The Death of Whym Chow: Denial to Acceptance

Christopher Kirk

Michael Field’s Whym Chow: Flame of Love serves as the author’s emotional chrysalis, a method by which to process the sorrow of a lost loved one. By the end of the last poem, we can see that Michael Field has gone through a spiritual metamorphosis, with a new outlook on love and loss. This theme of transformation can be seen through cultural and religious references to paganism, Catholicism, and the pantheons of the Mediterranean, along with allusions to Europe’s cultural relations with the Orient. Michael Field, and by extension Whym Chow, held a very unique, contrarian place in Victorian society and literature. However, while Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper defied certain Victorian social norms, such as their sexuality (Vadillo), during their poetic career they were still to some extent beholden to the cultural influences regarding death and grief. It was this perspective of sorrow that compelled Michael Field to write Whym Chow, which, while not a direct reflection of the commonly cited “five stages of death,” does carry the theme of emotional transformation that ultimately leads to acceptance.

Whym Chow is usually read as an elegy to Whym, Field’s pet Chow Chow. While this interpretation is not wrong, it does not consider the depth to which the dog’s death affected Field, and influenced the women’s writing in general (Vadillo). Whym was family to Field, as well as their poetic muse. Rather than simply a conventional remembrance or elegy, which serves as a celebration of a life that was lost, the volume of poems begins as a plea for Whym to return: “Who cometh like the snow pushed toward a land? / […] Our dead comes back again, the dead, our dead." (“Introit” lines 7; 21). The poems, then, are a representation of Michael Field’s grief and denial over Whym’s death, and the loss of a muse.

The death of a loved one in Victorian England was usually seen as a private affair, a departure from previous views of grieving the lost as a communal event. As such, most turned to their faith in these times of sorrow (Lutz). However, many Victorians, including Field, had perspectives that differed from the larger population regarding religion. It was, after all, a period of religious crisis; a time of faith and doubt. Moreover, poetic individualism held over from the Romantic period meant that most artists, such as Oscar Wilde, had a more personal than societal relationship with their faith (Fraser). This led to a more objective, secular use of religious themes as symbolism rather than theological commentary.

In that vein, while exploring the many religious references in Whym Chow, we should make a point to do so through a secular lens. For instance, in poem IV, Field refers to Whym with the same reverence as the gods of the Greek pantheon: “Our Bacchic Cub, the dear tamed animal, / So often touched with ivy-coronal,” (lines 3-4). This could be interpreted as a spiritual metaphor, but given that Greek mythology was considered more of a collection of stories than an actual religion by Victorians (Vance), it is more likely that this poem is meant as a symbolic hyperbole to showcase Field’s strong love towards Whym.

Whym Chow also references active religions, such as Buddhism, specifically in “Fur for Mandarins.” Field includes a few references to East Asia in this poem, including many symbolic uses of flowers. However, while Orientalism was a common motif in Victorian literature (Fiske), rarely were there such overt Buddhist references as in this poem. Here, Whym is referred to as “tiger-lilly” (line 1), a flower indigenous to Asia, and one which in Buddhism represents love and compassion. Many flowers are used as spiritual symbols in Buddhism, relating to death and reincarnation. While this is consistent with previously stated evidence of Field’s denial, it also shows the beginning to a more open perspective in regards to other religions, which may have been what led them towards their eventual religious conversion.

It makes sense that, after the death of Whym, Field’s poetic nature would drive them to seek meaning in such a tragic loss. As a pagan, Field’s religion did not offer much comfort in the finality of death, since paganism purports that one’s soul is returned to the energy of the world that created them. This meant that, in their faith, Field would have no hope of reuniting with Whym, even after death. Perhaps this is what drove their first instinct when writing this collection of poems, which seems to have been to deify Whym, implying that he was immortal and denying that he was truly gone. Eventually, Field did find some measure of comfort, or at least acceptance, in their conversion to Catholicism, which can be seen in the final poem, XXX. Here, Field is no longer denying that Whym is gone, nor are they pleading for his return. Instead, they have turned to prayer, as is befitting of their newfound faith. They acknowledge that Whym has passed, and ask simply that the memory of the love that he inspired be preserved, and that his soul find peace: “I ask my little Chow’s upwelling love / In liberal current ever, Thy command / Removing cruel thirst now and above.” (lines 11-13).

Obviously, the precise methods that Michael Field used to cope with the emotional loss of their beloved pet cannot be known to us in the present day. As researchers, it is important to remember the real people and lives that occurred behind the words that we study. Maybe Field did not intend to convey their grieving process through this collection of poems. By examining the feelings behind their poetry, however, perhaps we can somewhat trace their progress, and eventual metamorphosis, from denial to acceptance regarding Whym’s death.

Works Cited

Fiske, S. Orientalism Reconsidered: China and the Chinese in Nineteenth‐Century Literature and Victorian Studies. Literature Compass, 2011.

Lutz, Deborah. “The Dead Still among Us: Victorian Secular Relics, Hair Jewelry, and Death Culture.” Victorian Literature and Culture, vol. 39, no. 1. 2011.

Fraser, Hilary. Beauty and Belief: Aesthetics and Religion in Victorian Literature. Cambridge University Press. 1986.

Vance, Norman. “Heroic Myth and Women in Victorian Literature.” The Yearbook of English Studies, vol. 12. 1982.

Vadillo, Ana Parejo. “Field, Michael.” The Encyclopedia of Victorian Literature, ed. Dino Felluga, Pamela Gilbert, and Linda Hughes. Wiley, 2015.