Bodily sensations in the conversion poetry of Michael Field.
Field's interest in depicting the physical body is perhaps felt most strongly in the 1892 volume Sight and Song--every poem in this volume depicts figures. (1) The poems in Sight and Song are each matched to a painting, an endeavor that was part of Field's emerging aesthetic theory, which, as Ana I. Parejo Vadillo explains, was to "develop an epistemology of sight intrinsically related to poetry." (2) Of the thirty-one paintings represented in the volume, only one, da Vinci's Drawing of Roses and Violets does not include human figures. Field puts the figure of da Vinci himself into the poem, however, as they meditate on the act of composition:
Leonardo drew the blooms On an April day: How his subtle pencil loved its toil, Loved to draw!" (11. 12-15)
The poem places the reader in the mind of Leonardo as he seeks to capture the spirit and the secrets of the flowers. The concluding stanza presents Leonardo's task as a fight against time, decay, and death: "Leonardo drew in spring, / Restless spring gone by, / Flowers he chose should never after fade" (11. 34-36). The flowers captured in his art, unlike those in nature, will not wither and die. The inclusion of the figure of da Vinci in this poem suggests a conscious effort on the part of Bradley and Cooper to include human figures in all the poems of Sight and Song. Moreover, the specific subject matter of this poem--the work of the artist and the sanctity of art--reminds readers of the place of the artist in relation to the work. Although da Vinci is not visible in the study of violets and roses, Bradley and Cooper make him visible in their poem. By embodying da Vinci in the poem and allowing their reader to see his pencil tracing the lines of the flowers, they express a commitment to the power of the body and its inseparability from the experience of art.
I start with the da Vinci poem because this interest in the power of the body and physical presence runs throughout much of Field's work. In Sight and Song, bodies are part of the translation act, conveying emotion and sensation and connecting the poet, subject, and reader. In the later works, such emotions and sensations are complicated as Field attempts to embody the experience of spirituality and conversion in their poetry and uses the body to articulate the relationship between the human and the divine. Much of the critical work on Sight and Song has focused on the gaze and the way in which Field's ekphrastic poetry mediates that gaze. For instance, Vadillo explores the subjectivity of the gaze, noting, "Michael Field was testing out the relationship established between a work of art and the subject that gazes at and takes pleasure in it." (3) Critics such as Vadillo, Jill Ehnenn, Marion Thain, and others have provocatively unpacked both the gaze of the poets and the gaze of the subjects in the paintings, noting the frissance that emerges from the exchange of gazes between the poet and the subject in the painting who gazes back on the spectator. The bodies behind the painted eyes, however, receive less attention in contemporary criticism, yet Field's careful anatomization of bodies in the poems suggests that they might warrant a closer look.
In the preface to Sight and Song, Field explains that their aim is "to translate into verse what the lines and colours of certain chosen pictures sing in themselves; to express not so much what these pictures are to the poet, but rather what poetry they objectively incarnate" (p. v). Both contemporary critics and critics in the 1890s have found much to do with this preface as a theory of aestheticism that engaged with ideas of translation, critical distance, and poetic agency. Linda K. Hughes notes the careful construction of the volume, calling attention to "Michael Field's concern to fashion an objet d'art from poetic texts" through their "deliberate placement of poems to create rhythms, echoes, contrasts, and shapes." (4) And Marion Thain discusses Field's engagement with the aesthetic theories of their contemporaries, such as Walter Pater and John Ruskin, and identifies Sight and Song as "a struggle between objective and subjective responses to painting: between letting the painting speak for itself and having it eclipsed by the dominating subjectivity of the critic/poet who speaks for it." (5) Building on the work of Hughes, Thain, and others, I would like to shift the focus away from the gaze of the subject/object to the work of the paintings and the accompanying poems, specifically those depicting the relationship between the body and Christian spirituality. Michael Field's attempt at creating objectivity--a flawed attempt, as many critics note--may signal a departure from Pater's aesthetics, in which it is the responsibility of the critic to recognize the power of art as "producing pleasurable sensations, each of a more or less peculiar and unique kind." (6) However, I suggest that Field remains engaged with Pater's theory about art and the sensations of the body through their attention to the body within the art, rather than the body observing art. In other words, Field attempts to achieve objectivity for the poet by exploring the subjectivity of the painting through the poetic representation of individual bodies. This practice of depicting bodies and spiritual sensations in Sight and Song, then, becomes a point of departure for the embodiment of the spiritual experience in their later poems.
Field's use of "incarnate" in their preface offers a clue to their interest in poetry's ability to represent the body. Declaring their intent to explore "what poetry they [the paintings] objectively incarnate" allows Field to claim that pictures make poetry flesh, that they give the poetry a body (p. v). In the case of the pieces included in Sight and Song, they do this quite literally by depicting bodies. Likewise, throughout the volume, Field explores the ability of poetry to make ideas flesh through the depiction of the painted bodies. "Incarnation," then, may suggest a reciprocal relationship through which the painted figures embody poetic sensations and ideas and the text of the poem articulates that body-spirit relationship. The word incarnate also, of course, has strong associations with Catholicism and the mystery whereby Jesus Christ became human. The literal "making flesh" of Christ is celebrated in the Catholic Mass and the sacrament of Holy Communion, in which Catholics symbolically consume the body and blood. While the Catholic conversion was fifteen years away for Bradley and Cooper, who were still in the midst of their pagan phase, I suggest that the interest in bodies and the ability of poetry to incarnate ideas or sensations in Sight and Song laid the groundwork for their later conversion poetry. Rather than mark a departure from their earlier work, then, the poetry in Mystic Trees and Poems of Adoration, in particular, represents a continuation and increasing complexity of their embodied poetics.
All of the poems in Sight and Song pay careful attention to the body as a site of beauty, pleasure, and/or pain, and poems such as "L'Indifferent," "La Gioconda," and "Sleeping Venus" have received considerable critical attention for the ways in which Field depicts the body both in motion and at rest. "L'Indifferent"--the boy "Who dances and must die"--is a particularly good example of Field's interest in how poetry can reanimate bodies rendered static by painting (1. 20). Watteau's dancer is frozen in a moment, wide-eyed and on tiptoe, but Field's poem mobilizes the boy, suggesting the rhythms and patterns of dance in its short, sprightly lines. Of course, the tragedy of the poem is in this juxtaposition: the animated spirit of the dancer, trapped in a static painting. Although Field can imagine the dancer in motion and see the potential for love and pleasure beyond the moment of the painting, it is "In vain we woo" because he cannot escape his moment or his fate (1. 14). The dancing body, then, becomes both a potential site for pleasure and the harrier to that pleasure.
The interest in embodiment also appears throughout Field's journals. For instance, in writing about their experience of viewing the paintings that inspired Sight and Song, Field emphasizes the physicality of the figures in the paintings and their ability to represent something beyond themselves. Of "La Gioconda," they write, "It is no portrait, it is a dream of power and occult influence." Following a detailed description of the Mona Lisa's face, this statement both reaffirms the power of the painting and notes that such power is both derived from and surpasses the physical. The same slippage between the physical and the spiritual occurs in a description of Oscar Wilde from the same Paris trip: "the aesthete is discovered simply by the look of well-being in the body." (7) As with the description of the painting, this assertion follows a detailed account of Wilde's stubborn face and graying hair, combining these features into something beyond themselves--something that is essentially Wilde.
This means of chinking about the body as something beyond itself runs throughout Sight and Song, and Field's depictions of Catholic martyrs are particularly interesting as possible precursors to their conversion poems. Indeed, Hilary Fraser notes in her discussion of the volume, "one or both of the authors of these poems, even at their most 'pagan,' and some fifteen years before their conversion, felt the aesthetic and emotional attraction of Roman Catholicism." (8) In Sight and Song, Field explores the linkages between the physical and the spiritual and experiments with the ability of poetry to articulate the relationship between the two. Among the martyr poems in Sight and Song are accounts of Saint Katharine, Saint Jerome, and two of Saint Sebastian, as well as several depicting the death and resurrection of Jesus. Across all of these poems, Field creates a fairly straightforward equation in which the body is subject to pain but the spirit enables the transcendence of that pain. Through the degradation of the body, the spirit is triumphant. Although several of the martyr poems in Sight and Song, particularly the two poems on Saint Sebastian, have been the subject of considerable critical attention, few linkages have been made between these poems and the later Catholic conversion poetry, despite recent critical claims that the conversion poetry warrants closer attention and should be studied in relation to Field's other works. For instance, Marion Thain explains, "Catholicism was associated in the late Victorian mind with homosexuality and paganism," and Field's "religious lyrics were seamlessly integrated into their oeuvre" (pp. 169, 170). I build on the work of Thain and others who have suggested that that the Catholic conversion and accompanying poetry might be seen as an extension of the pagan sensibilities articulated in earlier works by looking specifically at how the body-spirit relationship and the idea of "incarnation" in the early poems is reimagined in the poetry produced after the conversion.
Field's "Saint Katharine of Alexandria" most succinctly demonstrates the relationship between the body and the spirit that is emblematic of their early martyr poems, in which physical suffering becomes a means to spiritual salvation. Katharine's body is anatomized through pain. Her "finger-tips" "Shrink" from the "spikes of steel" on the torture wheel that was the instrument of her martyrdom, her hair is damp with sweat, and her eyes are cloudy (11. 3-4). Field tell us, "She bleeds each day as on the day she bled," suggesting that the painting and the poem have captured her in a moment of pain that she is doomed to relive over and over (1. 5). The hope of something beyond pain is also present in the poem, however, in the "open landscape [that] glows / Soft and apart behind her to the right, / Where a swift shallop crosses the moonlight" (11.12-14)The boat becomes a symbol of escape from the world of the body into the world of the spirit--a transcendence that is made possible through Katharine's physical pain. In this poem, the body is an object of both pity and envy for the reader. The spikes of the wheel and the blood are frightening and off-putting, yet the reverential way in which Field describes them imbues Katharine's body and its suffering with a degree of divinity. "The Virgin-Martyr stands, touching her wheel"; she is active, and although her fingertips shrink from the spike, she reaches for it nonetheless (1. 2). Her eyes are sealed, and her "mouth will never feel / Pity again" (11. 7-8). These descriptors distance Katharine from her body even as she inhabits its pain. The act of martyrdom, the poem suggests, has enabled her to transcend the physical body in preparation for the glories of the spiritual world that are hinted at in the closing lines of the poem, which depict the soft, beckoning landscape and escape from earthly pain.
The longer and more detailed poem "Saint Jerome in the Desert" extends the body-spirit exploration begun in "Saint Katharine of Alexandria." This poem depicts Saint Jerome's self-imposed martyrdom and exile in the desert in an attempt to cleanse himself of lust. The connections between the body and the spirit are strongly articulated throughout the poem, with the body presented as a temple/church in the opening stanza:
On one knee, On one foot he rests his weight-- A foot that rather seems to be The clawed base of a pillar past all date Than prop of flesh and bone; (11. 3-7)
This comparison continues in the next stanza, where his beard is compared to that of "some Assyrian's on a monument" (1. 13). Jerome's body in the opening sections of the poem is a holy temple, yet it is the holy temple before it has been cleansed. Indeed, with this image, Field seems to be invoking the New Testament story, recounted in the Gospel of John (3:13-25), of Jesus cleansing the temple, driving out the merchants, and restoring it to a place of pristine glory. (9) For Jerome, his body/temple is cleansed by the elements: first, an accusatory wind "That terrible in censure round him blows," then the accusations of the glare of the sun (1. 26). Ultimately, "each element becomes his judge" (1. 32). The poets, too, underwent elemental trials in translating Saint Jerome from painting to poem. In the journals, they write, "If we looked on a picture till we were on fire with it, the language we used would be poetic. In St. Jerome we have felt the picture so intensely.... Wherever this burning sensation is maintained there is life in the words we use" (PMM, p. 255). Here, as they describe the process of composition, Field makes the body of the poet(s) complicit in the spiritual and poetic transformation of Saint Jerome.
The judgment of the elements is compounded by the self-flagellation that Jerome performs, beating his breast with a rock: "pleasure fills / The body courage reinstates / Enduring what the spirit wills" (11. 48-50). This is perhaps the most direct articulation of the martyr's body-spirit relationship in Sight and Song, and that relationship is additionally complicated because Jerome is both torturer and tortured, inflicting pain on his own body. Nonetheless, recognizing the ability of the body to endure the will of the spirit, Field explains, is the height of pleasure. Although Jerome's body suffers from both the harsh elements and his own self-inflicted penance, like the body of Saint Katharine, it is depicted as divine. Field suggests that the physical is the gateway to the spiritual and that Jerome, "having done the man within him wrong," must punish the man without--the external, physical body (1.41). Indeed, his arm rises to strike the blow "as if at God's command," suggesting a degree of divine inspiration (1. 46). As the poem concludes, the sight of a white bird nearby reminds Jerome of his own impurities and brings an end to his penance, returning him to the life of a scholar, and the poem closes with him "writing, undismayed" (1. 67). As with "Saint Katharine," "Saint Jerome in the Desert" also includes a glimpse at a world beyond the immediate physical world. For "Saint Jerome," it is the white bird, a traditional symbol of the Holy Spirit, that signals the presence of another world--the world for which Jerome is purifying himself. This symbol both helps Jerome to endure his penance and brings him peace.
The two Saint Sebastian poems have been, perhaps, the subject of the most critical interest of the martyr poems in Sight and Song because Victorian writers and critics made him something of a cultural icon. Strongly associated with masculine same-sex desire, Sebastian became "a code which could publicly express what had previously been hidden." (10) The first Saint Sebastian poem is based on Correggio's Madonna and Child with St. Sebastian. Field's poem, rather than focus on the centerpiece of the painting, which depicts the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus, draws the reader down to the figure of Saint Sebastian, who looks up worshipfully from below. This poem, more than any of the other martyr poems, focuses on the celebration and divinity achieved through martyrdom. References to Sebastian's physical pain are few--his bound hands and the arrows raining on his breast and throat; instead, the poem focuses on the joy brought by the Holy Child. The opening line, "Bound by thy hands, but with respect unto thine eyes how free," captures the dichotomy that is central to the poem (1. 1). Field uses multiple images of captivity throughout yet reminds readers that the captivity of the body pales in light of the freedom of the spirit. The freedom of the spirit is achieved, in part, through the relationship between Saint Sebastian and the infant Jesus. Sebastian is depicted as gazing worshipfully up, while the child holds his gaze from above. This connection, the poem suggests, gives Sebastian the strength to endure his martyrdom: "Though arrows rain on breast and throat they have no power to hurt / While thy tenacious face they fail an instant to avert" (11. 16-17). The body is shielded from pain so long as the spirit remains fixed on the heavens; the spiritual is achieved through physical suffering.
The second Saint Sebastian poem, based on Messina's Saint Sebastian, depicts a very different version of the saint. Unlike the worshipful, joyful Sebastian who finds peace in the love of God, this Sebastian is resentful and questioning. Jill R. Ehnenn suggests that this questioning offers a point of connection for the reader: "the saint's rebellion against God is presented sympathetically to the reader/spectator, who perhaps identifies with and admires the strength of Sebastian's emotions and body." (11) The painting and poem depict Sebastian standing alone in a square whose other inhabitants seem indifferent to his predicament. Again, the theme of captivity is stressed, and Field underscores this by attending to his physical strength, strong feet, sound muscles, a "body fresh for use, for pleasure fit" (1. 79). This strength is deteriorating, however, as Sebastian continues to stand and suffer: "He must stand at peace / While his hopes abate, / While his youth and vigour cease" (11. 70-72). Unlike Correggio's Sebastian, who gains strength from looking to the heavens, here Sebastian's face is "Turned in its distress / Toward the heaven, without avail" (11. 49-50). This mortification of the body reflects the doubts of the soul: "His soul is questioning," and he disputes and protests the will of God (1. 78). Despite this questioning, Field suggests, Sebastian is blessed and protected. The poem's final stanza reads,
Yet throughout this bold rebellion of the saint Noonday's brilliant air has carried no complaint. Lo, across the solitude Of the storm two white, Little clouds obtrude Storm-accentuating light! (11. 85-90)
Like the white bird that appears to comfort Saint Jerome and remind him of the presence of God, these white clouds stand as a reminder of God's presence and protection of Sebastian. The storm has not stricken him as punishment for his questioning; rather, the white clouds stand waiting for Sebastian to turn his gaze to them and remember the reason for his martyrdom and the reward that awaits him in heaven. Throughout Sight and Song, Field experiments with different ways of depicting the body-soul relationship. Here, the focus on the deterioration of the body suggests that while the body can ultimately be a pathway to spirituality, it also serves as a barrier, and the pain and mortification must be overcome before the transcendence can occur.
Together, these four martyr poems illustrate Field's interest in the relationship between body and soul. Painting and poetry appear to be essential to Field's exploration of these concepts; indeed, in recording a Good Friday discussion about spirituality in their journals, both Bradley and Cooper evoke painters--the Umbrian painters and James Whistler, respectively--to describe their version of the spiritual world (PMM, p. 268). The body in pain seems to be an object of fascination to Bradley and Cooper because in each instance that pain is accompanied by pleasure--the knowledge of spiritual reward. Field's poems capture these moments of doubt and struggle. Although the space of doubt is most overtly articulated in the Messina Saint Sebastian, where the mortification of the body prompts the doubting of the spirit, each poem explores it, and the body becomes the physical manifestation of that doubt: Katharine's fingers shrink from the spikes of the wheel, Saint Jerome pollutes the body with lust, and Correggio's Sebastian struggles against his captivity. Despite these physical struggles, however, the pain of the body is subsumed by the glory of the spirit. Saint Jerome and Correggio's Saint Sebastian experience relief within the confines of the poem, while Saint Katharine and Messina's Saint Sebastian must be content with the promise of future salvation. The version of spirituality embraced by the ecstatic maenads of Field's 1889 volume Long Ago, who "dance with lightsome feet, / And lift the song with voices sweet" (11. 63-64), is reworked into a more strict and straightforward idea of spiritual embodiment in the martyr poems in Sight and Song. (12) This change certainly reflects the Christian subject matter of the paintings and the poems, yet, as the later conversion poems demonstrate, when Field writes about their own experience of religion and conversion, they depict the body-spirit relationship as somewhat more complicated than they had initially suggested in Sight and Song. The body of the converted is difficult to control and frequently becomes a site of doubt or questioning that cannot be easily resolved.
Although evidence of Field's Catholic conversion appeared as early as the 1908 volume Wild Honey and extended through the 1914 Whym Chow: Flame of Love, it is Poems of Adoration (1912) and Mystic Trees (1913) in which Bradley and Cooper truly "establish a new religious identity" (PMM, p. 161). These volumes also differ from earlier works in that they mark what Marion Thain terms a "new kind of collaboration" (p. 172). Poems of Adoration was written primarily by Edith Cooper and Mystic Trees by Katharine Bradley; yet, as Thain explains, the writing process remained collaborative, and the final volumes were designed to be bound together as partners. The religious poems in these two volumes generally fall into two groups: abstract meditations, reminiscent of prayers or hymns, and retellings of events from the Bible or meditations on religious figures such as Mary Magdalen or Salome. Bodies are less prominent in these volumes than they are in Sight and Song, and they take on more complicated roles. For instance, in some of the poems, Field celebrates the divine bodies, particularly those of Jesus and Mary, and depicts the body as the site of religious ecstasy. The poets also, however, include a different depiction of the body that appears to directly address the matter of conversion: they use the physical body to depict moments of doubt and questioning. Rather than become a means for achieving spiritual reward, the body is a site of disruption. In Same-Sex Desire in Victorian Religious Culture, Frederick S. Roden explains how such embodiment was an essential component of Catholicism for the Fields, particularly Edith Cooper: "The carnality of Catholic sacramentalism drew her to the Church. Her Christianity also demanded a body." (13) Looking at the evolution from the martyr poems of Sight and Song to the conversion poems of Poems of Adoration and Mystic Trees reveals that while some bodies--the martyr saints or the divine bodies of Jesus and Mary--are objects of worship and celebration, the bodies of the converted are more vexed, and they become sites for playing out the complicated relationship between the individual and the divine. Here, I look at several deployments of the doubting body, including the sacrament of communion and the crucifixion, to demonstrate how Field struggled with the physical connection between the individual and God and the realization of the divine within.
Bradley and Cooper were not, of course, the first Victorians to experience a fascination with the Catholic Church. As critics such as Ellis Hanson and Frederick S. Roden have demonstrated, the Church drew a range of writers and artists including, most famously, Oscar Wilde, who converted shortly before his death in 1900. In Decadence and Catholicism, Hanson explains that Catholicism appealed to many writers' sense of history as well as their aestheticism, serving as both refuge and inspiration. He notes, "The Church is itself a beautiful and erotic work of art.... The sheer sensuality of its ritual ... exposed the Church to accusations of paganism, even hedonism, rendering it the ideal stage for the subversive gestures of the Catholic dandy." (14) Hanson focuses primarily on male writers, yet later critics including Ehnenn, Roden, and Ruth Vanita have suggested that Catholicism offered new opportunities for Field to articulate their lesbian identity: "Their poems to Mary and to the female saints free them to celebrate women's beauty uninhibitedly." (15) Field was certainly working in the aesthetic tradition of Wilde, John Gray, and others, celebrating the spectacle and beauty of Catholicism in many of their poems. For instance, "After Anointing" depicts the five senses responding in ecstatic, joyful dance "as fall / The Holy Oils!" (11. 2-3), (16) and "Real Presence" describes the awe inspired by the altar with "Level stones of marble, brazen lights, / Linen spread, flowers on the shelves and heights" (11. 3-4). "Relics," too, engages with the tactility of doctrine, celebrating Mary Magdalen through detailed description of trace remnants of her life.
Unlike several other late-Victorian converts--most notably John Gray, who disavowed his "quintessentially decadent" 1893 volume Silverpoints--Field never fully rejected their earlier life or the art it produced (Hanson, p. 311). Although the journal writings of Edith Cooper, in particular, reflect a desire to move beyond the pagan ethos of Long Ago and the early dramas, the poetry from Mystic Trees and Poems of Adoration suggests a continuum, rather than a break, in their work. Edith writes, "I feel more urgently the call of the old Vocation to be made the new one," and she notes that certain works are now "out of date to ourselves" and must be "printed anonymously" (PMM, pp. 283-284). However, as discussed shortly, the poems themselves do not reflect this abrupt change in perspective. In discussing the move from pagan to Catholic subject matter, Ruth Vanita notes, "the conversion occasions a shift from Sapphic to Marian imagery, but the content does not alter substantially"; indeed, Field remains interested in "the celebration of the senses and of women's beauty and vitality" (p. 133). As Catholic poets, Bradley and Cooper were also working in the tradition of Gerard Manley Hopkins, with whom they shared an interest in the relationship between body and spirit. Maureen F. Moran discusses Hopkins's treatment of the body in terms of masculinity and muscular Christianity, noting that he "reconfigured the body as a legitimate object of praise" while also exploring the relationship between physical suffering and the possibility of redemption. (17) A similar dual focus appears in Field's volumes, although in many of their conversion poems, the physical becomes a barrier to spiritual knowledge or acceptance.
Field's Catholicism exists along a continuum with that of other mid- to late-Victorian poets. Bradley and Cooper were interested in the way in which religious devotion could intensify interpersonal devotion, offering a lesbian, feminine counterpart to the narratives of male Catholic homosexuality that dominated much late-Victorian discourse. As Hilary Fraser notes, "for them, religious experience, whether Christian or pagan, was always intersected by desire, the metaphysical and spiritual fundamentally grounded in the body" (p. 128). The bodies engaged in such spiritual desire, of course, were not just those of Bradley and Cooper but also the canine body of Whym Chow, whose death in 1906 spurred the poets' conversion and who became the third in their own holy trinity. Like many of their contemporaries, Bradley and Cooper embraced their new religion; however, they never completely rejected their former lives or poetic identities. Moreover, even as they celebrated Catholicism, they also acknowledged the challenges of conversion. Such challenges provided rich subject matter for their later volumes, as Field frequently chose to depict doubt and discord as physical, thereby creating a space within Victorian Catholic poetics for the embodiment of conversion.
After Bradley and Cooper's conversion, the idea of the incarnate, and its specific significance for Catholicism, continued to interest them. In the journals, Cooper writes of a conversation with Father Vincent McNabb in which she questions the need to reconcile "fact" with the "supernatural" elements of religion, particularly concerning the resurrection of Christ. In response, McNabb advises that Edith "not read any works of criticism, or consider the question of discrepancies &c, but humbly dwell on the record of Christ's incarnate life" (PMM, p. 285). It is the incarnate that troubles Edith--she has more confidence in what she terms the "supernatural" elements of the faith than the doings of Christ-made-human. In writing about Hopkins, Moran notes that the Catholic Church derived both authority and relevance from this mystery: "The historicity of the Incarnation, its embedding in real human time, grounded the spiritual authority of the Catholic Church in continuous history and guaranteed the Church as Christ's 'living voice.' The Church perpetuated the Incarnation and, as such, incarnated 'a living present authority'" (pp. 70-71). Although Moran is specifically interested in masculinity, she articulates the strong link between the individual body and the mystery of incarnation for Victorian Catholics. For Field, their poetry became a place to further explore this connection. The reconciliation of the physical and the spiritual was fairly straightforward in the martyr poems from Sight and Song, yet it becomes much more complicated in light of Field's own conversion and experience of spirituality--the subject of their later volumes. Divine bodies are certainly celebrated in Field's work, particularly the "Cedar" section of Mystic Trees, which includes a number of poems depicting the strength and fortitude of the Virgin Mary, but I focus instead on those poems in which the body is used to represent struggles and challenges with faith. As Field comes to accept a doctrine that promotes the incarnation of the Divine, they also create a counternarrative in attending to the body of the converted as a site of dissent and doubt. These perspectives coexist within the individual volumes Poems of Adoration and Mystic Trees and also reach across the books, further underscoring the collaborative nature of this work.
In "Real Presence" from Poems of Adoration, Field captures the sensation by which the speaker is both drawn to and afraid of God--the awe inspired by God's presence is simultaneously attractive and overwhelming, and these conflicting emotions are played out on the body. The first stanza is broken up with ellipses and dashes, embodying the push/pull of the relationship: "I Approach Thy Altar ... Stay! / Let me break away!" (11. 1-2). Then, "I bow down, I kneel ... / And far away, where the sun sets, would reel!" (11. 5-6). The hesitation of the speaker in approaching the altar is captured by the breaking of the lines, and the exclamation points mark the intensity of the experience. Once the speaker is kneeling, however, she is caught in the presence of God, and the lines become smooth and continuous as the speaker's body is filled with the divine presence: "Thou in my body bodily art known" (1. 18). The knowledge referred to here is suggestive of a sexual connection, yet the line also speaks to a shared corporeal experience. The body of the speaker recognizes the presence of the incarnate God and feels a sense of connection in that recognition. This presence immobilizes the speaker for several stanzas; Field describes "the body's flow of life reigned tight" and compares God to a tiger, stalking a terrified prisoner, too afraid to move: "Thou art as a tiger round a camp; / And I kindle, terrified, my lamp, / Since I cannot fly" (11. 15, 21-23). In contrast to the first stanza, marked by dashes, ellipses, and exclamation points, the middle three stanzas are tight and quiet, as the speaker is filled with the immobilizing fear of the divinity. In the fifth and final stanza, the speaker seems to recover somewhat, entering into an exchange with God instead of just standing as a passive receptacle. She acknowledges the embodiment of the presence, and her body becomes a point of connection to the divine: "Thou art God, and in the mesh, / Close to me, of flesh" (11. 25-26). This shared embodiment allows for an exchange: "And we love and we have been in range / Of wild secrecies of interchange" (11. 27-28). These two lines suggest a movement toward a partnership and relationship between the speaker and God. She is no longer the frozen, frightened victim of the stalking tiger; instead, by recognizing the embodiment of God and his presence in her own body, she has drawn "in range" of a more meaningful relationship. Field ultimately denies such a neat conclusion, however, and in the final two lines, the speaker backs away yet again: "Could I bear thee near / I should be humble to Thee--but I fear!" (11. 29-30). The broken lines and exclamation points of the first stanza return as the speaker gives in to her fear and remains distant from God. She has recognized the closeness they could have achieved, but she is not yet able to fully embrace this relationship. In this poem, the movement and stasis of the body represent both the desire to have access to God and the extreme fear of him. The speaker realizes that by recognizing the humanity and embodiment of God, she can move closer to "the real presence," yet she is not yet willing or able to do so. Field depicts the speaker's body as in conflict with itself. She realizes the power of shared physicality--the human connection enabled by the incarnation of God--as well as the weakness of the human body to support the real presence of the divine.
Several pieces in Poems of Adoration address the idea of the incarnate and the bodily experience of conversion through meditations on communion. For Field, the act of communion represents both a desire for and a resistance to the incarnate body of God. In "Words of the Bridegroom," Field uses the act of communion to connect the incarnate body of God to the body of the converted. The poets speak in the voice of Christ encouraging his followers to feed on his divinity to keep themselves pure and worthy of his love:
How shall ye keep the whiteness of your vow? My Virgins, My white Brides, I whisper how: Of Virgin flesh, a Virgin God, Incarnate among men I trod; And when as Bread they feed on Me Needs must that Bread be of Virginity. (11. 14-19)
Christ anatomizes his own incarnate self and offers it to the disciples for their consumption as a way to remain pure. In addition to consumption of the flesh, the speaker notes that his divine blood flows in the veins of his faithful virgin brides: "The white flowers of My Precious Blood, / Through whom it rises up" (11. 11-12). Both of these images, of course, are deeply ironic in suggesting that virginity can be maintained only through the quasi-sexual consumption of another's flesh and rising up of his blood, yet the spiritual connection formed through the physical act of communion/consummation is celebrated in the poem. In "Real Presence," the speaker struggles with establishing a physical connection to God, but here, the act of communion is presented as one way to achieve that connection. However, the poem is one-sided. That is, although the body and blood are offered as a means to salvation, Field does not depict the virgin brides partaking of the sacrament. The poem ends with the entreaty, "Feed on the Bread My Mother loves!" yet this call goes unanswered, leaving the reader feeling unfinished and unfulfilled (1. 21).
Several other poems from the volume also explore this interplay between desire and resistance. In "Wasting," the divine flesh is presented as addictive, and the speaker offers a plaintive cry, "I Need Thee, O my Food, / O Christ," explaining that she will die without divine nourishment (11. 1-2). This, too, is a one-sided plea, unanswered as the speaker asks Christ, "Reach me in time, / Before I shudder into death and die!" (11. 15-16). In "Sicut Parvuli" and "Holy Communion," too, the speaker entreats God to make her worthy of the gift of his flesh and able to act in accordance with his will yet doubts her worthiness of such a gift. These communion poems demonstrate Field's struggle to accept and articulate the relationship between the individual and God. While the communion transaction, as enacted in the Catholic Mass, should be straightforward, Field demonstrates the resistance that occurs as the body of the speaker cannot fully embrace this connection with God. The body and blood are being offered to the speaker, but she is not yet ready to receive them; and this struggle is played out on the speaking, feeding body.
Another aspect of physicality that is explored in the conversion poems is the crucifixion. A number of poems from Mystic Trees meditate on the wounds of Christ and the accompanying pain, often represented by blood. The volume includes a three-part "Rosary of Blood," which rewrites each of the Marian mysteries. Here, Field depicts the death of Mary, the death of Christ, and the assumption of Mary as motivated by the blood that flows in their veins, is spilled, and ultimately paves the way to heaven. This interest in pain and death, Roden suggests, may have had its roots in Field's own physical state in the 1910s: "Surely the narratives of Christ's and Mary's lives became all the more real to Michael Field as both women faced their mortality and experienced considerable bodily suffering" (p. 209). The poem "Five Sacred Wounds" deploys a meditation on the crucifixion to demonstrate how doubt is played out on the body as the speaker searches for the divine within. Here, Field extends the relationship between the speaker and the divine to show how the speaker comes to embody the pain of Christ. The poem charts the speaker's move from seeing the crucifixion wounds as a trinity to seeing them as five distinct wounds--doubling the hands and feet. The poem opens, "Have compassion on me! / I thought to worship Thy Wounds in Trinity" (11. 1-2). (18) The idea of the trinity, numerous scholars have noted, is central to Field's conversion and conception of Catholicism, and it is perhaps best articulated in the poem "Trinity" from the 1914 volume Whym Chow: Flame of Love. In "Five Sacred Wounds," the speaker chides herself for not realizing the doubled pain of the hands and feet and asks forgiveness for this shortcoming. Although the nail drives through the right hand, it is the left "Hand that feels the nail" (1. 9). The anticipation, in other words, worsens the blow. The second stanza then glorifies the duality of the hands, working together "In every motion to fulfil / A motion of the Father's will!" (11. 16-17). In this stanza, the hands are at work and in motion, suggesting that the body is a tool, filling the word of God. Field also evokes the mysteries of the Eucharist here, describing how the paired hands are required for the simultaneous celebration of bread and wine: "one bindeth tight / The Cup, one breaketh for all the Bread" (11. 12-13). This mystery, by which the bread and wine become body and blood, occurs during each Mass as a means of reminding Catholics of both the mystery of the word become flesh and the bodily suffering whereby Christ died for the sins of humanity.
The speaker's attention then moves to the feet, and she seems to inhabit the body in pain. The "I" that had been observing the situation and worshiping the wounds now moves inside the scene to feel the pain: "There is a blow, and then silence, and then ... / I will have patience, wait for the blow again" (11. 24-25). As they do in several other poems, including "Real Presence," Field uses ellipses to break the stanzas, here indicating the breaking of the body. As the speaker moves more deeply into her meditation, she comes to inhabit the crucified body. The accomplishment of this physical connection with Christ is fleeting, however, and this poem, like many others from these volumes, ends without resolution. Self-doubt has been present for the speaker throughout the poem, and both the first and last stanzas conclude with an appeal to God that reflects her shortcomings: "God, for my hardness pity me!" and "God, for my lack of loving chide!" (11.10,30). Over the three stanzas of the poem, the speaker moves from seeing the wounds as something divine and to be worshiped to something physical and painful to be inhabited. This realization causes the speaker to chide herself for a lack of loving and compassion as she comes to understand that spirituality requires an acceptance of messy, painful realities as well as the celebration of beautiful mysteries. The wounds are none the less painful because they are divine, and the word become flesh is both beautiful and mysterious and frail and ephemeral. The specter of the wounded body in this poem forces Field's speaker to confront the humanity in the divine as she attempts to find the divine in herself.
Poems of Adoration also includes Field's retelling of the apocryphal story of Salome after her departure from the court of Herod. This is perhaps the most disruptive body in the conversion poems, as it challenges God's will and is punished for doing so. This poem differs from those discussed earlier in that it is not a personal meditation but rather a story through which Field explores questions about the relationship between the human and the divine. "A Dance of Death" depicts a winter scene and a dancer on the ice who "tip-toe dances in a whirl" (1. 23). The poem celebrates Salome's dancing body: her hands are "as a snow-bird's wings," her limbs "balance[d]," and her pose "Ecstatic" (11. 54, 28, 56). The heat and fire of her dance--"Weaving the East upon a stream of ice"--compromise the first stanza's "sturdy ice," which begins to crack and heave as the poem progresses (11. 44, 2). The first five stanzas of the poem's seven range in length from eighteen to six lines, yet their tone is consistent in the celebration of Salome. She is beautiful and mesmerizing, juxtaposing "The Orient's immeasurable glow" against the frozen landscape (1. 41). Both the tone and the landscape change abruptly in the sixth stanza, the longest in the poem, as the ice breaks as though it has been "riven as by a sword" (1. 65). The dancer, now referred to as the "Vision," has disappeared beneath the ice. In a dark moment of irony, however, she is decapitated, and her head "skims and hops / Across the ice that rasped it" as the golden hair and jewels glitter, reflecting off the ice under the sun (11. 82-83). It is a grisly end for the beautiful dancer.
This climactic moment, whereby Salome's death mirrors that of John the Baptist, is presented as an act of divine intervention. At the start of the sixth stanza, the ice and frost crack because they "Have straight given heed / To Will more firm" (11. 62-63). The capitalized "Will" suggests the Will of God, a sentiment that is confirmed in the final stanza, where the poem turns to address John the Baptist: "O holy John, how still / Was laid thy head upon the salver white, / When thou hadst done God's Will!" (11. 98-100). The calm head of John, pristine on a white plate, is contrasted to the chaotic, dancing head of Salome, whose face is marked with fear. In the poem, then, God's Will chastises the disruptive body of Salome even as her head, in its final movements, continues to skim across the ice, "subjugate / To its own law" (11. 94-95). Here, the dancing body of Salome becomes a site for the intertwining of the Catholic and pagan influences on Michael Field. Indeed, Hilary Fraser argues that Field's religious poetry transcends Catholic/pagan dichotomies: "for them, religious experience, whether Christian or pagan, was always intersected by desire, the metaphysical and spiritual fundamentally grounded in the body" (p. 128). The celebration of the dance in the opening stanzas is reminiscent of poems from their first volume, Long Ago, which includes depictions of ecstatic pagan dance. The abrupt intervention of God's will, however, suggests a force greater than the natural world and the sublime pleasure and sexuality that mark the exchange between Salome and the landscape. Ending with an homage to John may show the Catholic faith supplanting the pagan, yet the image of the dancing head remains in the background, confirming the continued presence of disruptive and disrupting bodies in the Catholic poems. I conclude with this poem because, like "Real Presence," "Holy Communion," and other conversion poems, it undertakes questions about the relationship between the individual and the divine and the embodiment of faith. In "A Dance of Death," Field demonstrates that bodies are both subject to God's will and able to disrupt that will. In other words, although Bradley and Cooper fully embraced their conversion, by including doubting and disruptive bodies across Poems of Adoration and Mystic Trees, they present Catholic doctrine as something to be continuously questioned and explored.
In Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body, her discussion of postmodern conceptions of the body, Susan Bordo writes, "No longer an obstacle to knowledge ... the body is seen instead as the vehicle of the human making and remaking of the world, constantly shifting location, capable of revealing endlessly new points of view." (19) As Michael Field's poetic career progressed, they moved from thinking about the body as something that needed to be sacrificed to achieve spirituality to understanding the body as an important component of spirituality as well as a means to articulate the relationship between the individual and the divine within their poetry. The bodies represented in the conversion poems take on more than just a physical significance; they also become the site for the processing of spiritual experiences. While those spiritual experiences are fairly straightforward in recounting the lives of the martyrs as depicted in Renaissance art, when it comes to Field's own conversion and experience with spirituality, the body becomes a more contested site and is depicted in the poetry as a place to play out doubts or questions. As such, it forms a link to both earlier works in Field's own poetic tradition and broader conversations about Catholicism and conversion occurring in the late-Victorian world. In Mystic Trees and Poems of Adoration, Field recognizes the centrality of the body to Catholic doctrine, particularly the act of incarnation and the sacrament of communion, and the body becomes central to their own poetics of conversion as it offers a way to articulate the mystery of that experience.
(1) References to these poems are drawn from Sight and Song (London: Elkin Mathews and John Lane, 1892).
(2) Ana I. Parejo Vadillo, "Sight and Song: Transparent Translations and a Manifesto for the Observer," VP 38, no. 1 (2000): 16.
(3) Ana I. Parejo Vadillo, Women Poets and Urban Aestheticism: Passengers of Modernity (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 2005), p. 184.
(4) Linda K. Hughes, "Michael Field (Katharine Bradley & Edith Cooper): Sight and Song and Significant Form," in The Oxford Handbook of Victorian Poetry, ed. Matthew Bevis (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2013), p. 565.
(5) Marion Thain, "Michael Field": Poetry, Aestheticism and the Fin de Siecle (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007), p. 74.
(6) Walter H. Pater, Studies in the History of the Renaissance (London: Macmillan, 1873), p. ix.
(7) Michael Field, "Works and Days: The Diaries of Michael Field, 1888-1914," in Michael Field, the Poet: Published and Manuscript Materials, ed. Marion Thain and Ana Parejo Vadillo (Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 2009), pp. 239, 240; hereafter cited parenthetically in the text as PMM.
(8) Hilary Fraser, "The Religious Poetry of Michael Field," in Athena's Shuttle: Myth, Religion, Ideology from Romanticism to Modernism, ed. Franco Marucci and Emma Sdegno (Milan: Cisalpino, 2000), p. 134.
(9) All biblical references are to the Authorized (King James) Version.
(10) Dinah Ward, "Michael Field and Saint Sebastian," in Michael Field and Their World, ed. Margaret D. Stetz and Cheryl A. Wilson (High Wycombe, UK: Rivendale, 2007), p. 163.
(11) Jill R. Ehnenn, Women's Literary Collaboration, Queerness, and Late-Victorian CuL ture (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2008), p. 95.
(12) Michael Field, "XVII," in Long Ago (London: George Bell and Sons, 1889), p. xxix.
(13) Frederick S. Roden, Same-Sex Desire in Victorian Religious Culture (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 2002), p. 195.
(14) Ellis Hanson, Decadence and Catholicism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1997), p. 6.
(15) Ruth Vanita, Sappho and the Virgin Mary: Same-Sex Love and the English Literary Imagination (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1996), p. 133.
(16) References to these poems are drawn from Michael Field, Poems of Adoration (London: Sands, 1912).
(17) Maureen F. Moran, " 'Lovely manly mould': Hopkins and the Christian Body," Journal of Victorian Culture 6, no. 1 (2001): 64.
(18) References to these poems are drawn from Michael Field, Mystic Trees (London: Everleigh Nash, 1913).
(19) Susan Bordo, Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body, 10th ann. ed. (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2004), p. 227.
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|Author:||Wilson, Cheryl A.|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2016|
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