The Michaelian
the michaelian

issue one: june 2009

Although the quotation marks in the title of Marion Thain’s critical monograph, ‘Michael Field’: Poetry, Aestheticism and the Fin de Siècle may initially seem redundant, they epitomize the basis of her intervention in studies of the oeuvre of Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper, aunt and niece, artistic collaborators and lovers.  Her thorough analysis of Bradley and Cooper’s use of the male pseudonym, “Michael Field” in order to mediate their authorship—their sense of themselves in relation and distinction from each other, from other fin de siècle artists and writers, from other moments and figures in history—is Thain’s insightful contribution to scholarship that has primarily focused on Michael Field’s identity politics, rather than the politics of Michael Field’s authorship. 

With ‘Michael Field,’ Marion Thain endeavors to bring Bradley and Cooper out of the margins and, furthermore, proposes that their very marginalization enables them to articulate a crucial commentary on aestheticism.  Other recent scholars (such as Diana Maltz and Ana Vadillo) have found an analysis of Michael Field’s work productive for re-evaluating prevailing  definitions of aestheticism or suggesting different directions for future studies.  Thain, however, echoes Jonathan Freedman’s influential introduction to his Professions of Taste when she argues that aestheticism provides a political discourse of ambivalence by employing the formal structures of paradox.  Also in line with Freedman, she identifies the paradox as the characteristic formal device of the fin de siècle, which grounds her approach to understanding Michael Field’s lyric poetry.  Thain argues that of all the paradoxes that Michael Field explores in their poetry, the “temporal paradox”—the desire to preserve the momentary sensation of flux—is what Bradley and Cooper attempt to resolve through their lyric poetry. 

Chapter One introduces the ways in which Michael Field sets the terms for their exploration of the temporal paradox in their diaries and one dramatic work, In the Name of Time.  Each chapter following the first focuses on one volume of poetry (except for the sixth chapter which examines Michael Field’s Catholic poetry) and analyzes a different paradox explored in the respective volume.   Thain closes every chapter by examining how the particular volume contributes to the resolution of the “temporal paradox,” the dialectic between synchronic and diachronic modes of history that Michael Field’s lyric poetry (unlike the drama or the life writings) resolve in its very form.  Even though Thain identifies her primary methodology as close reading, her exhaustive survey and critique of the field of Michael Field scholarship reveals her facility with a variety of modes of criticism and theory. 

Thain observes that one of the reasons that Michael Field may remain marginalized in studies of aestheticism is because of scholarly interest in analyzing their unique identity in terms of sexual and gender politics. 

In Chapter Two, Thain confronts critics who have logically focused on Long Ago, a project which attempts to complete Sappho’s poetic fragments, to justify the identification of Bradley and Cooper’s relationship as lesbian.  Thain argues, however, that Sappho does not necessarily signify lesbian desire only, but, rather, a multiple and ambivalent sexuality, which is evident in the original poetic fragments themselves.   The eroticism of Michael Fields’ poetry includes the heteroerotic as well as homoerotic, and, therefore, signifies to Thain their multiple modes of desire as well as their intentional abstraction of desire in their poetry.  Chapter Four on Underneath the Bough completes her analysis of Bradley and Cooper’s adoption of the male pseudonym “Michael Field.”  She observes that previous scholarship attempting to analyze the terms of the artistic collaboration of Michael Field falls into two camps:   one led by Virginia Blain, who argues for the impossibility of dual authorship at the level of material composition, and the second led by Yopie Prins who (in her analysis of Long Ago) makes a case for the theoretical union of voices into a kind of chorus.  Thain differentiates her approach, appropriately enough, by emphasizing the importance of difference in their duality, therefore referring back to her argument in Chapter Two about the name functioning as a “lesbian fetish.”  She argues that the dynamic structure of their poetry relies on difference rather than sameness, which she suspects that scholarly characterizations emphasizing the reciprocity and mutuality of their alleged union tread dangerously close to favoring.  Thain persuasively reveals that their relationship is based on their capacity to switch roles and, therefore, play both roles.  This model presupposes difference without inscribing inequality because of the instability of their positions and roles.  As Thain points out by citing a letter from Bradley to John Gray, it is never “mother & mother”; the dynamics of their personal relationship as well as their artistic collaboration relies on “the inscription of difference.”  Thain’s insightful close reading of Underneath the Bough, more than her convoluted identification of their name as a “lesbian fetish,” reveals the importance of difference in Michael Field’s authorship, fueling the energy of Bradley and Cooper’s collaboration. 

Thain sets up Chapter Five, on Wild Honey from a Various Thyme, as the culmination of her argument, evident in her identification of a special kind of aestheticism, “apian aestheticism,” that the collection apparently articulates.   In the previous chapter, she foreshadows that it is not until Wild Honey that Michael Field finally resolves the synchronic and diachronic impulses in the construction their personal narrative (which, with Underneath the Bough, they previously needed to explore over various editions, not with a single text).  To Thain’s credit, she does a thorough job revealing the sometimes surprising ways in which bee imagery (and its associations—honey, sweetness, hives, honeycombs, etc.) permeated nineteenth-century culture, as well as worked on multiple levels in Michael Field’s volume of poetry.  Perhaps the problem with this chapter is its ambition; bees seem to signify and connect too much:  the cover of the volume to the text, commodity to art, Ricketts to Michael Field, Michael Field to aestheticism, Michael Field to other writers using bee imagery as cultural criticism, Underneath the Bough to Wild Honey, pagan to Christian, Berenson to Cooper, Ricketts to Bradley, and, of course, the diachronic to synchronic.  Ultimately, however, it is unclear what the “apian” brings to aestheticism.  Although Thain convincingly argues that the “apian” was a productive topos for other writers in the nineteenth century as well as Field, she does not reveal how Field’s exploration and use of the apian revises or changes definitions of aestheticism.  

Her perpetual turn to issues of time and history at the end of every chapter occasionally feels heavy-handed.  I would argue that her more interesting insights on Michael Field’s poetry occur when she moves away from teasing out the dialectic of history as it occurs in every collection.  In her effort to show how Michael Field was engaged with influential nineteenth-century approaches to historicity, Thain prioritizes “grand theories” and “bigger temporal patterns and paradigms” (32).  Her investment in the dialectic perhaps inevitably privileges male writers and typically masculinist approaches to history.  Because part of her project with Michael Field is to show Bradley and Cooper’s thoughtful engagement with the major issues and figures of aestheticism, Thain offers, largely, a Paterian reading of Michael Field’s poetry.  The ways in which Thain traces the influence of Pater’s ideas about history make it occasionally difficult to detect Michael Field’s contribution to this topic.  Thain claims that Michael Field takes up the challenge that Pater proposes for “aesthetic poetry” by working through paradoxes in the form of lyric poetry, but, therefore, implies that the ideas about time and history are Pater’s.   

Some scholars might also quibble over the extent to which these paradoxes are necessarily resolved in the form of the poetry.  This resolution or reconciliation seems to mean for Thain the ability for Michael Field to “have it both ways,” which could be argued is less resolved than it is maintained.  What is perhaps convincing in Thain’s claim is that Michael Field’s attitude towards these paradoxes seems resolved in their poetry—the voices that emerge do not seem anxious, and the paradoxes are not problematized.  Nevertheless, some scholars, myself included, might value analyzing the works where paradoxes are still presented as conceptual problems, as in their verse dramas, rather than just acknowledge formal solutions in the poetry.  

In her conclusion, Thain explores the difficulties in classifying fin de siècle artists like Michael Field, whose work not only branches both Victorian and modernist periods, but explores issues that pertain to both.  Although she contextualizes Michael Field’s experimentation with form and explorations of aesthetic issues primarily in response to the nineteenth century, she asserts that the fin de siècle is a phenomenon in its own right, and identifies Michael Field’s desire to resolve paradoxes, and their belief in art to be able to do so, as a characteristically fin de siècle approach.  Thain identifies “an optimism about the potential for art to make the fragments whole again” (214), but the effect of her analysis of Michael Field’s poetry is not to convey wholeness.  The layering upon layering of paradoxes does not make the whole greater than the sum of its parts:  instead, her approach to Michael Field’s poetry makes one more aware of the many parts and the many ways they are interconnected. 

Ji-Hyae Park
University of Michigan.