Alfred H. Miles, ed. Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century. 1907.
Critical and Biographical Essay by Lionel Johnson
Michael Field (Katherine Harris Bradley) (18461914)
MICHAEL FIELD has published several volumes of plays: in 1884, Callirrhoë and Fair Rosamund; in 1885, The Fathers Tragedy, William Rufus, and Loyalty or Love? in 1886, Brutus Ultor; in 1887, Canute the Great and The Cup of Water; in 1890, The Tragic Mary; in 1892, Stephania. She has also published three volumes of lyrics, entitled Long Ago (1889), Sight and Song (1892), Under the Bough (1893), besides poems in various journals and magazines, with a few pieces of prose. It is upon her tragedies that Michael Field can most justly rest a claim to distinction; the form of poetry in which the least excellence has been shown by English poets during the last and the present centuries. A careful student of the matter might come to the conclusion, that the best tragedies of the century have been written, either by poets not of the first order, or by poets of the first order, whose best work is not dramatic in form. Whether or no Michael Field be a poet of the first order, at least few poets of our century, with powers equal to hers, have found in tragedy the one form most congenial to their imagination. The palmary virtue of her tragedies we take to be their conception, and their treatment, of the ruling passions, and the dominant ideas of men and women. Many tragedians labour to express that in human nature, which is uncommon; and that in human fortunes, which is unusual. And this they do, not because by such means they can best bring to light the deep and radical passions, or ideas, of men, but for the sake of strangeness and of novelty. No one acquainted with the great Greek and English masterpieces of tragedy can condemn the tragic usage of what is uncommon or unusual; but he perceives that Sophocles and Shakespeare, each after his kind, concluded all under law; the sorrows of dipus and of Lear bear witness to something more lasting, and more universal, than themselves. It is the peculiar note or mark of Michael Field, that her tragedies have a profound spirit of this sort; yet a spirit very peculiar to themselves. In all her plays there is an appeal to mans ruling passions and to his dominant ideas, but to passions and to ideas of one special kind. The appeal is always made to those human instincts, which are traditional, or inherited, or innate; not to passions from without, creatures of circumstance, or of chance. The motherhood of earth, with its deep and personal appeal; the claims of patriotism, with its holiness and its commanding sanction; the necessities of a mans nature struggling to work out its destiny in fulfilment of inherited desires; all passions, instincts, and ideas which come from sources far off in the past history of a man, a race, a country, or which come from sources deeply rooted in one human soul: these are the materials of Michael Field. It might almost seem as though these tragedies, so full of this vehement and vigorous spirit, could only proceed from this age: an age in which history is concerned with the social combinations of men; science, with organic life; and studies of every kind, with origins, with developments, and with vital forces. Wordsworth, wishing to show how secluded and simple country lives can yet be tragic, wrote:
Amid the groves, under the shadowy hills,
The generations are prepared: the pangs,
The Internal pangs, are ready;
those great lines express with perfect accuracy the tragic genius, the tragic attitude, of Michael Field: the words prepared and ready, in their fulness of meaning, might have been chosen by her. Again, Shakespeares yet greater lines, where he imagines
the prophetic soul
Of the wide world, dreaming on things to come,
in like manner remind us of Michael Field; of the way in which, once more to quote Wordsworth, she conceives of Brutus or of Canute, as Christian king and Roman consul, each hearing
That which a man of science, some master of the comparative method in history or in anthropology, would term a tendency, is for Michael Field a tragic motive: and thus she acts well upon that lofty definition of poetry, that it is the impassioned expression, which is the countenance of all science, and also the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge. And this very power of hers gives to her a fine simplicity of purpose and of construction: a scene here, a speech there, this or that character and phrase, may somewhat offend us; but never, in point of intention or design. Here we may touch upon the literary execution of Michael Fields plays. In their virtues and in their vices, they are Elizabethan: the virtues are many, the vices are few. It will serve to indicate the admirable strength and beauty of Michael Fields expression at its highest, if we make a bold comparison. Lear, in the most tragic and pitiful lines of Shakespeare, cries to the winds and storms:
It is reasonable to think that England will never give birth to a second Shakespeare; it is unreasonable to hold that no one can possibly catch anything of his spirit. Michael Field, at her highest point of excellence, writes with an imagination, an ardour, a magnificence, in degree far lower, in kind not other, than the imagination, the ardour, the magnificence of Shakespeare. In witness of this great claim, let us point to such passages as the last scene of William Rufus, with the speeches of Beowulf, the blinded Saxon peasant; to the third scene of Fair Rosamund, with the speeches of Queen Elinor; to the fourth scene of Canute, where Gunhild the Norse prophetess, confronts the king; to the scene of Coresus death in Callirrhoë; to the fourth act of The Fathers Tragedy, with the speech of starving Rothsay. And these passages are not brilliant, chance felicities, purple patches of composition; they are central, or final passages, in which the writers imagination becomes intense, and quickens into its most perfect form. And, the very faults or vices of Michael Fields manner proceed from a laudable impulse; every phrase must be characteristic, there must be no commonplace, no sign of flagging. Hence come certain violences of expression, audacities and extravagancies, Elizabethan in style, but without the justification of Elizabethan dramatists. They had no traditions of English tragedy behind them; tragic verse was new, the classics were new, life itself was new, and all the romance and adventurous spirit of the world. Their extravagance, whether of careful Euphuism or of careless energy, was in equal measure an extravagance of ignorance, of inexperience. But in Michael Field, there is too often a deliberate style of mistaken ingenuity and force. Yet no reader, in whatever degree he felt this effect, could feel that it vitiated an entire play; the extravagance is merely verbal, never one of conception. It may also be, that this less happy style is the result of the peculiar spirit of these plays, and not only of Elizabethan influence. The cumbrous magnificence of Æschylus, ridiculed by Aristophanes, came of his vast and mysterious conceptions: the singular difficulty of Sophocles came of his subtle and quick conceptions. Just so may this occasional infelicity of Michael Field come of her love for, of her occupation with, those primitive or radical conceptions, the strength of which is expressed in struggle and in conflict. A certain fierceness and savagery are perceptible, in even the gentler and the more pitiful of Michael Fields characters; as the poor and the simple are apt, under emotion, to speak in language of more than common beauty or strength, so do the men and women of these plays; and we must not be too hasty in concluding, that what may be a proper stroke of imagination, is but an inartistic mannerism. For, after all, Michael Fields writing expresses character, it is characteristic. Perhaps certain modern readers or writers, who might see nothing but praise in that expression, would see nothing but blame, did we exchange characteristic for moral. It is a curious delusion of our times, that the words ethical and moral are taken to mean didactic and doctrinal; a lamentable, if also a ludicrous, mistake. Does a poet preach virtue or vice? In either case, he is didactic. Does he exhibit the lives, the actions, the virtues, or the vices, of men? He is moral. A poet, who tells the truth of things, whose imagination is true, may present the lives of men in their complexity, their suffering, their desire, with no word of doctrine or of advice, and his work will be inevitably moral; full of character, from his work, glad or sorrowful, pleasant or painful, the reader will inevitably learn something; he will learn something of the laws of life. This, indeed, is all that Arnold meant by his famous definition of literature; literature deals with life, as it appears to thought; poetry deals with life, as it appears to imagination; and imagination is the harmony of emotion and thought. It is this that Aristotle held in his poetics; where character with plot, that is, man in the struggle of life, is presented as the subject for tragedy, with all the ornaments of musical speech. Certainly, the plays of Michael Field bear the tests of Arnold and of Aristotle: radiant, adorned, outside, they are; they have also a hidden ground of thought and of austerity within.
The lyrical poems of the volume, Long Ago, are suggested each by a fragment of Sappho. Many of them have the grace and charm of the Greek Anthology; but, since Catullus failed in translating Sappho, it is no reproach to Michael Field that she has composed some exquisite verses, but has not brought Sappho back to us. Indeed, Michael Field is not always happy in her lyrics and sonnets; they are apt to be too full of bold phrases and of struggling thoughts, which cannot contain themselves within their bounds. But in this age of finished pettiness and prettiness in poetry, it is a great thing to excel in the more arduous tasks. Not that a perfect lyric is anything but a rare and fine achievement, only the greatest poets can write a perfect lyric. But so many living poets, unable to produce lyrics of the highest excellence, still persist in their attempt, and produce innumerable lyrics of a poor quality, that the sight of a poet, grappling with the labours of tragedy, is an inspiring and a welcome sight. And much of Michael Fields dramatic verse, in her pastoral or more delicate scenes, has all the grace and charm of a lyrical imagination. The scenes of the faun in Callirrhoë, of the fairies in Fair Rosamund, are instances of a quaint and pathetic beauty.
One word, before conclusion, may be said about the historical character of the plays. All, but two, are concerned with history; all of the historical plays, but three, are concerned with British history. Following, in this too, a great tradition, Michael Field has composed plays upon subjects from Greece and Rome; but she has most frequently chosen the great chronicles or stories of our own land. In these, she has exercised a free discretion of treatment, caring rather for truth of spirit, and of substance, than of the accidents and of the letter. Thus, in William Rufus and in Canute, historical fact is little altered; but, as the dramatist tells us, it was the sight of the New Forest and of the Eastern Fens, that largely helped to inspire and to mould those tragedies of the Norman, the Saxon, and the Dane. The poet, no less than the Platonic philosopher, should be a spectator of all time and of all existence; and art is independent of social and national limits; but a poet is under no prohibition against patriotism; and to write historical plays, fine in art and fine in feeling, is to do good service for his country.
Michael Field has since published Attila, my Attila, a play (1896); Fair Rosamund, a drama (1897); The World at Auction, a play (1898); Anna Ruina, a drama (1899); Noontide Branches, a drama, privately printed (1899); The Race of Leaves, a play in verse (1901); Julia Donna, a play (1903), and other works. It is no longer a secret that the nom-de-plume Michael Field for years concealed the identity of two ladies writing in collaborationMiss Bradley and Miss Cooper.