Course Blog

“La Gioconda” and Dracula

HISTORIC, side-long, implicating eyes ; 
A smile of velvet’s lustre on the cheek ; 
Calm lips the smile leads upward ; hand that lies 
Glowing and soft, the patience in its rest 
Of cruelty that waits and doth not seek 
For prey ; a dusky forehead and a breast 
Where twilight touches ripeness amorously : 
Behind her, crystal rocks, a sea and skies 
Of evanescent blue on cloud and creek ; 
Landscape that shines suppressive of its zest 
For those vicissitudes by which men die. 

“La Gioconda” is a poem written by Michael Field (a pseudonym for Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper) that was published in the volume “Sight and Song”. This poem is about Leonardo da Vinci’s painting, Mona Lisa. The annotation over the final word “die” reads, “Pater likens Mona Lisa to a vampire: ‘She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave’”. This mention of Mona Lisa as a vampire made me think back to Dracula, to compare Mona Lisa to the female vampires Jonathan Harker encounters on pages 44-47. One connection that Mona Lisa has to these women is that Bram Stoker puts great emphasis on the lips and mouth of these vampires, while the lips, mouth, and smile of the Mona Lisa is one of the most commonly discussed part of the painting. In “La Gioconda”, Michael Field mentiones her smile in the second line: “A smile of velvet’s lustre on the cheek”. He then mentions her lips in the next line stating, “Calm lips the smile leads upward.” In Dracula, Jonathan Harker takes note of the “ruby of [the female vampire’s] voluptuous lips” (45 Stoker) and later mentions that they are “scarlet” (45 Stoker). He is attracted to the lips of the female vampire, declaring “I felt in my heart a wicked, burning desire that they would kiss me with those red lips” (45 Stoker). In the short scene where these women try to suck Jonathan’s blood, their lips get mentioned eight times. As stated in one of my previous posts “Fear of the New Woman”, these female vampires are incredibly sexualized and can be seen as examples of the type of fear that existed during the fin de siècle (for example- Lucy feeding on the baby instead of feeding the baby is representative of the fear of the abandonment of motherhood). The last line of “La Gioconda”: “Landscape that shines suppressive of its zest/ For those vicissitudes by which men die” can also be related to the idea of the New Woman. The OED definition of vicissitude mentioned in the annotation is: “The fact of change or mutation taking place in a particular thing or within a certain sphere.” The change “by which men die” could be the changing role of the woman as they turn away from motherhood and marriage, start gaining ownership over their own property/money, and gain new opportunities for jobs/education. Perhaps the Mona Lisa can be seen as an example of the New Woman.

 

 

Michael Field get (Wild)e About Desire and Innocence

Edith Cooper and Katharine Bradley, writing under the pseudonym Michael Field, published a book of poems titled Sight and Song in 1892. These poems were all written about specific works of art in which they attempted to “translate into verse what the lines and colours of certain chosen pictures sing in themselves,” without the influence of their own interpretation of the art (Preface). Their poem “L’Indifférent,” written about Antoine Watteau’s “L’Indifférent,” focuses on the fleeting innocence of the boy in the painting, and the homoerotic nature of the painting. Similar ideas of art, gender, and sexuality are explored in A Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, in which Dorian Gray is introduced as a young, innocent, handsome man desired by men and women alike. It is known that Michael Field and Oscar Wilde were not only peers, but good friends according to their letters published in Michael Field, The Poet (pp. 240). Both Wilde and Field use the concept of boyhood to highlight the homoerotic undertones of sexuality present in the fin de siècle.

These homoerotic tendencies are highlighted through the way in which the boy in the painting and Dorian Gray move away from traditional gender roles. Rather than have his feet together, his hands by his side or crossed, with a hard face (the way in which a more traditional male might pose), the boy in “L’Indifférent” poses the opposite. His feet are apart, his arms softly open, and his head tilted to the side. His face looks dreamy. He welcomes the viewer in to see what the painting has to offer. In a strange way he looks almost motherly. Michael Field comment further on his clothing, noting he is wearing “a cloak/of vermeil and of blue,” which not only highlight his wealth, but also his more effeminate appearance (11-12). Field associate the boy with a “human butterfly” (15). They pull from the dual meanings and associations of this word, effectively aligning him with child-like innocence and weakness, but also associating him with a sense of vanity and superficiality. Field speculate that the boy feels as though it is “fate” that he is simply able to “dance where he is found…he was born for [it]” (9, 8, 10). They suggest through this speculation that the boy did not think at all about the space he was dancing in or the reasons for his dancing. Therefore, he was not questioning his actions at all, but rather taking them for granted. He has “no soul, no kiss, / no glance nor joy” (16-17)! The boy is simply going through the motions, but he lacks any substance. Yet, Michael Field observe that the boy is still “old enough for manhood’s bliss,” suggesting that the boy is desirable despite the lack of substance (18). This is followed by the statement that he is a “boy” posing a juxtaposition between his desirability with the innocence of a young boy.

We see how wrong this could go if a boy becomes too fixated on his own vanity, which is only fueled by older males’ desire of them, through the character of Dorian Gray. Before we meet Dorian, Basil describes him as having “a simple and beautiful nature” (Wilde 18). When we meet Dorian, Lord Henry (who is at least 10 years older than Dorian) is immediately erotically intrigued by him. He is transfixed by Dorian’s facial features, describing them his lips “finely-curved, scarlet,” his eyes as “frank blue” and his hair as “crisp gold” (Wilde 21). These intense descriptors of Dorian’s physical features highlight the eroticism in this passage. Lord Henry continues by noting there was “something in [Dorian’s] face that made one trust him at once” (Wilde 21). Before speaking to Dorian at all, Lord Henry already felt could trust him due to Dorian’s “candour of youth… and passionate purity” (Wilde 21). It is unclear if Lord Henry would like to engage with Dorian sexually or to be Dorian, which also highlights this tension of sexual desire and jealousy of youth. Lord Henry continues to fuel Dorian’s ego until Dorian can no longer recognize the person he becomes. The fact that Dorian dies at the end of the story and Michael Field suggest that the boy in the painting must die suggests that these desires to remain young, interlaced with sexual desire, cause problematic power dynamics and assumptions.

The Sexual Awakening of Ophelia in John Gray’s “On a Picture”

“On a Picture” by John Gray conjures the image of Sir John Everett Millais’s painting entitled “Ophelia.” By reading this poem through Christopher Craft’s “’Kiss Me with Those Red Lips’: Gender and Inversion in Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” which is included in the Norton Critical Edition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, this poem’s treatment of Ophelia can be read as twisted by images of deviant sexuality.

The poem begins by placing Ophelia in “the river’s arms,” which are described as “steadfast” (Gray l. 4). This stagnant position evokes a sense of entombment in her watery grave, as Dracula is when in his box. Ophelia, however, is surrounded by the “[p]ale petals [that] follow her in very faith” (Gray l. 5). Flowers are, in themselves, representative of sexuality and sensuality in their hermaphroditism (flowers have both pistils and stamens, both reproductive parts), which leads to the supposition that Ophelia may be enveloped by the intersection of sexualities or gender norms. Her “maidly hands,” which carry the connotation of youth, femininity, and possibly innocence, “look up, in noble sloth / To take the blossoms of her scattered wreath,” and thus reach towards this androgynous sexuality (Gray l. 7-8). Even in her “noble sloth,” one of the seven deadly sins that may be viewed as “noble” because of its languorousness, her reach for the “blossoms” is as if to grasp and accept the sexuality sprinkled around her that is marked as her property, as it’s “her scattered wreath” (Gray l. 7-8). The androgynous sexuality belongs to her, and she yearns to embrace it.

In her immobile state, though, “[n]o weakest ripple lives to kiss her throat” (Gray l. 9). In Craft’s article, “Dracula’s authorizing kiss, like that of a demonic Prince Charming,” is what “triggers the release of this latent power and excites in [Mina and Lucy] a sexuality, so mobile, so aggressive, that it thoroughly disrupts Van Helsing’s compartmental conception of gender” (p. 452). This quote describes the kiss as the inciting incident to Mina and Lucy’s mobility, whereas Ophelia experiences the additional step of needing the “weakest ripple” to occur before she can achieve this liberating kiss, a kiss from mobility itself. In Dracula, Craft writes that this kiss results in a “sudden sexuality” for Lucy, who “grows ‘voluptuous’ (a word used to describe her only during the vampiric process), her lips redden, and she kisses with a new interest” (p. 452). Here, the sequence of events places Lucy’s sexual emergence as after the kiss upon her throat, which has, presumably, not yet happened to Ophelia.

In the last stanza, the narrator’s voice fades while recognizing that “[u]ntil some furtive glimmer gleam across / Voluptuous mouth, where even teeth are bare, / And gild the broidery of her petticoat…” (Gray ll. 12-14). This seems to reflect that while the narrator knows that a change will occur after “some furtive glimmer” glances across her, they’re not sure or unwilling to write what the presumed change will be. This disruption of the status quo segues to the new, overtly sexual description of Ophelia: “Voluptuous mouth, where even teeth are bare” (Gray l. 13). Craft defines the mouth “as the primary site of erotic experience in Dracula,” noting that it “[lures] at first with an inviting orifice, a promise of red softness, but [delivers] instead a piercing bone” (p. 445). More, “the vampire mouth fuses and confuses… the gender-based categories of the penetrating and the receptive” (Craft p. 445). In having this hyper-sexual mouth that represents the intersection of traditionally masculine and feminine sexuality, Ophelia is marked as already corrupted by the intersection she seems to reach in the flowers that surround her. If Ophelia is already sexually fluid, then, why highlight the “broidery of her petticoat,” which seems like such a delicate, traditionally feminine thing, directly after noting her sexual mouth (Gray l. 14)? Maybe this points to the ability of traditional femininity and sexuality to coexist. If that, can they only coexist in death, as Ophelia remains in her watery grave, or is the “petticoat” simply a remain of her life before her sexual awakening?

"Ophelia"by Sir John Everett Millais, 1851-1852
“Ophelia”by Sir John Everett Millais, 1851-1852 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ophelia_%28painting%29

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.

Love for love’s sake

The Birth of Venus by Michael Field reflects a strange sense of doom that is also present in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray that can be linked to the influence of aestheticism that affected the literary community in the late 19th century.

The first three stanzas of The Birth of Venus focus on the beauty of the goddess and her surroundings. These stanzas are heavy in color-imagery and flower motifs, including a “ruffled cloak of rose, daisy-stitched” and “Flora, with the corn-flower dressed, /Round her neck a rose-spray curled /Flowerless, wild-rose at her breast.” In addition, the poem is full of references to innocence and purity including the line “New-born beauty with a tress / Gold about her nakedness,” as well as all the flowers and mention of springtime, which are associated with newness and rebirth.  One would think that all this beauty would describe a happy goddess. However, in the last stanza where Venus is described in more emotional aspects, phrases such as “tearful shadows,” “reluctant sympathies,” “lone,” and “stranger,” imply that she is not necessarily as content as the rest of the poem seems to constantly suggest, the optimistic visual symbols and references being contrasted with a more emotion-based sense of doom and fear.Venus’ lack of knowledge of the world is portrayed as more of a curse than a blessing in the same way that Dorian’s initial innocence becomes his downfall, because innocence becomes an open doorway for corruption.

The ending line, “she is love that hath not loved,” reminds me of Dorian Gray. Venus is the goddess of love, and yet she has no knowledge of how love is supposed to feel, only what it is supposed to look like. Dorian Gray is in a very similar situation. He is loved by so many, and yet is unable to give it out himself because he is too focused on his physical appearance. Venus is also distinctly aware of the eyes of Zephyrus and Boreas on her, “one in wonder, one desire.” Dorian’s fixation on Basil’s portrait of him is based on his obsession with his public appearance. The only time he thinks that he is in love is during his so-called love affair with Sibyl Vane, which turns out to be only a performance to this public of what he thinks love is, ironically stemming from her performances of love on stage. Again, this reflects aspects of aestheticism and the idea of art for art’s sake, with love being the art that is admired but never personalized.

 

 

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.

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.

Dangerous Love

Throughout Victorian literature, women have been depicted with a dangerous beauty that seems to lure men into a trap, as if beauty is not a good thing but instead something to be feared. In the era of the emerging New Woman, unrestricted female sexuality had become a concern and often was the point of criticism as women were making a point of leaving their domestic sphere.

In Michael Field’s The Birth of Venus, Venus the goddess of love, sex, and beauty is depicted as having coiling hair. Yet coiling hair is a characteristic of Medusa, who comes from similar mythology, yet holds a very different symbolism than Venus. Medusa is a monster in which has coiling hair that takes the form of snakes, each curl it’s own individual snake. Any person who gazed upon her face would thereby turn to stone, left to face a dangerous fate. As Venus is depicted as having this same coiling hair it can be inferred that she is hailed to have a similar lure of danger within her.

 

Yet this fear of the sexually free woman was not a new concept, as it is depicted in many Victorian tales, such as Dracula and Dionea. In Bram Stocker’s Dracula, the female vampires are held to a similar level of fear despite their seductive lure. The fear of women with unrestricted sexuality is shown through Stocker’s descriptions of the women as “repulsive” yet “voluptuous” and hand in hand the two seem to be implied as intertwined adjectives that do not come without the other.

Yet in Dionea this contrast seems even more clear, as Dionea is depicted as being, “an amazing little beauty, dark, lithe, with an odd ferocious gleam in her eyes, and a still odder smile, tortuous, serpentine” (9). Once again beauty is compared to snakes, leaving both Dionea and Venus in a similar resemblance of Medusa and beauty that needs to be feared.

In The Birth of Venus, there is a woman standing behind Venus, ready to cover her naked body and hide it from the view. The lines “In possession of the wind, Coiling hair in loosened shocks, Sways a girl who seeks to bind New-born beauty with a tress” symbolize the binding sphere that women were expected to exist in, the domestic sphere that women were not expected to diverge from (lines 6-9). In both Dionea and The Birth of Venus the beautiful woman ends up being trapped in one way or another, as Dionea is trapped inside her statue, and Venus is trapped by the clothing that the woman is bringing towards her.

During the era of the emerging New Woman, this seems to be an odd pretext set by Michael Field, especially as Michael Field is two female writers taking the name of a male. At first glance it seems to be a criticism of the New Woman, noting that despite their efforts they will be contained by society and stuck in their domestic roles. Yet on a deeper look, it reflects the choices that they themselves had to make to publish their work. Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper although wonderful writers, were restricted to a role that did not include writing as women were not expected to exist within that sphere of literature. Just like in the terms of Dionea, the female vampire and Venus, their sexuality and perhaps aspirations were contained by society, restricted to a certain mold that they were unable to break out of. No matter how amazing of writers they were they were forced to write under the context of a male name, only making their fame as a single male writer as male writers were allowed to exist within the sphere of literature, while women were not.

 

(Fuse ODG writes of a dangerous love, the woman’s beauty described as dangerous as a gun. Beauty is seen as a tool that strengthen’s women to give them a power that other women do not have, making them dangerous.)

Venus is the Archetype of Love and Dionea is Her Counterpart

In Michael Field’s poem The Birth of Venus, based on Sandro Botticelli’s painting of the same name, he describes the beauty of the newly born goddess. Venus has emerged from the sea and has come to begin her work as the Goddess of Love. Venus is seen in a pure light, which is represented in the painting by her stark white skin and the light that falls directly on her figure. While Venus may be seen as a pure being, the character of Dionea in Vernon Lee’s “Dionea” is the opposite. Dionea is also a beautiful character, but she has a negative effect on the people around her. The two figures share similarities but differ on love, which leads me to believe that Venus is the archetype of love while Dionea is her counterpart.

If we proceed with this line of reasoning, then Venus is the model for love. The first lines of the poem depict the characteristics necessary for a person in this position. Venus is a “new-born beauty with a tress/Gold about her nakedness” (Field 9-10). These lines state that Venus has just been born, which explains her naked state. The only thing covering her is her beautiful “gold” hair that is wrapped around her, aka the tress. While the reader is first introduced to Venus in this state, her nakedness suggests a level of purity. She has just been introduced to this world so nothing has marred her yet. She is pure and her purity can therefore be used as a model for others to aspire to.

In contrast, when readers first meet Dionea she does not live up to the same standards as Venus. Instead, Dionea is a “poor little waif…who is doubtless a heathen, for she had no little crosses or scapulars on, like proper Christian children…swaddled up close in outlandish garments” (Lee 3-4). This description of Dionea immediately differs from the one of Venus. Dionea is clothed in “outlandish garments” and has no symbols that mark her as a “proper Christian”. These two differences are very important as they signify Dionea as impure. Dionea is not naked or newly born into the world; rather she is wearing ridiculous clothes. She does not have anything marking her purity whereas Venus’s naked form automatically signifies hers. These differences between Venus and Dionea are then translated to their interactions with people and the feeling of love.

At the end of The Birth of Venus, Field describes Venus’s upcoming interactions with people. Venus is a “Virgin stranger, come to seek/Covert of strong orange-boughs/By the sea-wind scarcely moved,-/She is Love that hath not loved” (Field 37-40). These lines represent that Venus has “come to seek” or look for other symbols of purity, depicted in the orange-boughs. Venus has also never experienced love, which is ironic given her forthcoming title as the Goddess of Love. This is important though because Venus has not interacted with people yet, whereas Dionea’s negative qualities are revealed through her interactions with people. The people of the village have begun to tell stories about Dionea and how “where-ever she goes the young people must needs fall in love with each other, and usually where it is far from desirable” (Lee 10). Dionea’s presence around others causes them to “fall in love” with the wrong people. Dionea is affecting the “young people” and is changing their lives in a negative way.

Venus and Dionea are seen as figures that others look to when dealing with love. Both are depicted as beautiful people who are introduced to the reader through the water. Venus is born out of the water and Dionea is found washed ashore from a shipwreck. This is where their similarities end though as Venus is the model representation of Love and Dionea is not. Both characters suggest though that purity is contingent on interactions with others. Venus has not interacted with anyone yet, which is why she is pure. No one has had the chance to ruin her image or corrupt her. Meanwhile, readers know Dionea is supposedly negative or evil because of others interactions with her. This suggests that Venus and Dionea might not be too different as it initially appears they are.

 

Fantasies and Michael Field

When reading “Venus and Mars” by Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper (pseud: Michael Field), it is hard not to think about themes of sexuality, particularly as it pertains to women. I instantly thought of some lines from Freud’s Creative Writers and Day Dreamers:

“…the impulse to create fantasies is universally present… the artist dreams aloud and in public…” (420).

There are several lines from “Venus and Mars” that I think embody a certain fantasy or dream; that of a woman empowered. For example, “She is a fate, although / She lies upon the grass” (1-2). We are introduced in the beginning lines of the poem to our Venus; a woman in a relaxed pose yet containing some supreme power. There is also something ancient and natural about her; “She rears from off the ground / As if her body grew / Triumphant as a stem” (27-28).

Venus is also acutely aware of her power, and that she has harnessed it; “…her eyes alert ; they search and weigh / The god, supine, who fell from her caress  / When love had had its sway” (34-36). Venus has put Mars in a death-like slumber through her own prowess. Whether this has an explicit sexual connotation or not, the implication is that Venus has wielded herself to take down a godly figure.

Perhaps the idea of a woman loudly and powerfully sexual was appealing to Field because they wanted to desperately for women to have more power. Venus represents a strong female figure using her sexual charms to destroy a version of patriarchy.  “…his naked limbs, their fury spent, Are fallen in wearied curves” (47-48) – Mars cannot even move after his interaction with her.

Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper felt constantly that the pseudonym of Field needed to be maintained in order to both sell their work and receive honest critiques. This double-edged sword of hidden identity comes with the price of succeeding to the powerlessness of womanhood during the Victorian Era. Bradley and Cooper knew that no one would take their work seriously if it was known two female authors produced it. Because of this, it makes sense that the pair would portray strong female characters to fulfill a secret wish of having their own agency.

Yet even then there is still a shame of womanhood that carries through into the poem. “Ironical she sees, Without regret, the work her kiss has done / And lives a cold enchantress doomed to please / Her victims one by one” (81-84).  Venus is not ashamed of her dominance over Mars, yet she is fated to continue to perform over him and possibly others forever more. Venus may have a sexual prowess, but she does not have the power to decide when to use it. This stanza sends a few mixed messages about female sexuality. Firstly that it is okay to be proud of one’s beauty and sexual desires or actions, but secondly, that if you are a beautiful and sexual woman then you cannot really choose another path. The control a woman feels over her sexuality, while empowering, is false, and only serves to placate women while the status quo prevails.