-Tenths: Non-Canonical Victorian Poetry.” Florence had a reputation for mentoring graduate students but even more striking was her extensive knowledge on Victorian poets and their work. Whenever she talked about Tennyson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, or Dante Gabriel Rossetti, it was as though you were hearing accounts of their lives from a close friend or a member of their inner circle. Oftentimes from her own library Florence brought in nineteenth-century editions of their works for us to examine. Professor Boos’s seminar focused on poets whose lives and works operated on and outside the margins of Victorian society and culture. We studied the poetry and non-fiction writings of Augusta Webster, A.E. Housman, Elizabeth Siddal, Lionel Johnson, Amy Levy, Oscar Wilde and Michael Field. At the time I was interested in the connections between opera and literature, so my research essay focused on Wilde’s Salome. Yet, it was Michael Field who truly opened up an intriguing vista on aesthetic criticism of the operas they heard at Covent Garden, Drury Lane, and in various cities across Europe. Oddly enough it was not through poetry that I developed a curiosity to learn more about Michael Field’s life or dramas. Whym Chow, their beloved dog was the portal.

It was around November, and I had just had my first holiday photo taken with some friends’ rottweiler. Wolfie was nearly three years old, and despite his youth looked rather regal and dignified. Although he had two labradour older siblings, he ruled the house and owned his yard. Whether trotting or galloping at full speed he regularly checked to see which other creatures had visited during the night while he was sleeping inside. I was his godmother. My friend decided that best place in the house for the holiday snap was in front of the fireplace. I was wearing my Iowa sweatshirt, and Wolfie was sporting a black and gold Hawkeye bandana. We used an entire roll of film experimenting with different sittings in the hopes of getting the perfect shot. Somehow Wolfie understood the importance of the photographs as he looked serious yet cuddly. There were photos of him sitting next to me, lying on his side and looking into my eyes, sitting in my lap, and sprawled out on the floor. I was not disappointed with the pictures. My difficulty was in choosing which photo.

I took the pictures to my poetry seminar because my peers shared a fondness for dogs. Since they did not know Wolfie, I believed theirs would be the most discerning eye. We usually arrived early, so while we were discussing the merits of their favorite photo, Florence walked into the room. We kept talking. The unanimous choice was a close-up of Wolfie and me. He was stretched out on the floor, mouth slightly agape so his pink tongue grabs the viewer’s attention. Most likely he was waiting for a racquet ball to roll his way. My arms were draped around his neck and upper chest. We are both smiling as everything came together – his majesty, stealth, and complete ease with the woman he adored. Florence had allowed us to finish our conversation before beginning the week’s latest discussion. Without letting on, she had listened to our discussion and processed every word and emotion. At our next session she brought in a couple of the Whym Chow poems for analysis. It was at this point that Michael Field became more than just another mis-understood or under-rated poet. I was intrigued.

I wanted to learn as much as possible about Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper. What drove their writing? When did Whym Chow become a part of their life and why did he have such a profound influence on them? I searched for biographical notices and biographies. From my university’s interlibrary loan department I was able to order a copy of T. & D.C. Sturge Moore’s edited volume of Works and Days. Reading the passages about Whymmie I learned that like Wolfie he too had a tendency to pull on the leash, a penchant for rabbits, and a habit of voicing his opinions. Yet the more I read the more questions I had. Entries on concerts and operas Michael Field attended kept popping up. I wanted to know from where they acquired their musical knowledge. Which composers did they listen to regularly? Why was opera their favorite genre? In search of answers to these questions I turned to the critical scholarship which revealed little information about this facet of their lives.

Only by reading their diaries could I find some semblance of an answer. In 29 volumes which are housed in the British Library, Michael Field scrupulously delineated their musical lives and the affect amateur and professional performances had on their nerves – both positive and negative. Influenced by Pater and Nietzsche they offered detailed accounts on various operatic performances in London and abroad. Like their fellow Wagnerites they travelled to Bayreuth to hear Der Ring des Nibelungen. Their analyses of the libretti and individual singers provided a candid observation on performance practices that one rarely finds in musicians’ memoirs or by those who are considered patrons of the arts. In those 29 volumes I found future decades of work as I attempt to tease out the influence music had on their daily activities and how it affected the construction of their dramas and verse. And all because of two dogs named Wolfie and Whymmie.


Donna Parsons is a lecturer in Honors and Music at the University of Iowa where she teaches courses on British literature and popular music. Her nineteenth-century research focuses on the musical resonances heard in Michael Field’s writing and more specifically on the ways in which an operatic soundscape influenced the construction of Field’s diaries and dramas. She has appeared as a featured guest on Iowa Public Radio and has published articles on British popular culture in the North American British Music Studies Association Newsletter and the Des Moines Register. She has an article on Jane Austen forthcoming in Romantic Circles.








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May 13, 2014 · 12:54 pm