Katharine and Edith, aka Michael Field

Welcome back to the Richmond Read-along! Today’s poem is from Michael Field. Field is the pseudonym of the English writers Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper, two of the literary figures who lived in our Borough. The women were niece and aunt, as well as life-long lovers. Originally used to mask their gender and allow them to be taken seriously as a writer, Field became a term of endearment which the two women used to illustrate how they were so close they were almost one entity. While their relationship would have been scandalous had it become widely known – as much due to the fact they were both women as to the incestuous nature – their loss of reputation after a brief peak had more to do with them being unmasked as women. The couple lived in Richmond from 1899 until Edith’s death in 1913 at 1 The Paragon, Petersham Road. Katharine died shortly afterwards, and they are buried together in St Mary Magdalen cemetery in Mortlake.

While they were all but forgotten for decades, Field is one of the authors who is seeing a minor revival due to modern interests in queer history, women’s history, and forgotten but influential poets. Field’s poetry was Romantic and Aesthetic, and often inspired by romantic love, longing and art. Field was influenced by Sappho, who was enjoying a rediscovery at the time, and showed similarities to Keats. Today’s poem comes from probably Field’s best known collection of poetry, “Sight and Song.” Inspired by pieces of art, each poem is linked to a different work. The poem we are reading is “Drawing of Roses and Violets,” inspired by a study by Leonardo Da Vinci.

Drawing of Roses and Violets

Leonardo saw the spring 
Centuries ago, 
Saw the spring and loved it in its flowers— 
Violet, rose
One that grows 
Mystic, shining on the tufted bowers
And burns its incense to the summer hours ; 
And one that hiding low, 
Half-face, half-wing, 
With shaded wiles 
Hides and yet smiles. 

Leonardo drew the blooms
On an April day : 
How his subtle pencil loved its toil, 
Loved to draw !
For he saw 
In the rose’s amorous, open coil 
Women’s placid temples that would foil 
Hearts in the luring way 
That checks and dooms 
Men with reserve 
Of limpid curve. 

Leonardo loved the still 
Violet as it blows, 
Plucked it from the darkness of its leaves, 
Where it shoots 
From wet roots ; 
Found in it the precious smile that weaves
Sweetness round Madonna’s mouth and heaves 
Her secret lips, then goes, 
At its fine will, 
About her face 
He loved to trace. 

Leonardo drew in spring, 
Restless spring gone by,
Flowers he chose should never after fade 
For the wealth
Of strange stealth 
In the rose, the violet’s half-displayed, 
Mysterious smile within the petals’ shade 
That season did not die
Like everything, 
Of ruin’s blight 
And April’s flight.

You can find this poem and the image that inspired it at The Poems of Michael Field, an online educational resource that portrays the poems of “Sight and Song” with their artworks, as well as detailing the poems’ rhyme schemes and linking other useful information. Members of Richmond upon Thames Borough Libraries can find more information in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, where the lives of both women are listed under Katharine Bradley. For a more casual biography, see this article.

Join us tomorrow for the next Richmond Read-along!