What’s Underneath Michael Field’s Bough Motif

The motif of the bough, or tree branch, was something that stood out to me due to its significance within Field’s title. In Books 3, 4, and 5, the bough is mentioned three times on three different types of trees. The first time it is mentioned in this section is in “Forsaken,”when Field writes; “Have you seen the olives at set of sun,/… That tossed him his sparkles, snatched his rays,/ Becomes a region of limitless grays,/ Dead, bough on bough” (52). The bough in question here is on an olive tree, which is loaded in literary significance in its allusions to the Bible and Greek mythology as a symbol of peace, goodwill, or friendship. What’s interesting here is that the olive branch has died, perhaps symbolizing a loss of friendship or, when considering the context of Underneath the Bough, the loss of “Beloved.” The olive tree is also closely tied to the repeatedly referenced Greek god Apollo, who symbolizes music, arts, the sun, and poetry. This allusion to Apollo could also explain the use of the “he” pronoun in relation to the sun and olive tree. Thus, the olive bough here represents the loss of Beloved not only as a friend, but also as a creative partner in a joint artistic endeavor after the “sun has set” on their time together. 

A bough is soon mentioned again two pages later, yet this time it is the branch of a cherry tree; “In woods, what is more dear/ Than a cherry bough, bees feeding near/ In the soft, proffered blooms? Lo, I/ Am fed and honored thus” (54). This vision is in complete contrast to the former, as rather than a branch of gray olives, here is a branch of cherry blossoms being pollinated by bees. Field continually juxtaposed life and death in the Books, and they do so here as well. Upon this branch, new life is blooming and the speaker is being “fed” by the blossoms like the bees. This could again be a metaphor for creativity and poetic inspiration after the speaker has reckoned with the loss of Beloved; there is rebirth and creation in these lines.

Lastly, Field mentions a bough much later again in Book 5 and dedicates a whole individual poem to it. In “One Branch,” they write; “A branch of wild-rose buds/ In sunny studs/ of orange-red, flecked by the warm, diffused,/ Violet flowers,/ Breathing a breath transfused…”  (89). This imagery is warm, welcoming, and literally flourishing with life, as the rose-buds are described to be “breathing.” Field’s moves from the initial dead olive branch, to the blossoming cherry tree, and to the lively rose branch illustrate the stages of life but also perhaps the stages of grief and healing. I think that overall, the bough motif can represent a specific locale of poetic expression that reflects the mood and creativity of the speaker. This expression is seemingly only possible in nature, which serves as a source of sustenance and inspriation. Being “underneath” a bough also connotes a sense of shelter, with the rich poetic cycles of life and nature surrounding.