Isle of Lesbos: Poetry : Historical : Michael Field

 

"Michael Field"
1848-1914 and 1862-1913

Michael Field was the penname of Katherine Bradley and her niece, Edith Cooper. Katherine raised Edith from childhood, and when Edith was sixteen, Katherine attended classes with her at Bristol University. Katherine published her own poetry under pseudonym (Arran Leigh), but once she and Edith began writing together, they assumed the name of Michael Field.

Katherine and Edith wrote numerous plays and poems in collaboration. Even their journal (which reveals that they were lovers) was a shared effort. The women claimed that their collaboration was so complete that once a work was done, they could no longer recognize which line each had contributed. Their writing reflects entwined thoughts and ideas that raise their love into spiritual realms.

The first volume of poetry by Michael Field was published in 1889. The women acknowledged Henry Wharton's 1885 edition of Sappho (the first to translate the poems as lesbian) as a source of inspiration. While their poems spoke openly of love between women, they did not seem to suffer social ostracism. Robert Browning declared Michael Field a genius, and referred to Katherine and Edith as his "two dear Greek women."

Katherine and Edith traveled extensively together until they acquired a dog (Whym Chow) who they did not want to leave. In 1906, when Whym Chow died, their loss led to their conversion from atheism to Roman Catholicism. The poetry they produced after this point lost its previous sensual and pagan feel and began to reflect their religious outlook.

In 1913, Edith died of cancer. Katherine used the next eight months to compile several more books of poetry, before succumbing to the disease herself.

Biography by Alix North

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Selected Works

'It was deep April'

It was deep April, and the morn
   Shakespere was born;
The world was on us, pressing sore;
My love and I took hands and swore,
   Against the world, to be
Poets and lovers evermore,
To laugh and dream on Lethe's shore,
To sing to Charon in his boat,
Heartening the timid souls afloat;
Of judgement never to take heed,
But to those fast-locked souls to speed,
Whoe never from Apollo fled,
Who spent no hour among the dead;
   Continually
   With them to dwell,
Indifferent to heaven and hell.

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Constancy

I love her with the seasons, with the winds,
As the stars worship, as anemones
Shudder in secret for the sun, as bees
Buzz round an open flower: in all kinds
My love is perfect, and in each she finds
Herself the goal: then why, intent to teaze
And rob her delicate spirit of its ease,
Hastes she to range me with inconstant minds?
If she should die, if I were left at large
On earth without her-I, on earth, the same
Quick mortal with a thousand cries, her spell
She fears would break. And I confront the charge
As sorrowing, and as careless of my fame
As Christ intact before the infidel.

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My Darling

Atthis, my darling, thou did'st stray
A few feet to the rushy bed,
When a great fear and passion shook
My heart lest haply thou wert dead;
It grew so still about the brook,
As if a soul were drawn away.

My darling! Nay, our very breath
Nor light nor darkness shall divide;
Queen Dawn shall find us on one bed,
Nor must thou flutter from my side
An instant, lest I feel the dread,
At this, the immanence of death.

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Unbosoming

The love that breeds
In my heart for thee!
As the iris is full, brimful of seeds,
And all that it flowered for among the reeds
Is packed in a thousand vermilion-beads
That push, and riot, and squeeze, and clip,
Till they burst the sides of the silver scrip,
And at last we see
What the bloom, with its tremulous, bowery fold
Of zephyr-petal at heart did hold:
So my breast is rent
With the burthen and strain of its great content;
For the summer of fragrance and sighs is dead,
The harvest-secret is burning red,
And I would give thee, after my kind,
The final issues of heart and mind.

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'Maids, not to you my mind doth change'

Maids, not to you my mind doth change;
Men I defy, allure, estrange,
Prostrate, make bond or free:
Soft as the stream beneath the plane
To you I sing my love's refrain;
Between us is no thought of pain,
   Peril, satiety.

Soon doth a lover's patience tire,
But ye to manifold desire
Can yield response, ye know
When for long, museful days I pine,
The presage at my heart divine;
To you I never breathe a sign
   Of inward want or woe.

When injuries my spirit bruise,
Allaying virtue ye infuse
With unobtrusive skill:
And if care frets ye come to me
As fresh as nymph from stream or tree,
And with your soft vitality
   My weary bosom fill.

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'Come Gorgo, put the rug in place'

Come Gorgo, put the rug in place,
   And passionate recline;
I love to see thee in thy grace,
   Dark, virulent, divine.
But wherefore thus thy proud eyes fix
   Upon a jewelled 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 how
   Man's mortal life shall fleet;
Those fairest hands - dost thou forget
   Their power to thrill and cling?
O foolish woman, dost thou set
   Thy pride upon a ring?

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Ah, Eros doth not always smite

Ah, Eros doth not always smite
     With cruel, shining dart,
Whose bitter point with sudden might
     Rends the unhappy heart --
Not thus forever purple-stained,
     And sore with steely touch,
Else were its living fountain drained
     Too oft and overmuch.
O'er it sometimes the boy will deign
     Sweep the shaft's feathered end;
And friendship rises without pain
     Where the white plumes descend.

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Sometimes I do despatch my heart

Sometimes I do despatch my heart
   Among the graves to dwell apart:
On some the tablets are erased,
Some earthquake-tumbled, some defaced,
And some that have forgotten lain
A fall of tears makes green again;
And my brave heart can overtread
Her brood of hopes, her infant dead,
And pass with quickened footsteps by
The headstone of hoar memory,
   'Till she hath found
   One swelling mound
With just her name writ and beloved,
From that she cannot be removed.

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'So jealous of your beauty'

So jealous of your beauty,
   You will not wed
     For dread
That hymeneal duty
   Should touch and mar
The lovely thing you are?
Come to your garden-bed!

Learn there another lesson:
   This poppy-head,
     Instead
Of having crimson dress on,
Is now a fruit,
Whose marvellous pale suit
Transcends the glossy red.

What, count the colour
     Of apricot,
     Ungot,
Warming in August, duller
     Than those most shy,
Frail flowers that spread and die
Before the sun is hot!

Lady, the hues unsightly,
     And best forgot,
     Are not
Berries and seeds set brightly,
     But withered blooms:
     Alack, vainglory dooms
You to their ragged lot!

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'Already to mine eyelids' shore'

Already to mine eyelids' shore
     The gathering waters swell,
For thinking of the grief in store
     When thou wilt say 'Farewell.'
I dare not let thee leave me, sweet,
     Lest it should be for ever;
Tears dew my kisses ere we meet,
     Foreboding we must sever:
Since we can neither meet nor part,
Methinks the moral is, sweetheart,
     That we must dwell together.

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'A Girl'

A Girl,
     Her soul a deep-wave pearl
Dim, lucent of all lovely mysteries;
     A face flowered for heart's ease,
     A brow's grace soft as seas
     Seen through faint forest-trees:
     A mouth, the lips apart,
Like aspen-leaflets trembling in the breeze
From her tempestuous heart.
Such: and our souls so knit,
I leave a page half-writ --
     The work begun
Will be to heaven's conception done,
     If she come to it.

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'I sing thee with the stock-dove's throat'

I sing thee with the stock-dove's throat,
     Warm, crooning, superstitious note,
That on its dearie so doth dote
     It falls to sorrow,
And from the fair, white swans afloat
     A dirge must borrow.

In thee I have such deep content,
I can but murrnur a lament;
It is as though my heart were rent
     By thy perfection,
And all my passion's torrent spent
     In recollection.

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Nightfall

She sits beside: through four low panes of glass
The sun, a misty meadow, and the stream;
Falling through rounded elms the last sunbeam
Through night's thick fibre sudden barges pass
With great forelights of gold, with trailing mass
Of timber: rearward of their transient glearn
The shadows settle, and profounder dream
Enters, fulfils the shadows. Vale and grass
Are now no more; a last leaf strays about,
Then every wandering ceases; we remain.
Clear dusk, the face of wind is on the sky:
The eyes I love lift to the upper pane --
Their voice gives note of welcome quietly
'I love the air in which the stars come out.'

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Sweet-Briar in Rose

So sweet, all sweet -- the body as the shyer
Sweet senses, and the Spirit sweet as those:
For me the fragrance of a whole sweet-briar
     Beside the rose!

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'Lo, my loved is dying '

Lo, my loved is dying, and the call
Is come that I must die,
All the leaves are dying, all
Dying, drifting by.
Every leaf is lonely in its fall,
Every flower has its speck and stain;
The birds from hedge and tree
Lisp mournfully,
And the great reconciliation of this pain
Lies in the full soft rain.

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Where to Read More...

  • Michael Field, Underneath the Bow (London: George Bell and Company, 1893)
  • Michael Field, The Wattlefold: Unpublished Poems by Michael Field (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1930)
  • Michael Field, Works and Days: From the Journal of Michael Field, T. and D.C. Sturge Moore, Editors (London: John Murray, 1933)
  • Emma Donoghue, We Are Michael Field (Outlines) (Absolute Press, 1998)
  • Mary Sturgeon, Michael Field (London: G.G. Harrap, 1922; Freeport, New York: Arno Press, 1975)
  • Chris White, "Poets and Lovers Ever More: The Poetry and Journals of Michael Field," Sexual Sameness: Textual Difference in Gay and Lesbian Writing, Joseph Bristow, Editor (New York: Routledge, 1992) pp 26-43

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