Saturday, March 19, 2011

Sight and Song by Michael Field

Edition:  Sight And Song (1892)

Sight and Song was a collection of poems published by Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper, an aunt and niece who were living together as lovers. Elkins Mathews and John Lane published these poems as a limited-edition volume in 1892. Each of the poems is to have been based on Renaissance paintings which Bradley and Cooper viewed together in galleries in England and on the continent.

Each poem describes in detail the painting to which it refers, concentrating on form, color, and emotional expression, though rarely revealing much at all about the stories or allegories often attached to these paintings. In doing so, Michael Field follows the injunctions of Pater to focus on form rather than on the connotations, history, or stories that might attach to form. In the preface to these poems, Michael Field makes clear this Paterian notion: the aim is "to translate into verse what the lines and colours of certain chosen pictures sing in themselves (italics are mine)." That they wish to translate what the pictures sing "in themselves" is important because this philosophy resists the pouring in of the spectator's own subjectivities into the paintings. Something similar is expressed via a quotation from Flaubert, also in the preface: "Il faut, par un effort d'esprit, se transporter dans les personnages et non les attirer a soi." For "personnages," Field says to substitute "peintures." Again, this quotation expresses the aesthetic philosophy that spectatorship is to put oneself in the place of the pictures, and not to bring too much of oneself to the pictures.

However, as critic Julia Saville suggests in her essay on Field's collection (in The Fin-de-Siecle Poem edited by Joseph Bristow), Paterian influence did not mean that they were simply applying Paterian philosophy without their own innovations. Specifically, Saville notes Michael Field's position of impersonality to suggest that if we allow the paintings to speak for themselves, it becomes apparent that they contain many "dissident" meanings, particularly in the arena of new "erotic registers."

In "The Faun's Punishment," based actually on Corregio's "Allegory of Vice," Field's descriptions of the Maenads surrounding the faun reveal female eroticism and desire grounded in malice and violence traditionally assigned to male sexuality: "One sits with fanciful eyes beside him; / Malice and wonder mix / In her glance for the victim--woe beside him, / When once her snakes transfix / His side! Ere they dart, / With backward start / She waits their rigid pause; / And with comely stoop / One maid, elate / With horror, hate / And triumph, up from his ankle draws / The kin away in a clinging loop." The description of the snakes immediately signals male erotic violence, but here the women possess this capacity to take pleasure in this kind of violence. The rhyming of "elate" and "hate" consolidate this pairing of pleasure and violence. A more chilling depiction of predation is in "Venus and Mars," where while Mars sleeps, Venus looks on: "Ironical she sees, / Without regret, the work her kiss has done / And lives a cold enchantress doomed to please / Her victims one by one." A look at the painting on which this poem is based, Botticelli's "Venus and Mars," indeed reveals a sleeping Mars and almost disturbingly awake and sharp-looking Venus. Allowing the art to speak for itself, Field contends it reveals a cold irony on the part of the woman who is "doomed to please" yet feels that whom she pleases is a victim.

Descriptions in other poems reveal that an unrestrained, powerful, and un-self-conscious sensuality is possible for female subjects. "Treading the Press" is one such description: "Maidens with white, curving napes / And coiled hair backward leap, / As they catch the fruit, mid laughter, / Cut from every silvan rafter." The maidens's movements are sure and unaware of being looked upon. They seem only aware of catching the fruit, spontaneously laughing all the while. "The Sleeping Venus," based on Giorgione's reclining Venus, boldly suggests that Venus's hand ostensibly positioned to cover herself out of modesty actually is a hand placed to pleasures herself: "She enjoys the good / of delicious womanhood."      

"A Portrait" describes Veneto's portrait (of a courtesan), and in doing so, reverses general assumptions that courtesans are passive before the male gaze. Instead, Field argues that the look of this woman signals that she has deliberately manufactured the way that she looks in this portrait, hence taking away the agency of the (male) painter: "She saw her beauty often in the glass / Sharp on the dazzling surface..." and so knowingly, she plucks the flowers which she holds in her hand, "[t]hese simple things with finest touch she gathers in her pride." The ending of this poem is even more striking, contending that "Lo, she has conquered death!" by her deliberate construction of her image and will to be painted on her own terms. "Leda" similarly exhibits her agency up against the swan, overwhelming the swan with her will: "Tis Leda, wild and free, / Drawing her gracious Swan down through the grass to see / Certain round eggs without a speck...She draws the fondled creature to her will." Here, Leda has her way with the swan, forcing him to attend to the importance of maternal duties, much more than the swan has his way with Leda. 
I would argue that at the same time that Field's collection multiplies the possibilities of female sensuality, it also multiplies possibilities of male erotic registers as well as emotional states. As critics of the collection have noted, Field turns the gaze unexpectedly onto male bodies. There is a sense of equality in this gaze, however, in that Field treats male subjects to the same processes of "translation" that they have treated female subjects to. Again, the process elides the allegories and histories which may have inspired the paintings, instead focusing on the visual aspects of form and color, and in doing so, bringing out new possibilities that may not have been apparent if one were too fettered by such frameworks of interpretation offered by allegory and history.  

"Venus, Mercury, and Cupid" describes a very different "cupid" than the usual feisty and mischievous one: here, cupid is a harmless and timid infant, a "little lad beside her [Venus], / Who half hides and half doth guide her." "A Shepherd-Boy" refers to Giorgione's "Boy with Flute," focusing on a description of his face which might seem more apt, traditionally, to a female object: "A radiant, oval face: the hair / About the cheeks so blond in hue...Warm eyes, sweet mouth of the softest lips..." and so forth. Yet such a description doesn't make him feel any shame or any self-consciousness of being looked upon, as might be expected if this were a Victorian depiction of a female. "His countenance reveals him one / Of those whose characters are fed / By light--the largeness o its ways, / The breadth and patience in its joy...Delight will never be slow to come / To youth that lays its finger / On the flute's stop and yet is dumb / And loves with its dumb self to linger." I think "dumb" here signals his lack of self-consciousness, countering conventional notions that one might look so "femininely" and feel comfortably and unknowingly so."St. Jerome in the Desert" tells nothing about what has made kneel before God, only describing the physicality of the moment and extrapolating from this physicality, his emotional state: "His breast of flint awaits / Much flagellation; pleasure fills / The body courage reinstates / Enduring what the spirit wills." Against conventional notions of violence and sensuality, it is a male and not female figure here who desires violence upon himself; flagellation is pleasure. "Saint Sebastian" describes the martyr "stript and fastened to the tree that has no bough" focusing on the details of his form and extrapolating from this, his great vulnerability and unwillingness to die (rather than his fortitude, which an allegorical account of the martyr might give): "For we see no blessedness / On his visage pale, / Turned in its distress / Toward the heaven, without avail." This is a suffering and protesting figure: "Massive is his mouth; the upper lip is set / In a pained, protesting curve." Even Christ, in "The Blood of the Redeemer" is treated via Field's "translation" of Bellini's painting, revealing something unconventional about this depiction as well: this Christ in his resurrection is haggard, pale, and grotesque and so for the spectator, Field boldly contends that "There is no light athwart these eastern skies / For us, no joy it is that Thou dost rise."

[To summarize all of these somewhat scattered observations: I have tried to show here the ways in which Field's application of Paterian philosophy (allowing the artwork to speak for itself) enables them to question numerous conventions, especially but not limited to gender conventions]

No comments: