Gazing at Female Power

Venus, the goddess of love, is featured in several of Michael Field’s poems including “Venus and Mars” where she is depicted alongside the God of War and some satyrs.  The poem brings up questions of female power and specifically challenges the mission of objectivity stated in the preface of “Sight and Song.”  Michael Field begins the poem by describing Venus “in her sovereign place” seated in nature watching Mars who is naked and unconscious (8).  The choice to classify Venus as a sovereign in nature shows how Michael Field is claiming that female power is a natural thing.  In the painting, Venus is fully clothed and awake while Mars is unconscious due to Venus’s beauty and sexuality.  By stating that Venus is in her sovereign place and so is Mars, then in a way Michael Field is claiming that Venus has power and control over Mars in both a sexual way and a natural way.

Later in the poem, Michael Field goes on to emphasize female power by describing Venus as “lone and sadder than the dawn, too wise to weep” (75-76). Venus has seen the work that her kiss has done to Mars and feels upset that she is now bound to sexually please him. However, in spite of her sadness, Michael Field describes Venus as too intelligent of a woman to weep.  This moment challenges the stereotype of women being too emotional or more prone to crying more than men.  By describing Venus, a beacon of femininity and female sexuality, as a strong person who will not allow herself to weep in spite of her true feelings, Michael Field is making a claim about women being more than just the stereotypes that the late 19thcentury British society has given them. Furthermore, the very end of the poem states that Venus is “a cold enchantress doomed to please her victims one by one” (83-84).  Venus’s victims, as portrayed by Mars, are all men and by marking her as a magical enchantress, Michael Field is claiming that she has a duty to please men, but at the same time holds a certain amount of power over them.

The preface of “Sight and Song” states that Michael Field has the intention of providing an objective understanding of the paintings and claims that the gazer can read the poems, which are said to not contain any personal messages or poetic opinions, in order to better understand the painting.  Reading more about Michael Field’s life in biographical literature such as Marion Thain and Ana Parejo Vadillo’s “Michael Field, The Poet” allows one to see that the claim of eliminating subjectivity within Sight and Song is a complete lie.  Michael Field was actually the pseudonym for two women, Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper. The women chose to publish under the name Michael Field because they knew that they would not be taken seriously if the public knew they were women writers.  This fact speaks to the presence of female power in many of the poems but particularly in “Venus and Mars.”  Two women made a choice to use a male name in order to conform to societal norms but chose to still publish their work even though they were women and were not supposed to stray from the domestic sphere.  Michael Field’s choices are a form of female resistance against societal norms of the fin de siècle, just like Venus’s decision to not cry and her classification as an enchantress over men she is doomed to please is a form of female resistance.  Michael Field argues in the preface that they are not trying to impose any of their personal opinions or messages within their poems about art, but in fact are doing the opposite of that and using the poems as a mechanism for social resistance. The gazer of “Venus and Mars” is not simply reading the poem or looking at the painting without any subjective thoughts, they are actually reading Michael Field’s attempt to encourage female power and agency in the face of social barriers.