Libidinous laureates and lyrical maenads: Michael Field, Swinburne and erotic Hellenism.
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). What was striking about Swinburne's representations of Greek subjects was that his Greeks were far from the calm, philosophical, rational beings depicted by writers and scholars like Matthew Arnold. (5) Gone was the "sweetness and light" of Hellenic culture. In its place, Swinburne visualized the ancient Greeks as wildly irrational, driven by libidinal impulses and fierce passions. Central to Swinburne's Hellenism was, as Margot K. Louis explains, "the celebration of the chthonic deities, the repudiation of the transcendent, the perception of sex and violence as central in the development of religion." (6) It was this eroticized, mystical vision of the Greeks which, in part, helped to determine Swinburne's reputation as a "Demoniac youth." (7) Yet, as Anthony H. Harrison explains, Swinburne wrote erotic lyrics "not merely for the sake of notoriety, but in order to express as powerfully as possible his sense of life's inevitably tragic development for all spirited men and women: tragic because satisfying our passionate impulses is ultimately impossible." (8) Sensuality, spirituality, and creativity are, in Swinburne's poetic vision, inextricably wedded together. I suggest that Bradley and Cooper can be seen to replicate Swinburne's literary and philosophical premise, that it is the poet's (moral) duty to record one's passion for life and its potentially tragic cost.
In 1898, an anonymous contributor to the Academy maintained that Swinburne was "the most sedulously imitated of poets" for twenty years after the appearance of Atalanta in Calydon (1865). (9) A mere sixteen years after Swinburne produced Atalanta, Bradley and Cooper published Bellerophon (1881). Issued under the pseudonymous identities of Arran and Isla Leigh, Bellerophon is an adventurous, if flawed dramatic experiment. Bradley and Cooper employ the hubristic personality of Bellerophon--the young mythical prince who defeats the famed Chimaera and subsequently compares himself to the gods--in order to examine the hero's self-defeating tendency toward self-renunciation and religious piety. (10)
In addition to the obvious allusion to Euripides' Hippolytus, there are numerous thematic similarities between Swinburne's Atalanta in Calydon and Bellerophon. Recurring themes in both dramas include hunting, hubris, self-repression, religious zeal, the subversive reversal of sex-roles, and the prevalence of sexual violence. As both perpetrators and victims, a number of the characters in Bellerophon and Atalanta experience a shocking array of acts of sexual and/or physical violence. For instance, Bellerophon's Queen Anteia kills herself as a result of her sado-masochistic desire to punish the young prince for his sexual piety. Swinburne's Queen Althaea kills her own son out of her sado-masochistic desire to punish him for falling in love with Atalanta and for causing the death of her brothers. Furthermore, Bellerophon and Atalanta are disturbingly transgressive figures: Bellerophon because he is a chaste (read "emasculated") hero, and Atalanta because she is an unmarried maiden, performing the masculine role of a warrior. But whereas Swinburne allows Atalanta to return to the bosom of her goddess, Artemis, Bradley and Cooper punish their protagonist for renouncing sexual passion and intimacy. The difference is important, as Swinburne, the self-declared morally detached artist, refuses to attach a moral message to Atalanta's triumphal exit. Bradley and Cooper, on the other hand, castigate Bellerophon for his faith in an inhumane and sterile religion and he dies a pitiful death, unfulfilled and unheralded.
Bellerophon is an altogether less successful Hellenic drama than Atalanta, even if we discount Swinburne's superior lyrical talents. Nevertheless, the themes and dramatic structure of Bellerophon suggest that Bradley and Cooper had found a kindred spirit in Swinburne. And, despite its flaws, Bellerophon can be seen to mark the beginning of a transgressive Dionysiac creed that would be more successfully elucidated in Callirrhoe.
Published in 1884, to considerable critical acclaim, Callirrhoe tells the story of the erotic conversion of a virtuous virgin. (11) In this play Callirrhoe becomes the hero of a drama in which, on the surface, the primary concern is the arrival of the cult of Dionysus to the secluded region of Calydon in ancient Greece. The coming of Dionysus signifies a moment of cultural rupture, which severely disturbs the social order of Calydon, exposing the fragile and deeply gendered relationship between the citizens and the polity. The central conflict of the play focuses on the violent struggle between the forces of unrestrained sexual passion, exemplified in the text by Coresus, the male Priest of Dionysus, and the unyielding chastity of the fair maiden, Callirrhoe. Coresus attempts to seduce the chaste Callirrhoe into becoming a Maenad by declaring his love for her. When he is refused by the virtuous virgin, Coresus prays to Dionysus to infect the city and its hoard of unbelievers with plague. Ultimately, however, Coresus' passion for Callirrhoe leads him to sacrifice himself in her place. The young maiden, suddenly persuaded by the intensity of the dead Priest's desire, declares herself a Maenad before declaiming her love for Coresus and killing herself.
The dramatic outline bears more than a passing resemblance to the plot of Bellerophon. However, by replacing the male hero with a female protagonist, Bradley and Cooper radically alter the significance of Callirrhoe's sexual and spiritual transformation. In the religion of Dionysus the profane desires of Greek maidens are given precedence and sacred status. Furthermore, the veneration of pleasure can be seen to reach its apex in the orgiastic religion of Dionysus and, in becoming a Maenad, Callirrhoe is transformed, along with her community, by the power of sexual freedom and passion.
In Callirrhoe, then, Bradley and Cooper can be seen to respond to the calls of early nineteenth century hedonists like Shelley and Byron for a revolutionary religion of pleasure. The epigraph to Field's drama is a quotation from Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, "to make the heart a spirit" (Canto III.103). And, like Byron's pilgrim who comes to appreciate the (re)vitalizing power of love, Callirrhoe finds love and spiritual fulfillment at the very moment when she is threatened with destruction. The play is also prefaced with a quotation from Shelley's "Prince Athanase," which begins "Thou art the wine whose drunkenness is all / We can desire, O Love!" Interestingly, Terry Meyers suggests that the work of Shelley also influenced Swinburne's Atalanta in Calydon. For Meyers, the influence from Shelley is however "a negative one," as Swinburne sought to avoid, if not to counter, Shelley's tendencies toward moral didacticism and optimism as revealed in Prometheus Unbound. (12) Meyers suggests that Swinburne reworks Shelleyan themes and images to reiterate the pessimism of his poem and to "[make] clear his antipathy to Shelley's faith in love" (p. 153).
I suggest that there is a strongly subversive subtext to Callirrhoe in which the sexualized Hellenism of Swinburne is combined with the pleasure principles of Shelley. This aesthetic combination can be envisaged as a Dionysiac poetics of pleasure and pain. (13) There is more to Michael Field's debt than a close proximity of pleasure and pain, however. Michael Field's first Greek drama largely shares the same emotional drive as Swinburne's own first Greek tragedy. Central to Atalanta and Callirrhoe are the irresistible cravings of desire that create tension in the individual who attempts to resist the inner compulsion to love and be loved. There are also numerous thematic continuities between the Hellenic dramas, such as the recurring motifs of hunting, sacrifice, wildness and order, duty and defiance, family conflict, gender inversion, sexual inhibition, and spirituality. Yet, Callirrhoe can be seen as more of a riposte than a replication of Swinburne's Hellenic tragedy. In Field's drama the worship of Dionysus allows the female characters to embrace pleasure enthusiastically, rather than to renounce it. The inner conflict of the chief protagonist is thereby resolved and Callirrhoe ends, in stark contrast to Atalanta, with a victory for the powers of female passion. (14)
For some critics Swinburne's transgressive poetics are highly problematic in relation to women. His female creations can be seen as one-dimensional decadent vamps, whose violent sensuality reinforces the objectification of women and the stereotype of women's sexual rapaciousness, or all-consuming maternal figures who seek to reinforce authority and secure the social order. (15) Catherine Maxwell, however, finds that "Swinburne's honouring of female power is undisguised. As femme fatale, goddess or muse, embodied in abstractions such as Liberty or Fate, or as nature or natural power such as the sea, the female principle is pre-dominant in his work." (16) Some of Swinburne's most memorable and fully realized characters are classical female figures, such as Sappho, Althaea, and Praxithea. And if, as Dorothea Barrett notes, Swinburne's "preoccupations with powerful images of women, with androgyny, generated startling new ideas of femininity and of the relations between the sexes, without any necessity to conform to a polemical purpose," then Swinburne and Michael Field have much in common. (17) Despite their differing attitudes toward sexual morality and sexual politics, I suggest that Bradley and Cooper build on the liberal developments in Hellenism made by writers like Swinburne, ensuring that their transgressive, eroticized Hellenism includes a distinctly "female" point of view.
Interestingly, the heroines of both Atalanta and Callirrhoe begin the dramas as dutiful devotees of the goddess Artemis. And, significantly, the goddess serves the same function in Bradley and Cooper's drama as she does in Atalanta. According to tradition, Artemis was said to have been an educator of young women, who oversaw their transition from the wildness of youth to their responsibilities as adults in the civic community. Jean-Pierre Vernant points out that Artemis occupies "a liminal position that is uncertain and equivocal, where the boundaries separating boys from girls, the young from the adults, and beasts from men are not yet clearly fixed. They fluctuate and slide from one state to another." (18) As goddess of the margins, of borderlands, Artemis is, along with Dionysus, a barbarian Olympian. She is welcomed by the Greeks and integrated into their religious pantheon, but her otherness, her wildness remains part of her appeal. Like Swinburne, Bradley and Cooper tap into this ambiguity in Artemis' character in order to suggest that their heroine has chosen to follow a warrior-goddess, who is far from a clearly defined paragon of feminine virtue.
Artemis' incivility culminates in her demand for sacrificial blood. According to myth, Artemis' capacity for vengefulness and cruelty is exemplified by the legend of the Calydonian Boar Hunt. Classical sources suggest that Artemis took revenge on the city of Calydon because King (Eneus had overlooked the goddess in his sacrificial offering to the Olympians. (19) Offended by the King's negligence, Artemis sends a wild boar to terrorize the citizens and ravage the land. The King's son Meleager organizes a hunt for the boar, which is attended by the greatest heroes in Greece. As part of her cunning plan Artemis dispatches her most skilled huntress, Atalanta, to attend the hunt. To the surprise of the other male hunters Atalanta is the first to wound the boar, which Meleager then kills. Regardless of Atalanta's fiercely defended chastity, Meleager fails in love with the huntress and determines to give Atalanta the boar's skin as a reward for her valor. Queen Althaea's brothers, Plexippus and Toxeus, violently object to Meleager's gesture of love and respect for a woman. A fight ensues and Meleager kills his uncles. Althaea, having already prophesized Meleager's death, then takes vengeance on her son for killing her brothers. With the destruction of the Royal House, Artemis' bloody revenge is complete. (20)
In Atalanta in Calydon Swinburne retold the myth of the Calydonian Boar Hunt. In Swinburne's version, as Adam Roberts points out, "Artemis fashions a twofold attack on Calydon: she attacks the polis from the outside (with the boar), and undermines its unity from the inside (Meleager's love for Atalanta destroys the unity of the royal family)." (21) Artemis' instrument of divine retribution is, of course, her dedicated disciple Atalanta. Atalanta is, in Swinburne's words, "Chaste, dedicated to pure prayers, and filled / With higher thoughts than heaven." (22) But Atalanta is also a highly ambiguous figure; "a maiden clean / Pure iron, fashioned for a sword" (ll. 198-199). To Althaea and Oeneus, the virginal Atalanta is "unwomanlike" (l. 478), "not like the natural flower of things" (l. 634). The unwomanly Atalanta wishes to remain in the female sphere of Artemis, and so she pursues the traditionally masculine and warlike activity of hunting as a refuge from (hetero)sexual desire and the conjugal state. For Swinburne, Atalanta is an enticing, emasculating figure of fatal power, despite her claims to spiritual purity.
The disturbing, gender-bending religious figure in Michael Field's drama is Coresus, the High Priest of Dionysus. In its devotion to Dionysus, Coresus' religion is counterintuitive to the maidenly restraint required by the virginal Artemis. The religion of Dionysus, like the rites of Artemis, releases the emotional violence associated with women and gives it a formalized place in ritual. However, Maenadism was also associated with dangerously transgressive behavior that operated in contradistinction to the laws of the polis. Part of the attraction of Maenadic worship was in the rite of oreibasia, the revel on the mountains where those repressed emotional energies could have free play. The oreibasia encouraged women to celebrate their god out in the open, beyond the walls of the polis and away from the prying eyes (and laws) of men. In becoming one with the god, the votary would experience Bacchic madness, allowing her to experience another mode of reality.> The religious rites also included the violent acts of sparagmos, the rending apart a sacrificial animal and omophagia, the joy of eating raw flesh. Of course, the eating of raw flesh suggests that the Maenadic body is anything but contained. Consequently, Maenads can also be seen, like the warrior-maidens of Artemis, to be dangerously transgressive figures.
Clothed in animal skins, the mountain-dwelling Maenads also represent the fierce force of the wild. In Swinburne's drama, the ferocity and cruelty of the natural world is represented by the Boar. As Roberts suggests, "in order to defeat this menace, the Calydonians have to display exaggerated powers of civilization, demonstrated by the gathering of an ordered army of hunters" (p. 760). The dominant motif of Atalanta is subsequently that of the hunt. As Jean Rosenbaum suggests, hunting may have a number of representational meanings, including that of the hunt as a metaphor for "the pursuit of an ordered human existence." (24) Another obvious and not incompatible interpretation is that of the hunt as an act of violent sexual seduction.
The first chorus of Swinburne's tragedy famously begins, "When the hounds of spring are on winter's traces." The chorus not only recalls the pursuit and rape of Persephone by Hades, but also the brutal pursuit and rape of Philomela by Itylus:
And the brown bright nightingale amorous Is half assuaged for Itylus, For the Thracian ships and the foreign faces, The tongueless vigil, and all the pain. (ll. 69-72)
This reference suggests a morally complex dynamic of male assault and female resistance. (25) However, Atalanta ends, not with the torture and transformation of a female protagonist, as in the myth of Philomela, but with the death of Meleager: "This man / Died woman-wise, a woman's offering, slain / Through female fingers in his woof of life" (ll. 2303-05). Swinburne effectively reverses the paradigmatic model of the hunt, as Meleager is sacrificed and Atalanta, the huntress, lives.
In Bradley and Cooper's drama the conversion of the Calydonian maidens is similarly conceived in terms of violent seduction. And, like Swinburne, Michael Field inverts the conventional model of the hunter as a violent male. Clothed in the leopard skin of a Bacchant, the figure of Anaitis deliberately represents bestial female sexuality, sexual rapacity, and sado-masochism. Maenad-in-chief to the band of female worshippers, Anaitis' behavior blurs the distinction between dutiful observance and frenzied indulgence. For Anaitis violence is a sensual experience, and she revels in the violent rituals demanded of her, rather like Swinburne's famously sado-masochistic Lesbian lovers, Sappho and Anactoria.
Anaitis is an experienced huntress, who skillfully seduces Callirrhoe's companion, Nephele, into the ranks of the Maenads. Nephele in fact describes her induction into the cult in explicitly sexual terms:
I lay as still As if a leopard couched there; but she came, The wondrous creature, threw her spells on me, And emptied my young heart as easily As from a pomegranate one plucks the seeds. And then she drew me, in caressing arms, By secret pathways, to the temple-gates, Where stood Coresus. (I.ii)
Like Swinburne, Michael Field makes use of the pomegranate as a symbol of sexual seduction and the expression of fierce sexual desire. In Callirrhoe, as in Swinburne's work, sexual desire is not the exclusive preserve of male characters.
The hunt that takes place in Atalanta is similarly sexualized and deeply transgressive, particularly in terms of gender. As the Calydonians assemble the greatest heroes in Greece for a hunt that will rid them of the boar sent by Artemis, the arrival of Atalanta disrupts proceedings. According to the ridiculously macho hunter Plexippus, it is the masculine figure of Atalanta who is the real threat, and not the boar. Plexippus petitions Meleager, telling him that if Atalanta remains with the hunt the world as he knows it will be turned inside out and upside down: "Then shall the heifer and her mate lock horns, / And the bride overbear the groom, and men / Gods" (ll. 941-943). To Plexippus the health and order of the polis depends upon the precarious balance achieved by sexual difference. Far from valorizing the male hunters, Swinburne emphasizes the fragility of heroic masculinity.
By striking the first decisive blow against the boar Atalanta usurps the authority of the male hunters. With the exception of Meleager, the male hunters are shown to be woefully inadequate in their roles as heroic warriors. Hyleus is penetrated and killed by the tusk of the boar; Plexippus fires a phallic "double dart" (l. 1275) but misses the boar entirely; while Peleus fires past the boar, fatally penetrating his "loving countryman" Eurytion (l. 1300). Furthermore, Meleager's defence of Atalanta's prowess effectively castrates and unmans his male companions. Ultimately, the mere presence of Atalanta is enough to undermine the social organization and hierarchy of the warrior-citizens. As a powerful, non-(hetero)sexual woman, Atalanta challenges the group's frail sense of masculinity.
In Callirrhoe, the virility and civic masculinity of the male citizens of Calydon is similarly shown to be compromised. To Callirrhoe's father, Cephalus, the gender-bending behavior of the Maenads threatens to undermine civilized behavior in Calydon:
Nay, child, we suffer for the foolishness That has bewitched this city; drunken heaps Of maddened women have infected it. The babe hath perished, while the mother's breast Has suckled the young panther on the hills. Men, of their wives forsaken, have grown wild, Disordered, hungry, and uncivilized. Apollo sees his sister's shrine desert, Her virgin followers flocking to the hills For all unseemly revel. (II.ii)
For Cephalus, the oikos, the home, is the bed-rock of the polis. If the women fail to meet their responsibilities as wives and mothers, the patriarchal family unit will collapse, and the polis will be plunged into chaos.
In Atalanta, it is the maternal figure of Althaea who cautions her son about his responsibilities to the polis: "Child, if a man serve law through all his life / And with his whole heart worship, him all gods / Praise" (ll. 466-468). The Queen warns Meleager that he will only "prosper" if he cherishes his duty over and above his own wants and desires: "Be man at one with equal-minded gods, / So shall he prosper; not through laws torn up, / Violated rule and a new face of things" (ll. 474-476). But it is not just Meleager's behavior that so concerns the Queen. Althaea recognizes that the transgressive figure Atalanta threatens to undermine her sweetly ordered view of the world:
A woman armed makes war upon herself, Unwomanlike, and treads down use and wont And the sweet common honour that she hath, Love, and the cry of children, and the hand Trothplight and mutual mouth of marriages. This doth she, being unloved; whom if one love, Not fire nor iron and the wide-mouthed wars Are deadlier than her lips or braided hair. For of the one comes poison, and a curse Falls from the other and burns the lives of men. (ll. 477-486)
For the matriarchal Althaea, the security and authority of the nuclear family unit is paramount; the family is the glue which holds society, as she sees it, together. In refusing marriage and motherhood, Atalanta is conceived as a poison which will imperil the safety of the entire polis. By employing metaphors of poison and plague to represent the fear of female power, both Swinburne and Michael Field can be seen to present the sexual and social independence of women as an issue of considerable significance.
The (generational) conflict between Atalanta and Althaea may also represent a wider social struggle. Thomas Wymer suggests that Swinburne's Atalanta presents "the tragic struggle of the youthful quest for freedom and fullness of life and love, represented by Meleager, against the old-age forces of repression, fear of life, and destructive, possessive love, represented by Althaea." (26) Wymer notes that in Atalanta Swinburne deliberates over the "mystery, ultimately the psychology" of conservative and progressive personalities. "On the one hand is the despair of life, the dependence on law and custom as established, the association of change with destruction, ... an essentially defensive posture; on the other hand is the lust for life, for freedom and creativity, ... an offensive, challenging and hopeful posture" (p. 6). Althaea supposedly represents the security and stability of an ordered human existence. Yet, her unwillingness to accept change brings chaos.
In Michael Field's drama a similar conflict is played out in the anguished religious conversion of Callirrhoe. Callirrhoe is the one important exception to the swelling ranks of Michael Field's Maenads. The young maid has been "trained in the old pieties" and she is most reluctant to relinquish her old allegiances (I.iii). Unlike Swinburne's Atalanta, who never wavers from her decision to renounce (hetero)sexual pleasure, Callirrhoe admits her need for love and erotic fulfillment. Her reluctance to convert is, significantly, based on her concern for her male relatives. In a city conquered by the female-dominated religion of Dionysus, Callirrhoe knows that the male citizens of Calydon would undoubtedly suffer. Bradley and Cooper's heroine is faced with a dilemma; should she embrace the forces of change or observe the male-dominated traditions and customs of the polis? She would be a beneficiary of social change, but her father and brother would be compelled to endure a loss of power and identity under a Dionysian system. Callirrhoe knows that the battle to come between the forces of youthful enthusiasm and tradition will "set the child / Against the parent." She determines that she will not wreck "My dear father's peace." So she rejects the "mocking messenger," Coresus, and the new religion he represents (I.iii).
Following Callirhoe's rejection of him and his god, Coresus calls on Dionysus, the "great Revenger," to infect the city of Calydon with plague. (27) Combined with the subversive religion of the Maenads, the plague which infects Calydon proves to be as destructive as any wild boar. Rather than take action, the emasculated male citizens of the beleaguered city look for a supernatural explanation and remedy for the plague. Callirhoe's feeble brother Emathion reveals that, on the advice of the oracle at Dodona, Callirrhoe is to be sacrificed to save the city.
This disturbing turn of events recalls the words and ready violence of Atalanta's Toxeus and Plexippus. As Atalanta prepares to join the hunt, Toxeus remarks, "Except she give her blood before the gods, / What profit shall a maid be among men?" Plexippus continues: "Let her come crowned and stretch her throat for a knife, / Bleat out her spirit and die, and so shall men/Through her too prosper" (ll. 932-936). Ultimately, however, Meleager sacrifices Toxeus and Plexippus, and not Atalanta. But, in Swinburne's second Hellenic drama, Erechtheus, the sacrifice of a young woman for the benefit of the polis constitutes the emotional center of the plot. We may usefully compare Callirrhoe's desperate situation with that of Erechtheus' Chthonia.
Published in 1876, to a generally warm critical reception, Swinburne regarded Erechtheus as his greatest dramatic achievement and a companion poem to Atalanta. Loosely based on the dramatic fragment Eumolpus, by Euripides, the drama tells the tragic story of the ancient Athenian King, Erechtheus. (28) Swinburne's tragedy reveals how having fought a bloody battle with the Eleusinians, Erechtheus prays to Athena to save the city from destruction. To encourage the goddess' intervention, it is decided that Erechtheus must sacrifice one of his unmarried daughters. The aptly named Chthonia offers herself as the sacrifice and she is swiftly killed by the priests of Athens. The city is saved, only for the king to fall in battle, struck by a (divine) lightening bolt.
Jerome McGann points out that Erechtheus shares "many of the essential premises of Atalanta in Calydon" in that "the world is the word of man, that love is the source of all life, and that tragedy is the perfect aesthetic model, both as source and explanation, of human existence."> But whereas Atalanta emphasizes division and disharmony as central motifs, "Erechtheus is a play of reconciliations at all levels: it describes the resolution of a struggle among the gods, and it brings order once again into the human and natural worlds of space and time which seemed, like the gods, to be in a constant state of internecine strife" (p. 125). Ultimately, "the most real, most material and visibly present phenomenon in the play is law--a vast, organic order made manifest with all the passion of disciplined music" (p. 126). The supposed moral of Erechtheus is that "human life is an act of service, a disposal of the self to other things and persons" (p. 127).
The similarities between Callirrhoe and Erechtheus begin with the sacrifice of the female protagonist, as a prelude to the re-establishment of order. However, unlike Swinburne's Chthonia, who is willing to die from the outset, Callirrhoe begs her brother for an explanation as to why no man will die on her behalf. As she says, "I thought the city loved me" (III.ii). Callirrhoa forgets that in tragedy it is often the role of the female to sacrifice herself for the ideals of the polis. In contrast, in Erechtheus Chthonia is far more sanguine about her fate: "Day to day makes answer, first to last, and life to death; but I, / Born for death's sake, die for life's sake, if indeed this be to die, / This my doom that seals me deathless till the springs of time run dry" (Poems, 4:375). Yet, Chthonia's brave and seemingly selfless act of sacrifice is not all it appears to be.
David G. Riede points out that in Erechtheus, Swinburne "wanted to establish a basis of genuine authority." (30) The classical source of that authority is, as Swinburne himself suggested, Aeschylus' tragic trilogy, Oresteia. (31) The classical precedent is important since for many feminist theorists the conclusion to Aeschylus' Oresteia both describes and re-inscribes the inequitable relationship of women to power in European culture. In the Eumenides, at the conclusion of Orestes' trial, Orestes is neither formally punished nor exonerated of the crime of killing his mother, Clytemnestra. Rather, Athena and the Furies agree to restore order and end the cycle of revenge, if the Furies are given a central position in the Athenian polis. At the conclusion of the Oresteia, then, female figures (virgin and divine) not only save the polis from destruction, but also instigate the laws which secure the future of the polis. At the same time, these female deities make laws which deprive women of exercising political power in the human realm. As Helene Cixous wryly observes, what Aeschylus's Oresteia really reveals to us is not any sense of transcendental law, but the triumph and subsequent institutionalization of patriarchal culture: "patriarchy--political-economy--sexual-economy--it has all sorted itself out since they checkmated those great screeching females." (32)
Consequently, Chthonia's apparently noble, but meek acquiescence to her fate poses a major problem. Swinburne seems content to allow the women of Athens to suffer and die for a community which denies them citizenship and freedom. Chthonia's self-defeating sense of patriotism thereby appears somewhat incomprehensible. Swinburne relies on Chthonia's abstract sense of honor and duty to persuade the audience that she is, indeed, happy to sacrifice herself for her community. But, as Swinburne surely knew, the Athenians did not recognize courage, honor, and duty as virtues associated with femininity. After all, the drama is named after Erechtheus, not his daughter.
Nicole Loraux makes the somewhat blunt observation that women in tragedy die violently. But the difference, according to Loraux, between life and tragedy is that in tragedy women could master their death, "for women there is liberty in tragedy--liberty in death." (33) Tragedy, in other words, can provide a framework for the exploration of female suffering. In Erechtheus Swinburne can be seen to identify with the tragic suffering of women and sees their sacrifices as vital to the stability and integrity of the polis. However naive, Chthonia believes that her dignified self-sacrifice will secure the safety of Athens. And her name, which recalls the chthonic goddesses Demeter and Persephone, adds to the notion of noble suffering.
But as Thais Morgan notes, Swinburne's decision to wound or to kill figures like Chthonia can be seen as highly problematic:
Although it is tempting to interpret this technique of double-voicing as a move either toward androgyny or toward a radical dissemination of sexual difference itself, the bloody violence perpetrated against each of these classical female intransigents points not toward transcendence or elimination of sexual difference but, instead, toward its reinforcement through an implicit siding with the masculine character in each sexual conflict. (pp. 100-101)
From this perspective, Swinburne sacrifices Chthonia not to comply with any divine, transcendental law, but because the irrational male-dominated community of Athens demands it. As a result, the death of Chthonia can be seen to reinforce the archaic, patriarchal notion that female suffering, passivity, and acquiescence are necessary in order to secure the smooth operation of the polis.
Bradley and Cooper approach the issue of female sacrifice somewhat differently. Like Swinburne's Chthonia, Callirrhoe insists that she is given the opportunity to offer her blood sacrifice that the city might be saved from destruction: "For my people, I / Come joyfully to die; each breath I draw / Delays deliv'rance; choose where thou wilt strike" (III.v). But before Callirrhoe can become a tragic heroine, Coresus turns the knife upon himself. At the climatic moment, Coresus realizes that his sadistic threat to sacrifice his beloved to his god would be a betrayal of that love. Coresus would rather die (somewhat like Meleager) impassioned and honest, rather than sacrifice the woman he loves for some abstract notion of religious fidelity.
As the blood pours from Coresus' body, Callirrhoe has an epiphany: "I am a Maenad; I must have love's wine, / Coresus, and you die before my face, / Leaving me here to thirst" (III.v). Callirrhoe has been converted, not by rational argument or sophistic rhetoric, but by passionate suffering. The sight of the blood inflames her passion and she resolves to drink "love's wine." This appears to be a curiously Christianized conversion. Yet, the emotional impulse is thoroughly pagan; more Dionysus Zagreus than Jesus Christ.
Having been abandoned by her father and brother, the motherless Callirrhoe is free, albeit briefly, to embrace her new-found adult sexual identity. Bradley and Cooper's protagonist is able to act autonomously and, consequently, her death is truly her own. Moving away from the polis and into the wild space of the woods, Callirrhoe draws the sacrificial knife and stabs herself. Here, Michael Field deliberately recalls the sacrificial scene in Erechtheus, only to depart from it. In doing so, Bradley and Cooper emphasize the ideological difference between the death of Callirrhoe and the death of other tragic heroines like Chthonia. Callirrhoe sacrifices herself, not for any masculine ideals, but for passionate love. Her act of self-immolation is truly liberating in that it demonstrates Callirrhoe's ideological and physical release from rationalism and repression.
Furthermore, Callirrhoe's death is optimistic in that her sacrifice means that other women may enjoy the freedom and pleasure of the religion of Dionysus. The plague that has swept Calydon has devastated familial relationships, the foundational source of the male citizens' power. New social and sexual dynamics will have to be instigated. Bradley and Cooper indicate that what is left is the opportunity to form a new society, based on the loving, self-sacrificing model of Coresus and Callirrhoe. Invested with Dionysian passion and the wild femininity of the Maenads, Calydon will begin life anew. The Maenads, after all, are waiting on the margins.
After much pain and suffering sexual love and desire triumphs in Callirrhoe, whereas love remains a divisive source of pain in Atalanta. Indeed, John O. Jordan suggests that, "in the world of Atalanta in Calydon, Eros can never reunite the divided self," as it is a "world unredeemed by Love" (p. 112). Althaea, consumed by incestuous desire, jealousy, and duty, finally devours her son. She takes the brand, the measure of her son's existence, and hurls it into the flames. The erotic burning of Meleager's flesh not only symbolizes his own burning desires, but also fulfils the fatal prophecy of the brand. Meleager's suffering is Artemis' pleasure. The failure of the gods to feel love and compassion for human suffering means that, for Swinburne, love fails on a cosmological and human level. One could therefore conclude that Atalanta is a fundamentally pessimistic poem in that Althaea's cynical view of life and love appears to come to pass.
However, Wymer suggests that Atalanta in Calydon establishes "Swinburne's quest for a liberating Dionysian neopaganism" (p. 1). For Thomas L. Wymer, the final speech of the dying Meleager reveals an altogether different dynamic at the conclusion of Swinburne's poem:
Pray thou thy days be long before thy death And full of ease and kingdom; seeing in death There is no comfort and none aftergrowth, Nor shall one thence look up and see day's dawn Nor light upon the land whither I go. Live thou and take thy fill of days and die When thy day comes; and make not much of death Lest ere thy day thou reap an evil thing. (ll. 2201-08)
To Wymer, Swinburne affirms "the joy of life and living" and reveals a "hunger for more of life" in the final words of Meleager. Moreover, "no Victorian poet comes as close as Swinburne in Atalanta to asserting a purely Dionysian affirmation of the joy of living" (p. 14).
Michael Field's Hellenic aesthetic is heavily indebted to Swinburne's intense passion for life and liberty, as outlined at the conclusion of Atalanta. Yet, I would argue that in Callirrhoe Michael Field achieves a more positive and optimistic expression of Dionysian passion than Swinburne. At the conclusion of Callirrhoe, the community of Calydon is offered the enticing opportunity of sexual fulfillment and freedom of expression through the religion of Dionysus. The all-embracing, paradoxical religion of the Maenads allows wildness and order, pain and pleasure to co-exist. The protagonists of Swinburne's poem, on the other hand, suffer and/ or die against the backdrop of a fundamentally inhumane universe.
Despite the very different conclusions to Atalanta and Callirrhoe, I suggest that Algernon Swinburne and Michael Field essentially share the same aesthetic impulse, that the pursuit of pleasure can be seen as virtuous and spiritually and philosophically enhancing. As Harrison points out, "the dominant subject of Swinburne's poetry is human passion, whether his focus be upon his characters' explicitly erotic and often perverse impulses or upon their corollary spiritual desires, which are often represented by means of sexual metaphors" ("Swinburne's Losses," p. 690). In other words, passion in Swinburne's erotic poetry is represented as a sophisticated combination of corporeal pleasure and spirituality. At the core of Swinburne's erotic poetry, as Harrison notes, is the philosophical concept of "moral passion"; "of enrichment and redemption through desire and through suffering" (p. 690). I suggest that Michael Field shares a similar interest in representing the spiritual and physical origins of human passion, which exists outside the mind-body dualism of conventional Christian morality.
Swinburne's poetry bravely proposes that sexuality and sexual liberty are suitable topics for public discussion and debate. Moreover, he can be seen to challenge his audience to address the philosophical and psychological complexities of pleasure. However, Swinburne's Dionysian poetics are not overtly concerned with sexual politics. (34) He repeatedly declared that morality, or contemporary social mores are not the province of art. (35) Writing almost twenty years after the appearance of Atalanta, Bradley and Cooper demonstrate that the ethics of passion matter, especially in an unequal, unfree society. Consequently, Bradley and Cooper's erotic Hellenism can be seen to be philosophically, physically, and spiritually fulfilling and socially progressive, particularly in terms of gender and sexual politics.
Perhaps detecting the echo of his own influence, Swinburne was, according to Robert Browning, "generous" in his appraisal of Callirrhoe. (36) I suggest that Michael Field not only looked toward Swinburne's poetics as an authoritative aesthetic model, they also followed the "libidinous laureate" in challenging Victorian proprieties and values. We may see Bradley and Cooper accompanying Swinburne in trampling the tenets of Victorian poetry:
British poetry had become a beautifully guarded park.... Into this quiet park, to the infinite alarm of the fallow-deer, a young Bacchus was now preparing to burst, in the company of a troop of Maenads, and to the accompaniment of cymbals and clattering kettle-drums. (37)
Swinburne may have beaten the exquisitely rhythmical drum, but it was left to Bradley and Cooper, the lyrical Maenads, to lead the Bacchic throng to new pastures.
(1) Letter from Michael Field to A. C. Swinburne, May 27, 1889. Reprinted in Uncollected Letters of Algernon Charles Swinburne, 3 vols., ed. Terry L. Meyers (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2005), 2:475. In "A Ballad of Francois Villon" Swinburne described the reputation of Villon as "sad bad glad mad!" (1.20) (Swinburne: Major Poems and Selected Prose, ed. Jerome McGann and Charles L. Sligh [New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2004]). In his unfinished novel Lesbia Brandon Swinburne's Lady Wariston cautions one of her young sons, "Never write verses when you get big; people who do are bad, or mad, or sick" (Lesbia Brandon [London: Falcon Press, 1952], p. 148). Bradley and Cooper are clearly trying to display their familiarity with Swinburne's work in this note.
(2) John Morley coined this wonderful description of Swinburne in his article, "Review of Swinburne, Poems and Ballads," Saturday Review (August 4, 1866): 147.
(3) For a good overview of the life and work of Michael Field, see Angela Leighton's chapter on Field in Victorian Women Poets: Writing Against the Heart (Charlottesville: Univ. of Virginia Press, 1992).
(4) Marion Thain describes Michael Field's poetry as "decadent" and "aesthetic" in her chapter "'Damnable Aestheticism' and the Turn to Rome: John Gray, Michael Field, and the Poetics of Conversion," in The Fin-de-Siele Poem, ed. Joseph Bristow (Athens: Ohio Univ. Press, 2005), pp. 311-336. Kathy Psomiades and Talia Schaffer also firmly locate Michael Field within the late-nineteenth-century discourse of Aestheticism. See Women and British Aestheticism, ed. Schaffer and Psomiades (Charlottesville: Univ. of Virginia Press, 1999), p. 11. For a good overview of Swinburne's critical fortunes, see Swinburne: The Critical Heritage, ed. Clyde K. Hyder (London: Routledge, 1970), and more recently Catherine Maxwell, Swinburne (Tavistock: Northcote House, 2006).
(5) Arnold famously described Greek culture in terms of "sweetness and light" in Culture and Anarchy: An Essay in Social and Political Criticism (London, I869).
(6) See Margot K. Louis' important article "Gods and Mysteries: The Revival of Paganism and the Remaking of Mythography through the Nineteenth Century," VS 47, no. 3 (2005): 347.
(7) John Ruskin described Swinburne as a "Demoniac youth" in a letter to Charles Eliot Norton, January 22, 1866. See Letters of John Ruskin to Charles Eliot Norton, ed. C. E. Norton, 2 vols. (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1904), 1:157.
(8) Anthony H. Harrison, "Swinburne's Losses: The Poetics of Passion," ELH 49 (1982): 690.
(9) Anonymous review in the Academy 53 (January 1, 1898): 13-14.
(10) In Book 6 of The Iliad, Homer recalls the story of Bellerophon. Other possible sources of the myth include Hesiod's Theogony, ll. 320-325 (trans. Hugh G. Evelyn-White [London: William Heinemann, 1914]); Pindar's Olympian, Ode 13; Appollodorus, Library and Epitome, bk. 2, chap. 3 (trans. James George Frazer, 2 vols. [London: William Heinemann, 1921]). The outline of the drama also resembles the Hippolytus of Euripides.
(11) Michael Field, Callirrhoe; Fair Rosamund (London, 1884). All subsequent references to the volume will appear in parentheses in the main text.
(12) See Terry L. Meyers, "Shelley's Influence on Atalanta in Calydon," VP 14 (1976): 150.
(13) Julian Baird has identified what he calls the "pleasure-pain paradox" in Swinburne's poetry, see "Swinburne, Sade, and Blake: The Pleasure-Pain Paradox," VP 9 (1971): 49-75.
(14) The differing conclusions to the dramas may be partly attributed to the classical sources which inspired the writers. In addition to the Euripidean fragment Meleager, Swinburne took Aeschylus' tragic trilogy Oresteia as his central source, while Michael Field drew on the Bacchae of Euripides. See the discussion below and Froma I. Zeitlin's groundbreaking essay "The Dynamics of Misogyny: Myth and Mythmaking in the Oresteia," Arethusa 11 (1978): 149-184, for a more detailed discussion of the troubling sexual politics of Aeschylus.
(15) Thais Morgan goes so far as to suggest that Swinburne's representation of Sappho, in particular, can be seen as "deeply misogynistic." See Morgan, "Violence, Creativity, and the Feminine: Poetics and Gender Politics in Swinburne and Hopkins," in Gender and Discourse in Victorian Literature and Art, ed. Antony H. Harrison and Beverly Taylor (DeKalb: Northern Illinois Univ. Press, 1992), p. 98.
(16) See Catherine Maxwell, The Female Sublime from Milton to Swinburne: Bearing Blindness (New York: Manchester Univ. Press, 2001), p. 18l.
(17) Dorothea Barrett, "The Politics of Sado-Masochism: Swinburne and George Eliot," in The Whole Music of Passion, ed. Rikky Rooksby and Nicholas Shrimpton (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1993), p. 116.
(18) Jean Pierre Vernant, Mortals and Immortals: Collected Essays, ed. Froma I. Zeitlin (1991; Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1992), p. 199.
(19) The myth of the Calydonian Boar Hunt was recorded by Pausanias and later by Ovid. For a thorough discussion of the classical sources of Swinburne's Atalanta, see William Rutland, Swinburne: A Nineteenth Century Hellene (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1931), especially part two.
(20) For an interesting reading of the role of Artemis in Swinburne's poem, see Mark Siegchrist, "Artemis's Revenge: A Reading of Swinburne's Atalanta in Calydon," SEL 20 (1980): 695-712.
(21) Adam Roberts, "Hunting and Sacrifice in Swinburne's Atalanta in Calydon and Erechtheus," SEL 31 (1991): 760.
(22) Atalanta in Calydon, ll. 197-198, in Swinburne: Major Poems. All subsequent references will appear in the main text in parentheses.
(23) Froma I. Zeitlin, "Cultic Models of the Female: Rites of Dionysus and Demeter," Arethusa 15, nos. 1-2 (1982): 130.
(24) Jean Watson Rosenbaum, "Of Hunts and Hunters: Atalanta in Calydon," PRR 3, no. 1 (1979): 41. For an alternative reading, John O. Jordan suggests that the hunt might be seen in terms of a young male's search for identity. See Jordan, "The Sweet Face of Mothers: Psychological Patterns in Atalanta in Calydon," VP 11 (1973): 101-114.
(25) For an important discussion of Swinburne's treatment of sexual assault in his work, see Margot K. Louis, "Swinburne on Rape," JPRS 9, no. 2 (2000): 55-68.
(26) Thomas L. Wymer, "Swinburne's Tragic Vision in Atalanta in Calydon," VP 9 (1971): 1.
(27) The theme of the maiden punished for her refusal to acknowledge the power of Dionysus occurs in the obscure legends of Minyas and of Proems, the daughters of whom resisted the god and suffered terrible afflictions for their rejection of him.
(28) For a full discussion of the classical sources and critical impact of Erechtheus, see Rutland, part three. For the text of Erechtheus, see The Poems of Algernon Charles Swinburne, 6 vols. (1905; New York: AMS Press, 1972), 4:341-412.
(29) Jerome J. McGann, Swinburne: An Experiment in Criticism (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1972), p. 118.
(30) David G. Riede, "Swinburne and Romantic Authority," in The Whole Music of Passion, p. 30.
(31) In a letter to Edmund Gosse, Swinburne furiously argued that "a fourth form boy could see that as far as Erechtheus can be said to be modelled after anybody it is modelled throughout after the earliest style of Aeschylus" (January 2, 1876). In The Swinburne Letters, ed. Cecil Y. Lang (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1960), 3:99.
(32) Helene Cixous and Catherine Clement, The Newly Born Woman, trans. Betsy Wing (1975; London: I. B. Tauris, 1996), p. 112.
(33) Nicole Loraux, Tragic Ways of Killing a Woman (London: Harvard Univ. Press, 1987), p. 17.
(34) Wymer points out that Swinburne's interest in conservative and progressive personalities is primarily non-political. Indeed, Wymer suggests that in Atalanta, Swinburne does not betray 'an interest in any political issue, not even women's rights' (p.6).
(35) For instance, in a letter to Lady Trevelyan (March 15, 1865), Swinburne declared Shelley's Prometheus to be "un-Hellenic, spoilt too, in my mind, by the infusion of philanthropic doctrinaire views and 'progress of the species'" (Letters, I : 115).
(36) Michael Field, Works and Days, ed. T and D. C. Sturge Moore (London: John Murray, 1933), p. 14.
(37) Edmund Gosse, The Life of Algernon Charles Swinburne (London: Macmillan, 1917), pp. 135-136.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Title Annotation:||Algernon Charles Swinburne|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2009|
|Previous Article:||"Will he rise and recover[?]": Catullus, castration, and censorship in Swinburne's "Dolores".|
|Next Article:||Some reflections on the text of Swinburne's unfinished novel, the so-called "Lesbia Brandon".|