The Redefinition of Aestheticist Ideals in Whym Chow: Flame of Love

Mikia Holloway

Today, Michael Field’s works might be considered obscure, though more recent scholarship has recovered and illuminated the poets as some of the most influential contributors to the aestheticist movement. Marion Thain argues that the study of Field and their work is not only extremely beneficial, but, perhaps, even necessary for anyone who seeks to understand aestheticism. Thain highlights the innovative qualities of Field’s works, questioning the appropriateness of “categoriz[ing] Field under the rubric of Victorian women poets” (qtd. in Harrington 508). By studying how Field incorporates various artistic and stylistic components into their work, the true inimitable nature of their poetics and its influence on the aestheticist movement, become clear. It is works like Field’s Whym Chow: Flame of Love, a collection of elegies dedicated to their departed dog, Whym Chow, that most clearly and effectively display Field’s intentions as an aesthetic author: to attempt to translate untranslatable emotions and/or experiences.

Whym Chow: Flame of Love is Field’s most eccentric and perplexing work. Nothing about the collection represented a traditional approach to the Victorian elegy—neither Field’s reaction to and mourning of Whym’s death, nor the content and presentation of the elegies themselves. The unconventionality of the collection, however, encompasses aestheticist ideals as described by Walter Pater, the father of aestheticism, who, in defining his idea of beautiful art, insisted that

With a passionate care for beauty, the romantic spirit refuses to have it [the grotesque in art], unless the condition of strangeness be first fulfilled. Its desire is for a beauty born of unlikely elements, but a profound alchemy, but a difficult imitation, by the charm which wrings it even out of terrible things; and a trace of distortion, of the grotesque, may perhaps linger, as an additional element of expression, about its ultimate grace. (Pater 247)

Field sought to achieve this standard of beauty by incorporating themes of the grotesque—and its distortion—into their work, resulting in a darker approach to elegies that presented an almost intimate relationship with death.

Field also noticeably takes aesthetic influence from other known aesthetes, such as John Ruskin and Robert Browning, previous mentors of Field whose poetry often centered around corpses. Unlike the “decadent necrophilia” that can, similarly, be attributed to the fin de siècle—the period at the end of the nineteenth century known for the embrace of symbolism and decadence through art—Ruskin and Browning held a more attentive attitude toward corpses that was rooted in older, mid-Victorian ethical aesthetics: “their artful ways of rendering dead bodies illuminate, extend, and amplify broader aspirations to deeply felt knowledge that were powerful in Victorian Britain” (Caldwell 190). Ruskin held a notion of the “innocent eye” that became fundamental to Field’s theory of observation. This involved “peel[ing] away conventional ways of seeing,” as Ruskin believed that, in art, the best representation of the body encompassed a precise naturalism and an emphasis on the distinctiveness of the once-living (Caldwell 191). While Ruskin avoided making the corpses the primary subject of his art, Browning embraced it, often attempting to “reanimate” the dead through his poetry (Caldwell 193), a practice that Field would adapt into some of their earliest works. For example, consider Field’s style of mourning in their “The Magdalen,” published in Sight and Song (1892)

How she loved to mingle with her friends!
        To give them eyes and lip;
        She lived for their sake alone;
Not a braid of her hair, not a rose
        Of her cheek was her own:
        And she loved to minister
        To any in want of her,
        All service was so sweet:  (lines 42-49)

In “The Magdalen,” based on the painting by Timoteo Viti, Field’s artistic interest in reanimation (in this case of a painting through ekphrastic poetry) was present long before the creation of Whym Chow.

The theme of desired reanimation can also be observed in Poem XXV:

I WANT you, little Love, not from the skies:
To-day I want you in my starving eyes;
To see your jasper scowl across the brow,
As precious jasper barred
Scowls in its substance. I would wonder how
Thou could'st have ears so soft, yet as a pard
Such sudden feet. Oh, I would watch the glint
Of all the wealth the sun from thee could mint—
Thy paler wool that from the moon would take
Reflex of sun and into silver break. (lines 1-10)

This first stanza presents a clear longing for the departed with heavy emphasis on recalling and describing, in very thorough detail, the departed subject—Whym Chow—as he was in life. These lines blur the boundaries between past versus present and life versus death, rather than explicitly presenting the subject’s image as a reflection of a memory upon which the speaker is simply reminiscing. The speaker of Poem XXV uses the present tense to describe the deceased subject, speaking of him in a way that not only suggests a longing for his presence but also entertains the idea that his presence is possible. This idea can be seen more explicitly in other poems from the collection, such as “Introit:” “ The dead comes back again, the dead, / Brought through the passage in! / […] O Chow, my little Love, thou art come home.” (lines 22-28)

Reanimation of the dead through observation and sensory experience may seem a bit strange, and far from conventional for the Victorian elegy; this becomes especially clear when comparing it to some of Field’s past works. Field’s earlier elegies aligned with their pagan beliefs, focusing on the idea that those who have passed are gone from this world, and that individuals left behind should accept their removal and let them go (Ehnenn). The poems in Whym Chow, however, do not follow these same ideals, and, in fact, suggest the opposite. Most of the poems in this collection focus on the poetic speaker’s refusal to let go of Whym Chow and, in some cases, insist that he is still present. Given that Field has demonstrated that they clearly do know how to mourn “properly”—that is, to let go of those who have passed—this could, perhaps, suggest that the purpose of the collection was to intentionally represent the image of a failed mourning and delve into these unusual emotions.[1]

Field’s mourning of Whym Chow was, by several accounts, an unusually extreme, intense, and prolonged period of mourning—a less-than-typical reaction to the passing of a pet that led to concern from close friends and family (Ehnenn). Any casual mention of Whym Chow prior to his death in Field’s diary entries uses similar styles of language to describe him in Whym Chow (“Life-Writing” 264-265; 280-281). The very title “Flame of Love,” in fact, is a nickname that Field had even given him in life (Life-Writing 281). That so much of the language used in these poems mimics the way they already familiarly spoke about Whym Chow demonstrates Field’s attempt to immortalize their lived experience with their pet, reusing pieces of their journal entries as a way to record their life experiences in their poetry. Because so much of the content of these poems are based upon experience, recycled from their life-writing, it is likely that Field put greater effort into and prioritized the significance of the materiality of the text over the text, itself. This collection, therefore, was less about the poems than about the larger artwork that resulted from the many stylistic components which make up the text’s overall physical appearance, such as the stylized drop caps, suede binding, and several other material details.

Through Whym Chow, Michael Field presents an accurate illustration of their aestheticist ideals by representing their inexplicable grief in the most effective way possible—through the poeticization of lived experience. Understanding the details surrounding Whym Chow: Flame of Love and its creation reveal that, while Field clearly took inspiration from Pater’s view of aestheticism, they also aimed to expand upon these ideals, redefining the movement to better represent their most inexplicable experience. As a result, Michael Field helped transform the genre of aestheticism into something that could not possible be inauthentically duplicated.

Works Cited

Caldwell, Janis McLarren. “Observing the Dead in Michael Field’s Ekphrastic Poetry.” Victorian Poetry, vol. 55, no. 2, 2017, pp. 189–210. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1353/vp.2017.0010.

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, psued. Sight and Song (1892) and Underneath the Bough (1893). Oxford: Woodstock Books, 1993.

---. “Whym Chow, Flame of Love.” P. London : Privately printed at the Eragny Press, 1914. Original Format: University of British Columbia. Library. Rare Books and Special Collections. PR10.Q5 F5 1914 W4. Web. 23 May 2021. <>. UBC Library Digitization Centre Special Projects.

Harrington, Emily. Review of ‘Michael Field’: Poetry, Aestheticism and the Fin de Siècle, by Marion Thain. The Review of English Studies, Volume 60, Issue 245, June 2009, Pages 507–09,

“Life-Writing.” Michael Field, The Poet: Published and Manuscript Materials, Ed. Marion Thain and Ana Parejo Vadillo, Broadview Press, 2009, pp. 229–353.

Pater, Walter Horatio. “Postscript.” Appreciations, With an Essay on Style, by Walter Horatio Pater, MacMillan and Co., 1889, pp. 241-261. Project Gutenburg, Accessed 4 May 2021.


[1] See Emma Butler’s “Elegy and External Circumstances” for a larger discussion of mourning in Whym Chow.