A Feminist Michael Field

Much like Oscar Wilde’s preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Michael Field’s preface to Sight and Song is blatantly contradictory to its actual content. In this preface, Bradley and Cooper claim that their poems work as poetic translations which “express not so much what these pictures are to the poet, but rather what poetry they objectively incarnate.” Despite claims of objectivity, the poems themselves offer highly subjective expressions of sight, just as though they were intended for the male gaze. In W.B. Yeats’ review of Sight and Song, the fellow poet complains that “they have preferred to work with the studious and interpretive side of the mind and write a guide-book to the picture galleries of Europe, instead of giving us a book full of the emotions and fancies which must be crowding in upon their minds perpetually.” Yeats is upset that the two women, under the guise of Michael Field, have opted to express what each painting seems to incarnate rather than trying to pass their female gazes for a male one of Michael Field’s. In fact, pretty much all of the paintings they choose to write about are done specifically for the male gaze of their time.

Disregarding the masculinity of their pen name, Bradley and Cooper opted to present a feminist view of the paintings, allowing the depicted women to harbor their own emotions and thoughts. In doing so, the two are working against the societal norms of the Victorian era, in which women were seen as passive, domestic creatures fit only to be mothers and wives. As Mona Caird argues in her essay “On Marriage,” there is no overlap between a man’s public sphere and a woman’s domestic sphere, leaving no opportunity for connection and intellectual simulation between the two sexes. Going against the grain of the typical masculine perspective, as would be expected by their pseudonym, the two women writers work to give women that intellectual connection otherwise not found in ordinary Victorian life. It is important to note that Bradley and Cooper thought themselves as dramatists more than poets, and so they would have been much more aware of the idea of the gaze—especially from the experience of writing for an audience as in a play.

“The Figure of Venus in ‘Spring’” gives a strong, complex identity to the otherwise objectified and beautiful figure of Venus in Botticelli’s La Primavera. The poem focuses on Venus’ body language and hand gesture, searching for meaning behind her actions rather than her artificial looks—analyzing actions in lieu of the stagnant, sexualized male gaze. The first line, though describing her as a “simple lady,” gives her depth as she is “full of heavy thought.” Women of the nineteenth century were not accepted as intellectuals—a reason for Bradley and Cooper’s mask of “Michael Field,” for fear of being rejected as their true selves in the literary world. Here, they give Venus thoughts, and in doing so, contradict the preface claiming objectivity as they subtly impose their feminist views.

In “Venus and Mars,” Bradley and Cooper describe Venus as “in her sovereign place,” giving power to the usually submissive female figure. The poem works to imply that Venus has brought Mars into a submissive state, rather than the other way around: “Yet her eyes are alert; they search and weigh / The god, supine, who fell from her caress / When love had had its sway.” Venus’ sexuality has given her power over the god of war. By imposing such a narrative upon the painting, Bradley and Cooper break away from their claims of objectivity yet again. Rather, their subjective feminist views come in to play in order to present Venus as a natural sovereign to the usually almighty god of war.