The Metaphorical Baptism of Michael Field

McKenna Odom

The collection of poems in Whym Chow: Flame of Love is an avenue whereby Michael Field experiments with secular and sacred ideologies and, ultimately, undergoes a metaphorical baptism. Throughout the collection, the poetesses blend various religious elements of paganism, mythology, and Catholicism to explore their own religious beliefs. This religious language is displayed in the collection, written while grieving the loss of their dog Whym Chow, and can be traced from “Requiescat,” which is replete with pagan influences, to Poem XXX, which ends on a metaphorical baptism symbolic of their Catholic conversion.

Christianity was the dominant faith in Victorian society; Catholicism and Protestantism the major religions. They were not, however, the only paths of religion experienced. “Alternative” faith practices, particularly paganism, were also prevalent. Gail Turley Houston describes the various purposes of “religious discourse” as being chiefly for “ideological, spiritual, emotional, social reasons” (99). This is certainly true for Michael Field.

Michael Field practiced paganism until their conversion to Catholicism in 1907. As pagans, they were distinctively non-Christian, their secular beliefs evident in their lifestyle and their writing. Additionally, “‘perverse’ sexuality [was] associated with the lifestyle” (Thain 27). Indeed, it was not until the end of the century that the Catholic church became a “refuge for homosexual writers” (Thain 40). In Catholicism, they, like other Aesthetes—including Oscar Wilde and John Gray—discovered the beauty in sacred ritualism and symbolism. Their Catholic conversion triggered a shift in the language of their poetry. Whym Chow, therefore, was a product of their grief and an exploration of their spirituality. It was exemplary of the “symbolic communion of the sacred and the profane” and represented a “crucial turning point in their lives” (Thain 42). The blending of secular and sacred ideologies as well as the exploration of varying religions and mythos in the poems demonstrates a crisis of faith.

While exploring “alternative spiritualities” allowed Michael Field to “tease out a female-centered language to write about faith” in a male-centric society (Houston 100), converting to Catholicism allowed Field to expand their “artistic reach” and “more fully embody a sensory aesthetic experience” (Wilson 179). These “bodily sensations” appear throughout Whym Chow and serve as a path of religious and sexual expression. It is especially evident in Poem XXV, “I want you, little Love.” Each stanza begins with the words “I want you” which, at first, seems to indicate that the poetesses feel the absence of Whym Chow. However, as each stanza progresses, the poetic speaker uses language that is a more appropriate sentiment for a human than a dog. “I want you” then becomes a question of whom is being longed for: Whym Chow, Edith Cooper (who has passed at the time of publication), or a blending of desire for dog and lover.

The “bodily sensations” and “female-centered language” contrasts with Field’s use of religion. As the volume progresses, Field illustrates their religious conversion more frequently, often blending the ideals. The poetry begins steeped in paganism and mythology, and as the volume progresses, more Christian language emerges. The first poem in the collection, “Requiescat,” contains no overt references to Christianity. Instead, the poem intervenes on behalf of their grief over Whym Chow and addresses themes of pain, suffering, and death. It contains verbiage such as “Halls of Suffering” and “Hades” (lines 1, 9) which is symbolic of their paganism and their spiritual life before their conversion.

The central poem, XV, is a perfect indication of the spiritual shift Field experiences, demonstrating a clear move toward religious language. The first half of “O Now, Now” is concerned with astrology before shifting to a more Christian tone where they compare Chow to God, deifying him. Whym Chow is depicted as godlike: “God’s Moment,” “Life’s Moment,” and “brightest One” (lines 26, 32, 34). These titles elevate the dog to a sacred status and would have been considered “sacrilegious” by Catholic standards. The blasphemous language demonstrates the Fields own struggle regarding their faith and personal convictions. It does, however, demonstrate a turning to a Christian God as a source of peace from their suffering. But their conversion is not yet complete.

The final poem, XXX, is indicative of their Catholic conversion. If “Requiescat” is chiefly pagan, “Ask, and it shall be given” is exclusively Christian. The poem begins by quoting scripture and proceeds to invoke the “God of the Waters” (line 5), not as a metaphor, and not as a representation of Whym Chow, but as the only deity who can cease their suffering and provide comfort for their beloved dog. This is the pinnacle of their conversion, their metaphorical and physical baptism into their new religious life spiritual reformation out of paganism and into Catholicism. Just as a physical baptism raises the convert out of sin and into a life with God, Field’s figurative baptism, as demonstrated in XXX, aided in comforting them after Whym Chow had passed.

Upon their conversion, Field would have undergone a physical baptism to begin their new life as Catholics. It was a spiritual transformation that helped them process their dog’s death and later, perhaps, helped Bradley process Cooper’s death just one year before the collection was published. Additionally, their conversion may indicate “an extension of the pagan sensibilities articulated in earlier works by looking specifically at how the body-spirit relationship and the idea of ‘incarnation’ in the early poems is reimagined in the poetry produced after the conversion” (Wilson 183). Essentially, their Catholic poetry explored much of the same themes as their pagan poetry, but with a new lens. Whym Chow, for example, became a kind of god to them. Michael Field also used their newfound Catholicism to explore how religiosity (particularly Christianity) could deepen their bond to one another. Catholic symbolism offered the symbol of the trinity as expressed in “Trinity.” For Field, they, along with Whym Chow, made up a holy unit.

The secular and sacred ideologies explored in Whym Chow: Flame of Love demonstrates Michael Field’s struggles regarding faith and religion. Writing the collection allowed them the opportunity to explore religious possibilities and process the death of their beloved dog. Although Whym Chow’s death was not the main motivation for their conversion, his death was the inspiration for creating this volume of poetry. In doing so, Whym Chow mirrored their Catholic conversion, baptizing the Fields out of grief and into a semblance of peace. They demonstrated a spiritual transformation reformation that provided them comfort while they were surrounded by grief.

Works Cited

"baptism, n." OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2021, Accessed 10 April 2021.

"pagan, n. and adj." OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2021, Accessed 10 April 2021.

"Roman Catholicism." Britannica Academic, Encyclopædia Britannica, 11 Nov. 2020. Accessed 10 Apr. 2021.

Houston, Gail Turley. “Alternative Victorian Religion and the Recuperation of Women’s Voices.” Literature Compass, vol. 13, no. 2, Feb. 2016, pp. 98–107. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1111/lic3.12305.

Thain, Marion and Ana Parejo Vadillo, eds. Michael Field: The Poet. Broadview, 2009.

Wilson, Cheryl A. “Bodily Sensations in the Conversion Poetry of Michael Field.” Victorian Poetry, vol. 54, no. 2, June 2016, p. 179. EBSCOhost,