Whym Chow, Michael Field, and Grieving for Animals

Kelly Snyder

Michael Field experienced much grief in their lives. Whym Chow, Field’s beloved dog, died in 1906. Edith Cooper died of breast cancer on December 13, 1913. Katharine Bradley would succumb to the same disease almost a year later. Field’s reaction to Whym Chow’s death, however, stands out. Attitudes and feelings toward animals and pets were beginning to change during the Victorian era, so the “extreme” reaction and grief Field had over Whym Chow’s death was considered abnormal. Those in Field’s immediate circle even attempted to get Field to move on but were unsuccessful. It is curious that Field wrote a volume of poetry for Whym Chow, while never offering poetic volumes for other individuals whom they mourned. Whym Chow: Flame of Love is a volume of poetry born out of Field’s grief over Whym Chow’s death, showcasing the atypical nature of Field’s relationship with Whym. While many may view Michael Field’s grief over their dog as odd and strange, the volume of poetry created out of this grief memorializes Whym and normalizes Michael Field’s excessive grief.

Whym Chow died unexpectedly from meningitis in 1906 and, understandably, Bradley and Cooper were utterly devastated. This emotional devastation was one of the reasons Bradley and Cooper converted to Catholicism in the year following Whym Chow’s death. Literary critics often have difficulty with Whym Chow because of the “extreme oddity that envelops” the poems (Bayliss-Green); however, the grief portrayed in the volume is indicative of Michael Field’s unique relationship with Whym Chow. Within Field’s immediate circle, there was a concern over the intensity of their grief, as Poem XXVI addresses:

WHEN others are about me and the lips
Of any other bid me to forget,
Urge me I must not suffer whole eclipse
Of light without a rim, nor let
My tears fall ever—since the dew even slips
At its own season from the earth washed wet,
Or bid me seek in other lands to find
New images to hide thee from my mind— (lines 1-8).

Here, others are urging them to “forget,” to not let “My tears fall ever,” and find other ways to occupy themselves (“other lands” or “New images”) rather than the excessiveness of their grief. Field mourns Whym as if he was a literal part of them. In this poem, Michael Field sinks further into their grief. They find death not in Whym Chow, but in those who were supposed to be their comforters: “And curse these comforters who bring me death” (line 32). Those who were meant to bring Field comfort did more harm than good.  Field’s grief over Whym Chow was on the opposite end of the normative cultural spectrum. The grief is excessive because many would have quickly moved on. Through this excess, Michael Field defies cultural norms, showing that not everyone processes emotions in the same way and, while grief is a universal emotion, the way it is displayed varies from person to person.

Prior to the nineteenth century, many saw animals as a means to an end. Inhumane animal treatment practices like vivisection were prevalent in the science community. Vivisection was an “operation on a living animal for experimental rather than healing purposes; more broadly, [it was] all experimentation on live animals” (“Vivisection”). People who kept pets were “subject to criticism and ridicule” and only the elite could avoid such commentary (Power 372). Alongside the rise in antivivisection movements, the Victorians began to have a much more humanistic view of animals; for example, dogs, instead of being treated like a lowly servant, began to be treated like members of the family.

Despite this evolving relationship between humans and animals, the poems of Whym Chow create an alternative understanding of animals, offering a worldview in which animals are central to the human experience. Poem VII asserts that loving and being fond of animals was an age-old practice that “goes back to when the Earth was first beginning” (line 3). In addition to this evolutionary model, Field incorporates religious iconography in “Trinity” to display how deeply Whym Chow was ingrained in the couple’s family dynamic. They compare their relationship to Whym Chow to the Holy Trinity: “O God, no blasphemy / It is to feel we loved in Trinity” (lines 3-4). Instead of Bradley, Cooper, and Whym Chow having their own roles in the family, they were all different facets of one central being. This signifies the centrality of the animal, more broadly, within the nineteenth century, and, more personally, the central “oneness” that merges the identities of three into one. Indeed, this allusion to the Trinity is one of the stranger points of the volume that many critics point out as unconventional.

Some examples of the grief Michael Field had over Whym Chow’s death can be found in Poems XVIII and XXII in Whym Chow: Flame of Love. In Poem XVIII, “In Extremis,” Whym Chow’s death takes Field to a cold place: “When thou wert lying dead, Chow, I was at the poles / Of passion where its world most sharply, swiftly rolls. / In midst of ice, of icebergs riftless and of snow” (lines 1-3). This phrasing identifies the turbulence of Michael Field’s emotions—moving between the “poles,” between extremes, between opposites. Field identifies here the necessity of the extreme emotional devastation of Whym Chow’s death. Despite the cold temperatures, Whym Chow and his fur are often referred to as being warm, noting a physical presence despite his absence. Whym Chow’s warm body was no longer there and this created a dull, dark, and cold void in Field’s heart and home.

Poem XXII also highlights how life was different for Field after Whym’s death. In Poem XXII, Field uses an exclamation point as a full-stop punctuation at the end of the first line of the stanza: “Grieving together—No!” (line 73). Here, the poetic line stops itself with an em-dash and exclamatory phrase (“No!”). Every action presented in the first lines of the preceding stanzas is something that Field and Whym Chow did together. But here, where the line is broken off, the action is something that cannot be done together. Whym’s absence makes grieving impossible. The focus here, then, is Whym’s absence instead of grief over his death. This connects back to “In Extremis” with the idea that Whym’s absence is what affects Field most.

The back and forth between different “poles” of emotion and the dropping off/breaking of the sentence to show that there is no ability to be with Whym Chow anymore are just two examples of the odd, excessive grief Michael Field had for Whym Chow. Both of these are abnormal because most individuals did not have the kind of relationship with their pets where this excess was warranted. These methods of grief offer Michael Field a way to try and process the death of their beloved Whym Chow. They also give Field the chance to show others their relationship with Whym. While this grief was not considered normal for the time, it offers a different perspective on grief and shows readers that everyone grieves differently depending on the situation.

Works Cited

Amato, Sarah. Beastly Possessions: Animals in Victorian Consumer Culture. University of Toronto Press, 1977.  

Bayliss-Green, Carolyn. “Sentimental Coatings and the Subversive Pet Closet: Michael Field’s Whym Chow: Flame of Love.” Torch, Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities, https://www.torch.ox.ac.uk/article/sentimental-coatings-and-the-subversive-pet-closet-michael-fields-whym-chow-flame-of-love. Accessed 21 May 2021. 

Gage, M. Geraldine, and Ralph Holcomb. “Couples' Perception of Stressfulness of Death of the Family Pet.” Family Relations, vol. 40, no. 1, 1991, pp. 103–105. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/585666. Accessed 15 Apr. 2021.

“Michael Field.” Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/michael-field. Accessed 8 April 2021.

Power, Emma R. “Domestication and the Dog: Embodying Home.” Area, Sept. 2012. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsgao&AN=edsgcl.306407600&site=eds-live.

“Vivisection.” Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/science/vivisection. Accessed 30 Mar 2021.