Michael Field’s Aesthetic Conduct Book

Dominique Gracia is a second-year part-time PhD student at the University of Exeter, working under Professor Regenia Gagnier and Dr Kate Hext. Her research focuses on late-nineteenth-century ekphrastic writing and relationships with art-objects. You can follow her on Twitter @graciado.

Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper’s 1892 volume of poetry, Sight and Song, written under their shared pseudonym Michael Field, is unusual in that it comprises solely ekphrastic poems, predominantly from the Renaissance period.[1]

If we approach Sight and Song in the context of lived experience and encountering art-objects, then we can make sense of the volume as a conduct book. Conduct books emphasise self-improvement and teach individuals ‘appropriate’ behaviours rooted in normative moral values. Thus, the ‘proper’ appreciation of art—whatever that might mean to individual authors—is achieved only via appropriate behaviour in encountering art-objects. Aesthetic literature was one important mechanism for constituting aestheticism, and one that was more readily accessible to Michael Field than, for example, public lecturing.

Part of a lively aesthetic milieu, in their correspondence and co-authored diaries, Bradley and Cooper recorded visits to art-galleries, impressions of individual art-objects, attendance at lectures on art-criticism, and conversations with fellow aesthetes. In a letter of 2 February 1892, Bradley advises Mary Costelloe on writing art-criticism: “never say ‘of course such an[d] such person bears trace of Giorgione’s influence’” because “such a remark makes the poor student hot with shame & angry at his ignorance”.[2] The image of offering a fresh form of aesthetic education, apart from the dogmatic lectures and writings of male contemporaries, is striking.[3] We can imagine various instances in which Costelloe’s partner, Bernard Berenson, might have made Bradley feel “hot with shame & angry”.

Sight and Song, published shortly after Bradley wrote to Costelloe, embodies this approach to developing aesthetic conduct. The ‘Introduction’ expressly sets out a controversial aesthetic project of objective translation between image and verse, subordinating the authors’ literary labours to the magical “song” of art-objects.[4] However, this veils a more ambitious and subjective project suggested by the paratextual matter, which organises the poems in respect of the titles and painters of each art-object: the ‘translation’ of the formative experience of visiting an art gallery into the experience of reading a volume of poetry, with nuanced ebbs and flows in the represented encounters with the individual art-objects that are arranged for the aesthete’s pleasure. The only constant across the volume is the title and subtitle format, offering a ‘golden thread’ through the volume to guide the reader, and it is worth remembering that although the availability of photographic reproductions of art-objects had significantly increased by the 1890s, many readers would have seen these paintings through woodcuts or engravings, if at all.

The volume’s poems can be grouped into three forms of ekphrasis. The first two are poems where it is clear from the verse that a painting is being described, and poems where it is non-obvious. Briefly to illustrate the distinction, we can compare the language of the poems on Watteau’s L’Indifférent and di Lorenzo’s A Sant’ Imagine.

The first exemplifies a ‘scene’ poem. Setting aside the title and sub-title, nothing in the poem implies that the speaker is encountering an art-object; instead, it could be describing an imagined encounter, or the memory of a ballet. We could happily read the poem under the title ‘Le Danseur’ and be none the wiser.

However, ‘A ‘Sant’ Imagine’ is clear from its opening lines that it is a response to an art object. The first words may not be determinative—think of the cliché ‘You look a picture!’—but the verse continues with a discussion of key components of a painted image, “colour” and “device”, before reflecting on the painter’s actions and his (assumed) emotional response to the painting’s content: “ecstasy” as he “la[ys] / The pattern of this red brocade” (ll.3-4, 7-8). Without the title and sub-title, we might not immediately identify the poem as describing A Sant’ Imagine, but we would certainly be on the hunt to identify a painting as the poem’s ‘original’.

The third type of poem that we find in Sight and Song is liminal, one that transition between describing ‘scene’ and ‘painting’, reflecting the “patient and continuous sight” that Michael Field advocates in the Preface. Perhaps the most liminal poem of all, just to give a quick example, is ‘Death of Procris’, wherein only a subtle slip into the passive voice and the participle in line 47—“Two figures at her head and feet are seen”— suggest a static art-object being viewed.

From this single gesture, the reader understands the role of self-possession during an encounter with an art-object that could be all-absorbing, as in ‘L’Indifférent’. The poem lies precisely midway through the volume—it is the 16th poem—and this line towards the end of the poem serves as a gentle rebuke to any (prospective) aesthete who might have been allowing their mind’s eye to focus solely on the scene within the painting, rather than the painting itself.

MF visualisationAs we proceed through the volume, we find ourselves constantly shifting between one type of poem or the other; clearer examples of ‘scene’ and ‘painting’ poems at the beginning of the volume give way to more complicated, nuanced poems that blend both types. Based on my own readings of the poems, the graph opposite illustrates the volume’s shift between ‘scene’ and ‘painting’ poems, and the various stages in between. Such variation hints at the experience of moving between one art-object and another, being struck at some points by the object qua art-object, as a whole object offered for the connoisseur’s aesthetic enjoyment, and at others being drawn in to the painted scene itself.

Through such their sustained, volume-length meditation on the nature of an observer’s encounters with art-objects, individually and in a collection, Sight and Song offers a means for Michael Field to intervene in the communal negotiation and construction of aesthetic behaviours and education, in order to make space for a more subjective approach that gave their own responses to encountering art-objects parity of esteem with those of critics like Pater, Berenson and Swinburne.


[1] Sight and Song (Elkin Mathews and John Lane: London, 1892)

[2] Transcription by Marion Thain and Ana Parejo-Vadillo, Michael Field, The Poet: Published and Manuscript Materials (Plymouth: Broadview Editions, 2009), p.328

[3] The gender politics of a female ‘student’ of Costelloe’s partner, Berenson, advocating this distinct approach to another female writer on art is suggestive. It is also worth noting that my suggestion that Sight and Song should be read as an aesthetic conduct book offers a rebuttal to Yeats’ dismissal of the volume as a “simply unmitigated guide-book”; indeed, in the same letter to Costelloe, Bradley declared, “You know how often the notes to a book may be of quite rare value. Think what it would be to make perfect guide-books” (p.327). The different value-judgments here offer an important subtext. (Thain and Parejo-Vadillo reprint Yeats’ review, first printed in July 1892 in The Bookman. See pp.361-3.)

[4] The project to “translate into verse what the lines and colours of certain chosen pictures sing in themselves” (Sight and Song, p.v) seems to run directly contra to Pater’s exhortation to consider ‘what is this to me?’, although Ana Parejo-Vadillo has explored how the volume is in fact in close keeping with Pater’s methods (‘“Sight and Song”: Transparent Translations and a Manifesto for the Observer’, Victorian Poetry, 38 (Spring, 2000), 15-34).

2 responses to “Michael Field’s Aesthetic Conduct Book

  1. Pingback: Michael Field week « Looks good on paper...·

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