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Long Ago.   By Michael Field.   (Bell.)

 

IT is four years since Dr. H. T. Wharton, by his excellent litte volume upon Sappho – "memoir, text, selected renderinds, and a literal translation" – did all that care, scholarship, and tact could to do introduce the great Aeolian singer to English readers; and now a powerful English poetess has come to do much more – to extend the Sapphic fragments, that have been preserved for us by the quotations of grammarians and lexicographers, into original lyrics, embodying the aspirations, human and artistic, of her of Lesbos, and mirroring the surroundings of gracious land and goodly fellowship amid which these songs of piercing sweetness were sung so "Long Ago."

The poems of the volume, then, are no immediate and instinctive songs – like those of Burns, for instance – embodying the singer's own pressing and momentary feelings. To adopt a classification used by Mr. Browning regarding certain of his own pieces, while "lyric in expression" they are "dramatic in principle," "so many utterances of so many imaginary persons, not mine"; or, rather, they are the imagined utterances of that one greatest poetess of antiquity, who has been to some of as little more than a visionary presence, the dimmest shadow of a shade. into this far-off personality, aided always by the surviving fragments of its utterance, the imagination of the latter-day singer has entered most effectively, the "life in her abolishing the death of things," her own most ardent poet- and woman-heart – "all air and fire" – throbbing in rhythm with that which has so long lain still, her mouth receiving its song as though direct from the lips which for thousands of years have ceased to curve and quiver.

The readers of Michael Field already know that she possesses much of lyrical power. The songs scattered through her dramas, as well as a few stray pieces published in various periodicals, some of them in the pages of the ACADEMY, were enough to prove her skill and aptitude in this direction. The snatches of wavering song that flit through her plays – the "Where winds abound," of "The Cup of Water"; the "Who hath ever given," of the "The Father's Tragedy" – were lyrics of the most typical quality, similar in kind to the "It was a lover and his lass," and the "Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more," of Shakspere; to the "O Sorrow, why dost borrow," of Keats; to the "My silks and fine array," and the "0 Rose, thou art sick," of Blake – things of a clear, simple, insequent, bird-like note, in which we do not at all look for recognisably logical continuity of thought; in which sound, at least as much as sense, is the effective agent in the emotional effect produced. The lyric is, indeed, the most typically poetic of all poetic forms, that in which we find poetry in subtlest and purest quintessence, most "free from baser matter." And the lyric is most characteristically itself, is seen in its most typical form, in songs such as those we have named – songs in which it has reached its utmost possible height, and trembles on the border-line separating it from another form of art; in which it is ready to pass into music, to dispense altogether, for its effect, with the aid of words, and to employ sound alone as its minister.

But a volume of lyrics of this most typical, this doubly-refined and rarefied, sort is impossible: singer cannot long sing, listener cannot long breathe in air so thin and keen. Lyrics of this kind are the true "song of the dramatists," points of pause, or rather of sudden airy flight, amid the tamer or statelier diction of the dramatic form – a diction which, of all poetic forms, approaches most closely to the actualities of real life, to the mere recorded speech of veritable men; and which is, in consequence, of all poetic forms the least essentially poetic, that most apt to drop, in all hands but the very highest – sometimes, for a moment, in the hands of the highest himself – into the insensitiveness of prose.

The lyrics of the present book, then, are no fitful snatches of song, evolved by mere instinct, comparable in emotional effect, and in the mode by which that effect is reached, to the sounds of nature, to the murmuring of the brooklet, or to the sighing of the wind through autumn branches. More of conscious aim and effort, more of definite brain power, is required in lyrics which are meant to open and disclose the "red-leaved tables" of the heart of the perfect poet, the supreme lover of "Long Ago." The theme of the book is the loveliness of visible things – of nature, in that sweet Aeolian land, and of the fair humanity to which this nature was the fitting setting; the overmastering power of passion; and the struggles of the poet's soul, irresistibly impelled to seek perfect expression for both: surely a sufficiently ample gamut for the music of any poet.

Here is a noble rendering of the singer's heart, striving to touch and kindle into sympathy the hearts of all its listeners, and then ready to sink back into the simplest longings for the warmth of most ordinary human bliss:

"I sang to women gathered round;
 Forth from my own heart-springs
 Welled out the passion; of the pain
 I sang if the beloved in vain
       Is sighed for – when
 They stood untouched, as at the sound
       Of unfamiliar things,
 Oh, then my heart turned cold, and then
       I dropt my wings.

"Trembling I seek thy holy ground,
       Apollo, lord of kings;
 Thou hast the darts that kill.   Oh, free
 The senseless world of apathy,
      Pierce it! – for when
 In poet's strain no joy is found,
 His call no answer brings,
 Oh, then my heart turns cold, and then
       I drop my wings.

"All flocks are Pan's; the groves resound
       To Orpheus' golden strings;
 As swan that, secret, shrills the note
 Triumphant from Apollo's throat,
       My muse, from men
 Her holy raptures would confound,
       Turns to the woods and springs,
 Whene'er my heart grows cold, and then
       I drop my wings.

"Or by the white cliff's cypress mound,
       My music wildly rings;
 I watch the hoar sails on the track
 Of moonlight; they are turning back;
       Night falls; and when
 By maiden-arms to be enwound
       Ashore the fisher flings,
 Oh, then my heart turns cold, and then
       I drop my wings".

Of even finer temper and higher pitch is the following, in which Sappho dedicates her mirror to Venus, and then – in her love for Phaon – recalls with splendid effect the story of how he ferried the disguised Aphrodite, and won her choicest gifts:

"Deep in my mirror's glossy plate
     Sweet converse oft I had
 With beauty's self, then turned, elate,
     To make my lovers glad;
 But now across the quivering glass
 My lineaments shall never pass:
 Let Aphrodite take the thing
 My shadow is dishonouring.

"Ah, fond and foolish, thou hast set
     Aside the burnished gold,
 But Phaon's eyes reflect thee yet
     A woman somewhat old!
 He watched thee come across the street
 To-day in the clear summer heat;
 And must he not perforce recall
 How the sun limned thee on the wall?

"I sigh – no sigh her bosom smote
     Who waited 'mid the crowd
 Impatient for his ferry-boat,
     An aged woman bowed
 And desolate, till Phaon saw,
 Turned swiftly, and with tender awe
 Rowed her across, his strength subdued
 To service of decrepitude.

"Beneath a beggar's sorry guise,
     O laughter-loving Queen,
 Thy servant still must recognise
     A goddess – pace and mien.
 He loved thee in thy fading hair,
 He felt thee great in thy despair,
 Thy wide, blue, clouded eyes to him
 Were beautiful, though stained and dim.

"Daughter of Cyprus, take the disk
     That pride and folly feeds;
 Like thee the glorious chance I risk,
     And in time's tattered weeds,
 Bearing of many a care the trace,
 Trusting the poet's nameless grace,
 Stand unabashed, serene, and dumb,
 For love to worship, if he come."

Still more powerful is the succeeding lyric, No. lii., unfortunately too long for quotation, dealing with the story of how Tiresias slew the snake, and so, unwittingly, changed his nature – a myth in this poet's hands, serving to illustrate, in singularly penetrative fashion, the bi-sexual make of the true poet, his

"Finer sense for bliss and dole
 His receptivity of soul."

From strenuous work like this, from poems charged with gravest, profoundest thought, we have exquisite pause and relief in the leaping gaiety of such lyrics as the "Dear bridegroom, it is spring"; while, amid the ebb and flow of tumultuous passion which sweeps through so many of the pieces, the rich full notes of the two Epithalamia – "She comes, and youthful voices," and "O Hymen Hymenaeus" – strike with admirable effect, set as to the sound of organs and of trumpets, pulsing as to the measured tread of gravely-pacing, happy feet.

The quotations which we have been able to give are sufficient to indicate, what is confirmed by a careful perusal of the entire volume, that the art of Michael Field has been rapidly gaining in certainty of touch, in sense [389] of proportion, in power of delicately artistic finish. Indeed, this book is enough to prove that she is no longer a "Prentice in the Divine Art of Poesie," but a "past master," with complete command over tools and material – entered upon that paradise which the artist attains when he can do "what he will with his own." From the first, her work has been informed with intensity and passion, has evinced sufficient native force and freshness to assure its reader that a new and original poetic personality had grasped the pen. But what she has hitherto done, amid all its splendour, was often marred by extravagance, by want of measure and of balance, and by want of finish; and these faults were fostered by the freedom of the dramatic form in which most of her earlier work was embodied. She has been wise to turn to the finer, firmer, lyric measure, and to submit herself to the straiter discipline which it affords – to its more imperious demand for the utmost possible refinement of expression, rhythm, and melody; to the facilities for balance and rounded completion afforded by brief poems, each of which, from the first, can be clearly kept in view in its entirety – as a whole possessing a definite beginning, middle, and end, with mutual bearings one upon the other.

Accordingly, the present book is by far the most perfect and thoroughly satisfying that its author has yet produced. It shows all her old force and fire. One has only to turn its pages to cull, in plenty, examples of that vivid magic of unforgettable phrase which has been a characteristic of all this poet's work, to find lines like the following –

"To give us temper of eternal youth,"

or this other –

"Full of the sap and pressure of the year."

But, in addition to the old qualities that delighted us, we have here an artistic finish, we have an ease, precision, and restraint, such as has not hitherto been visible in the work of Michael Field.

To my mind, almost the only blemish in the book, the only point that calls – and it does call rather loudly – for revision, is its final poem, one distinctly unfortunate in the minor key in which it is set, and forming no satisfying or effectively dramatic culmination to the lyrical sequence which it closes. It does not leave one tingling with excitement; it is too quietly meditative in tone; neither in its measure nor in its words does it suggest the moment that preceded the wild flashing of the white form from the Leucadian cliff.

In spite, however, of this defect – this all but solitary defect, as I hold it – the volume is one for which we may well be right grateful, one to which many readers will turn, and turn again.

It becomes the wary critic to be sparing of prognostication – to avoid, as far as may be, "the gratuitous folly of prophesying"; for experience has taught him how blindly oblivion "scattereth her poppy," and how my lovely things have had but their moment of praise and now lie unregarded in the world. But there are times when even the most cautious must grow bold; and perhaps such a critic would not greatly err on the side of temerity if he were to assert his conviction that the present book will take a permanent place in our English literature, as one of the most exquisite lyrical productions of the latter half of the nineteenth century.

 

 

 

 

Erstdruck und Druckvorlage

The Academy. A Weekly Review of Literature, Science, and Art.
Bd. 35, 1889, Nr. 892, 8. Juni, S. 388-389.

Gezeichnet: J. M. Gray.

Die Textwiedergabe erfolgt nach dem ersten Druck (Editionsrichtlinien).


The Academy. A Weekly Review of Literature, Science, and Art   online
URL: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/006791517
URL: http://opacplus.bsb-muenchen.de/title/716416-6
URL: http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/serial?id=theacademy

 

 

Zeitschriften-Repertorium

 

Das besprochene Werk

 

 

 

Literatur

Brandmeyer, Rudolf: Poetiken der Lyrik: Von der Normpoetik zur Autorenpoetik. In: Handbuch Lyrik. Theorie, Analyse, Geschichte. Hrsg. von Dieter Lamping. 2. Aufl. Stuttgart 2016, S. 2-15.

Bristow, Joseph (Hrsg.): The Fin-de-Siècle poem. English Literary Culture and the 1890s. Athens 2005.

Cantillo Lucuara, Mayron Estefan: Michael Field's Long Ago (1889): A Transcendental Mythopoesis of Desire and Death. In: ES Review. Spanish Journal of English Studies 39 (2018), S. 69-96.

Christ, Carol T.: Victorian Poetics. In: A Companion to Victorian Poetry. Hrsg. von Richard Cronin u.a. Malden, MA 2002, S. 1-21.

Hall, Jason D. u.a. (Hrsg.): Decadent Poetics. Literature and Form at the British Fin de Siècle. New York 2013 (= Palgrave Studies in Nineteenth-Century Writing and Culture).

Marcus, Laura u.a. (Hrsg.): Late Victorian into Modern. Oxford 2016.

Martus, Steffen u.a. (Hrsg.): Lyrik im 19. Jahrhundert. Gattungspoetik als Reflexionsmedium der Kultur. Bern u.a. 2005 (= Publikationen zur Zeitschrift für Germanistik, 11).

McCormack, Jerusha H.: John Gray: Poet, Dandy, and Priest. Hanover, NH 1991.

McCormack, Jerusha H. (Hrsg.): The Selected Prose of John Gray Greensboro, NC 1992.

Parker, Sarah / Parejo, Ana (Hrsg.): Michael Field. Decadent Moderns. Athens, OH 2019.

Prins, Yopie: Victorian Sappho. Princeton, NJ 1999.

Slinn, E. Warwick: Dramatic Monologue. In: A Companion to Victorian Poetry. Hrsg. von Richard Cronin u.a. Malden, MA 2002, S. 80-98.

Thain, Marion: "Michael Field". Poetry, Aestheticism and the Fin de Siècle. Cambridge u.a. 2007.

Thain, Marion: The Lyric Poem and Aestheticism. Forms of Modernity. Edinburgh 2016.
Vgl. S. 39-40.

 

 

Edition
Lyriktheorie » R. Brandmeyer