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“Michael Field’s “New Woman” Epithalamia of Long Ago

By Pearl Chaozon Bauer.

The poetry and fascinating biographies of Katharine Bradley (1846-1914) and Edith Cooper (1862-1913) drew scholarly interest during the 1990s and early 2000s. With New Woman sensibilities, they were aunt and niece lovers who wrote collaboratively under the pseudonym of “Michael Field,” and they left behind eight volumes of poetry, twenty-seven plays, and thirty-six foolscap volumes of their joint journal, Works and Days. Michael Field scholars have written extensively about the women’s collaborative output.1 While many have argued that this collaboration strengthened the legitimacy of their poetic authority,2 in this article I extend those arguments and analyze how this collaborative poetic authority echoes the New Woman cultural discourse that dominated the late-nineteenth century. In particular, I examine the marriage poems in Long Ago (1889) through this lens to argue that Bradley and Cooper revise epithalamic expectations to privilege maidenhood and female companionship over patriarchal, heterosexual marriage. The epithalamium, literally meaning “at the nuptial chamber,” is part of the lyric genre written to celebrate the institution of marriage. 3  Typically, marriage celebration poems praise the beauty and virtues of the bride and groom in anticipation of their offspring. They are poems built on hope for progeny, upon which the prosperity of the bride and groom’s community rests.  Yet in the epithalamia of Long Ago, Michael Field rewrites a history that is based not on the oppositional relationship between brides and grooms but on kinship association between women. 

At the turn of the century, Bradley and Cooper’s collaborative writing as Michael Field challenged the dominant discourses of authority within poetic spaces.  While many Michael Field scholars have discussed the male, singular pen name as a strategic act to combat patriarchy, I will demonstrate how Bradley and Cooper’s proto-feminist or anti-patriarchal approach is specific to the time of New Woman politics.  They are “daughters of Daphne” (486) to borrow Linda Hughes’ term to describe New Women poets who address the marriage question by initiating, developing, and sustaining fin-de-siècle debates on marriage.  Bradley and Cooper’s decision to legitimize their poetic authority through a male pseudonym reflected the social, political, educational, and economic values of the New Woman, a phrase that Sarah Grand, the pseudonym of Frances Elizabeth Clarke McFall (1854-1943), coined in the March 1894 North American Review essay titled “The New Aspect of the Woman Question.” As exemplars of the New Woman, Bradley and Cooper believed in their right to use their male pseudonym even after the secret of their pseudonym became public knowledge. 4 In this regard, the pseudonym acts as more than a disguise and became a way for Bradley and Cooper to escape the conventional route of marriage and societal conventions that trapped many Victorian women. 5 In fact, they believed that it was through the dual authorship of Michael Field that they could speak out as “free … dramatists” emancipated from “drawing-room conventions” (Works and Days 7). 6 Tied to this writing is power, and without their persona of Michael Field, they feared that they would no longer be seen authoritatively or claim either respected opinion or acknowledged expertise.  Jane Rendall suggests that in the late-nineteenth century, there were few possible routes for women excluded from the world of authority and activity to claim equality. 7 For Bradley and Cooper, the writings of Michael Field became their way of challenging male rule.

The “New Woman” Epithalamia of Long Ago

Bradley and Cooper began their poetic career by emphasizing that their lyrical authority harks back to its Greek ancestry.  In 1889, Michael Field published their first book of lyric poetry, Long Ago; they extended 68 of Sappho’s fragments, as translated by Henry Thornton Wharton, into complete poems. 8 Of the 68 verses, 10 begin with Sapphic fragments categorized under Wharton’s “Section VIII: Epithalamia, Bridal Songs”: poems 3, 5, 17, 38, 42, 46, 47, 53, 55, 57. 9 Poems 22 and 54 are also epithalamic in nature, though the fragments that begin these poems are categorized under “Section 1: In Sapphic Metre.” 10 Most of the poems are narrated by Sappho, although the voice is Michael Field's (the combined voices of Bradley and Cooper).  By turning to Wharton’s Sappho as a poetic figure of authority, they chose to authorize their text with a woman who has long been a powerful figure for the poetic imagination.  Because Sappho suggests anything but unity or coherence, writing as Sappho becomes a fluid, ever-shifting literary performance that expands the Sapphic lyrical “I” voice to include three: Bradley, Cooper, and Michael Field. 

It was a bold move that countered early nineteenth-century understanding of the lyric genre.  The concept of lyric with which Victorians frequently identified was “developed in the later eighteenth century, which defined lyric in terms of heightened emotion and authentic sentiment, and presented it as a (usually brief) moment of intensified awareness” (Brewster 1-2). 11 M. H. Abrams asserts that it is at this moment when the lyric trumped the epic and tragedy as the single most important form of poetry (84).  Abrams defines this Romantic lyric as poetry which “consists of thoughts and feelings uttered in the first person, and the one readily available character to whom these sentiments may be referred is the poet himself” (85).  Michael Field’s lyrics constantly resist the Romantic monologic voice.  Contrary to Romantic notions of solitary authorship, Michael Field is a conscious performance of singular male authorship that solidifies the women’s poetic authority at a time when the New Woman was resisting limits set by a male-dominated society.

Michael Field’s lyric poetry exposes the illusion of the personal “I” voice to strengthen Bradley and Cooper’s collaborative poetics.  Following the logic of Mutlu Blasing’s argument that lyric language resists the will of an individual, the “I” in a lyric poem is never simply an “I,” because the poem’s materiality resists its individuated speaker. 12 Its linguistic code always moves beyond oneness, and it is this materiality that provides Michael Field access to a lyric voice that is not 1 but 1+.  Doing so returns them to a pre-Romantic concept of the lyric, one that dates back to as early as eighth century BCE.  In the context of Greek Panhellenic festivals, lyric poetry was performed by kitharōidoi (lyre singers) and aulōidoi (reed singers). The point is that the lyric voice was almost always recited by a group of singers, orating as one.

Other Victorian poets worked against Romantic subjectivity and its preoccupation with the self.  Marion Thain’s chapter on Victorian lyrics in The Lyric Poem: Formations and Transformations commences with John Addington Symond’s meditation on the multiplicity of the lyric form in nineteenth-century England.  In his 1889 essay “A Comparison of Elizabethan with Victorian Poetry,” Symonds declares:

But what a complex thing is this Victorian lyric! It includes Wordsworth’s sonnets and Rossetti’s ballads, Coleridge’s “Ancient Mariner” and Keats’ odes, Clough’s “Easter Day” and Tennyson’s “Maud,” Swinburne’s “Songs Dreadful Night” and Mary Robinson’s “Handful of Honeysuckles,” Andrew Lang’s Ballades and Sharp’s “Weird of Michael Scot,” Dobson’s dealings with the eighteenth century and Noel’s “Child’s Garland,” Barnes’s Dorsetshire Poems and Buchanan’s London Lyrics, the songs from Emedocles on Etna and Ebenezer Jones’s “Pagan’s Drinking Chaunt,” Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” and Mrs Browning’s “Pan is Dead,” Newman’s hymns and Gosse’s “Chaunt Royal.” The Kaleidoscope presented by this lyric is so inexhaustible. (qtd. in Thain 157-58)

Many of the poems to which Symonds alludes were written during the Romantic period, yet Thain notes that most evident here is how the lyric had encompassed a variety of forms and modes by the end of the nineteenth century (158).  Bradley and Cooper’s Sapphic lyrics, published in the same year as Symond’s essay, elucidate the multiplicity of the lyric genre, made more explicit because of the inherent fragmentary nature of Sappho’s texts.  Their comment on Sapphic authorship in the preface to Long Ago explains this further:

When more than a year ago, I wrote to a literary friend of my attempt to express in English the passionate pleasure Dr. Wharton’s book had brought to me, he replied: “This 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 in the very phrase of Sappho—‘Εγων δ ἐμαύτᾳ τοῦτο σύνοιδα [And this I feel in myself].'

The extension of Sappho’s fragments into lyrics is “delightfully audacious” because of its transgressive possibilities: like their use of the male pseudonym, Bradley and Cooper’s imitation and extension of Sappho’s fragments violates boundaries of gender, genre, sexuality, and authorship, as well as aesthetic qualities of unity and wholeness.  They speak of this transgression as “the blissful apprehension of an ideal” which they connect to the Sapphic fragment, "Εγων δ ἐμαύτᾳ τοῦτο σύνοιδα [And this I feel in myself]."   In “Sappho Doubled: Michael Field,” Yopie Prins posits that this epigraph underscores the “contradictory authorship of the entire volume” (183).  Ironically, Bradley and Cooper turn to Sappho, who is known as the first woman poet, to emphasize multiplicity rather than singularity.  Indeed, Sappho’s voice is a strong singular, agential voice, yet this very contradiction calls to light the constructive nature of Sappho’s texts: no one and everyone can write Sappho.  Just as anyone can pick up Sappho’s voice, more than one person can speak through Sappho at one given time.  In this regard, the transgressive qualities of Sappho’s voice and fragments help the co-authors find new ways to engender the lyric genre as one which allows space for multiplicity. 13

In writing Long Ago, Bradley and Cooper add Sappho’s voice to their collaboration not only to gain back the authority they may have previously lost, but more importantly to sidestep patriarchal literary traditions and build their own. 14 As an historical and literary figure, Sappho helps Bradley and Cooper revise the kind of history they are writing for the future they wish to live. 15   Through the integration of Sappho’s voice, they engender a new kind of marriage poem where neither language nor structure traps them into patriarchal standards. Prins has already discussed the complication that Sappho’s voice adds to this text; however, this article focuses on what the multi-layered voices in Long Ago say about marriage poems written during discourses on the New Woman.  Despite never identifying with the New Woman, Bradley and Cooper’s commitment to non-heterosexual marriage parallels New Woman politics, which fought against moral and economic double standards that were currently imposed upon women.   In “Daughters of Danaus and Daphne,” Hughes posits that constraints on poetic careers, academic study of separate genres, or the women’s own desire to be recognized as poets rather than propagandists are some reasons why poets such as Michael Field were not previously recognized as New Woman writers (491).  The double-standard of marriage was a heated debate in New Woman texts because a nineteenth-century wife was legally classified as a person only through her spouse, a political and economic extension of her husband.  As Shanley notes, the Married Women’s Property Act passed in 1882, before the publication of Long Ago; nevertheless, the poems are a legacy of coverture, in which a nineteenth-century wife effectively had no rights. 16 Marriage, therefore, amounted to a kind of legal death for a wife; she continued to be socially invisible long after the law regarding property had changed (Poovey 52).  New Woman works often advocate for the legal reform of the position of women, both single and married; in Long Ago Bradley and Cooper do this by revising the epithalamium genre to promote maidenhood and female companionship over patriarchal, heterosexual marriage.

In Bradley and Cooper’s personal lives, they did not need the legal sanction of the government to be married; their performance as Michael Field enacted their marital state.  They not only considered themselves as writing partners but identified as a married couple. 17 Bradley famously compared her relationship with Cooper to Robert and Elizabeth Browning’s marriage, writing that “those two poets, man and wife, wrote alone; each wrote, but did not bless or quicken one another at their work; we are closer married” (Works and Days 16; original emphasis).  They see themselves as “closer married” than the Brownings because their union grew from and produced collaborative writing.  The word “quicken” alludes to pregnancy but, of course, their act of writing produces a different kind of progeny—not of blood but of artistic production.  It is the kind of progeny that Luce Irigaray has referred to as “the advent of new fertile regions as yet unwitnessed” (165). 18 Michael Field’s creation of a new poetics sidesteps Victorian women’s pressure to reproduce.  The women opt for artistic reproduction as a way to breach these physical restraints put upon women.

While social forms like marriage and childbirth are often connected to the success of a future community, in Michael Field’s Long Ago grand narratives of continuity are connected to female companionship and non-marital forms of kinship.  The poems of Long Ago track the movement of a group of women and their relationship to love: the different women from the different poems are all bound by the same volume and by the same speaker, yet they are separated from each other by their individual poems, where most of them remain nameless.  Even though some characters reappear in other poems, they have no overarching plot.  The poems are numbered chronologically but they do not make sense in relation to the narratives within the poems.  Instead, their stories are woven together by Sappho who, in the second preface to Long Ago, has invoked the muses and the maiden choir to bless her forthcoming volume.  This maiden choir becomes a metaphor for the joint writing of Bradley and Cooper, of Michael Field, of Sappho, and of the company of women whose lives the poems relate.  Their combined voices become the central voice that shines through the poems of Long Ago, and the songs they sing about love and loss, joy and heartache, marriage and separation are intertwined into one volume.  Furthermore, Long Ago’s marriage poems encourage female companionship and kinship over male love.

The opening poem sets up the interweaving storyline by its introduction of the charming maidens who plaited garlands. 19 All action verbs are in the past tense except for the third to the last line, which is in the present: “Now, lingering for the lyreless god” (line 16).  The gap between then and “now” emphasizes that the maidens’ past is lost in their current “lyreless” present.  It was only “once in their time” that “they trod / A choric measure” (lines 17-18); now that they are no longer in a community, they long to produce something that they cannot.  Certainly, the poem is about loss of youthful innocence and, more specifically, about the loss of female comradery.  Yet, it is also a New Woman critique of women’s identity within Victorian marriage that refuses to naturalize (to cite, to repeat, or to appropriate) societal expectations of gender, sex, authorship, and labor.  Preferring a chorus of voices speaks to the expansion of the lyric “I” that includes the many voices that make up this “choric measure.”  And in the act of narrating the poem, Sappho weaves their stories in a way much like the women’s act of garlanding, and through this act, their voice is no longer lost: they speak through Sappho, through Michael Field, through Bradley and Cooper. 20

In the following sections, I group the epithalamia of Long Ago thematically and discuss their subjects and speakers in relation to the lyric genre itself.

The Brides of Long Ago

In poems 42 and 47, Sappho takes on the epithalamic master of ceremonies role; in marriage poems, this narrator typically directs the bride to leave her home so she may begin her life with the groom. In both of these poems, the brides are voiceless, and the master of ceremonies speaks on their behalf.  The assumption is that the master of ceremonies of poems 42 and 47 is gendered male.  As a “he,” the speaker commands the brides to abandon the private world of maidenhood for the public world of performing wifely duties; nevertheless, their genders are never explicitly stated in these poems.  Even though the epithalamic master of ceremonies controls the brides’ physical and sexual awakening within the obligatory frame of reproductive heterosexuality, mimicking the role that their future husbands will take upon their marriage, the master of ceremonies could very well be a “she” rather than a “he,” especially because Sappho is the narrator of both poems.

In these marriage poems, Bradley and Cooper as Michael Field, as Sappho as master of ceremonies, complicate the gendered relationship between the speaker and the brides.  “He,” as Michael Field as the master of ceremonies is supposed to act as a panderer to the brides—as subjects he dominates and silences—to their grooms for procreative expectations.  Yet, “she” as Bradley and Cooper, as Sappho, undermines this gendered stability.  Even though the epithalamium genre attempts to instill heterosexual norms, by virtue of the vital instability of gender, as shown implicitly through the master of ceremonies role, the gender signification inscribed upon the epithalamium form is prone to failure.  Even though epithalamic conventions such as the master of ceremonies have been used as a way to regulate reproductive heterosexuality, this convention merely exposes the attempts as performative, thereby rendering the fictive aspects of heterosexuality.

The repetition in poems 42 and 47 marks this performativity.  Poem 42 iterates “She comes” in all stanzas except one; poem 47 repeats “no other girl” in the first two stanzas of the poem until the concluding stanza revises the fragment to “there is none like her” (line 31).  The slight change in both poems signals difference.  In poem 42, Michael Field problematizes the masterful husband-dutiful wife dynamic while poem 47 celebrates maidenhood and female companionship over marriage. 

In poem 42, the addresser-addressee relationship between master of ceremonies and groom renders not only the bride but also the groom silent.  More specifically, the master of ceremonies repeatedly orders the groom toward the bride, thereby reversing the expectation that the wife must go to her husband.  In stanza 1, for example, the master of ceremonies insists that the groom “let her see / [his] brave felicity” (lines 5-6); in stanza 7, the insistence turns into an imperative order:

Be in her mirth a sharer! ,
For it were shame
If thou, through fear, wert slow
Thine ecstasy to show. (lines 39-42)

The command concludes with a warning, one that paints a bridegroom that shows fear rather than valor.  In the last stanza, rather than lead the bride to the groom, the master of ceremonies calls the groom to respond to the bride.  But because the reader never hears the groom’s voice, it is unclear whether the groom and bride find their place in front of the altar.

In poem 47, line 15 recalls Sappho’s most famous epithalamic fragment that compares a maiden to an apple beyond reach “on the topmost bough;” despite the poem’s claims that the bride is for the groom, however, she is inaccessible, “undescried”, and “inviolate.”  The clichéd conventions take on another meaning when read within the framework of fin-de-siècle marriage debates.  As a woman too ideal to be a real individual, the bride remains untouchable, never to be grasped and only to be gazed at—“And bridegroom, see!”(line 32)—, much like the Sapphic fragments themselves.  Although the poem is a second-person address to the groom, he exists only to be invoked, and the very structure of the invocation renders him absent.  The apostrophe “O bridegroom” affirms this absence, and the apostrophe's repetition in the final stanza renders him silent as well. 21 The poem commands him to look at the bride, while she honors Hera and while Sappho gazes at her.  The relationship between bride, Hera, and Sappho recalls the layers of voice and authorship that Long Ago is built upon. 

Even though it appears that the poem enacts the Victorian ideology of marriage, the reverse is true.  Here, the groom is defined only in relation to the bride, but she exists both within and beyond their pairing. 22 In the concluding stanza, the bride “turns to [the bridegroom]” to become "[his] girl, [his] own” (lines 31-34); yet, she is also Sappho’s “eve’s fairest star” (line 36) and the power lies upon Sappho’s watchful eyes and not upon the groom’s.  The poem concludes with the bridegroom and the bride surrounded as well as separated by Hera and Sappho:

          There is none like her, like thy girl, thine own;
And bridegroom, see!
Honouring Hera of the silver throne,
She turns to thee.
Sappho, with solitary eyes, afar
Will watch the rising of eve’s fairest star. (lines 31-36)

The girl is suspended in a state of in-between.  She does not belong to the bridegroom nor does she remain part of Sappho’s domain—Sappho is a solitary figure who watches her from afar.  This poem has rewritten Sappho as New Woman; it is a space for inverting the subordination of the feminine to the masculine to challenge gender inequity in nineteenth-century marital structures.

The Bridegrooms of Long Ago

In Michael Field’s two epithalamia about bridegrooms (poems 38 and 53), the reluctant bride motif is given a makeover, and it is the men who are portrayed as cautious about love.  At first glance, both poems appear simply to repeat epithalamic conventions that praise the bridegroom.  On closer analysis, the first describes a reluctant bridegroom while the second portrays love negatively.  In poem 53, the master of ceremonies uses similes from nature and comparisons to mythological beings that compliment the bridegroom; in his addresses to the groom, he also prepares him for his bride-to-be. However, in line 18, the master of ceremonies asks: “why wilt thou delay?”  It is usually the bride of an epithalamium who hesitates and is reluctant to give up her maidenhood.  This line, which could easily be overlooked in the 24 lines of standard similes and comparisons, inverts the expected and continues to question the husband-wife hierarchy.  It ends with the master of ceremonies still coaxing the bridegroom to the bride, leaving the heterosexual coupling at a standstill. 

In poem 38, the bridegroom who “towers ‘mong men of other lands” (line 1) is Terpander of Antissa in Lesbos, the Greek poet and musical performer who lived about the first half of the seventh century BCE.  But rather than emphasize love’s pleasures, this epithalamium portrays the lover’s anguish.  To describe Terpander, the master of ceremonies shares his heartache: “He knew the pang of dumb desire” (line 5) and “Terpander, who from man hath ta’en / Passion’s unextricated pain” (lines 7-8).  This master of ceremonies reiterates what the narrators of poems 5 and 46 focus on: rather than speak of love and marriage positively, Sappho narrates painful experiences with love.

In fact, poems 38, 5, and 46 are echoes of each other: even though they begin with epithalamic fragments, they are not epithalamic in nature, for there is no mention of a wedding and what they emphasize is despair. 23 For example, in poem 5, Sappho compares herself to the hyacinth darkening on the ground after being trampled by shepherds. 24 The poem becomes an address to Phaon, a potential but “failed” marriage partner, rather than to young virgins or grooms-to-be.  In poem 46, Sappho attempts to encourage the anonymous addressee to feel “the stroke / Of love” (lines 34-35), though very much half-heartedly.  And in poem 38, the narrator’s consistent experiences with failed heterosexual love influence her to narrate an epithalamium that concludes with a testament to the way Terpander understands pain. The concluding line, which leaves him alone reigning over his race, stresses his loneliness over his future as a married man with children.

Heterosexual coupling, family, or marriage are narratives of belonging, yet, these epithalamic poems are narratives about separation and desolation.  Michael Field’s continuous turn to repetitions and reversals actually marks moments of resistance: because these bridegroom poems begin by following epithalamic fragments and conventions, diversions from them emphasizes Michael Field’s refusal to stabilize the kind of New Woman epithalamia they produce.  In depriving the bride and bridegroom of their happily-ever-after, Bradley and Cooper echo other New Woman writing that disrupts a teleological narrative that ends in marriage. 

The Master of Ceremonies Speaks

In poems 17 and 57, Sappho as narrator does not perform the master of ceremonies role of bringing virgin to boy; instead, she shares her own experiences as a past maiden, complicating the gendering of the master of ceremonies role.  In both poems, Sappho speaks as a “she” who yearns for a return to her maiden state, before a previously gendered male master of ceremonies could have persuaded her to give that up.  In fact, both poems parallel the epithalamic fragment “A. Maidenhood, maidenhood, whither art thou gone from me? / B. Never again will I come to thee, never again” with non-epithalamic fragments. 25 The result adds nuance to Michael Field’s own re-envisioning of the epithalamium genre as one that highlights how the virginal state is “that most blessed secret state /  That makes the tenderest maiden great” (17. 27-28).

In poem 17, Michael Field juxtaposes the “maidenhood” fragment with a fragment from Wharton’s “Section V: In Choriambic Metre” to foreground New Woman solidarity among women.  Most of the fragments from this category focus on a Sapphic choir; in the case of poem 17, Michael Field contrasts “the virgin quire” (line 38), who sing and dance under the full moon, with Sappho, who longs for the return of her maidenhood. 26 She remains separated from the maidens, and unable to join the privileged state of women whose “lips were blanched” (line 16) in “sacred worship” (line 17) of their maidenhood. 27 Because “quire” also means book or booklet, Michael Field’s use of this word emphasizes the poem’s interest in voice, in writing, and in literary progeny.

This epithalamium is unlike the others because it presents three different voices: those of Sappho, Sappho’s maidenhead, and Michael Field.  A dash often indicates a break in the thought or structure of a sentence, but the poem’s three dashes designate voice.  They “break” silence alarmingly, calling attention to Sappho’s desperate cries.  The first two dashes in line 21 and line 22 indicate Sappho’s address to the skies: she shares her longing for the virginal state that provides the most freedom and joy (line 26).  The third dash announces the voice of her maidenhood, a short quip that repeats the Sapphic fragment on which this poem is based: “To thee I never come again” (line 35). 

This multiplicity of voices queers the poem’s temporality.  The present scene is presumably the choir of virgins dancing under the full orb, yet Michael Field uses the past tense to describe the scene.  It is only Sappho’s address to her maidenhood, and the maidenhood’s response, that remain in present tense; descriptors are all in the past.  This flipping between past and present not only contrasts what is lost, in the past, to what can never be, in the present; it also destabilizes the logical sequence of time to re-envision a different kind of time as well as history.

Curiously, neither Sappho nor the maidenhead’s voice is heard again; instead, Michael Field’s voice concludes this epithalamium.  It is an interesting moment, since Michael Field rarely breaks from casting Sappho as the narrator of Long Ago.  Yet, "he" speaks to her in a second-person address, ushering her to the exit of the scene with “heavy steps” (line 37).  Through a multi-layering of voices, Bradley and Cooper complicate the gender and voice expectations of this genre.  Presumably, Sappho as master of ceremonies would have the authority to speak; however, in this poem, the gendered female master of ceremonies is cast aside, never to be heard from again.  Instead, the poem comes to be narrated by its gendered male writer Michael Field.  At the same time, the gender of this voice is never explicitly stated, and in remaining ambiguous, Bradley and Cooper avoid the epithalamic trap of silencing the female by giving the male voice authority over the woman.

Poem 57 commences with a Sappho whose “shell is mute” (line 1): her lyre refuses to share its secrets, and thus, remains silent to her ears.  The fragment that begins poem 57 is “And thou thyself, Calliope.”  Because Apollo refuses to listen to her prayers, Sappho has sought “O mother muse” for help.  Even though the fragment that Michael Field chose to include is about Calliope, the muse who presides over eloquence and epic poetry, the “mother muse” to whom this lyric is addressed, is Clio, the muse of history and of lyre playing. 28 This is a Clio whom “Love’s tender, human ways” (line 11) have greatly saddened.  As this Sapphic fragment foreshadows, for both Sappho and Clio, maidenhood “would never come again” (line 21).

The repetition of threes reappears in poem 57, not with dashes but with Wharton’s translation of Sappho’s epithalamic fragment.  In the fragment’s first occurrence, Michael Field alters the syntax of Wharton’s translation into “my maidenhood, my maidenhood is gone” (line 7). The second time alters the pronoun “my” to “thy” as a reference to Clio’s non-virginal state, combining fragments A and B so that the latter half of the fragment changes “is gone” into the conditional tense “would never come again” (line 21).  The third time alters the pronouns again, but this time from “thy” to “our” with a return to the first incarnation of the fragment: “our maidenhood, our maidenhood is gone” (line 56).  This mimicking implies that even this state of loss is never quite the same, for one can never hold onto the past. The change into the conditional tense underscores that time has passed from the past to the present.  The final stanza reverses the expected sequence of time: the future is placed before the present.

  The blowing Hours of thy still form afraid
Bring thee no more the branch, the vine, the blade;
They love the hands that smite
The full-stringed barbiton
That we may never touch again aright:
No living creature may we move delight;
Our maidenhood, our maidenhood is gone. (lines 50-56)

Even though the present tense in the last line attempts to ensure that their current state of loss will provide a less than perfect future for both Sappho and her mother muse, the future tense in the preceding lines complicates the past by foregrounding it in the future.  It is a revisionary practice of history that points to a non-linear temporality: non-sequential forms of time fold Sappho and Clio into structures of belonging, which include as well as exclude the other women from Long Ago.

Sappho as narrator voices another kind of truth in poem 22.  The poem re-genders the epithalamium genre because the focus is not on a wedding but on the master of ceremonies herself.  She is not gendered male but speaks as an older woman, reminiscing about her past role as the maker of marriages.  Wharton’s Sapphic fragment, “who gave me their gifts, they honour me,” has been transposed as “They bring me gifts, they honour me.” 29 The referent “they” is not clear, and in the last stanza, “they” turns into a second-person address, though the “ye” referent is ambiguous.

Oppositions yet again structure this poem, from young to old, from bride to groom, from boy to girl, from maid to lover, and from wisdom to foolishness.  The closing stanza sheds light on how to read the first five stanzas.  Whereas Sappho as narrator appears to give a straightforward account of her reminiscence as the one who had urged “the tender, blushing bride” (line 13) to her “noble bridegroom” (line 15), or the one who has assuaged “the doubting boy” (line 16) of his love for his mate, the hypothetical sentences that close the poem clue the reader into the narrator’s truth, that which is contrasted with “love’s very truth” (line 9).  It is only when her soul sings freely that she can share honestly: “It is that once I stood, as ye, / Dumb in youth’s golden clime” (lines 29-30).  The separation of “as ye” by way of commas makes her statement more forceful, slowing down its reading to emphasize the narrator’s real sentiments. 

Overhanging the repeated phrase “Our maidenhood, our maidenhood is gone” is death, and while death appears to be connected to the temporality of mortality which appears seemingly linear as part of the passage of time, the endless repetition of the lines refuses this metaphorical death.  Countering this linearity is the womanly reproduction of life tied to the multiplicity of bodies that occupy the pages of Long Ago.  For much like the other New Woman epithalamia of Long Ago, these poems highlight that progeny is not necessarily tied to womanly reproduction but to a multiplicity of female bodies, to poetry, and to writing.  In Michael Field’s volume, Sappho is linked to mothers, to daughters, to grandmothers, to maidens, to men, to lovers, and to art.  In these wedding poems, female social relationships are just as important as relationships with males that can result in blood relations.  One can produce without a reciprocal subject via voice, language, and words on the page.  It is for this reason that the epithalamia in Long Ago connect losing one’s virginal state to sadness.  Like the maidens of poem 1 who plait garlands, women are only able to produce during their most pure states.  In these terms, Michael Field’s version of Sappho is impure because she gave herself away to Phaon; however, her connection to women allows her to speak and narrate their (and his/her) stories, weaving them together for the future generation to come.  This, in fact, is the progeny that Michael Field as Sappho leaves behind.  Like other New Woman writing that finds marriage as an insufficient future for women, these poems promote female companionship and domesticity over entering the public space of love and marriage. 

The Bride Speaks Truthfully

In the same way that poem 22 gives voice to the unspoken experiences of the master of ceremonies, poem 3 appears to give voice to one who does not usually speak in an epithalamium: the bride.  The Sapphic fragment “neither honey nor bee for me” is taken from Wharton’s fragment 113.  According to him, these “seem to be the words of the bride.” 30 In the epithalamium genre, the brides’ voices have gotten lost over the years because the repeated convention has been to silence them.  Because the genre has become used, over time, to celebrate patriarchal, heterosexual marriage, these voices have been muted so brides do not share their anxieties about marriage.  

If it is the bride speaking, the three different yet similar ways in which Michael Field translates Wharton’s fragment provide an insight into a bride’s fluctuating feelings about marriage.  In the first instance, “Oh, not the honey, nor the bee!” (line 1), the commas slow down the bride’s voice, alluding to her hesitation to taste the lips of a husband. 31  The second time the fragment is repeated in line 9, he keeps three words of the bride and the exclamation point: “Honey nor bee!”  The tone is more affirmative, and the bride appears to confidently push away both honey and bee.  Line 14 emphasizes this assertion, for the bride flings the “fiery circlets down; / The joys o’er which bees murmur deep” (lines 14-15).  It was tradition in some cultures to give a newly married bride a mixture of milk and honey, with poppies in it, to drink when brought home to her husband.  It is perhaps this concoction of “poppy-wreath” and “violet crown” (line 13) that the bride pushes away, for good reasons.  In the final stanza, only one word from the fragment remains, “Honey!”  Unable to express what could be articulated, the bride uses fewer words as the poem progresses.

But is it really the bride who speaks?  Because the speaker remains anonymous, it is uncertain whether this is the voice of a bride.  There is no mention of a wedding or a marriage; perhaps Sappho or any other speaker expresses her/his dissatisfaction with love.  The second-person address to Phaon in line 23 is perhaps a clue that the speaker is a woman, but because the speaker’s gender is purposefully ambiguous, Phaon’s addresser could be male.  The only certainty that the poem provides is the lack of satisfaction and consummation that the speaker feels.  Normally, the bee takes the nectar and makes the honey, but the speaker is being denied both the honey and the bee.  There is a complete extinction of everything.  Because the speaker is neither the producer nor the recipient of the product, she/he is written out of this relationship, delegated to no-man’s land.  In this way, this poem parallels the Sappho from poem 17 who must exit the scene because she has no place in the “virgin quire;” yet as a speaker, she shares experiences that only she can voice.   Like many of the speakers of Long Ago’s epithalamia, this speaker is a liminal figure who is neither here nor there.

In the poems of Long Ago, Sappho has gained prophetic powers through her understanding of the woman’s consciousness.  Through the voice of the master of ceremonies, he has been given the authority to share his experiences with other women.  Her strength derives from her femaleness yet his authority derives from his maleness, so s/he is able to speak on women’s behalf as well as allow them space to speak about their resistance to heterosexual marriage.   Michael Field’s repetition (and revision and reconstruction) of Sappho subverts the typical narratives of belonging and becoming to include alternative models of kinship.  As Michael Field, Bradley and Cooper capably argue that marriage does not necessarily mean man-and-wife and that progeny is about the art that is left behind.

Pearl Chaozon Bauer is Assistant Professor of English at Notre Dame de Namur University. She is the author of "Making Academia Cool: Serious Study of Sequential Art at the University" in Educating through Popular Culture (2017). Her current book project, Reforming Desire: Queering Victorian Poetics of Love and Marriage, explores the re-formation of love and marriage poems during the reformation of marriage laws.


1 For a good overview of Michael Field’s career and scholarship, see Bristow, pp.159-79.
2 See early work such as that by Sturgeon, Leighton, Faderman, White, Blain, Prins, and later work by Laird, Ehnenn and Thain, among others.
3 Epithalamium comes from the Greek epi, a prefix occurring in loanwords where it meant “upon,” “on,” “over,” “near,” “at,” “before,” “after,” and thalamos which meant “chamber.”
4 By the mid-1880s, Bradley and Cooper’s readership and reviewers knowingly referred to Michael Field as “she”; yet, the women continued to publish under the pseudonym well past Cooper’s death in 1913.
5 In her much-cited essay on Michael Field, Chris White argues that “the name [Michael Field] contains a compelling contradiction: they both deploy the authority of male authorship and yet react against such camouflage. Michael Field is not a disguise. Nor is it a pretence at being a man” (40). 

6 In the oft-quoted November 23, 1884 correspondence between Bradley and her mentor Robert Browning, Bradley admonishes Browning for exposing the true identity of their male pseudonym to society at large:

It is said that the Athenaeum was taught by you to use the feminine pronoun. Again, someone named André Raffalovich, whose earnest young praise gave me genuine pleasure, now writes in ruffled distress; he "thought he was writing to a boy—a young man … he has learnt on the best authority it is not so." I am writing him to assure him that the best authority is my work … I write to you to beg you to set the critics on the wrong track. We each know you meant good to us: and are persuaded you thought that by “our secret” we meant the dual authorship. The revelation of that would indeed be utter ruin to us; but the report of lady authorship will dwarf and enfeeble our work at every turn. Like the poet Gray we shall never “speak out.” And we have much to say that the world will not tolerate from a woman’s lips. We must be free as dramatists to work out in the open air of nature—exposed to her vicissitudes, witnessing her terrors: we cannot be stifled in drawing-room conventions … you are robbing us of real criticism, such as man gives man
(Works and Days 6-7).

7 Rendall writes:

There is a need to step away from the dominating themes of nineteenth-century political history and recover a different perspective. We need to understand in what many and varied ways women of all classes perceived the structures of authority in their own worlds: as mothers, consumers, and housewives, as workers, as philanthropists. . .Some historians have posed an opposition between ‘women’s politics’ and ‘women’s culture’, and argued that too much attention to the separateness of women’s concerns, to their domestic, religious, and philanthropic lives, must detract from what should primarily be the political history of the challenge to oppression, organized, conscious, identifiable, always with a particular stress on the history of feminism. . .Without entering into women’s private worlds it is impossible to grasp the range of women’s political activities. And unless we expand our definition of what is properly political, . . ., then we shall be dependent on that nineteenth-century view of the public sphere. The history of women’s political activity is not identical with the history of feminist movements, though at many points the two must overlap (4).
8 Many Michael Field scholars have written on the lyrics of Long Ago: see for example White 161, Prins 165-86, or Thain, ‘Michael Field.’ There is, however, no scholarship to date that analyzes Long Ago through an epithalamic lens.
9 Even though I only categorize 12 of the 68 poems as epithalamic, most of the lyrics in Long Ago share themes and motifs about marriage and marital woes, maidenhood, and lost love.
10 Wharton notes that “Sapphic Metre” is named after Sappho not because she invented it, but because of her frequent use of it, so this category does not seem too defined.
11 In Women's Literary Collaboration, Queerness, and Late-Victorian Culture, Jill Ehnenn studies late 19th-century periodical commentaries on literary collaboration and deduces that these Victorian discourses were embedded in “lingering ideologies of Romantic Individualism” (28-29).
12 In Lyric Poetry: The Pain and the Pleasure of Words, Blasing explains that “lyric language presents — to the ear— that which resists communication and the will of an individual “speaker.” Thus, oddly, an individuated speaker is heard in a language that foregrounds the materiality of the linguistic code and resists an individual will” (28).
13 In Victorian Sappho, Yopie Prins discusses how Bradley and Cooper’s collaboration redefined lyric authorship “by means of a collaboration that destabilizes the Sapphic signature … Bradley and Cooper, writing as Michael Field, writing as Sappho, allow the signature to be read as plural and, possibly, lesbian” (74-75).
14 Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar have traced the difficulty women writers have had in building literary traditions separate from their patriarchal heritage. They recall Virginia Woolf’s injunction to “look past Milton’s bogey” which they say “cuts women off from the spaciousness of possibility” (188).
15 In ‘Michael Field,’ Marion Thain has argued that “their constant return to earlier periods of history (something which can be found in every one of their poetic volumes) is itself an attempt to step outside the sexological discourse and imagine a time when such categories didn’t exist” (63).
16 As Shanley argues, a woman’s rights and her economic power were no longer her own but under the guardianship of her husband (22).
17 Sharon Bickle explains that “the identities produced around Michael Field soon expanded into their private lives, becoming an integral part of their unique marriage” (Field, Fowl and Pussycat xiii); and in their letters to each other, Bradley and Cooper often adopted the role of husband and wife respectively addressing each other as “my own husband” or “Sweet Wife.” In 1885, for example, Cooper wrote to Bradley: “Dearest deare, most gloriously loving, how shall I ever be a ‘wiftie’ worthy of you? Well, gifts are not always perfect and yet of some help and joy—And I have given myself to you as your spouse forever” (155). There are many more instances of such addresses in Bickle’s edition of Bradley and Cooper’s love letters.
18 Irigaray expounds: “By fertility, I am not referring simply to the flesh or reproduction. No doubt for couples it would concern the question of children and procreation, but it would also involve the production of a new age of thought, art, poetry and language; the creation of a new poetics” (165).
19  Sappho’s fragment “But in their time they plaited garlands” precedes the Michael Field poem.
20 Prins writes that the line “’They plaited garlands, even these;’ (line 7) refers back to the women garlanded by the songs of their time. It also presents the words on this page garlanded into a poem, that which anticipates the garlanding of all the poems within the pages (or ‘under the trembling leaves’ (line 11)) of this book” (Prins Victorian Sappho 87).
21 Prins argues that in many of the poems in Long Ago, the bridegroom is rendered silent by these kinds of apostrophes and relationships. Her close-reading of Poem 42 forms a back-drop for my reading of Poem 47 ( Victorian Sappho 90-92).
22  Victorian Sappho 90-92.
23  Poem 5 begins with Wharton’s translation of Sappho’s epithalamic fragment: “As on the hills the shepherds trample the hyacinth underfoot, and the flower darkens on the ground” (fr. 94 in Wharton134); poem 46 begins with the fragment: “Fool, faint not thou in thy strong heart.” (fr. 110 in Wharton 145). 
24  Epithalamium scholar Virginia Tufte writes that almost equally popular to the apple blossom epithalamic fragment is Sappho’s comparison of the girl to the trampled flower whose crumpled beauty adorns the earth (12).
25  From Wharton’s fragment 109 (145).
26  “Quire” is a variant spelling of "choir". For example, Byron’s Don Juan: Canto XIII lxii. 86 mentions “the silenced quire”; and Thomas Hardy uses the word in the title of one of his novels, Under the Greenwood Tree; Or, the Mellstock Quire (1872). This usage seems to have tapered off by the late nineteenth century.
27  In “'Because Men Made the Laws': The Fallen Women and the Woman Poet,” Angela Leighton argues that “when it comes to women speaking, a whole complicated magic of sin and contamination comes into play” (227).
28  It appears that Calliope and Clio are conflated as one in the seventh stanza.
29  The fragment is from Wharton 78.
30  Wharton 46.
31  From Song of Solomon 4:11: “Thy lips, O my spouse, drop as the honeycomb: honey and milk are under thy tongue; and the smell of thy garments is like the smell of Lebanon” (King James Bible translation).

Works Cited

Abrams. M. H. The Mirror and the Lamp. Oxford UP, 1963.

Blain, Virginia. “'Michael Field, the Two-Headed Nightingale': Lesbian Text as Palimpsest.” Women’s History Review, vol. 5, no.2, 1996, pp. 239-57.

Blasing, Mutlu Konuk. Lyric Poetry: The Pain and the Pleasure of Words. Princeton UP, 2009.

Brandon, Ruth.  The New Women and the Old Men: Love, Sex and the Woman Question. Norton, 1990.

Brewster, Scott. Lyric. Routledge, 2009.

Bristow, Joseph.  “Michael Field in Their Time and Ours.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, vol. 29, no.1, Spring 2010, pp. 159-179.

Butler, Judith. Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex.” Routledge, 1993.

Ehnenn, Jill.  Women’s Literary Collaboration, Queerness and Late-Victorian Culture. Ashgate, 2008.

Faderman, Lillian.  Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present. Junction Books, 1981.

Field, Michael.  The Fowl & the Pussycat: Love Letters of Michael Field 1876-1909. Edited by Sharon Bickle, U of Virginia P, 2008.

---. Long Ago. Bell, 1889.

---. Works and Days: From the Journals of Michael Field.  Edited by. T. and D.C. Sturge Moore,  John Murray, 1933.

Gilbert, Sandra and Susan Gubar.  The Madwoman in the Attic. Yale UP, 1979.

Hughes, Linda. “Daughters of Danaus and Daphne: Women Poets and the Marriage Question.”  Victorian Literature and Culture, vol. 34, no. 2, 2006, pp. 481-93.

Irigaray, Luce.  The Irigaray Reader.  Edited by Margaret Whitford, Basil Blackwell, 1991.

Laird, Holly. “Contradictory Legacies: Michael Field and Feminist Restoration.” Victorian Poetry, vol. 33, Spring 1995, pp. 111-28.

---. Women Coauthors. U of Illinois P, 2000.

Leighton, Angela.  “‘Because Men Made the Laws’: The Fallen Women and the Woman Poet.” Victorian Women Poets: A Critical Reader, edited by Angela Leighton, Blackwell, 1996, pp. 342-60.

---. Victorian Women Poets: Writing Against the Heart. Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992.

Poovey, Mary. Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian England. Chicago UP, 1988.

Prins, Yopie. “Sappho Doubled: Michael Field.” The Yale Journal of Criticism, vol. 8, no. 1, Spring 1995, pp. 165-86.

---.  Victorian Sappho.  Princeton UP, 1999.

Rendall, Jane, editor.  Equal or Different: Women’s Politics: 1800-1914.  Basil Blackwell, 1987.

Shanley, Mary.  Feminism, Marriage and the Law in Victorian England. Princeton UP, 1989.

Sturgeon, Mary. Michael Field.  George G. Harrap, 1921.

Thain, Marion. The Lyric Poem: Formations and Transformations.  Cambridge UP, 2013.

---.  'Michael Field': Poetry, Aestheticism and the Fin de Siècle. Cambridge UP, 2007.

Tufte, Virginia. The Poetry of Marriage: The Epithalamium in Europe and Its Development in England. Tinnon-Brown, 1970.

Wharton, Henry Thornton. Sappho: Memoir, Text, Selected Renderings, and a Literal Translation. John Lane Company, 1907.

White, Chris.  “‘Poets and Lovers Evermore’: The Poetry and Journals of Michael Field.”  Sexual Sameness: Textual Differences in Lesbian and Gay Writing, edited by Joseph Bristow, Routledge, 1992, pp. 26-43.

--- “The Tiresian Poet: Michael Field.” Victorian Women Poets: A Critical Reader, edited. by Angela Leighton. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996, pp. 148-61.