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.