Michael Field’s Feminist Art Critiques

The poetry of Michael Field has many qualities that allow for feminist critique, not least the fact that the name Michael Field is a pseudonym shared by two female writers, Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper. Their poems in Sight and Song are unique in their perspective; I will be looking at “The Birth of Venus” as an exemplar of the poets’ accomplishments in the volume overall.

Firstly, the content of Sight and Song is interesting in and of itself. The poems are about paintings that were most accessible to wealthy, educated men. Women at this time were largely prohibited from receiving an education, and while the paintings referenced in Sight and Song were also popularized by widely-available things like postcards and small posters, most women would not have a level of familiarity with the paintings that an educated man would. These men would have similar interpretations of the works based on the similar teaching of art history that they had received; the meaning of the paintings in Sight and Song would have been largely accepted based on the interpretations of scholarly men.

But both Bradley and Cooper had received a good education, and were probably familiar with the paintings in the same way that educated men were. They had received similar interpretations of the works, filtered through a masculine perspective despite often focusing on feminine bodies. Michael Field chose to write about the meaning conveyed by these ubiquitous paintings from the ignored perspective of women, rather than from the context of agreed-upon interpretations from men.

“The Birth of Venus” by Sandro Botticelli was an especially well-known painting, respected for its technical virtuosity and style. The nude figure of Venus was meant to allude to a divine perfection of form, an impossibly beautiful goddess of love. The painting represents a glimpse at a brief moment of vulnerability for Venus, when she was new to the world but still a perfect goddess that imbued sensuality and desire. She was just created, and could not have clothes yet, so this painting represents her body in its natural state.

This painting is especially ripe for masculine interpretation; it was practically designed for the male gaze, to be a view of Venus in all of her unconcealed glory. But interpretations of the painting focus on the spectator being a witness to this private moment, where the goddess of love is fully realized in her body, but innocent to the capabilities of her perfect form. Michael Field writes a poem that acknowledges the feelings of Venus herself as she is objectified by those around her.

The poem details the imagery present in the image of Venus, with her “coiling hair” (Line 7) representing untamed sexuality, while she is hurriedly given a cloak to cover herself that is “daisy-stitched” (Line 13), representing virginal purity. Venus was born as an ideal goddess that incites desire, which means that she had no time to experience life without being sexualized. Even as a newborn being, she is immediately given a garment to cover herself. The final stanza of the poem speculates on the sensation of guilt that the innocent newborn Venus must have felt. She does not understand why she must conceal her body, and cannot vocalize what she feels, but simple expressions like the “tearful shadows in her eyes” (Line 42) convey her sorrow.

In a letter to Robert Browning cited in the introduction to Michael Field, The Poet edited by Marion Thain and Ana Parejo Vadilla, the two poets wrote that “[They] have many things to say that the world will not tolerate from a woman’s lips” (p. 23). Among these things are the perspectives of women who have seen the objectification of women in art, and know the reality of this feeling. Rather than writing poems that focus on the beauty of Venus in her exposed nudity, Michael Field wrote a poem that captured the innocence of the newborn Venus as well as her coming to an understanding of how much power her body has. The poem itself is in some ways a feminist interpretation of Botticelli’s painting that recognizes the interpretations of scholars as a representation of beauty, but also acknowledges that the painting shows a conscious being who has been caught in a private moment and has been viewed for centuries without regard to how she must feel.

The poem “The Birth of Venus” is a representation of Bradley and Cooper’s goals to make the humanity of figures in art recognized, and the pseudonym of Michael Field was unfortunately the only way for that goal to even come close to being achieved. The perspective offered by the poems in Sight and Song were made possible by the concealment of feminine authorship, but remain important in their willingness to go against the accepted masculine perspective that uncritically objectified female figures in art.