1In Studies of the Greek Poets (1873), the critic and poet John Addington Symonds articulates a set of fundamental questions about the relationship between antiquity and modernity that informed Victorian Hellenism:
The travail of the whole earth, the unsatisfied desires of many races, the anguish of the death and birth of successive civilizations, have passed into our souls. Life itself has become a thousandfold more complicated and more difficult for us than it was in the springtime of the world. . . . How can we then bridge over the gulf which separates us from the Greeks? How shall we, whose souls are aged and wrinkled with the long years of humanity, shake hands across the centuries with those young-eyed, young-limbed immortal children? (Symonds 1873, 398)
- 1 In ‘On Translating Homer’ (1862) and ‘The Function of Criticism at the Present Time’ (1864), Matthe (...)
2Symonds’s book, which explicitly sets out to ‘bring Greek literature home to the general reader’ (Symonds 1873, v), is popularising and even domesticating in intent: it aims to strip away the veneer of mystery and privilege that surrounded ancient Greece, making the works of its poets and dramatists available, comprehensible and familiar to his Victorian contemporaries, specifically to those who had not received a training in the ancient languages. In the quoted passage, though, Symonds stops the flow of his argument in order to air some doubts not only about his own criticism, but about classical studies more generally. How far is it possible to know a culture that is so historically remote from the present and of which we have comparatively so few remains? Following an evolutionary model widespread in nineteenth-century historiography, Symonds represents antiquity and modernity as childhood and old age respectively, giving the two historical periods characteristics associated with different phases of individual life: freshness, vigour and naivety to the one; experience, weariness and melancholy to the other. The moderns’ wish to know Greece and connect with its lost culture is compared to an old person’s desire to be young again and thus go against the flow of time. The futility of this wish is encapsulated in Symonds’s memorable image of moderns and ancients shaking hands across the gulf of time, where wrinkled old skin and young flesh link together in an impossible embrace. The image of the impossible handshake conveys the limits of historical criticism, forever prevented from obtaining perfect knowledge of its object by the physical laws of time and space; but it also suggests that desire may be able to override those limits, or, more radically, that the ultimate aim of criticism is not to know the object as it really is but rather to desire it intensely.1
3The impossible touch envisioned by Symonds provides the starting point for the study of the Greek language as object of desire that I undertake in this article, where I concentrate on examples from the painter Simeon Solomon and the poetic duo Michael Field (nom de plume for Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper). Symonds provides a good context for Solomon and Michael Field because they all participated in the cultural milieu of Victorian aestheticism and shared a strong interest in Greek antiquity. More specifically, though, Symonds’s quotation from Studies of the Greek Poets anticipates my discussion in two fundamental and related ways. Firstly, his book exemplifies an encounter between textual and material cultures that was a widespread feature in Victorian Hellenism. Symonds’s subject throughout the book is Greek poetry but, when he tries to formulate a general theory of Greek aesthetics, he turns from literature to the plastic arts as his main examples. In doing so, he follows an influential German tradition that goes from Winckelmann to Hegel, which had repeatedly interrogated the relationship between texts and the visual arts, especially sculpture, when evaluating the achievement of Greek culture. As I hope to show, within English as well as German nineteenth-century Hellenism, this method created a productive traffic between verbal and visual cultures, the more so since, in contrast to texts from the more recent past, a large number of Greek and Latin textual documents have come down to us literally in a sculpted form, as inscriptions. The tendency to explore the materiality of the Greek language is especially pronounced in the second half of the nineteenth century, as epigraphy (or the study of inscriptions) gained an increasingly prominent status within classical studies at a time in which the field relied more and more on scientific methods for the study of antiquity (Alterumswissenschaft) and archaeology. Borrowing on the aesthetics of epigraphy, Greek phrases, words and even individual letters, reproduced on canvas or in the pages of modern books, could thus behave like material objects which appealed to the reader/viewer’s sense of touch, promoting a more embodied mode of sensory cognition of language than more traditional channels of literary appreciation such as the gaze and the aural. As the example from Symonds shows, the act of reading Greek could be constructed as the stage for a physical encounter with the past, enabling a special relationship between the written word and the haptic.
- 2 In the context of the present volume it is interesting to notice that Symonds updates Greek homoero (...)
4The second way in which Symonds connects with Solomon and Michael Field is that his fantasy of touching the Greeks is distinctly homoerotic: the encounter between the wrinkled old modern and the ‘young-limbed’ Greek hints at the custom of pederasty, the cross-generational relationship between an older and a younger man that constituted the prime form of attachment in Greek homosexuality. Symonds explored pederasty more freely in his privately-circulated A Problem in Greek Ethics, written as a sort of underground compendium to Studies of the Greek Poets and first published, in only ten copies, in 1883. However, in Studies of the Greek Poets—a public document open to the censure of institutionalised Victorian homophobia—references to homosexual desire and practices could only exist at the level of subtext: the homoerotic touch is ultimately connoted with unattainability, loss and regret, a compound feeling glossed elsewhere in the book as amour de l’impossible, an ambiguous phrase that implicitly condemns the way in which modern British society forces love between men to be connected with negative emotions such as secrecy and shame (Symonds 1873, 293).2
- 3 Particularly relevant in this context are Dellamora, Dowling, Evangelista and, most recently, Orrel (...)
- 4 Hurst gives a comprehensive account of the different ways in which Victorian women writers acquired (...)
- 5 In recent years several scholars have drawn attention to the counter-discursive strategies of Victo (...)
5As several critics have shown in recent years, Victorian authors like Symonds, Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde exploited the prestige that Greek enjoyed in the cultural establishment in order to construct a semi-public discourse for the positive representation of male homosexuality.3 Most of this scholarship has understandably focused on male homosexuality and male writers, as the knowledge of Greek was more widespread among wealthy Victorian men, who received a classical training in the public schools and the old universities. This article shifts the focus to female homosexuality and to examples from an artist and two women writers who, although quite different from each other in many respects, inhabited a similar position at the margins of the homosocial group of Victorian Oxbridge-educated men who pioneered the use of Greek as language of artistic idealism and sexual freedom. Solomon came from a financially insecure Jewish background and did not possess a conventional classical education. Bradley and Cooper both studied classics at university level (Bradley in Cambridge, Cooper in Bristol), but the two women never became classical scholars in the same way that Symonds did at Oxford. This was only natural at a time when women, although recently admitted to the new female colleges of the old universities as well as the relatively new urban universities, were still excluded from the systematic school training in Greek and Latin that enabled men to do well at university level, and to feel secure mastering the philological intricacies of classical studies.4 Like other Victorian women writers, though, Bradley and Cooper were able to find positive ways of using their exclusion from traditional institutions of learning in order to come up with innovative ways of understanding and imagining Greek culture that challenged the cultural norms of their times.5 For the two women, learning Greek was an act of intellectual freedom and empowerment that enabled them to move beyond respectability, domesticity and middle-class morality, and, more generally, to overthrow the gendered social and cultural expectations placed on Victorian femininity.
6Solomon and Michael Field, in other words, were both inside and outside the academic elite that drove Victorian Hellenism into a radical position, simultaneously in terms of artistic and sexual politics. While they have important biographical and professional links with leading theorists of Victorian Hellenism such as Pater, Swinburne and Symonds, their outsiderism is historically testified by the social ostracism that befell Solomon after his conviction for homosexual offences in 1873 and the exclusion of Michael Field from the Victorian poetic canon—an exclusion that literary scholars have only started to rectify in the last ten or fifteen years. For Solomon as for Michael Field, the use of Greek themes always bears the thrill of transgression. In particular, the Greek language becomes a visible and extremely malleable signifier of a complex dialectic of freedom and exclusion, tradition and transgression, inheritance and renewal, individualism and conformity.
- 6 See for instance a letter from Solomon to Swinburne [late September 1869], in The Swinburne Letters(...)
7Simeon Solomon’s watercolour Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene (1864) is one of the most explicit representations of homoerotic female touch in Victorian visual culture [see illustration 1: Solomon, Sappho and Erinna]. The work was painted for the industrialist James Leathart and was only shown publicly in 1896, at the Goupil Gallery, London (Cruise 112). In the 1860s and early 1870s, before his conviction for homosexual offences in 1873, Solomon had established a reputation as an up-and-coming pre-Raphaelite painter, with close ties to prominent artists and critics such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Walter Pater and A. C. Swinburne. Sappho and Erinna is the most elaborate of several pictures of Sappho painted by Solomon in the early 1860s, all of which emphasise the homoerotic element. The painting exemplifies a phase of intellectual collaboration with Swinburne, best documented in letters, where the two exchange views on the arts and erotic fantasies outside the framework of Victorian respectability.6 The friendship with Swinburne was also instrumental to drawing Solomon to the classical world, which became a recurrent theme in Solomon’s art from the early 1860s, at a time when the influence of medievalism was still dominant in Victorian visual culture. Like Swinburne, Solomon was drawn to decadent and perverse elements of ancient society and paganism, and used these in order to expose the narrowness of Victorian moral codes. As Elizabeth Prettejohn has noted, Solomon painted subjects from both Greek and Roman antiquity in these years; but while the large-scale Roman canvases dominate his public career, the Greek works are more intimate in size and medium (often being drawings rather than oils), and tended to circulate among closed groups of friends and allies, as they frequently broached the difficult and, to Solomon, very private topic of homoerotic love (Prettejohn 41-2).
1. Simeon Solomon, Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene, 1864.
(Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons).
- 7 Thomas Maitland [Robert Buchanan], 334-350, esp. 338. Buchanan also mentions Solomon in his polemic (...)
8Swinburne celebrated Sappho in several of his poems, most notably ‘Anactoria’, published in Poems and Ballads (1866) but composed close to the time of Solomon’s watercolour, in 1863. In ‘Anactoria’, a dramatic monologue in which the poetess addresses an unfaithful female lover, Swinburne paints an image of Sappho as a symbolist femme fatale consumed by jealousy and indulging in sadistic sexual fantasies. Unsurprisingly, the poem attracted especial moral outrage in the controversy that followed the publication of Poems and Ballads, when Robert Buchanan singled it out as a prime example of the morbid and hysterical content of Swinburne’s imagination.7 Like Swinburne, Solomon represents an openly lesbian and passionate Sappho, who embraces a woman while the two are sitting on a garden bench, and closes her eyes in the rapture of erotic intensity. The sexual connotations of the scene are emphasised by the red flowers that lie scattered on the floor and by the statue of Aphrodite, on the right-hand side of the painting, which is a reference to Sappho’s most famous poem, the so-called fragment 1 or ‘Ode to Aphrodite’, also of explicit homoerotic content (Prettejohn 42). In Solomon’s painting Aphrodite presides over the two women’s love-making as a benign presence, suggesting an understanding of eroticism that goes beyond heterosexuality and the trappings of middle-class propriety. Solomon gives an unusually frank and positive depiction of female homosexual desire, imagined en plein air, in contrast to the imagery of secrecy that saturated Victorian representations of homosexual relationships. The couple of love-making doves in the background—an obvious double for the two Greek female lovers—inscribe lesbian sexuality within the realm of nature, in counterpoint to the dominant rhetoric that brandished homosexuality as ‘unnatural’; while the black bird could be taken to represent the monastic tradition that, in centuries to come, would condemn homosexual love and push it outside the realm of representation.
9The visual reference to Sappho’s ‘Ode to Aphrodite’ alerts us to the interplay of painting, language and sculpture in Sappho and Erinna, a work which sets up a debate on the different merits and potentials of different artistic media, in the tradition of the Italian Renaissance paragone. The same plinth that supports the statue of Aphrodite also bears the attributes of Sappho’s poetic identity—her lyre and a manuscript, which have probably been laid aside in the heat of passion. Solomon celebrates the words of the poet by putting them, literally, on a pedestal, reminding us that language is the medium in which Sappho’s voice has been preserved and transmitted to posterity and that his painting, and its political message on the dignity of homosexual love, is indebted to the literary tradition of lyric poetry that she pioneered. But the proximity of manuscript and sculpture, text and stone, in the painting also reminds the viewer that the literary text binds language to material objects (stone, papyrus, paper), subjecting it to the same laws of survival and decay. Like the sculpture that sits next to them in Solomon’s painting, Sappho’s manuscripts would be the victim of destruction and mutilation, her words reaching us literally in pieces—the fragments that make up her extant poetic corpus.
10While Sappho’s own words on the scroll are illegible, the only visible trace of the Greek language in the painting is the inscription on the base of the plinth: Σ Σ, 2. 64—the monogram ‘sigma, sigma’ representing the artist’s signature, followed by the date of composition. Solomon liked to play with his initials (SS) in his signed works, exploiting the representational possibilities of the letter S. Most frequently, he would arrange the two S’s vertically to form a snake twining around a rod or staff, as in the ancient Greek asklepian, the symbol of Asclepius, the god of medicine and healing. The asklepian, still universally used today in the semiotics of medicine, brings echoes of spiritual sickness into Solomon’s canvases. In the specific context of the 1860s, the symbol interacts with references to the serpent theme in the art historical criticism of Solomon’s allies Swinburne and Pater who, as Lene Østermark-Johansen has shown, frequently allude to the mannerist figura serpentinata and use the snake as a metaphor for ensnaring female sexuality (Østermark-Johansen 49-72). The snake is also a symbol of perennial renewal and metamorphosis; so that, when Solomon literally twists his name into a snake, he hints at the transformative power of art, which was one of the guiding principles upheld by artists and writers close to the aesthetic movement. The serpentine signature blurs the line between language and representational systems of signification employed in painting, effecting a connection between Solomon’s name and the decadent symbolism embodied by the figure of the snake, which synthesises attraction and repulsion, desire and danger.
11Sappho and Erinna is the only painting where Solomon, renouncing the serpentine symbolism, signs his name in Greek characters in the bottom right-hand corner. Translating his initials into Greek, Solomon exploits the visual appeal of the Greek alphabet as a signifier of foreignness and exoticism. As bearers of individual identity, the initials S and Σ stand to each other in an uncanny relationship: they are the same but different and, in the painting, they become symbolic of the relationship of familiarity-through-difference between antiquity and the modern world. Translating himself into Greek is another way in which Solomon plays with alternative identities, modifying his name in order to show that in art the boundaries of the self are pliable but also to display the fact that he recreates the spirit of antiquity not by imitation but by literally becoming Greek, that is, by achieving perfect emotional sympathy with his subject matter. Solomon’s Greek signature is also a playful doubling of Sappho’s own initial, through which the modern artist forges another discourse of proximity and emotional participation with the Greek subject. Σ Σ is a monogram of sameness, companionship and sexual sameness; companionship in sameness: read in terms of sexual politics, Solomon’s identification with Sappho offers a rare instance of a Victorian artist formulating a shared identity between male and female homosexuality. The Greek letters therefore encourage a biographical reading, in which the viewer teases out the painter’s personal investment in the Greek subject. This reading is further encouraged by the insertion of the tiny snake that sneaks into the foreground from behind Sappho’s lyre—a self-reflexive allusion to the serpentine signature that Solomon uses most frequently to paint his own self into his canvases, which here becomes an additional way of inhabiting the Lesbian scene and saturating it with autobiographical signifiers.
12The use of the Greek letters as a signifier of authenticity is both underscored and complicated by Solomon’s choice of representing them inscribed in the stone, as an ancient epigraph. In doing so, Solomon redeploys a visual joke that dates back to the Old Masters tradition, in which painters would sometimes add their signatures as though they were carved in the materials represented on the canvas. In Solomon’s painting the Greek signature thus simultaneously performs another type of translation than the linguistic one from English to Greek: a translation of artistic medium from language to sculpture to painting. Carved into the base of the marble plinth, the two sigmas follow a conventional use of signature in sculpture: they can be taken to mean ‘Simeon Solomon me fecit’—Simeon Solomon made me. But Solomon’s sigmas also double up as a graffito—‘Simeon Solomon was here’—, playfully suggesting the image of the modern painter as tourist in ancient Lesbos. Both readings introduce an element of anachronism, exacerbated by the use of the Arabic numerals, which were of course unknown to the Greeks.
2. Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Sappho and Alcaeus, 1881.
(Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons).
13Other Victorian painters of classical scenes such as Frederic Leighton and Lawrence Alma-Tadema frequently featured inscriptions in their paintings in order to enhance the archaeological accuracy of their work. For instance, Alma-Tadema often exploits the flat planes created by the painted marble as a convenient surface on which to insert his signature in a way that makes it both legible and relatively unobtrusive; but he is always careful to make it very clear that the modern words exist on a different historical layer than the classical landscape, that they are superimposed onto it as a modern name added in ink onto a period photograph. This device of historical distancing is evident in Alma-Tadema’s Sappho (1881), a painting that makes extensive use of ancient graffiti [illustration 2: Alma-Tadema, Sappho and Alcaeus]. Here the ancient inscriptions exploit the exotic visual appeal of the Greek alphabet, drawn in different colours both on the stone and on the harp, and they direct attention to language as the medium of Sappho’s art; but also, conveniently, they are used to hide the homoerotic content of Sappho’s poetry: the names of Sappho’s female lovers (including Erinna) written on the marble seats are legible only to modern viewers who have a knowledge of Greek, while Sappho herself is represented in a heterosexual dalliance with the male poet Alcaeus and, significantly, as the passive partner (the listener rather than the singer) in their poetic relationship. Alma-Tadema’s signature on a marble surface behind Alcaeus is, like Solomon’s, somewhat hidden in the painting in order to avoid disruption, but it is also clearly separated from the ancient graffiti: it is a signifier of Alma-Tadema’s ownership but it also removes him from the ancient setting, the removal paradoxically intensifying the sense of authenticity and academic accuracy. Solomon exercises the same caution in one of his most celebrated Roman paintings, ‘Habet!’ (1865) [illustration 3], where modern signature and ancient inscription cohabit the foreground of the painting but their contrasting textures immediately proclaim the fact that they inhabit discrete representational and ontological spheres and therefore separate historical moments, so that the integrity of the ancient subject appears as untouched as possible by modern intervention.
3. Simeon Solomon, ‘Habet!’, 1865.
(Image shared by Google +)
14Contrary to these examples, the deliberate anachronism of the artist’s Greek signature in Sappho and Erinna breaks the spell of historical realism by introducing disturbing elements of impossibility, utopia, self-consciousness and divertissement, denying the attentive spectator the naïve pleasure of imagining it to be a faithful, transparent or photographic representation of the ancient world. Like the authorial interjections that disrupt the narrative flow of many realist novels from this period, Solomon’s Greek signature affirms the presence of the artist (and thus of artistry) within the artefact just as it protests its verisimilitude. By the simple insertion of the two Greek letters, Solomon therefore articulates an ambitious meta-reflection on Victorian appropriations of antiquity: physically carving his signature into the old stone, the modern artist portrays himself as he subtracts material from antiquity, allegorising how modernity feeds on classical culture, substituting the physical plenitude of the modern text or artefact (or, in the case of classical scholarship, with its apparatus of introductions, titles, ellipses, footnotes, etc.) for the irrevocable absence of the ancient world. This absence is of course particularly acute in the case of Sappho, since most of her works have either come down to us in fragments or disappeared altogether. Solomon’s anachronism, in other words, writes into the painting a visible trace of what Symonds calls amour de l’impossible: like Symonds’s fantasy of shaking hands with the ‘young-limbed’ Greek, Solomon’s desire to write himself into the ancient stone is rooted in a material understanding of the Greek language and in the sense of touch. In other words, Solomon’s use of epigraphy in Sappho and Erinna is inextricably related to the lesbian touch which is represented in the painting.
15Exploiting the etymological meaning of the Greek verb ἐπιγράϕειν (epigraphein) as to write upon or above something, Solomon represents himself as an epigraph to Sappho in the sense that he works upon or out of her work; but at the same time the painter leaves his own individual mark on Sappho’s culture (here in the form of the anachronistic inscription), which is broadcast to posterity mediated and modified (perhaps even defaced) by his own Victorian intervention. Solomon, in other words, is conscious of creating Sappho just as he recreates her visible image and erotic passion out of the scant testimonies of the lyric fragments. The modern’s encounter with antiquity has a transformative effect both on the present and on the past, which is reshaped every time it is brought back to life. To imagine antiquity in this highly self-reflexive way is thus to make an experiment in constructing a special state of temporality in which life, death and afterlife blend into each other. This is another meaning of the two sigmas, which again connects them with Symonds’s outstretched hands: neither authentically Greek nor wholly modern, they represent a suspended state of temporality that negates the reality of the ‘gulf of time’ bemoaned by Symonds, where desire overrides realism and it is possible to touch the Greeks or to touch like the Greeks.
- 8 Cf. Nicholas Shrimpton (63), who reads ‘Anactoria’ as a ‘mask lyric’, a sub-genre of the dramatic m (...)
16Swinburne employs the same poetics of touch in ‘Anactoria’, at the level of textuality. He starts by reproducing a quotation from Sappho’s ode to Aphrodite in the original Greek, and his dramatic monologue then integrates English translations of and allusions to some of the ancient lyric fragments, resulting in a hybrid text that mixes Swinburne’s voice with Sappho’s and blends together ancient original and modern ‘imitation’, and, on a semantic level, wilfully confuses imitation, reconstruction and interpretation. Building on the slippage between the poetic term ‘corpus’ and the Victorian fascination with the figure of the female corpse, Yopie Prins has provided a suggestive analysis of how ‘Anactoria’ rhetorically enacts the fragmentation of the Sapphic body, as ‘Swinburne remembers Sappho by dismembering the Sapphic corpus’ (Prins 1999, 117). Prins is right in seeing the poem as articulating a complex meditation on the traffic between perverse eros and poetic tradition. In the context of the present article it is important to notice that the images of female homoerotic touch that punctuate ‘Anactoria’—‘lips bruise lips, and vein stings vein. / Let fruit be crushed on fruit, let flower on flower’—are a thematic analogue for what the poem executes at the level of form, where the words of Swinburne touch Sappho’s words on the page (Swinburne 2000, 47). This textual touch evokes the perverse sexual touch that the poem celebrates. Like Solomon, in enacting the desire to touch the Greek language, Swinburne enters a transformative space in which he experiments with the boundaries of the self, blending his own emotions and desires with those of the imagined speaker to the extent that ‘Anactoria’ blurs the line between dramatic monologue and lyric, creating a deliberate confusion between the dramatic speaker’s voice and the poet’s own.8
- 9 See Kenneth Haynes in Swinburne 2000, 333.
17The use of the Greek language in ‘Anactoria’ is philologically rigorous. Swinburne, who was famed for his excellent linguistic skills as a classicist, not only reproduces the Sapphic fragment in the opening as a form of textual evidence that is meant to legitimise his reading of the ancient material, but goes to the extent of offering his own emendation of a corrupt line in the Aphrodite ode.9 His poem can be said to develop a perverse philology, literalising the love of language—in particular, of the Greek language—as a type of eros, and bringing out a perverse commerce between bodies and words, and between the graphic and semantic constituents of the act of writing. Swinburne redeploys the visual and material aesthetics of epigraphy onto the level of textuality. In using Sappho’s Greek words as the epigraph to the English words of the modern poem, Swinburne makes the Greek stand out on the page as object of desire, alerting readers to the plastic and decorative qualities of the Greek letters, which are separated from the English poem by a blank space that is at once a spatial symbol for the gulf of time (and thus a figure of absence and loss) and a connector between the foreign and the familiar: in this second, more optimistic, interpretation the blank space is the substance that holds the two cultures together and that the modern reader fills with her own interpretation.
18Swinburne’s experiment in perverse philology in ‘Anactoria’ is the precursor for many Victorian adaptations of Sappho, not least his own later poem ‘On the Cliffs’ (1880), where Swinburne repeats the technique of starting with a Greek quotation and then incorporating Sapphic fragments within the English verses, although this time he creates a visual separation between the Greek translations and his own voice by italicising the former. But none among the poetic progeny of ‘Anactoria’ is more inventive or ambitious than Michael Field’s Long Ago (1889), a volume of poetry that is at once an extravagant celebration of Sappho’s Greek language, reproduced in the original, and an attempt to find a space for Greek words in the fast-developing late-Victorian interest in the livre d’art. In the remaining part of this article I want to offer a brief exploration of the visual use of the Greek language in Long Ago, a collection that has received a fair amount of critical attention in recent years, before moving on to a lesser-known later poem, ‘Ah me, how sadder than to say farewell’, in order to see how the materiality of Greek words functions in that different context.
- 10 See for instance [anon.], ‘Michael Field’s “Long Ago”’. The Spectator 63:3187 (27 July 1889): 119.
- 11 See especially Prins 1999, 74-111.
- 12 Michael Field, ‘It was deep April, and the morn’, in Michael Field, The Poet. Ed. Marion Thain and (...)
- 13 Michael Field, Long Ago (London: George Bell and Sons, 1889).
19Long Ago represents an important act of appropriation of Sappho’s voice by female authors bent on exploring female sexual identity and female subjectivity—an intent that was not lost on Victorian reviewers, some of whom thought the book ‘audacious’ in its explicit representation of female sexual passion.10 More recently, several critics have claimed Long Ago as an important document in the history of lesbian writing.11 For Bradley and Cooper, it represented the culmination of an experience of studying the classics together, which helped them to formulate a shared poetic and sexual identity as Michael Field—‘poets and lovers’, as they write in one of their most frequently-cited lyrics.12 The book is also a milestone in Victorian Hellenism, not least for its extensive use of the Greek language as integral part of an experiment in poetic form. In Long Ago, Bradley and Cooper ‘extended’, as they put it in the preface, Sappho’s fragments into modern lyrics (Field 1889).13 Each of the poems in the book is based on original verses by Sappho, quoted in Greek and then used as a springboard for a modern poem that grows out of the Greek textual fragment, incorporating its words and providing variations on its mood and imagery. It is possible to see the indirect influence of Swinburne’s ‘Anactoria’ on Bradley and Cooper, even though their depiction of Sappho is strikingly void of sensational overtones. But the greatest acknowledged debt in their book is to H. T. Wharton’s Sappho: A Memoir and Translation (1885), a volume that contained a popular account of Sappho’s life followed by an edition of the then-existing fragments, each of which is reproduced in the original Greek and complemented with prose translations into English as well as a selection of English verse renderings. Wharton drew on the growing appetite for Sappho’s poems in aesthetic circles, incorporating citations from Swinburne and new translations by Symonds, and even using as frontispiece an engraving of the head of Sappho from Alma Tadema’s 1881 painting.
- 14 Symonds 1876, 20. I am grateful to Charlotte Ribeyrol for alerting me to this passage.
20The poems in Long Ago are linguistic hybrids that move from Greek to English, representing at a glance the relationship of continuity and debt that links modern English poetry to Greek antiquity. But the poems are also hybrid in that they fuse verbal and visual media in order to draw attention to the Greek text as material object. The Greek quotations function as a collection of textual inscriptions within the book: they are epigraphs in the etymological sense, in that they are literally ‘written upon’ the English lyric; but also in that they are texts that foreground the materiality of words. Strikingly printed in red ink, the Sapphic fragments in Long Ago use the Greek language as a decorative element, stressing the visual otherness and material appeal of the Greek letters, which simultaneously reveal and conceal meaning to the moderns. In the second series of his Studies of the Greek Poets (1876), Symonds had complained about the modern habit of ‘whitewashing the imagination of the ancients’.14 The red Greek of Long Ago restores colour and blood to the Greek language by typographically reproducing the fragment as a precious object that visually interacts with the poetic themes of desire and passion that run through the lyrics. Turning the pages of this exquisite book, the reader experiences the textual fragments as materials that have been collected and preserved by the authors in what is essentially a livre d’art or catalogue rather than a normal collection of verse. Reconfigured in this way, the relationship between the modern lyric and its ancient source is not so much mediated through philology or textual scholarship as through an experimental form of textual archaeology. The archaeological intertext of Long Ago is amplified by Bradley and Cooper’s use of visual quotations: they reproduce two ancient portraits of Sappho, one on the cover and one inside the book. Both images are taken from scholarly sources on ancient vases and are carefully attributed; and both contain Greek textual fragments in their turn, underscoring the sense of mise en abyme of words and images and the volume’s complex interplay of the textual, visual and material.
21It is impossible to reproduce poems from Long Ago without loss of meaning, given Michael Field’s investment in typographical, visual and even tactile features that rescue the book from the ethos of mass production of the late-Victorian publishing industry, proclaiming it instead a unique art object. Long Ago, an expensive volume printed in only one edition of one hundred copies, some of which were distributed among friends and supporters, is a work intended for a niche readership of Victorian Hellenists. It is interesting to notice that, in their more widely distributed collections such as Underneath the Bough (1893) and Wild Honey from Various Thyme (1908), Bradley and Cooper limited the use of the Greek language on the page, while still drawing largely on ancient Greek myth and culture, probably in order to emphasise the legibility and broad appeal of their work. This is why the poem, ‘Ah me, how sadder than to say farewell’, in Underneath the Bough, stands out with its single Greek word embedded in the texture of the modern lyric:
Ah me, how sadder than to say farewell
It is to meet
Dreading that Love hath lost his spell
And changed his sweet!
I would we were again to part,
With that full heart.
The hawthorn was half-bud, half-flower
At our goodbye;
And braver to me since that hour
Are earth and sky:
My God, it were too poor a thing
To meet this spring.
- 15 Michael Field 1893. Underneath the Bough was a successful collection that went through three editio (...)
Our hearts—life never would have marge
To bear their tides,
Their confluent rush! Lo, death is large
And our great χαιρε must be said
When I am dead.15
22Greek words never appear inside the English lyrics in Long Ago: the Sapphic fragments are clearly separated from the English text and the Greek language is given an autonomous status, as the English words on the page take shape as a response to the Greek, translating it or interacting with it by association, or playing variations on its meanings. In Long Ago, the reader is given the freedom to ignore the Greek text or at least to reduce it to silence, enjoying a reading experience that is relatively undisturbed by its presence. But with this later poem Bradley and Cooper take readers to a different level of experimentation in integrating English and ancient Greek on the page. Once again, the Greek word draws attention to its material essence within the poem by virtue of its immediate typographical otherness. Because of its different type, the Greek word acquires a different texture from the English that surrounds it, seeming to require a more attentive reading and different mode of engagement. Distracting the reader from the semantic coherence of the poem, the Greek word performs a typically Decadent stylistic function famously identified by Paul Bourget in his Essais de psychologie contemporaine (1883): according to Bourget, by emphasising the independence of the single word (here, the foreign word) over the unity of the sentence or page, the Decadent text triggers a process of decomposition of meaning, a privileging of the part over the whole that results in a disruptive re-ordering of syntactical and cognitive laws (Bourget 24). In this sense, ‘Ah me, how sadder than to say farewell’ forges the same connection between ancient Greek and modern Decadent taste that is at work in Solomon’s paintings.
23To the Greekless reader, the materiality of the Greek asserts itself negatively, by enforcing silence and absence of meaning: it is a secret at the heart of the familiar English. The word χαιρε, not only incomprehensible but unpronounceable to those who do not know Greek, disrupts the act of reading, becoming a gap or a sort of black hole, which sucks meaning into itself, making the poem implode. But, even to modern readers skilled in ancient Greek, the sudden shift from English to Greek introduces an element of hesitation in the reading process. In her essay, ‘On Not Knowing Greek’, reflecting on ancient Greek humour, Virginia Woolf speaks of the ‘fatal’ pause that modern readers must always make, no matter how good their Greek is, when reading the original Greek, in order ‘to make sure that they are laughing in the right place’ (Woolf 49). Woolf takes this delay as symbolic of the gap that separates us from ancient Greek culture—a gap that can be reduced but never fully bridged by classical training. The Greek word inside Michael Field’s poem performs a similar function of deliberately making the reader stumble in mid flow. This delay in the reading process opens a gap in the process of signification: the ‘strange’ word in the middle of the familiar English introduces the doubt that difficulty and incomprehensibility might in fact lurk everywhere in the text, even beneath and in-between the seemingly recognisable English words.
24Moving to a philological reading (that is, accessing the secret meaning that eludes the Greekless reader), we discover that the Greek word serves several important purposes within the poem. The Greek word χαιρε (chaire) is the imperative mode of the verb χαιρο (chairo), meaning ‘to rejoice’. χαιρε was commonly used as a greeting that is the rough equivalent of the Latin ‘salve’ and the English ‘hail’ or, also, ‘farewell’. The poem exploits the ambiguity of a word that marks both meeting and parting for which there is no straightforward equivalent in English, using the Greek in order to invert the emotions usually associated with scenes of separation and reunion, playing on the notions of presence-in-absence and absence-in-presence. The etymological derivation of the Greek word from ‘rejoice’ similarly inverts the dominant mood of the poem, which is one of sadness and mourning. In ancient Greek the word χαιρε also performed the special function of last greeting for the recently deceased, especially in elevated circumstances: it appears thus in Euripides’ Alcestis, where Admetus’ father Pheres uses it to address the corpse of the play’s heroine as worthy of being honoured (626); and in the Iliad, Achilles uses the same salutation to address the dead body of Patroclus on the pyre (23:179), in a context that anticipates the homoerotic motif of Michael Field’s poem. ‘Ah me, how sadder than to say farewell’ is an elegy to a dead lover which, in a typical self-reflexive turn, becomes a meditation on the nature of desire and the language of absence. The speaker imagines an emotionally-charged reunion with her deceased lover, to take place after her own death, in which the two will salute each other in ancient Greek—a dead language, appropriately, but also, in this case, the language of the dead in a poem that celebrates death as a more hospitable setting than life to the homoerotic eros that joins the speaker and the addressee. Greek therefore liberates homoerotic desire by giving it a voice but also, at the same time, the homoerotic love between the two ‘halves’ of Michael Field, which the poem celebrates in a macabre key, rescues the ‘dead’ language, giving it a special function in the present.
- 16 See K. Friis Johansen 57-59.
- 17 See Rohde 2: 345.
25The philological reading, though, also leads us to a visual source or intertext to the poem. The scene imagined by Michael Field and the elegiac mood echo those widely employed in Greek funerary art and especially in so-called stelai, standing stone slabs bearing inscriptions and reliefs, many of which (from the mid 5th century onwards) depict the dead in the company of those they have left behind, often shaking hands with a special relative or friend [illustration 4: Athenian stele]. Archaeologists have interpreted these compositions to represent either a last farewell, set in the past, as it were, as the dead takes leave of family and friends as s/he prepares for the journey into the underworld, or as an imagined future reunion between the dead and the survivors, taking place after death, presumably as the deceased welcomes the relatives (or proleptic dead) into the underworld. This latter explanation, now largely discredited, was especially prominent at the end of the nineteenth century, as it was promoted by the influential German archaeologist Adolf Furtwängler.16 Michael Field’s poem can be read as an ekphrasis of an actual or generic Greek stele: it re-enacts the same simple lyricism, void of religious or heroic motifs, and a similar idealisation of the life beyond the grave as a state of harmony and the setting of emotional and physical reconciliation. The Greek word in the poem is thus the key to an archaeological reading: it is both the verbal translation and visual equivalent of the handshake featured in many ancient stelai: it is the focal point of the relief or poem, the significant detail where its affective energies converge, and an ambiguous signifier of both parting and reunion. This interpretation is strengthened by the fact that the very word χαιρε is actually found carved on many stelai, especially dating from the Hellenistic period, as an address to the departed.17 Glimpsing the material pre-history of Michael Field’s χαιρε as sepulchral inscription allows us both better to understand Bradley and Cooper’s use of the Greek word as an almost mystic formula capable of bridging the gap between life and death, and to add an important further dimension to the poem’s conjuring of the Greek word as archaeological artefact, emphasising the sculptural aesthetics of language in the process of memorialisation undertaken by both poem and material artefact.
4. Funerary Stele of Hegeso.
(Creative Commons licence, via Wikimedia Commons).
26The archaeological interpretation of Michael Field’s ‘Ah me, how sadder than to say farewell’ brings us back both to the impossible handshake imagined by Symonds in Studies of the Greek Poets and to the inscriptions in Solomon’s painting of Sappho. All three stage scenes of imagined reunion with the Greek past as events of cultural renewal; and all of them use Greek to break historical and ontological barriers, and to circumvent Victorian censure in the representation of homosexual desire. In ‘Words from Abroad’, Theodor Adorno speaks of foreign words as preserving ‘something of the utopia of language, a language without earth, without subjection to the spell of historical existence’ (Adorno 192). This sense of utopia is a driving force in the practices of quoting, writing and drawing ancient Greek words and letters in the works of writers close to Aestheticism. As I hope to have shown in this article, a full understanding of the use of Greek quotation in Victorian Hellenism goes beyond philological analysis. Drawing on archaeology and epigraphy, as well as on the more traditional text-based branches of classical studies, Solomon and Michael Field use Greek words to create experimental dialogues between verbal and visual media. For them as for other Victorian Hellenists, the Greek language was a fully embodied signifier of the desire to free themselves from the burden of ‘historical existence’ identified by Adorno, a way to imagine better alternatives to the present of the English nineteenth century, and to argue for artistic as well as sexual freedom.