Underneath the Bough, revised and decreased edition. By Michael Field. From the collection of Field scholar Henri Locard, with his extensive penciled annotations and notes on inserted slips. London; New York: Printed by George Bell and Sons (1893). (Armstrong Browning Library 19Cent X 821.8 F455un 1893b.)
Underneath the Bough. By Michael Field. London; New York: Printed by George Bell and Sons (1893). (Armstrong Browning Library 19Cent X BL 821.89 F455u.)
Armstrong Browning Library Digital 19th Century Women Poets Collection.
Rare Item Analysis: ‘Conceive Her Free’: Representations of Death and Natural Communion in the Poetry of Michael Field and Christina Rossetti
By Reilly L. Fitzpatrick
A comparison between the communion of nature, humanity, and religion in the poetry of Christina Rossetti and Michael Field is not necessarily an intuitive one. The peaks of the poets’ artistry and publication were more than a decade apart, and Field was known for Decadent, sapphic verse in the Elizabethan and Hellenistic traditions while Rossetti’s devotional poetry called on the rich sacramental liturgies and incarnational imagery of her Anglo-Catholic background. In fact, Katherine Harris Bradley and Edith Emma Cooper—the women who were aunt and niece, lesbian partners, and the joint poets behind the pen name Michael Field—did not formally convert to Catholicism until 1907. However, the Fields “admired Rossetti” (Blain 43) and were acutely aware of her influence on the Victorian poetic landscape, having mutually published in British periodicals such as Athenaeum and Century Guild Hobby Horse. Commonalities between Rossetti and Field’s portrayal of the human, the more-than-human, and the divine in nature is traceable as early as 1893 with the publication of Underneath the Bough, a collection of Field’s poetry which is the subject of this post.
Following her death in 1894, the Fields penned an elegy for Rossetti which was printed in The Academy. In the sonnet, the poets liken Rossetti to two female figures from Greek mythology, Syrinx and Daphne, both nymphs who relinquished their embodiment and transformed into reeds and laurel to evade the sexual advances of Pan and Apollo. Field calls this the “poet’s right / To slip into the universe” (Field, “To Christina Rossetti,” 5-6), upholding death as an escape from suffering and violence into nature. This imagery is significant not only because it illustrates a persistent tension in Field’s poetry, “anxiety about the body and soul… [resolved] having been made one with nature” (Maxwell 37), but also because it gestures to the primary intersection of Rossetti and Field’s representations of the relationship between nature and humanity.
This volume of Underneath the Bough is what the authors call a “revised and decreased edition,” published the same year as its original release in 1893 (Field, Underneath the Bough, frontmatter). A rare copy of this collection, which belonged to and bears the extensive penciled annotations of twentieth-century Field scholar Henri Locard, can be found in the Armstrong Browning Library’s 19th Century Women Poets Collection. A digital copy can be accessed through the ABL’s website, linked above.
As indicated in the title of the collection, Underneath the Bough is unified by its recurrent representations of nature. In the preface of this rare edition, the Fields make readers aware of the changes they have made to the volume since its original publication earlier that year by saying “the bough to whose shade we re-invite them is in some of its features altered since the spring” (Field, Underneath the Bough, preface), referring to their poetry as a branch between the human mind and body and the natural world. Their paradigm for the human/more-than-human relationship in nature is manifest in three primary aspects which correlate with Rossetti’s own paradigm. In Underneath the Bough, Field portrays nonhuman nature in vibrant communion with itself and at odds with the forces and features of humanity, a breach that is only reconcilable through the dissipation of human embodiment back to the earth in death.
One of the poems in which the first tenet of the Fields’ depiction of natural communion is most apparent is “O Wind, thou hast thy kingdom in the trees.” In it, the poets unify every element of the natural world, describing the wind as encompassing and ordering “all thine instruments in tune, / Thine orchestra / Of heaving fields, and heavy, swinging fir” (5-7) to align it with one triumphant song, “rehears[ing] / Her ancient freedom to the universe” (9-10). This poem was written over a dozen years before Bradley and Cooper formally converted to Catholicism and the divine forces that are present in Underneath the Bough most frequently appear in mythic form from various ancient pantheons. However, not only does the poem echo Biblical language in its portrayal of the created world— “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them” (Revelation 5:13 NRSV)—as having a “voice [that] goes out through all the earth” (Psalm 19:4 NRSV) to declare the glory of God, but also reflects the universal communion of nature which Rossetti theologizes in her poetry.
Rossetti opens her poetic adaptation of a liturgical hymn called the Benedicite, “All Thy Works Praise Thee, O Lord: A Processional Of Creation,” with the voice of “All-Creation,” who “sing my song of praise / To God Who… / sends me forth by multitudinous ways” (1-3), articulating the simultaneously diverse and harmonized voice of the more-than-human natural world in musical language which reverberates through Field’s poem. While creation explicitly sings to and for God in Rossetti’s poem, the orchestral anthem of Field’s Wind draws upon language of divine power and presence in its “lavish, large, soothing, refluent” (18) rehearsal of “Her ancient freedom to the universe” (10). In both Rossetti and Field’s poetry, more-than-human nature is unified in communion with itself through the coalescence of its myriad, multiform parts in a cosmic melody.
In Field’s poem “Down the forest-path I fled,” however, the representation of the dynamics between humans and more-than-humans in nature begins to deviate from the interspecies communion of Rossetti’s verse. In the poem, the speaker watches a bee harvest nectar from a foxglove. In a jarring turn, the speaker then “closed [the foxglove] and shut him up, / Till I laughed and set him free” (6-7). The speaker gains nothing but pitiless amusement by imprisoning the bee, yet does so to enact an unnatural power upon a natural process, dichotomizing the dynamics of the human/more-than-human relationship in the poem. The poem depicts “a material world whose powerful processes the human is both deeply entwined in, yet profoundly ignorant of… [and] challenges traditional notions of human mastery over the natural environment” (Bickle, “The Fierce Earth,” 79). In responding to the bee’s pollination—itself unproblematic and separate from human function—with cruelty, the speaker situates himself in conflict with the cycles of the natural world that he cannot appropriate for his own benefit.
This division of alliance between the human and the more-than-human in nature is manifest in Rossetti’s poem “To what purpose is this waste?” in which she critiques the popular Victorian view of the natural world as a mine for human consumption. In the poem, the speaker comments on the processes of nature which register as fruitless to her because they provide no human profit. One of these is, as in Field’s poem, the process of pollination—Rossetti’s speaker is critiqued for regarding as a “waste / Of good” the “honey” that “wild bees” store for themselves “where no man dwells” and no “human mouths” can “taste” (28-31). However, following this declaration of waste, the poem traces a shift in the perspective of the speaker from at first an exploitative understanding of more-than-human nature to one in which her “eyes were opened to behold / All hidden things” (43-44). The speaker bridges the impasse between humanity and more-than-human nature in order to see herself in communion with nature rather than in dominion over it. Even her understanding of pollination is transformed as a result: she sees that “honey which the wild bees draw / From flowers, and store for future need / By a perpetual law” (116-118) proceeds from God whose “work was good” (121). While the speaker in Rossetti’s poem eventually recognizes herself to be a participant in the processes of the nonhuman natural world even if they do not directly benefit her, the speaker in Field’s poem remains bereft of communion with the bee he has trapped in the foxglove, signaling the divide between human and more-than-human life in Field’s poetry.
This divide is, however, broached by death. Coincident with their conversions to Catholicism, the Fields dedicated a volume of poetry entitled Flame of Love to their dog, Whym Chow, whose death represented a cosmic reconciliation of the human and more-than-human as well as of the natural and spiritual for the poets. In the collection, the Fields present Whym Chow as “sanctified” and an “embodiment of the Holy Ghost” (Bickle, “Michael Field in Their Time and Ours,” 168). By analogically coding their deceased dog with incarnational imagery, the poets signal their understanding of the communion between human and more-than-human nature as occurring through death; in fact, the poets believed that after he died, Whym Chow “spiritually brought [their] souls together in holy trinity” (Bickle 175). This communion of nature through death is the culmination of the reconciliation between human and more-than-human nature previously in conflict with each other in Underneath the Bough.
One of the final poems in the collection, “Little Lettice is dead, they say,” seems at first to be a sentimental exhortation not to hold too tightly to loved ones who have passed away, to “conceive [them] free / … / and no longer rue [them]” (41-43). However, the language used to describe the death of Lettice, the “brown sweet child” (2), blurs the borders between the human and the more-than-human, between body and botany. Throughout the poem, the subject, Lettice, is often named by way of imagery drawn from the natural landscape, from a riverbed, to hills, to a breeze. One of the most frequent likenesses is that of Lettice to a willow tree whose “boughs by storm are tossed” (26), and “her willow-branches is thinning” (36). In the second line, “willow-branches” is a plural noun, but the verb used (“is”) is in the singular conjugation, indicating that the willow-branches are not only an image of Lettice but actually Lettice herself, a connection that is compounded by the association of willow trees with death and their presence in graveyards since the eighteenth century (Laqueur 135). In depicting Lettice as a willow tree, Field enmeshes Lettice’s transformation from life to death with the regeneration of human remains into graveyard trees through decomposition.
This human/more-than-human blurring is amplified when the poem in this reprinted edition of Underneath the Bough is compared to the version included in its original publication. As seen in a rare copy housed in the ABL from the collection of Sarianna Browning (sister of Robert Browning), the first printing names the subject not as Lettice, but Lettuce. This slight shift in spelling points to the enmeshment of the human and more-than-human through the subject of the poem, who permeates the boundary between person and plant. Further, given Field’s interest in Early Modern literature, it is likely that even the later iteration of the subject’s name is also an allusion to vegetation, as early instances of the word “lettuce” from and following the Jacobean period frequently spell it as “lettice” (“lettuce, n.” OED Online). By interchanging the variable spellings of “lettuce” throughout history in their poem, the Fields point to the permeable boundary between the human and more-than-human.
Like Rossetti herself as Syrinx and Daphne from Field’s elegy, Lettice/Lettuce transforms into and transcends her alienation from nonhuman nature only after her death. The liminality of her body between person and plant gestures toward the Field’s recurrent use of “the physical body to engage with spiritual questions” (Wilson 179). In dying, Lettice/Lettuce has “lost her name” (27)—a name which is itself a gesture toward her ultimate absorption into the earth—and the indicators of her humanity in order that the reader might “conceive her free / Where the bright drops be / On the hills” (41-43), in final communion with more-than-human nature through death.
While Rossetti does not portray the same drastic rift between human and more-than-human nature in life as Field, her theology of ultimate redemption after the return of Christ in the end-times parallels Field’s representation of natural communion through death. In “An Old-World Thicket,” Rossetti’s speaker declares that “all the world is passing /… / and [all creatures] are born to die” (113-115). Yet at the end of the poem, she finds solace in the knowledge that she, along with all worshipping creation, is “Journeying together toward the sunlit west” (177). Despite the original discrepancy between the speaker’s internal turbulence and “the talk / Of all rejoicing creatures far or near” (159-160), the speaker not only unites with the earth in its sympathetic “mourning with [her] in an undertone” (132) but ultimately enters into communion with it as part of a multiform “homeward flock” (168) moving as one toward a New Earth. For Field, though more-than-human nature is itself harmonized in a cosmic orchestra, it remains divided from humanity and only reconciled in death. For Rossetti, multiform creation is allied in its journey together toward the redemption and unity that all living things reflect. Together, though, Field and Rossetti articulate in their poetry a collectively enmeshed representation of the ultimate communion after death between nature in all its diverse forms.
This post could incite further study of representations of nature and religion in the early poetry of Michael Field, a critically neglected topic. Scholars could put Field’s poetry in conversation with the work of more canonical Victorian poets in addition to Rossetti—such as Tennyson and EBB—especially in regards to the sacramental treatment of animals (as in their volume Flame of Love) and the tension between gender and religion as manifest in natural analogy (as in their volume Sight and Song), utilizing the collections in the Armstrong Browning Library to do so. Field’s poetry provides fertile ground for a consideration of the enmeshment between nature and religion in communion with other Victorian poets.
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Maxwell, Catherine. “Michael Field, death, and the effigy.” Word & Image, 34:1 (2018): 31-39.
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“lettuce, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press.