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.
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.