Elegy and The Mourning of Two in Michael Field’s Whym Chow: Flame of Love

Emma Butler

Edith Cooper and Katharine Bradley wrote a number of elegies under the pseudonym of Michael Field. Field elegized Emma Cooper, James Cooper, and Robert Browning, among others. However, when it came to elegizing their beloved chow dog, Whym Chow, the women took a different approach. Michael Field’s Whym Chow: Flame of Love serves as an elegy for the poets but departs from Victorian standards of the elegy. Jill Ehnenn asserts that Field’s mourning of Whym Chow is a failure; however, perhaps it is not a failure, but rather a resurgence of grief on the part of Bradley, who, when editing the collection, was mourning the loss of Cooper. Though the volume seems to be an overzealous elegy of a dog, it actually functions as an elegy for both Whym Chow and Edith Cooper.

Using Freudian psychoanalysis, Jill Ehnenn argues that Field’s mourning of Whym Chow is a failure by Victorian standards. Victorian standards of the elegy encompass a clear path and sense of healing: they allow the poetic speaker to move forward, along with the integration of other elements, like sound, to capture the physical sense of grief. Ehnenn argues: “However, unlike Michael Field’s other experiences of mourning …  [they] cannot take the high road and claim “Others may drag at memory’s fetter.” Instead, as if pulling on his leash, Whym Chow literally drags them deeper into their memories, thwarting detachment.” I will admit that Field’s initial mourning of Whym Chow seems a bit extreme for a dog. While the edition does delve into memory, it allows for the mourning of two entities–the dog and Cooper. However, she fails to consider the external circumstances of Cooper’s death during the time that Bradley was editing the volume.

Victorians were fascinated by the concept of death and maintaining relationships with their loved ones who had passed, making elegy a popular genre during the Victorian era. By Victorian standards, the elegy was supposed to allow the writer to heal from their pain, with the poem ending with a poetic speaker that is renewed and ready for new relationships: “the elegiac poem engages in a series of procedures and resolutions, in which previous attachments are substituted for new ones” (Ehnenn). The genre of elegy held different standards for men and women. Newman notes, “Gender relations played an ever-changing role in Victorian life, so of course their appearance in the elegiac poetry of the nineteenth century is understandable.” The idea that men and women mourn differently is not a new concept, so we cannot expect their elegy of Whym Chow to function the same way that, for instance, Tennyson’s elegies would. Whym Chow integrates some of the same elements of Victorian standards, like sound in “Requiescat,” but largely departs from the standards because there is no apparent sense of healing, as if to say that mourning is a wholly personal experience.

Field is no stranger to death or the genre of elegy; they wrote Underneath the Bough elegizing Emma Cooper (Cooper’s mother and Bradley’s sister) and Robert Browning (mentor and friend).[1] Their early elegies fall squarely in line with Victorian elegy. Field’s earlier elegies allow for healing and renewed connections; shortly after the death of Cooper’s father James, they got Whym Chow. Their almost immediate connection with Whym Chow is proof that elegizing the father served its purpose. In Field’s journal Works and Days, they note the day they got Whym Chow as “January 28th” and that “[they] seek a companionship [they] can determine.” The importance of seeking a companionship they can determine signifies that they crave a relationship where they have some form of control over the life of the other being because they experienced so much uncertainty within the lives of those around them. Though many of Field’s elegies mirror the Victorian standard of elegizing another person, elegizing an animal represents a significant departure. By deviating from the norm and elegizing Whym Chow, the Fields set themselves and the elegy apart from the commonplace, which leads to heavy scrutiny and critique from members of their circle, as identified in Poem XXVI. This deviation left Field without cohorts to lean on, so they turned to Christ. These elegies display Field’s devout shift to Catholicism after his passing; the Fields found strength in God during a time when their friends could not understand their pain.[2]

The Fields mourned Whym Chow with more grief than in their other elegies because they were personally involved in his death (Works and Days). Moreover, Abigail Newman notes, “A common motif permeating poetry that deals with mourning is sound, be it in the form of tears of mourning, a missed language, a song of mourning or a noted silence.” The “noted silence” plays a key role in Whym Chow’s opening poem “Requiescat,” in which the speaker asks “What, are the swarming little cries not heard?” (10). The absence of Whym Chow’s feet pattering down the great halls is just one way that their grief physically affects them, attenuating physical absence. In the latter portion of the volume, “Adveni, Creator Spiritus!” catalogs grief in relation to the senses, with one notable change: the heart. Allowing Whym Chow to live on in their heart, the speaker says: “My heart, my heart – ah no! / Core of my love there art thou ever hard–” (19-20). This poem takes a notable shift after this stanza because the speaker begs to be able to hold Whym Chow again. However, these lines are a clear indication that the elegy here has shifted to include Cooper. Bradley is not just begging to hold Whym Chow; she is begging to hold Cooper too. At first glance, the volume of poetry seems to follow Victorian standards of the elegy. However, when taking a closer look, it becomes clear that towards the end of the volume there is a renewed sense of mourning, rather than a readiness for attachment.

Cooper initially wrote many of the poems in Whym Chow and Bradley edited the work after Cooper’s death (Bristow 160). Cooper died of breast cancer; a diagnosis shared by Bradley. However, Bradley never told Cooper she had breast cancer to avoid any angst on Cooper’s part. Shortly after publishing the volume, Bradley died (Bristow 168). Taking this into account, it becomes clear why there is a renewed sense of mourning toward the end of the volume. This work serves as an elegy for Whym Chow, Cooper, and Bradley in some sense, with “Trinity” as a clear indication of how the three were bonded in life and death. While Cooper wrote the volume to cope with the loss of Whym Chow, Bradley’s editorial emendations allow us to gain a sense of how the work was an elegy, yes, for Whym Chow, but also Cooper.

Through considering elegy and loss, it becomes clear that if Whym Chow were to serve wholly as an elegy for Whym Chow it would be obtrusive. By serving as an elegy for both Whym Chow and Cooper, the volume displays a healthier sense of mourning than first suggested. And, when considering the external circumstances of Cooper’s death, it becomes clearer that Michael Field refashions the elegy in Whym Chow: Flame of Love to mourn the loss of two, as opposed to one, as friends and critics initially believed. In this edition, grief functions as a renewal for Field; it allows them, mainly Bradley, to honor the lives of Cooper and Whym Chow. Elegy functions in this edition not as a form of healing, but as a way to explore emotions associated with grief themselves.

Works Cited

Bristow, Joseph. “Michael Field in Their Time and Ours.” Tulsa Studies in Women's

Literature, vol. 29, no. 1, 2010, pp. 159–179. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41337038.

Accessed 5 May 2021.

Ehnenn, Jill R. “‘Drag(Ging) at Memory’s Fetter’: Michael Field’s Personal Elegies, Victorian

Mourning, and the Problem of Whym Chow.” The Michaelian, no. 1, June 2009,


Field, Michael. Whym Chow: Flame of Love. Eragny Press, 1914.

–– Works and Days. Accessed via the Michael Field Diary Archive, Victorian Lives and Letters Consortium (Center for Digital Humanities, University of South Carolina): https://mf.dev.cdhsc.org

Newman, Abigail. “Victorian Mourning: The Significance of Sound in Poems of Death.” The

Victorian Web, 17 Dec. 2003, victorianweb.org/authors/ebb/newman14.html.


[1] For more information on Underneath the Bough, see Mikia Holloway’s “The Redefinition of Aestheticist Ideals” in this collection.

[2] See McKenna Odom’s “The Spiritual Reformation in the Language of Michael Field” and Christopher Kirk’s “The Death of Whym Chow” for a discussion of Michael Field’s spiritual conversion.