Printer Friendly

Observing the Dead in Michael Field's Ekphrastic Poetry.

In the summer of 1891, Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper, the pair of British women who wrote under the pseudonym Michael Field, arrived in Paris to begin their grand tour of European art. They were preparing to compose their ekphrastic volume, Sight and Song, which would "translate," as they put it, selected European paintings into poetry. (1) Having recovered from a rough crossing of the English Channel, the women set out, refreshed, to start their tour by inspecting a few corpses at the morgue. In their coauthored journal Works and Days, Edith writes,
   Sunday June 8th The Morgue

   To the morgue this morning quite early in the glowing sunshine. It
   has been our worship; that temple of death, to us the temple of the
   living God. Liberte, egalite, fraternite--true there--realised--the
   gray marred faces within laid brotherlike freed from the mesh of
   life & equal at last in their destiny--bound all these voyagers for
   God. I saw first an old man lying very calm--the whites of his eyes
   giving the appearance of spectacles-- so that he looked like time
   lying dead in glasses--then a deeply bronzed face, full one would
   say of sin & experience, finally a rather kindly, commonplace
   fellow, gentle enough in his fixity. It is Michael's church that
   little morgue & he found it quite impossible to remain after-wards
   in Notre Dame, amide [sic] the mumbling &. the lights. God has
   provided for worship in the facts of life. If we will but look deep
   into birth &. death-- unflinchingly--accepting all the physical
   re-pulsion & read on through the letter of the indwelling mystery,
   we shall learn how to conduct ourselves between--under the
   tri-colour, &. with the triune Gospel written on our hearts. (2)

This is a peculiar entry, even for this admittedly eccentric pair. (3) Why begin an art tour with a visit to the local morgue? Perhaps they were rehearsing the old link between anatomy and art or seeking the body in its cold, gray materiality before seeking art that celebrated the human form. Maybe they were attending a sort of "death" studio instead of a "life" modeling class. But the journal entry focuses both on artistic and on ethical questions, of how to regard the corpses, and finally what lessons to take away about the Fields's own "conduct," about how to live "between" the bare, material "facts" of birth and death. Their aesthetic adventure is grounded in a meditation on their own behavior, derived from their observations of human remains. They commit to unflinching observation under the banner of French materialism and to "reading" the text of the psyche, which they figure as a form of mystical worship.

Of course, Victorian tourists had a history of visiting the Paris morgue. The morgue displayed unclaimed corpses ostensibly for purposes of identification by friends and relatives, but it drew crowds of onlookers. Featured in middle-class tour guides and essays by the likes of Frances Trollope and Charles Dickens, the morgue attracted Victorian Britons anxious to witness--and to condemn--the evidence of French decadence. Accounts by Victorian travelers typically register anxiety about the ethics of viewing dead bodies; viewers are magnetically attracted to the morgue, almost involuntarily, but wish to deny any cheap fascination with the spectacle, a motive that is usually then attributed to French observers. Thus Dickens in his account is "dragged by invisible force into the Morgue" but hurries away--he cannot bear it; the sight "costs" him. (4) Similarly, in Walter Hartwright's fictional visit to the morgue in The Woman in White, he reluctantly joins a crowd of "chattering Frenchwomen" to view Count Fosco's body. Drawn irresistibly in amid the crowd, Hartwright reports, "for a few moments, but not for longer, I forced myself to see," but then, painfully, he can describe "at no greater length": "for I saw no more." (5) The French, in many British accounts, seem unequivocally to enjoy the spectacle, while the British visitor bravely overcomes his qualms only to hurry away. (6)

But the Fields, as they were sometimes called, seem neither shocked by the sight of the corpses nor greatly impressed by their possibly immoral histories. Rather, they appear keen to encounter death in a secular setting, unencumbered by the elaborate religious rites of Victorian mourning. (7) Michael Field dwelt with great seriousness and attentiveness on the question of how one should apprehend a corpse. Unlike the decadent necrophilia we might attribute to fin de siecle poets, their attitude toward the corpse has older roots, in the mid-Victorian ethical aesthetics of John Ruskin and Robert Browning. Perhaps surprisingly given the Fields's own aestheticist milieu, they sustained a way of seeing that had its roots in an earlier logic of observation; their artful ways of rendering dead bodies illuminate, extend, and amplify broader aspirations to deeply felt knowledge that were powerful in Victorian Britain. And they understand that those bodies present special obstacles and opportunities for the ekphrastic representations they would attempt in Sight and Song. In preparing for their task of translating images into words, they define their own deeply committed style of observation--observation, that is, both in the sense of holding a communal ritual and in the sense of practicing a secular, modern, and "unflinching" way of seeing. This Fieldian mode of observation conceives of objectivity as allowed by a proximal, feeling, community of observers rather than a distant, impersonal observer.

Fieldian Mentors: Ruskin and Browning

Katharine Bradley's first aesthetic mentor was John Ruskin, and Ruskin's notion of the "innocent eye" became fundamental to Michael Field's theory of observation. (8) The Fields understood that Ruskin used this term not for a naive or inexperienced vision but for an attempt to peel away conventional ways of seeing. For Ruskin, the best representation of the body in art encompassed a precise naturalism as well as a celebration of the signs of the distinctive personality of the once-living individual. Ruskin was convinced that truth to the nature of embodiment would also be freighted with spiritual meaning for artist and observer. For Ruskin, the right visual representation of the body was found in early Renaissance painting, after the advent of corporeal naturalism but before the fantastic contortions of later Renaissance mannerism. Ruskin's favorite illustration of this Pre-Raphaelite principle was one he recapitulated in an 1870 Oxford lecture comparing Fra Angelico, Bellini, and Michelangelo. While Fra Angelico's bodies disappear beneath the ample and angular folds of their robes according to a "false theory" undermining physicality in the name of religion, Michelangelo's bodies call the corpse too much to mind, arranged explicitly to display his knowledge of anatomy for its own sake. Bellini and his school occupied the preferred middle ground: "Bellini and his school ... painted the body without fear or reserve, as, in its subordination, honourable and lovely. But the inner heart and fire of it are by them always first thought of, and no action is given to it merely to show its beauty." (9) The Fields echo Ruskin's recommended conquering of reserve and his regard for the body as honorable in itself, as well as his reading of the body as expressing a submerged narrative. Their scanning of faces in the morgue is brief but respectful, knowing they can only begin to imagine the stories that the corpses represent. But they pledge to "read on" through the unknowable "mystery" presented by the "facts" of life (recently extinguished but so much in evidence) and death, crowded close together in the morgue.

While Ruskin does not want the corpse brought primarily to mind in art--because by it the artist makes naturalism the end, rather than the means, of art--the Fields focus on art that explicitly features the corpse. Their practice here more resembles that of Robert Browning, who, as Carol Christ points out, stages a number of his poems in the presence of corpses (pp. 391-401). (10) In Browning's ekphrasis of the Paris morgue, "Apparent Failure," the speaker enters the morgue with bluff British daring ("No Briton's to be balked!" [1. 18] (11)) but is stirred by unexpected compassion:
   Poor men, God made, and all for that!
   The reverence struck me; o'er each head
   Religiously was hung its hat,
   Each coat dripped by the owner's bed,
   Sacred from touch: each had his berth,
   His bound, his proper place of rest. (11. 28-33)

Browning sacralizes the clothing of the naked corpses. Hung by them to assist with forensic identification, each hat becomes an aureole, each coat a vestment. The corpses find rest, majestically "enthroned" on the wet copper slab (1. 24). By "fronting him," naked and unclaimed, they have in their very abjection "atoned" for their sins: they are the "Last" that shall become "the First" in the kingdom of God (11. 26, 27, 60). Indeed, in Browning's ekphrasis, this process of socioeconomic and spiritual inversion has already taken place within the speaker's imagination, so that he leaves the morgue satirically parroting a series of shallow morals: "It's wiser being good than bad; / It's safer being meek than fierce: It's fitter being sane than mad" (11. 55-57). He leaves the morgue hoping that once the "Last" are gathered in, the "First" will be permitted entry after all: that his own privilege and security will not bar him from the glory with which he clothes the unclaimed corpses (1. 60).

In this brief reading of "Apparent Failure," I have emphasized the recognizably redemptive features of the poem. What makes for poetic ambivalence, however, is the disturbing, even obnoxious jauntiness of the speaker as he addresses the suicides: "How did it happen, my poor boy? / You wanted the Tuileries for toy, / And could not, so it broke your heart?" (11. 38-40). This peculiarity of tone, according to Carol Christ, renders the poem "unsuccessful" in its resurrectionary aspirations (p. 399). She notes that the word "resurrection" in the nineteenth century carried connotations of its ironic use--that is, for grave robbing to supply the needs of medical dissection. Thus, she argues, Browning's corpse poetry is often concerned not with bringing the dead back to life but with "robbing graves to create phantoms" (p. 395). She concludes that "the grotesque pretense in which Browning involves his characters as well as the extravagant make-believe of the poetry itself suggests an understanding of art as just such extravagant pretense, exercised to secure the authority it reveals as hollow" (p. 400). Browning's art forswears itself, by this account, mocking its own limitations. (12)

The Fields certainly take on Browning's "extravagant make-believe" that poetry can reanimate the corpse, but I find no suspicion in their poetry that this authority is "hollow." In fact, Browning himself, I would argue, conceives of his poetic resurrections as glorious as well as grotesque. In The Ring and the Book, the speaker of book 1 is careful to admit the ungainly, imperfect nature of his poetic resurrection of the people in the trial recounted in the "Old Yellow Book." Chary of infringing on God's prerogative, he claims that he "[c]reates, no, but resuscitates, perhaps" (1. 719). (13) No doubt the speaker compares his art to ghost raising, Frankensteinian "galvanism for life," and Faustian pride; but it is "still a glory portioned in the scale," still a wonder comparable to the story of Elisha's holy yet earthy feat of resurrection (1. 741). His point is that fictional resurrection may look bizarre and yet still embody truth in an unexpected form: "The somehow may be thishow" (1. 706). The retelling is loose, creative, and historically inaccurate but nonetheless may preserve in mythic shape one of the many meanings of the original events, through the elaboration of fictional "facts"--disparate, eclectic, even outrageous particulars that can nonetheless reconstitute a possible story, a "thishow."

Like Browning, the Fields admit the difference of poetic resurrection from first life; they too make sure that their corpses are seen as fully, inescapably dead and their poetic resurrections as incomplete, imperfect, yet glorious. Browning's most characteristic technique is prosopopoeia, or making the dead speak, the trope employed in his dramatic monologues. But for the Fields, prosopopoeia is coordinated with the ekphrasis to which they committed themselves in Sight and Song. Especially when describing portraits or persons represented in the paintings, they often make the characters move and speak. Their goal is often to "make faces," to bring the silent portraits to life. If prosopopoeia gives words to the silent dead, ekphrasis gives words to silent paintings; to render in verse the painted corpses, then, distills the challenges presented by both devices.


In Sight and Song, the Fields link ekphrastic form with themes of mourning. Some theorists have argued that ekphrasis, since it strives to describe an art object not now present, is underwritten by absence--an absence that poets frequently figure in terms of death. The ekphrastic poet spills words into the "black hole," as W. J. T. Mitchell puts it, left by the (at least) figurative death of the object, hoping to evoke the presence of the thing described. As Mitchell writes, the basic project of this "ekphrastic hope" is "the transformation of the dead, passive image into a living creature." (14) In "Ode on a Grecian Urn," for instance, Keats tries to breathe verbal life into the stillness of the (preserved yet fatally reserved) spatial art object. The speaker rains questions down on the Urn, and when she, the "still unravished bride of quietness," refuses satisfaction, he flings at her his complaint of "Cold Pastoral!" (11. 1, 45). (15) The Urn's apparent coldness, stillness, and frigidity all point toward its ultimate refusal of animation, its unresponsiveness, its failure to live for the speaker--that is, the speaker's fear that his ekphrastic project cannot urge the funereal Urn to productive or meaningful speech. As Paul de Man has argued about prosopopoeia, such an attempt is necessarily self-deconstructing: words can only gesture toward the desired presence. Thus the early nineteenth-century projects on which de Man focuses unravel into disfigurement and death. (16)

But as James A. W. Heffernan points out, mid-Victorian poetry, with its respect for visual art and the visual-verbal collaboration of the museum, enjoyed a revival of ekphrastic hope--that is, a faith that the dynamism of the poetic word can evoke the presence of visual art. To return to Browning at midcentury, his most famous dramatic monologue features the painting of "My Last Duchess" described "as if she were alive" (1. 2). We get the Duke's skewed story, but it is his description of the Duchess, her "spot / Of joy," "the faint / Half-flush that dies along her throat," that reanimates her, that makes her haunt the monologue, reminding us that her story would be different from the Duke's (Browning, Poems, 11. 14-15, 18-19). Thus Browning's prosopopoeia allows us to read past the Duke's words, to see her own point of view, and to trust her fresh, democratic, and irrepressible joy of being. Though all we have are the words of the Duke, it is the mental image of the painting, of the Duchess's life rather than her death, that remains triumphant--through this successful ekphrasis, which is both a reanimation and a vindication of the Duchess.

Of course, the "life" and "death" in ekphrastic poetry may often be primarily artistic or metaphorical--as it is, arguably, in Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn." But for Michael Field, as for Browning, death is more than a figure--as their literal-minded visit to the Paris morgue testifies. They frequently tackle visual art that presents the most challenging cases for literary reanimation: the actual, material death of human subjects. Writing ekphrastically about corpses, in other words, puts the viability of ekphrastic renovation most dramatically to the test. Fully one-third of the poems in Sight and Song announce well-known narratives of death, dying, torture, or martyrdom: "The Death of Procris," "A Pieta," "St. Jerome in the Desert," "Apollo and Marsyas," "The Blood of the Redeemer," two poems on St. Sebastian pierced by arrows, one on a dead St. Katherine on her wheel, one on "a faun's punishment" to the death, and one called "Mettus Curtius," in which a mythological Roman horseman plunges to his death in a chasm. One could argue that this high death count is a by-product of the Fields's focus on Renaissance art, which often relies on a prior mythological or Christian narrative. And the Renaissance painter, seeking to capture a still moment of the narrative, will naturally represent punctuations in that narrative--places where the story pauses, reverses direction, or comes to an end. Death not only represents a narrative crisis; it marks a still point that invites the freeze-frame, spatial representation of visual art. But if death is a natural subject for painterly treatments of narrative themes, it is the most challenging subject for a translation back into the dynamic words of ekphrasis. It would appear that the Fields are acutely aware of the theoretical question dogging ekphrastic practice--that is, why persist in verbal description, especially of the dead, when words can conjure at best a frail memory of the full physical presence more fully rendered in painting? Confronting this question, they raise the stakes: they represent the bodily demise of human subjects, against which memorializing words may seem to be poor proof indeed. It is as if they acknowledge the impossibility of the ekphrastic task at the same time that they quixotically assert the worthiness of the endeavor.

It is my hypothesis, here, that the Fields bring the thingness of the corpse to the fore, "unflinchingly," to offer ekphrasis as a tool for observation--an artistic technique for reseeing. Like their predecessors engaged in the so-called Victorian Celebration of Death, they observe mourning with precision and energy, but theirs is neither the regulation of yards or inches of black clothing nor the wearing of locks of hair in rings and lockets. (17) To observe mourning, for the Fields, is to gather in a community of solicitude for the corpse. The work of still, communal meditation on the body joins the precision of objective observation with the artistic poesis of reimagining its story. This is a thickly contextualized observation, an act of careful seeing shot through with affects of grief and respect and incomplete without acts of imaginative re-creation. This, for Michael Field, is the high calling of the ekphrastic poet, as if to raise the visual image of the corpse in the mind's eye, through words alone, were a literary form of resurrection.

Preface to Sight and Song

In the opening pages of Sight and Song, the Fields declare their allegiance to an ekphrastic technique in a preface that is brief enough to reproduce in whole here:
   The aim of this little volume is, as far as may be, to translate
   into verse what the lines and colours of certain pictures sing in
   themselves; to express not so much what these pictures are to the
   poet, but rather what poetry they objectively incarnate. Such an
   attempt demands patient, continuous sight as pure as the gazer can
   refine it of theory, fancies, or his mere subjective enjoyment.

   "Il faut, par un effort d-esprit, se transporter dans les
   personnages et non les attirer a soi." [It is necessary, by an
   effort of the spirit, to transport oneself into the characters,
   rather than to pull them toward oneself.] For personnages
   substitute peintures, and this sentence from Gustave Flaubert's
   "Correspondence" resumes the method of art-study from which these
   poems arose.

   Not even "le grand Gustave" could ultimately illude [sic] himself
   as a formative power in his work--not after the pain of a lifetime
   directed to no other end. Yet the effort to see things from their
   own centre, by suppressing the habitual centralisation of the
   visible in ourselves, is a process by which we eliminate our
   idiosyncrasies and obtain an impression clearer, less passive, more

   When such effort has been made, honestly and with persistence, even
   then the inevitable force of individuality must still have play and
   a temperament mould the purified impression:--

   "When your eyes have done their part, Thought must length it in the
   heart." (18) (pp. v-vi)

The Fields outline a "two-phased" method here. (19) In the first two paragraphs, they claim that they suppress their personal responses and work toward a Ruskinian ideal of the innocent eye that will see "objectively" what the images are, in Arnoldian terms, "in themselves." But after "such effort has been made," they assert, they allow the "play" of "individuality" and "temperament" to "mould" the impression. There is first the disciplined act of looking out and away from oneself and then the generous play of affective response toward the object. (20) This twofold procedure is not detached or impersonal but rather proximal and "intimate." One can align this dialectic with the pair of words in the book's title. That is, "sight" requires slow, patient descriptive labor, with the "eye doing its part," whereas "song" then activates the play of poesis: extending or "lengthening" the impression, "moulding" it, imagining its animation by the dynamic word. We might assume that the appreciation of visual art, because presented spatially, could be associated with the immediate and easy, whereas the making of poetry out of it might be considered a more difficult and arduous translation, but the Fields reverse our expectations, emphasizing a commitment to the visual object--they labor to get it right--but also accepting the "inevitable" aesthetic play involved in fitting words to the task.

Why is seeing so arduous--so difficult? In part, for the Fields, it is because it is embedded in acts of feeling, knowing, and making. We can see how this works in the poems themselves by attending to the formal back-and-forth between description and narration. Gerard Genette defines "narration as the depiction of objects or people in movement, and description as the depiction of objects or people in stasis." (21) But Genette himself notes that passages of writing are rarely purely either descriptive or narrative. Narrative tends to pause at times to describe, and description will often reach for narratives in order fully to delineate even the static object. In the field of visual culture, Svetlana Alpers makes a similar argument, differentiating for example Italian "narrative" art from Dutch "descriptive" art. Narrative art is typically Albertian: it regards the frame as a window through which we see a second world, a stage for narrative action. These narratives are prior, well-known texts--for Italian culture, biblical or mythological stories. Descriptive art, on the other hand, focuses on nonnarrative objects (e.g., pitchers, onions, or unrecognizable, ordinary people) in stasis. The canvas is a surface rather than a window, on which the artist/craftsperson lovingly details a still life. Instead of drawing from textual culture, Dutch art relies on the careful observation of new scientific technology. Again, the national differences are not absolute; there are many artworks that demonstrate interactions between narrative and descriptive elements. But Alpers nonetheless insists on a tension between the two: "There seems to be an inverse proportion between attentive description and action: attention to the surface of the world described is achieved at the expense of the representation of narrative action." (22)

Technically speaking, ekphrasis should restrict itself to description, but of course the tendency is for poets to personify the object, to ask it questions, to imagine it as having a mind and story of its own. In an early review of Sight and Song, W. B. Yeats found so much detailed description of colors and lines that he dismissed it as "simply unmitigated guidebook." (23) Yet the Fields's poems do often ask questions of the art object, often using the first-person plural "we," as if the speakers are working to construct a dialogue with the characters and a sense of the underlying story of which they are participants. In fact, the speakers frequently reanimate the persons or places represented by manipulating narrative time or prosopoetically making the characters speak. So the marker of visual work in the Fields's poems is detailed, intimate description of form, color, and outline--as if the still painting on its opaque surface were all in all. And the evidence of verbal play is a dynamic, narrative impulse in the poetry that treats the characters as living figures with a backstory of their own. Descriptive visual work and narrativizing verbal play are dialectically intertwined. And, as we will see, this dialectic between description and narration is invited, even made possible, by the corpse. Description is often inspired by a stilled or sleeping body; a dead body especially offers, in its reduction to sheer matter, a survey of its surface material. And narration comes into play in the minds of the mourners as they seek to memorialize and reconstruct the narrative of the dead.

"The Death of Procris": Communal Observation of a Third Thing

Commanding in size and located close to home in London's National Gallery, A Satyr Mourning over a Nymph, (24) by Piero di Cosimo (circa 1495), must have been familiar to Michael Field, as well as to many of their readers.

In calling this painting "The Death of Procris," Michael Field already reads an established mythic narrative onto it (Sight and Song, pp. 47-52). According to ancient myth, Procris was a nymph who suspected her husband, Cephalus, of infidelity. Procris followed Cephalus on a hunt, hiding in the bushes, in order to spy on him. Hearing rustling in the bushes, Cephalus mistook Procris for a wild animal and speared her accidentally, leaving her to die. While not all versions of that myth include all the elements in Cosimo's painting--Ovid's account of Procris does not include a satyr, for instance--some historians, in agreement with Michael Field, consider this a painting of the Procris story. The painting is executed on a horizontal poplar panel and probably served as a spalliera (the upright part of a bench), typically given to a newlywed couple as a wedding gift. In this context, the painting becomes a warning, a cautionary scenario reminding the bride never to doubt her husband.

The poem's speaker does not recount the myth; we are expected to know it as a matter of course. The first two stanzas focus rather on describing Procris's corpse as if it were a still life:
        the body's swelling side
   Crushes the arm; each sterile breast
   Is grey; upon the throat there is a stain
   Of blood and on the hand along the ground. (11. 7-10)

Procris's narrative is either assumed or suppressed; what we see is the waste, the countererotic body "swelling" and "crush[ing]" and "sterile" (11. 7, 8). Michael Field imagines temporal advancement in this section not as a part of the Procris narrative but as the force of the slow decay of a still life:
   Time has been passing since she last drew breath;
   She has the humble, clay-cold look of death
   Within the open world; no rift
   Has come between the eyelids, of a hue
   Monotonous--a paleness drear. (11. 21-25)

Although the overall effect of the painting could be said to be pleasant, rendering the harmonious color of nature in Florentine pastels, Michael Field dwells on the dreary monotones of the corpse, relieved only by a splash of blood. The enjambment of the "clay-cold look of death / Within the open world" is emphasized by ending in a midline caesura (11. 22-23). Reverberating through this pause is the contrast between the decaying corpse and the "open" world, which continues "inapprehensive" of the tragedy at the center (11. 23, 33). In one of the few, intermittent rhymes of this poem, "tide and bloom and bird / Live on in their familiar ways, / By mortal grief unstirred" (11. 72-75). Michael Field thus anticipates the theme of the banality of tragedy in Auden's famous ekphrastic poem "Musee des Beaux Arts." (25) Auden's poem interprets Breughel's Landscape with the Fall of Icarus: a tiny Icarus plunges into the sea in a corner, while the farmer goes on plowing and, as Auden writes, a ship "sail[s] calmly on" (1. 21). In Breughel's northern, highly descriptive painting, the culturally central narrative of Icarus takes place in a corner of the painting: the narrative receives descriptive treatment, as one small thing happening in the window on the world. Piero, by contrast, makes Procris central to his painting--but the Fields marginalize her. Procris, the narrative subject, receives descriptive treatment at the hands of the Fields's ekphrasis, while the decorative birds and flowers are animated by narrative time.

This poem differs from Auden's, however, in that we have intermediaries between "inapprehensive" nature and the central tragedy of Procris's dead body: the hound and the satyr who keep watch, one at her head, the other at her feet (1. 33). Only two stanzas are given to Procris as corpse; the remaining four stanzas are devoted to these marginal figures, the onlookers, who form a compositional triangle with Procris herself. The watchers, significantly, are not men but beasts or semibeasts, still differentiated from "inapprehensive" nature, perhaps ennobled, by their attentive gaze:
   The tall dog's vigil and the gaze
   Of the wild man, by eagerness bent low,
   Have each a like expression of amaze
        And deep,
   Respectful yearning: these two watchers pass
   Out of themselves, though only to attain
   Incomprehensible, half-wakened pain.
   They cannot think nor weep ... (11. 61-68)

The "gaze" here is not erotically possessive but amazed, wondering, and full of "deep I Respectful yearning," through which the viewers "pass / Out of themselves" (11. 61, 64-65, 65-66). Nor is their gaze completely knowing; their pain remains "half-wakened" and later "vague," neither full of thought nor emotion but a complex intermixture of the two (11. 67, 71). Yet these communal watchers are clearly the focus of the poem for Michael Field. Earnestly receptive, redefined by their efforts, convened as a community of two focused on a third thing, the satyr and the dog mark out the Fields's own positions as observing interpreters of the painting. As the poem progresses, time is reintroduced--again, not the narrative time of Procris's story but the slow, selective time of changing seasons. An odd thing happens, as the speaker(s) imagines autumn descending on the scene: the little ships in the distance pass, leaves drop, flowers fade, but the "hound and satyr settled nigh" remain--even "Till windy snows appear" (11. 88, 90) The point of Michael Field's poetic narrative seems to be that nature will change, but the vigil will be kept. The hound and the faun are thus positioned between death and life--emerging from the natural yet set apart, keeping watch. They become the monument, thus partaking of the qualities of the poem itself. Procris herself does not speak in this poem; there is no explicitly prosopopoetic moment. But the hound and satyr are well positioned to begin reimagining her story, and we understand that this monumental task belongs to the keepers of the vigil rather than to Procris herself. Attending to the mystery presented by Procris's corpse, the two, who become "like" each other in their amazement, are transformed by their observation (1. 63). Together, they perform the vigil--the wake--in its literal meaning of keeping an alert watch, keeping company with the as-yet-unburied body. Michael Field notices and insists on their observant community of two--a pair, like Bradley and Cooper--as well as their triangular relationship to Procris, like Bradley and Cooper's relationship to the painting. (26) The satyr and dog, that is, enact the style of observation (in the sense of both looking and keeping a solemn practice) that the Fields find compelling.

Generous Reserve: Mourning in "A Pieta"

If the visual work of seeing-in-mourning is emphasized in "The Death of Procris," then the reanimating force of verbal play gets more attention in "A Pieta" (Field, Sight and Song, pp. 106-111). The poem opens with a stanza critiquing the Madonna's style of mourning, moves to a description of Jesus's dead corpse in the intervening three stanzas, arid closes with a three-stanza endorsement of Mary Magdalene's observation of Jesus's death. The stanzas describing the two Marys are dynamic and prosopopoetic: the Fields make each Mary move and speak. In the first stanza, the weeping Mother Mary is frenzied, full of so much "strife" that it seems she would "shake the dead to life" (11. 7, 8). Indeed, in Crivelli's Pieta, the painting on which the poem is based, Jesus is not draped across his mother's lap; rather, the corpse is seated, leaning against the much shorter, smaller figure of his aged mother. One of Jesus's arms is loosely draped around Mary's neck. In a reciprocal but fiercely passionate movement, Mary reaches up and clutches her son's corpse around its neck. The Fields, using free indirect discourse, give us access to Mary's thoughts:
   She laughs--from death He can recover;
   E'en now whatever He saith shall be:
   She will win Him, He shall kiss and love her. (11. 11-13)

In the Fields's reading of Crivelli's Pieta, Mary the Mother is not only agonized but also angry, insistent, and actively wrestling with death. She remembers the marriage at Cana, when she told the servants to do whatever he commanded, when he turned water into wine. "E'en now" she expects a miracle: "She laughs" defiantly at death, demanding Jesus's return (11. 12, 11). Mary tropes herself as a victorious combatant: "She will win" Jesus back (1.13). It is clear from the Fields's ekphrasis that they imagine Mary so pushed to the extremes of personal loss that her anger and defiance are largely self-engrossed and that she is unaware even of her fellow mourners: death has "done her wrong"; she longs not to kiss her son nor for her son to return to humanity but for her son to "kiss and love her" (11. 6, 13; emphasis added). The suggestions are slight, but even by the end of the first stanza, it seems that the speaker is not entirely in sympathy with Mary's ravaged and ravaging mourning--Crivelli's Mother Mary, according to the Fields, is captured in an entirely human moment.

In the three stanzas intervening between the descriptions of the two Marys, Michael Field minutely notes the detail of the dead body of Jesus. As the Fields tend to do when swinging into descriptive mode, they note especially the colors. As the seemingly unnatural color of a corpse is the first thing to assault an unaccustomed viewer's vision, so the speaker notes first that Jesus's "soiled" skin is "opaque" with the "solemn ochres of the tomb" (11. 14, 15). The drab and dingy tones of the corpse, the "leaden fissures" of the partly closed eyes, the "clay" of the face are elemental, recalling the ashes and dust to which all return (1. 21). In addition to color, an almost microscopic gaze settles on the minute particulars of Christ's wounds:
   The thorns on his brow are green
   And the fine tips folded in
   (Through the forehead forcing room)
   By a swathe of the delicate, lifted skin: (11. 16-19)

Crivelli's painting does indeed include such detail, so that the viewer can trace the tips of the thorns as splinters digging into Christ's forehead. The ekphrasis registers the almost-loving rendition of Crivelli's surface particulars, so that we forget the torture for a moment in the appreciation of the fresh "green" thorn's "fine tips" and the lifted "swathe" of "delicate" skin (accompanied by the speaker's parenthetical appreciation of the mechanics of skin piercing; 11. 16, 17, 19). The speaker later comments, "No beauty to desire / Is here," and yet the careful delineation of surface detail verges on the aesthetic--in fact, one of the remarkable features of both painting and poem is the strangely harmonious rendering of the evidence of brutal torture (11. 35-36):
   --stiffened limb and angry vein
   And a belt, 'neath the hirsute nipple,
   Of flesh that, flaccid and dragged from the strain
   Of the cross, swells the waist with sinuous ripple. (11. 35-38)

In fact, Crivelli gives us a surfeit of anatomical detail, complete with a hairy nipple and veins and tendons that stand out as clearly as on a peeled anatomical specimen. Jesus's wrists and fingers are gnarled and curled, suggesting a stiffness otherwise belied by the graceful drooping of his head. And it is this combination of the matter-of-fact forensic detail and appreciation of form that the Fields register in describing the "belt / Of flesh" that is at once "flaccid and dragged from the strain" and yet describes a sensuous curve, "swelling] the waist with [a] sinuous ripple" (11. 38, 39).

Michael Field also devotes qualitative description to the mouths of each of the figures--appropriately, given Crivelli's stunning repetition of the open mouth and visibly lolling tongue of Jesus, his mother, and John. Jesus's mouth receives the most attention:
   And though the lips for breath
   Leave room, there is no breathing, nor are
   They gaping eagerly; but parted
   And vacant as a house-door left ajar,
   From which the owner of the house has started. (11. 22-26)

Evidence of affect--of either the pain or the struggle or the resignation prominent in the Passion narrative--is entirely absent from this description. In fact, the documentation of dull, ordinary absence seems to be precisely the point.

The Fields--and, arguably, Carlo Crivelli--treat Jesus's dead body descriptively, in the hyperrealist manner described as characteristically "northern" in Alpers's work. But the Fields, especially in the central section of "Pieta," take this one step further, considering Christ's corpse in isolation from the trio of mourners and therefore from the narrative of his, and their, experiences. The overt, atomistic attention to surface detail, the celebration of anatomy and form, seems almost obscene in its refusal to acknowledge the suffering or the injustice of the execution in the Passion narrative. Michael Field appears to be considering Crivelli's dead Christ as a member of a distinct subgenre of Christian painting of this period, in which Christ as the subject for Italian narrative art gets fully northern descriptive treatment--an extraordinary superimposition of description onto narration in the visual realm. One thinks particularly of Hans Holbein's The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb or Mantegna's The Lamentation over the Dead Christ as examples of the genre, in which Jesus, dead and as yet unresurrected, becomes a study for the still life of a tortured corpse. (27) The layering of these two styles of painting jars the viewer, reversing expectations, and giving the familiar narrative of Jesus's death an almost-blasphemous material end.

But if "A Pieta" is about styles of mourning, then the dead Christ is less important to the Fields's ekphrasis than is Mary Magdalene. The Magdalene is a pivotal figure for them, appearing in a number of poems and celebrated for her liberal giving. The Fields transform the promiscuous, sinful woman of Christian narrative into a figure of great generosity. Consider their poem "The Magdalen" (Sight and Song, pp. 75-80):
   How she loved to mingle with her friends!
   To give them eyes and lip;
   She lived from their sake alone;
   Not a braid of her hair, not a rose
   Of her cheek was her own:
   And she loved to minister
   To any in want of her,
   All service was so sweet: (11. 42-49)

Promiscuity becomes generosity: the former prostitute recalls her past as "ministry" or "service," seeking "fellowship," always giving freely of herself (11. 47,49,41).

Returning to "A Pieta," we see Mary Magdalene as a recent witness to Christ's Passion. Crivelli's rendering of this Mary parallels to some extent his representation of Christ's mother and of John. Like the others, Mary's brow is furrowed, and large tears spring from her eyes. But in contrast to the other mourners, who mirror the corpse with their open mouths and lolling tongues, the Magdalene's mouth is firmly closed. In fact, Crivelli makes her stand out from the composition. Her skin is pale and pinkish white, in contrast to the ochres that make the others almost blend into the bronze shades of the corpse, the golden aureoles, and the burnished background. Her clothes are also brighter and more varied in color, so that she stands apart from the others, who all partake of the shades of death. Moreover, the Magdalen is positioned in the foreground, lifting Christ's forearm so that his hand hangs over the balustrade, as if breaking the plane of the painting. Thus Mary Magdalene seems a more capable intercessor than the others, a more effective mediator between the viewer and the iconic golden world into which Jesus's corpse seems almost to merge.

Perhaps Michael Field selects Crivelli's A Pieta precisely for the way it foregrounds Mary Magdalene. Certainly their ekphrasis admires her way of looking at Christ. In contrast to the helplessly overwrought John, whose eyes are nearly rolled back in his head, she investigates Jesus's wounds:
   'Neath the third halo, wrought on a burnished ground
   Of leafy stamp, is John's wailing face:
   He shrieks; but he does not lift
   The body into the grave:
   Beside him in noble grace
   Bows the Magdalen, who, putting forth a brave
   Hand, 'twixt her finger and thumb
   Lifts the Redeemer's arm and with a dumb
   Wonder looks in the hole
   Scooped by the large, round nail: So they hurt
   What one loves! Yet about this silent creature's
   Suppression there is promise; an alert
   And moving faith prompts the vigilant features. (11. 49-61)

The Magdalen's inspection requires "brave[ry]," and her affective response is a "dumb / Wonder" rather than despair (11. 54, 56-57). Mary describes what she sees in detailed aesthetic terms: the hole is "scooped" by the "large, round" nail (1. 58). This sort of description requires a "suppression" that is yet full of generous "promise," because an "alert" and dynamically "moving" faith plays over the "vigilant" features (11. 59, 60, 61). The moving faith in this poem, as in "The Magdalen," is the combination of extravagance and patience or a generous impulse kept in check, a fullness of affect held in reserve.

In the final stanza of the poem, the Magdalen's way of grieving is contrasted to Mother Mary's:
   So it comes to pass that to this reticent
   And tender woman there is given sight
   Of Christ new-born from the tomb:
   The mother sees not her Son
   In whom her soul doth delight,
   She knows Him not, nor the work his cross hath done:
   But to Mary with the sealed
   Lips and hard patience Jesus is revealed.
   His mother clasps his form,
   Craving for miracle and must lack
   For ever response to her passion:
   The dead, if indeed we would win them back,
   Must be won in their own love's larger fashion. (11. 78-90)

The Magdalen is at once "tender" and "reticent" (11. 78, 79). Her history of a generous, full heart, which is figured earlier in this poem as the "outpoured box of nard," is tempered by "sealed lips" and "hard patience" (11. 67, 84, 85). Mary Magdalen keeps herself in check in order to observe, to notice the details, the particularity that makes this corpse the very one of the beloved. But she also speaks, prosopoetically, referring to herself in third person: "So they hurt / What one loves!" (11. 58-59). Here she wonders, struggling to reimagine and understand Jesus's story. For the Fields, affect is enhanced, rather than canceled, by the oppositions running through it. This is the Fieldian technique for translation between visual images and poetry, composed of both courageously descriptive visual labor and the imaginative play of faith in the other. They believe, with typical Fieldian extravagance, in the return of the dead--not in the terms, however, of the mourner's needs but rather in the dead's "own love's larger fashion" (1. 90). Notably, the dead's "fashion" of loving differs from the mourner's. If we would "win" back the beloved, we must first respect the alterity of the dead (1. 89). The love that enlarges one's sense of the possible apparently survives the death of the beloved, remade in the heart of the lover.


As disciples of Ruskin, the Fields's visual labor recalls the Ruskinian work toward an "innocent eye," which demands a visual acuity more attentive and-- as the Fields put it--"intimate" than that of personal projection. And their commitment to poesis as creative play accepts the necessary imperfection of art as voiced by Robert Browning's "Andrea del Sarto": "a man's reach should exceed his grasp, / Or what's a heaven for?" (Browning, Poems, 11. 98-98). Despite these Victorian influences, the Fields were concerned that they should be seen as fully modern. And they were, especially in endorsing the increasingly celebrated notion of forensic objectivity. In the twentieth century, a detached objectivity, cleansed of personality, will become a cultural ideal. By contrast, Michael Field strikes a both-and posture--both Victorian and modern. Their ekphrases demonstrate that modern forensic observation is powerful but also fragmented, important to probing alterity but insufficient in summoning the personhood of the dead. They seem to know that the object only speaks its haecceitas, its thisness, to the receptive heart. By the side of the corpse, the quality of its life is still visible in the lineaments of the face, in the individuality of the hands, in the fine-grained singularity of the body. The dead are not merely lost to us; they have completed their narrative, the arc of their life. (28) It is in acts of mourning, in the keeping of vigils, that we notice the bare particulars of a remarkable life, and from them, we reconstruct his or her story.

Together, Fieldian visual work and verbal play combine in a dialectic that insists on a possible "translation" of meaning from sight to song, from one person to another, and from poet(s) to readers, even when confronting the apparent evacuation of meaning at the site of the corpse. The Fields's both-and way of thinking is condensed in their two-phased aesthetic. In their hands, ekphrasis in its proper descriptive mode gives way to prosopopoeia, face making, with an implied life story. Thus in observing paintings of death, ekphrasis, describing the silent dead, alternates with prosopopoeia, making the dead speak. One needs to take in the dead body in its stark and unyielding physical quiddity-- one must see its details resolutely, unflinchingly--and yet, for Michael Field, this act of forensic observation is properly enmeshed in feelings of affection, grief, and longing and in acts of poetic reimagination. Deliberately, they choose a fascinating limit case for our capacities to see: the awe-provoking material and perceptible reality of the dead thing that was once a living person. As that which was once human but is no longer, poised between subject and object, person and thing, the corpse demands an observation that not only looks but also feels and makes.


(1) Michael Field, Sight and Song with Underneath the Bough (Oxford, U.K.: Woodstock, 1993). All future quotations from Sight and Song refer to this edition.

(2) Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper, Michael Field Journals "Works and Days" of "Michael Field" (January 1890-July 1891), BL Add. MS 46778, vol. 3, fol. 44v, British Library. Future quotations from Works and Days refer to this edition.

(3) In what follows, I am chiefly concerned with adding an ethical dimension to the growing discussion of Michael Field's theories of observation. I draw attention to their peculiarity in solidarity with the gender and queer criticism that has recuperated Michael Field and emphasized the Fields's triangulation of vision. See essays by Jill Ehnenn ("Looking Strategically: Feminist and Queer Aesthetics in Michael Field's Sight and Song," VP 43, no. 1 [2005]: 213-260); Anna Parejo Vadillo ("Sight and Song: Transparent Translations and a Manifesto for the Observer," VP 38, no. 1 [2000]: 15-34); and Julia Saville ("The Poetic Imaging of Michael Field," in The Finde-Siecle Poem: English Literary Culture and the 1890s, ed. Joseph Bristow, [Athens: Ohio Univ. Press, 2005], 178-206). See also Hilary Fraser's "A Visual Field: Michael Field and the Gaze," Victorian Literature and Culture 34, no. 1 (2006): 553-571; Krista Lysack's "Aesthetic Consumption and the Cultural Production of Michael Field's Sight and Song," SEL 45, no. 4 (2005): 935-960; and Kate Thomas's "What Time We Kiss: Michael Field's Queer Temporalities," GLQ 13, nos. 2-3 (2007): 327-351. I wish to show the Fields's commonality with their mid-Victorian mentors and to draw out the way in which some of their queerest moves are invited by their serious commitment to an ethical aesthetics.

(4) Charles Dickens, The Uncommercial Traveller (Cambridge, Mass.: Riverside Press, 1869), p. 96.

(5) William Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White (New York: Knopf, 1991), p. 606.

(6) For examinations of the role of the Paris morgue in Victorian culture, see Paul Vita, "Returning the Look: Victorian Writers and the Paris Morgue," Nineteenth-Century Contexts 25, no. 3 (2003): 241-256; and Britta Martens, "Death as Spectacle: The Paris Morgue in Dickens and Browning," Dickens Studies Annual 39 (2008): 223-248.

(7) The Fields do repurpose religious language in the service of their alternative vision. Near the end their Works and Days entry, the Fields claim the morgue as their preferred place of "worship," valued above the nearby cathedral. Enthusiastic pagans at this point in their lives, they bend the language of Christianity to consecrate their own secular temple. The forensic "facts" presented by the corpses are infused with "in-dwelling mystery"; French "liberte, equalite and fraternite" are morphed by reference to Trinitarian Christianity into a "triune Gospel written on our hearts." Thus their morgue visit participates in neither the supposed French callousness nor the sensitive queasiness usually lurking behind the brave British facade. Rather, they spare a moment to wonder together, a mode they translate as worship.

(8) See Ehnenn, "Looking Strategically," p. 215.

(9) John Ruskin, "The Relation between Michael Angelo and Tintoret," in The Works of John Ruskin, ed. E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, vol. 22 (London: George Allen, 1906), p. 95.

(10) Carol Christ, "Browning's Corpses," VP 43, nos. 3-4 (1995): 391-401.

(11) Robert Browning, The Poems, vol. 1, ed. John Pettigrew (New York: Penguin Books, 1981), p. 861.

(12) Subsequent essays by Renee Fox and Britta Martens have emphasized the limits of reanimation in Browning's poetry. See Fox's "Robert Browning's Necropoetics," VP 49, no. 4 (2011): 463-483; and Martens's "Dramatic Monologue, Detective Fiction, and the Search for Meaning," Nineteenth-Century Literature 66, no. 2 (2011): 195-218.

(13) Robert Browning, The Ring and the Book, ed. Thomas J. Collins and Richard D. Altick (Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 2001), p. 31.

(14) W. J. T. Mitchell, Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation. (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1994), p. 167. There is a long critical and poetic tradition of using death imagery to challenge ekphrastic possibility. See also Murray Krieger's Ekphrasis: The Illusion of the Natural Sign (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1992); and James A. W. Heffernan's Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashbery (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1993).

(15) John Keats, Keats's Poetry and Prose, ed. Jeffrey N. Cox (New York: Norton, 2009), p. 462.

(16) See especially de Man's "Autobiography as De-Facement," "Wordsworth and the Victorians," and "Shelley Disfigured," in The Rhetoric of Romanticism (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1984).

(17) I borrow the phrase "Celebration of Death" from James Stevens Curl's book by that title, The Victorian Celebration of Death (Stroud, U.K.: Sutton, 2000).

(18) The quotation is from Samuel Daniel's "Another Song," from Tethys' Festival.

(19) Vadillo, p. 25. Marion Thain in Michael Field: Poetry, Aestheticism and the Fin de Siecle (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007); and S. Brooke Cameron in "The Pleasures of Looking and the Feminine Gaze in Michael Field's Sight and Song," VP 51, no. 2 (2013): 147-175, have suggested "synesthesia" as an alternate way of understanding the Fields's both-and position. I find Vadillo's "two-phase" description to adhere more closely to the preface of Sight and Song and to be more evident in the poems about the dead.

(20) Julia Saville places the Fields in an aesthetic lineage of objectivist self-effacement: "[Theirs] is a genealogy traceable in ... the distinterestedness' of Matthew Arnold, the 'impersonality' of Pater, and the 'mask' of Oscar Wilde." p. 179. Yet the Fields's method is both an effacement of the observer and an "active" labor to see more clearly.

(21) Gerard Genette, Figures 11: Essais (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1969), p. 57; quoted in Heffernan, p. 5.

(22) Svetlana Alpers, The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century. (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1983), p. xxi.

(23) Yeats's review of Michael Field's Sight and Song originally appeared in the Bookman 2, no. 10 (July 1892): 116-117, reprinted in W. B. Yeats, The Collected Works of W. B. Yeats, vol. 9, Early Articles: Uncollected Articles and Reviews Written between 1886 and 1900 (New York: Scribner, 2004), pp. 167-169 (quotation on p. 169).

(24) Piero di Cosimo, A Satyr Mourning over a Nymph, painting, c. 1495, National Gallery, London, -mourning-over-a-nymph.

(25) W. H. Auden, "Musee des Beaux Arts," in Collected Poems (New York: Vintage, 1991), p. 179.

(26) Communities of two were of course important to Bradley and Cooper, as they themselves merged their two selves as coauthors and coobservers in Michael Field. The number three also carried personal significance for the Fields, drawing from Trinitarian Christianity, as well as their triangular relationship to their beloved dog, Whym Chow.

(27) My reading of "A Pieta" is influenced by Julia Kristeva's reading of Holbein's Dead Christ in Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1989), p. 271n21.

(28) Deborah Lutz makes a similar point when she writes of death as the "moment when life becomes narrative, when the meaning of life is complete and illuminated in its ending;' Lutz, Relics of Death in Victorian Literature and Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2015), p. 8.

Caption: Fig. 1. A Satyr Mourning over a Nymph, by Piero di Cosimo, c. 1495. The National Gallery, London.

Caption: Fig. 2. A Pieta, by Carlo Crivelli, 1476. Photo courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, John Stewart Kennedy Fund, 1913 (13.178). /collection/search/436053.
COPYRIGHT 2017 West Virginia University Press, University of West Virginia
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2017 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Caldwell, Janis McLarren
Publication:Victorian Poetry
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Jun 22, 2017
Previous Article:The Ends of Rhyme: Swinburne's A Century of Roundels and Late-Victorian Rhyme Culture.
Next Article:The Search for a Good Cause in George Merediths Modern Love.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters