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MICHAEL FIELD AND SAPPHIC FAME: “MY DARK-LEAVED LAURELS WILL ENDURE”

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 August 2006


Francis O'Gorman
Affiliation:
The University of Leeds

Extract

Long Ago (1889), Michael Field's inaugural collection of verse, celebrated Sappho, the ancient poetess of Lesbos. The volume proclaimed the diversity of her sexuality; it saluted verse that was connected to the self; and it urged the authenticity of her creative force in ages beyond her death. Taking surviving fragments of Sapphic writing as embarkation points for new poems in her spirit, Michael Field, the joint pseudonym of the two poets Katherine Bradley (1846–1914) and Edith Cooper (1862–1913), hailed the continuing presence of the Greek in the modern age, drawing the reader back to an imagined version of Sappho's mind and experience, her desires and troubles, of which history held so slight a record. Developing ideas articulated by Robert Browning, particularly in the opening book of The Ring and the Book (1868–69), Long Ago discerned in poetry a way of regenerating the energy – or of creating the illusion of such regeneration – of an almost-lost, but indisputably authentic person from the ancient Mediterranean. The volume privileged a post-Romantic assumption about the signal importance of the self behind writing, the complexities and contradictions of which I explore here, and it understood modern poetry's dealings with a nearly vanished Greece as recuperative of a nearly disappeared artist. As such, Long Ago implicitly imagined the work of the contemporary poet as, to use Robert Browning's word, a matter of “galvanism” (Browning I.740): the calling back into the present of the lost forms of distant lives.


Type
Literary Pasts; Modernist Futures
Copyright
© 2006 Cambridge University Press

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