The Michaelian
the michaelian

issue one: june 2009

Michael Field’s Sapphic Communities: Constructing the Transgressive Feminine Sensibility of Long Ago (1889)

Elizabeth A. Primamore

While Sappho was a popular figure for both male and female poets of the Victorian period, Greek studies (which coincided with the rise of medical and psychological discourses) provided the space for the emergence of a homosexual discourse for male aesthetes, at the same time the figure of Sappho appeared as a trope for lesbianism. This gave rise to an exploitation of Sappho as a predatory corrupter of young women by male poets and writers. Swinburne and Baudelaire, among others, honored her as a supreme poet, whilst saturating her with a debased lesbian sexuality.  They deliberately used her as a prop in their work to shock the bourgeoisie. For these men, because of her homosexuality, Sappho represented the ultimate in decadence. More than any other, it was aestheticism’s Sapphic face—directly accessed through Henry Wharton’s 1885 translation and its revelation of same-sex erotics—which influenced Michael Field in writing Long Ago.  Sappho, more importantly, also represented the feminine side of aestheticism’s association with homosexuality as well as the modern impulse to connect androgyny with homosexuality—for women, sapphism.1 It was from this ‘cross-gendered’ connection, the two women poets’ fascination with Victorian Hellenism combined with a Sapphic desire to reframe the Greek poet in terms of a transgressive feminine sensibility, that this volume emergedTherefore, my participation in the debates on Michael Field and Long Ago, informed by contemporary feminist and queer perspectives, will continue the exploration of the Sapphic lyrics and female erotic power but will do so from the context of aestheticism.

Michael Field’s first collection of poems, titled Long Ago, published in London in 1889, is a volume of Sapphic lyrics. (Sapphic, capitalized, refers to the lyrical fragments attributed to the ancient poet Sappho.) Creating an ideal Greek world of passion, beauty, and sensuality that is female centered, the volume explores the heterosexual account of Sappho and Sappho as a lover of women as well as the significance of the woman writer and sexuality. Sappho of Lesbos is a part of Michael Field’s aesthetic inheritance, as literary women. Sappho is a female precursor to Bradley’s and Cooper’s modern androgynous and sexually dissident imagination. In a way my investigation of Michael Field and Sappho is an extension of Susan Gubar’s “Sapphistries” which argues that Sappho “empowered a number of female modernists to collaborate in exuberant linguistic experiments” (44). Michael Field’s model of creativity is not necessarily focused solely on sensuality or sexuality, it also includes non-standard notions of gender (which, of course, overlap with sexuality) and gender and writing. The androgynous voices and transgressive sexualities Michael Field produced in Long Ago set the stage for her 2 later work, and anticipates what has recently been called “Sapphic modernism” in contemporary feminist theory. It is important to keep in mind that thinking Greek was a way late nineteenth century artists discussed homosexuality, both male and female. This strand of modernism views the imaginations of female twentieth century writers—Virginia Woolf, Djuna Barnes, H.D., Gertrude Stein, Renee Vivien, and Michael Field, for example—as being heightened or ‘revved up’ by the radical eroticism of Sappho in her many permutations.

To understand the significance of Sappho for the Western literary tradition and to help place Michael Field in context it is useful to discuss a history of Sappho—which constitutes a history of various translations, readings, and interpretations beginning in antiquity—from at least the late nineteenth century.3 Before Sappho of Lesbos, a Lesbian, became Sappho the lesbian (Lesbian indicates that she is an inhabitant of a place, Lesbos; lesbian, a modern formation of a sexual category that emerged in the late nineteenth century, a sexual identity), she was considered one of the finest poets in Ancient Greece. Perhaps a quote about Solon of Athens, cited by Balmer, will give a sense of the Greek attitude toward Sappho as a poet:

After his nephew had sung one of Sappho’s songs over the wine
Solon of Athens, the son of Execestides, told the lad to teach it
to him immediately. When someone asked why he was so eager,
Solon replied: ‘So that I might die knowing it.’ (Balmer, Sappho Poems, 7)

The way Sappho is thought about—Plato called her the tenth Muse—has changed dramatically since the time of Solon. Much of Sappho’s work has been lost and the fragments of her poems that have survived have been open to interpretation throughout the centuries—with the biggest problem centering on her eroticism. For centuries knowledge of Sappho’s homoeroticism was suppressed. Ovid, who thought of himself as a kindred spirit, promoted the idea of Sappho’s exclusive heterosexuality.

In 1885, Henry Thornton Wharton published his highly influential Sappho: Memoir, Text and Selected Renderings with a Literal Translation, which was the first translation in English of Sappho’s poetry to acknowledge the use of the feminine pronoun. Shortly thereafter Michael Field in her “Ode to Aphrodite” seized the opportunity to produce a female object of desire:

‘Who wrongs thee  Sappho? For even if she flies she shall soon follow, and if she rejects gifts  shall yet give, and if she loves not shall soon love, however loth.’ Come, I pray thee, now too, and release me from cruel cares; and all that my heart desires to accomplish, accomplish thou, and be thyself, my ally. (sic italics)  (Wharton, 46)

John Addington Symonds noted that “Sappho and the Lesbian Poetess gave this female passion an eminent place in Greek literature” (70).  Wharton’s edition of Sappho changed the way English turn-of-the-century and modern female writers and poets—Michael Field, in particular—regarded Sappho because, as Margaret Reynolds in The Sappho History notes, this edition “dismissed the web of myths around Phaon and the Leucadian leap; it made claims for Sappho’s importance as the first lyric poet; it established a standard for English translations; it quietly reproduced Bergk’s feminine pronouns; and it persuasively argued for the resilience of her poetic model throughout English literature” (127).

It is also important to keep in mind the French decadent tradition—a school of “French sexual sensationalism,” (DeJean, Fictions, 200), whose depictions of Sappho had a strong influence on the English tradition. Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, first published in 1845, was particularly resonant. This work included poems,“Lesbos” and two “Condemned Women.” For the first time in literary history, Sappho was constructed as a lesbian, turning her into a sexual rather than literary icon (she was also commonly portrayed as a prostitute). In the poem “Lesbos,” Baudelaire suggests sterility is the price the beautiful women of Lesbos pay for their pleasures, and for Sappho, her poetic gift:

Of Sappho, male in poetry and love,
Fairer than Venus, though her face be pale!
—The azure eye is conquered by the black
Shadowed by circles drawn by all grief
Of Sappho, male in poetry and love!   (“Lesbos” ll. 61–65)

For Baudelaire, the poet is coded male, and he confers upon Sappho an honorary masculinity. Compensating Sappho for what he sees as her sterility because of her inability to find sexual satisfaction with men, he expands her reproductive capability to include the artistic realm, a traditionally masculine space.

In the poem “Condemned Women: Delphine and Hippolyta,” Baudelaire saturates the two women with a dissident sexuality, a way in which he deliberately defines them, refusing to see them as beings apart from their lesbianism:

Stretched calmly at her feet, joyfully satisfied,
Delphine looked up at her with those compelling eyes
Like a strong animal that oversees her prey,
First having taken care to mark it with her teeth.  (ll. 13–16)

But then Hippolyta, lifting her troubled head:
—‘My Delphine, do not think that I repent our love;
I’m not ungrateful, but I suffer in distress
As if I’d been a part of some strange feast at night. (ll. 41–44)

Have we committed then a strange, forbidden act?
Please, if you can, explain my trouble and my fright:
I shake and tremble when you say to me, “my love!”
And still I feel my mouth is yearning at your call. (ll. 49–52)

Here the lesbian Delphine is a kind of predatory monster, corrupting the presumed innocence of Hippolyta, who, though frightened, cannot get enough of Delphine. She is constructed as a one-dimensional sexual being rather than a human being—a corrosive force. Baudelaire thus produces lesbian sexuality as the essence of decadence.

Bradley and Cooper, though they would not consider themselves decadents, were familiar with Baudelaire’s work. Through Michael Field, the two women poets, too, sought to be, like Baudelaire’s Sappho, “male in poetry and love.”

Charles Algernon Swinburne is perhaps Baudelaire’s most well-known English disciple.  Swinburne had, as Catherine Maxwell suggests, a “passionate sense of kinship with Sappho, the classical Greek poet, whom he considered ‘as beyond all question the greatest poet that ever lived’” (Maxwell, xv).  Swinburne follows in Baudelaire’s footsteps. He treats some of the same themes, viewing Baudelaire as rejecting a corrosive, oppressive, and limiting morality and justifying art for art’s sake under almost any circumstance. Like Baudelaire, much of Swinburne’s poetry was poetry of the body, and most scandalously, the lesbian body of Sappho in the poems “Anactoria,” “Sapphics,” and “On the Cliffs.”

The two women poets were also interested in Baudelaire’s other heirs, including Paul Verlaine and Arthur Symons. In 1893, Bradley and Cooper attended a reading of Verlaine’s, heavily attended by women, and were fascinated by the criminal homosexual poet who was accompanied by “his young neophyte Symons” (Field, W&D, 188). Cooper offered a detailed description of Verlaine’s face:

the face of man is his necessity—one cannot forget it, as one looks at Verlaine’s bare-skull line, beautiful in its decisiveness, horrible in its confession; at the tilted eyebrows, the eyes of a Chinese Mephistopheles—only so sad [. . .] at the nose stolen from an Attic grotesque, at the violent mouth [. . .] The skin has the appearance of parchment drawn by fire, and every now and then a smile rises that is full of the innocence of hell (W&D, 189).

Cooper was fascinated by Verlaine’s appearance (and performance), writing, “It is quite delicious” (189). She continues:

Indeed Verlaine is so necessarily criminal that it has done him little harm to fulfill himself, and the religious fervour that is the accompanying ecstasy of sin, grows of it as a reward . . . He sat, his legs stretched out—his vagabondism covered by clean and middle-class garments; he looked like the giant Bohemia brought out to be seen by Philistia, and he was very, very judicious in the choice of his poems . . .  It was such an English scene—Satan in a frock-coat, reading religious poetry and darting pitch-spark glances at company incapable of understanding the tragedies of hell (even the devils believe and tremble) still less bouts of free travel (W&D, 189).

Cooper appreciated the rebellious nature, the danger and daring, that was “the Decadence”—in the figure of Verlaine; a homosexual, criminal poet. Moreover, Verlaine’s Sappho is “a madwoman,” who was “overburdened with the sensationalist literary lesbianism of the day ” (DeJean, Fictions, 275).

Bradley and Cooper had met other decadents—Arthur Symons and Lionel Johnson, through Walter Pater. In his Anthology of ‘Nineties Verse, published in 1928, Symons included ten of Michael Field’s poems—one from Long Ago, “Sweeter far than the Harp, more Gold than Gold” (56). This poem reflects Sappho’s occasional use of the vocabulary of male homoeroticism in her fragments, which according to DeJean reveals the “Sapphic expression of desire and that of the older lover in pederastic relations” (21). This kind of male relationship is the basis for the ideal of spiritual procreation in aesthetic Hellenism. Michael Field’s poem is an example of Sappho’s use of the vocabulary of male homoeroticism within a seemingly heterosexual context in which Sappho crosses gender and identifies with her fellow, though much lesser poet Alceus:4

Thine elder that I am, thou must not cling
To me, nor mournful for my love entreat:
And yet, Alcaeus, as the sudden spring
Is love, yea, and to veiled Demeter sweet.

Sweeter than tone of harp, more gold than gold
Is thy young voice to me; yet, ah, the pain
To learn I am beloved now I am old,
Who, in my youth, loved, as thou must, in vain. (Long Ago, XXX)

The decadent fin-de-siècle poets were not the only influence on Bradley’s and Cooper’s Sapphic verse. In Studies of the Greek Poets John Addington Symonds, a friend of Bradley and Cooper, describes Lesbos as a beautiful and sensual place where conditions were favorable to the development of women’s creativity. He viewed Lesbos as “the island of overmastering passions: the personality of the Greek race burned there with a fierce and steady flame of concentrated feeling” (290). On Lesbian women, including Sappho—who, according to DeJean, Symonds promoted as a “homosexual, feminist Sappho”—he connected the idea of Greek (male) “ideal love” to women (222):

While mixing freely with male society, they were highly educated, and accustomed to express their sentiments to an extent unknown elsewhere in history [. . .] The Lesbian ladies applied themselves successfully to literature. They formed clubs for the cultivation of poetry and music. They studied the arts of beauty [. . .] Unrestrained by public opinion, and passionate for the beautiful, they cultivated their senses and emotions, and indulged their wildest passions. All the luxuries and elegances of life which that climate and the rich valleys of Lesbos could afford, were at their disposal; exquisite gardens, where the cyclamen and violet flowered with feathery maiden hair; pine-tree-shadowed coves, where they might bath in the calm of the tireless sea; fruits such as only the southern sun and sea-wind can mature; marble cliffs, starred with jonquil and anemone in spring, aromatic with myrtle and lentisk and samphire and wild rosemary through all the months; nightingales that sang in May; temples dim with dusky gold and bright with ivory; statues of heroic forms. In such scenes as these the Lesbian poets lived, and thought of Love (291).

This voluptuous world of passion, nature, and art—an environment with few social restraints—conducive to creativity that Virginia Woolf claimed women lacked after Sappho,5 is precisely the kind of world Bradley and Cooper sought to create for themselves. At what was to be their final domicile at 1, The Paragon, in Richmond, they moved into a Georgian house with a luxurious garden that made its way down to the Thames, and created a sanctuary of love, beauty, and art.  Katherine reminisced in a letter years later: “The pards was a detail not carried out; but of thee, O Bacchus, and of Thy ritual, the open landau piled high with Chow and Field and Michael, doves and manuscripts and sacred plants!—all that is US was there; and we drove consciously to Paradise” (Donoghue, 104).

Symonds recommended that Cooper read his Studies of the Greek Poets6 in which he wrote about Sappho with great praise. Symonds privileges Sappho and lesbianism by seriously undermining Ovid’s popular version of Sappho as a lover of Phaon and a suicide: “There is enough of heart-devouring passion in Sappho’s own verse without the legends of Phaon and the cliff of Leucas” (293).

The emergence of a sexually-liberated Sappho and the move of some intelligent women to seriously study Greek (and Latin though the emphasis was on Greek) thus opened up a space for the development of what Yopie Prins calls “Hellenism and feminism,” “the feminine counterdiscourse within the masculine discourses of Victorian Hellenism,” (“Greek Maenads,” 46).  While these women (such as Bradley and Cooper), as Prins argues, appropriated Pater’s work on Dionysus and the Greek maenads to articulate feminine desire and alternative social identities for themselves, the Sappho narrative that became fashionable in the late century provided yet another feminine counterdiscourse for the articulation of female homoerotic desire, specifically, and the meaning of selfhood and authorship for the woman artist.

Long Ago is the outcome of an historical moment: the emergence of Sappho in the late nineteenth century; coinciding with the rise of Greek studies for women. This text represents Bradley’s and Cooper’s own aestheticized and eroticized imaginings of ancient Greece, telling a new story of Sappho, significantly, by two women poets (speaking as a man speaking as Sappho). Michael Field’s Sapphic lyrics lack the exploitive and pornographic nature of the verse by Baudelaire and Swinburne; rather they meditate on the creative power of female sensuality and sexuality while using the discourse of aesthetic “gay” male culture, as it was influenced by Victorian Hellenism, to give expression to their own sexuality.

Michael Field participates in the production of Sapphic fictions that began, in her own words, “a great while since, a long, long time ago” (Long Ago, i). Michael Field treats specific Sapphic themes: heterosexuality through the myth of Phaon and wedding songs, female homosexuality though Sappho’s relationships with various girls and a focus on choruses of maidens, the meaning and representation of desire and women’s bodies, and the relationship among the meaning and representation of virginity, lesbianism, and creativity.

The “Preface” to Long Ago places Sappho in the position of original high priestess of poetry, the model to which all poets should aspire.  Michael Field comments, echoing Wharton, that “Such was her unique renown, that she was called ‘The Poetess,’ just as Homer was ‘The Poet’” (25). The lyric, by implication, is exalted as well, reflecting the views of Bradley’s and Cooper’s peers.  Michael Field’s Sapphic lyrics were thought to embody what is, according to Pater, the height of aesthetic achievement—that all art should aspire to the condition of music.  The “Preface” to Long Ago continues:

When, more than a year ago, I wrote to a literary friend of my attempt to express in English verse the passionate pleasure Dr. Wharton’s book had brought to me, he replied: “That is a delightfully audacious thought—the extension of Sappho’s fragments into lyrics. I can scarcely conceive anything more audacious.” In simple truth all worship that is not idolatry must be audacious; for it involves the blissful apprehension of an ideal; it means the very phrase of Sappho—Devoutly as the fiery-bosomed Greek turned in her anguish to Aphrodite, praying her to accomplish her heart’s desire, I have turned to the one woman who has dared to speak unfalteringly of the fearful mastery of love, and again and again the dumb prayer has risen from my heart— (Preface)

The figure of Sappho functions as the ideal for the two women poets. As a dominant model of Greek learning, Sappho is another means by which the woman artist claims knowledge and cultural authority, an authority, significantly, that is rich in erotic overtones—“She was on all sides regarded as the greatest erotic poet of antiquity,” notes Wharton (38). For Michael Field, then, Sappho serves as the ultimate female precursor who at once provides a female classical inheritance and gives poetic license to break cultural silence about female desire, particularly, though not exclusively, in the form of lesbianism. Bradley and Cooper, through Sappho, honor their own cultural and feminine presence, including a transgressive feminine sexuality, within the Western literary tradition, and through Michael Field oddly figure into the “gay” maleness of that tradition—mostly because of their interest in aestheticism.

In Long Ago, Michael Field begins by projecting Sappho back to ancient Greece where she is constructed as its finest lyric poet. This first poem sets the stage for a return to the sensual, artistic, and beautiful world of the Isle of Lesbos, inhabited by a female choir of muses, evoking a nostalgia for a lost land:

They plaited garlands in their time;
They knew the joy of youth’s sweet prime,
      Quick breath and rapture:
Theirs was the violet-weaving bliss,
And theirs the white, wreathed brow to kiss,
        Kiss and recapture.

They plaited garlands even these;
They learnt Love’s golden mysteries
          Of young Apollo;
The lyre unloosed their souls; they lay
Under the trembling leaves at play,
          Bright dreams to follow.

They plaited garlands—heavenly twine!
They crowned the cup, they drank the wine
           Of youth’s deep pleasure.
Now, lingering for the lyreless god—
Oh, yet, once in their time, they trod
           A choric measure.  (Long Ago, xi)

This poem captures the aesthetic theme of the work put forward by John Gray, who calls Michael Field’s Sappho “the supreme lover of ‘Long Ago’” (Gray, 388). Resonating with Symonds’ lush description of Lesbos, Gray writes:

The theme of the book is the loveliness of visible things—of nature, in that sweet Aeolian land, and of the fair humanity to which this nature was the fitting setting; the overmastering power of the passion; and the struggles of the poet’s soul, irresistibly impelled to seek perfect expression for both: surely a sufficiently ample gamut for the music of any poet. (388)

Moreover, a common feature in both Sappho’s fragments and Long Ago are garlands—garlands “in vase painting,” notes Balmer, was “a common feature of homosexual courtship” (15). 7  Michael Field then has Sappho invoke the Muses to further situate a feminine sensibility, with female homoerotic implications, at the center of cultural authority.

Hither now Muses! leaving golden seats,
      Hither! Forsake the fresh, inspiring wells,
Flee the high mountain lands, the cool retreats
Where in the temperate air your influence dwells,
Leave your sweet haunts of summer sound and rest,
Hither, O maiden choir, and make me blest.    (Long Ago n.p.)

For Michael Field’s Sappho, female homoeroticism is the catalyst for women’s creativity while heterosexuality is the deterrent. In poem VI, Sappho celebrates the beauty, sensuality, and inspiration of Erinna, one of her girls, and possibly a poet:

Erinna, thou art ever fair,
   Not as the young spring flowers,
We who have laurel in our hair—
Eternal youth is ours.
The roses that Pieria’s dew
Hath washed can ne’er decline;
On Orpheus’ tomb at first they grew,
And there the Sacred Nine,
’Mid quivering moonlight, seek the groves
Guarding the minstrel’s tomb;
Each for the poet that she loves
Plucks an immortal bloom.
Soon as my girl’s sweet voice she caught,
Thither Euterpe sped,
And, singing, too a garland wrought
To crown Erinna’s head. 

While the Muses guard Orpheus’ tomb, Euterpe, the Muse of music, is seduced by Erinna’s “sweet voice,” which inspires the divinity to sing and crown Erinna with the coveted garland, which signifies sexuality and creativity, the hallmark of sapphism.

Female erotic ties are linked to creativity and virginity. Virginity becomes a sensual condition associated with same-sex amorosity, and also the source of inspiration and creativity. The loss of Sappho’s virginity puts an end to her sensuality, desire, and longing, which is represented by the separation of Sappho from her maids:

O moon, be fair to me as these
“And my regretful passion ease;
Restore to me my only good,
My maidenhood, my maidenhood!”
She sang: and through the clouded night
An answer came of cruel might—
“To thee I never come again.”
O Sappho, bitter was thy pain!
Then did thy heavy steps retire,
And leave, moon-bathed, the virgin quire.  (XVII, ll. 29–38)

The theme of virginity and women’s creativity, which are both connected to same-sex desire, is further explored in poem xx, as represented by the first and last stanzas:

   I sang to women gathered round;
    Forth from my own heart-springs
  Welled out the passion; of the pain
   I sang if the beloved in vain
     Is sighed for—when
  They stood untouched, as at the sound
     Of unfamiliar things,
   Oh, then my heart turned cold, and then
        I dropt my wings.     

   Or by the white cliff’s cypress mound,
       My music wildly rings;
   I watch the hoar sails on the track
   Of moonlight; they are turning back;
         Night falls; and when
         By maiden-arms to enwound
         Ashore to fisher flings,
         Oh, then my heart turns cold, and then
          I dropt my wings.  (ll. 1–18)

It is the circle of girls, a lesbian community, that fires up Sappho’s passion and serves as her main source of inspiration. Once Sappho’s virginity is lost to Phaon, her poetic talent dries up. Heterosexuality, though often represented as an intense passion throughout the collection, is corrosive to the act of women creating art. In poem xxvi, Sappho happily consorts with her “virgin train” in a feminized world of desire, creativity, and nature:

   Not Gello’s self loves more than I
      The virgin train, my company.
   No thought of Eros doth appal
   Their cheeks; their strong, clear eyes let fall
   No tears; they dream their days will be
   All laughter, love, serenity
   And violet-weaving at my knee—   (ll. 1–7)

Michael Field, through Sappho, locates the longing and desire within Hellenism in constructions of female homoeroticism. A number of poems in Long Ago aestheticize and eroticize the female body by celebrating its physicality. Often the emphasis is on images of the breast, which are, in a conventional “male” poetic way, as Chris White proposes, “used repeatedly to represent feminine beauty and desirability” (76):

   Lift, lover, thy long-shadowed eyne!
       Why should thy sleepless lids decline,
   Thy breast so deeply sigh?
  Seek we the shade of yonder pine,
        ‘Neath which the river flows;
   There we the sweet flower-test will try
              For healing of thy woes.  (XXIII, ll. 1–7)

In another poem Tiresias addresses Hera:

Deep-bosomed Queen fain would’st thou hide
The mystic raptures of the bride!  (LII, ll. 39– 40)

In poem lxiii, Sappho invokes Aphrodite (Cypris) to make Anactoria return her love to her so that her poetic gift will be restored, as shown by the first and last stanzas:

    Grow vocal to me, O my shell divine!
         I cannot rest;
     Not so doth Cypris pine
     To raise her love to her undinted breast
     When sun first warms the earth, as I require,
     To roll the heavy death from my recumbent.  (ll. 1–6)

     Apollo, Dionysus passes by,
          Adonis wakes,
      Zephyr and Chloris sigh:
      To me, alas, my lyre no music makes,
      Though tortured, fluttering toward the stride
      Mad as for Anactoria’s lovely laugh and sigh.   (ll. 19–24)

In poem xxxv, Michael Field’s Sappho constructs a higher eros through the erotic gaze of woman (or women) upon woman, producing a female parallel to the heroic ideal of Greek paiderastia. Sappho gazes upon Gorgo, who is admiring a ring on her finger, possibly given to her by a male suitor:

    Come, Gorgo, put the rug in place,
            And passionate recline;
     I love to see thy grace;
    Dark, virulent, divine.
     But wherefore thus thy proud eyes fix
             Upon a jeweled band?
   Art thou so glad, the sardonyx
            Becomes thy shapely hand?

   Bethink thee! ’Tis for such as thou
            Zeus leaves his lofty seat;
   ’Tis at thy beauty’s bidding bow
            Man’s mortal life shall fleet;
    Those fair hands—dost thou forget
            Their power to thrill and cling?
    O foolish woman, dost thou set
            Thy pride upon a ring?  

Sappho competes with Zeus as well as the ring for Gorgo’s love and attention. She then makes a point of reminding her lover of a thrilling sexual encounter they had once had, which underscores Sappho’s longing and desire for her own sex.

In poem xxvii, Sappho enjoys an eyeful of Mnasidica for whom she also longs and desires:

   But when Mnasidica doth raise
   Her arm to feed the lamp I gaze
      Glad at thy lovely curve;
   And when her pitcher at the spring
      She fills, I watch her tresses swerve
       And drip, then pause to see her wring
       Her hair, and back the bright drops fling.   (ll. 1–7)

    And now she leaves my maiden train!
     Those whom I love most give me pain:
         Why should I love her so?
           Gyrinna hath a gentle face,
     And the harmonious soul, I know,
          Not very long can lack the trace,
        O Aphrodite, of thy grace.     (ll. 22–28)

Constructions of desire and longing in Michael Field’s Long Ago produce a female transformative power that all but eliminates the common associations of female sexuality with pregnancy and motherhood. Bradley and Cooper thus are free to pursue the reproduction of art in the fashion of the male homosexual aesthetes. Lesbianism becomes, in Gubar’s words, “the preferred eroticism” (51) on a par with the privileging of male homosexuality by Pater and Wilde.

Within the context of aesthetic Hellenism, the two women poets in this volume of Sapphic lyrics interpret, imitate, and rewrite Sappho, to help produce themselves as a poet, as well as produce a place—their poetry—to put their own erotic energy. With Long Ago, the male poetic identity “Michael Field” becomes a site of the modern androgynous imagination that combines the ultimate in a feminine poetic consciousness with a masculine other self. Moreover, Michael Field could find a place in the context of the modernist female literary communities inspired by Sappho that flourished in the early twentieth century in France and England.

Elizabeth A. Primamore

1 There is a difference, in my view, between sapphism and lesbianism, though the two terms seem easily interchangeable. The terms sapphism or sapphic, deriving from cultural constructions of the character and poetics of the figure of Sappho, refer to a model of creativity in which female homoerotic desire hinges on, and is embedded in, mutual artistic inspiration in female relationships that may or may not include sexual practice. Lesbianism is a sexual category that refers solely to feminine sexual attraction to the same sex and sexual (and emotional) activity between women. I use the terms lesbianism or lesbian when I want to emphasize the sexual in a person, work, or relationship even if a creative aspect is apparent in female friendships.
2  I am referring to Michael Field as a “her” because a strong, feminine Greek presence, the figure of Sappho, dominates the collection Long Ago.
3 For a history of representations of Sappho in nineteenth century women’s poetry and prose see Margaret Reynolds’s “‘I lived for art, I lived for love:’ The Woman Poet Sings Sappho’s Last Song;” and Angela Leighton’s Victorian Women Poets: Writing Against the Heart. These representations include ideas of Sappho as the female embodiment of a brooding Byronic hero and a doomed, self-destructive, heart-broken female poet. Joan DeJean’s landmark text, Fictions of Sappho 1546–1937, focuses on Sappho and the French literary tradition. She delineates the ways in which Sappho has been imagined by different interpreters and writers at various times in history.
4 “Besides Sappho, Alcaeus pales” writes Symonds in Studies of Greek Poets, 294.
5 See Gubar’s “Sapphistries” (45) for a discussion of Woolf’s public argument about women, writing, and social conditions with Desmond MacCarthy, who published a newspaper article claiming that women have produced little poetry of substance since Sappho.
6 See Angela Leighton’s Victorian Women Poets: Writing Against the Heart (210), and Margaret Reynolds, The Sappho History (193).
7See also Jane McIntosh Snyder’s Lesbian Desire in the Lyrics of Sappho, passim.

Works Cited

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