"Betwixt Us Two": Whym Chow, Metonymy, and the Amatory Sonnet Tradition

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Book Chapter

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Publication Title

Michael Field: Decadent Moderns


Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper began the work for a volume of poems that would eventually be entitled Whym Chow, Flame of Love in 1906. The volume as a whole, however, was not printed until April 1914---four months after the death of Edith Cooper. Whym Chow praises the poets' dramatic and spiritual connection with their furry chow dog named Whym that lived with them from 1898 until his painful death in 1906. Varying in length from six to eighty-eight lines, the thirty verses mourn the loss of their pet and---at first glance---look neither like a sonnet sequence nor like amatory poetry. The sequence, printed in a limited edition through Eragny Press, was bound in soft, russet suede reminiscent of the beloved chow's own coat and acted as a relic for the lost companion. Even from the opening line---"I call along the Halls of Suffering!"---the book grieves for Whym Chow; however, it's publication also served as an elegy for Edith Cooper herself.
Although it is usually read, and rightly so, as a volume of elegiac poems, scholars such as Jill R. Ehnenn have argued that the poems in this volume are "personal elegies" and provide "exceptional and important examples of Victorian elegy, examples that deserve study because, both within and against dominant discourses of death and mourning, they shed light on their era's literary elegiac forms and other practices of grief." While the volume's engagement with the elogiac tradition is perceptively articulated by Ehnenn, she also suggests that the work of mourning done through the elegy fails, according to Freudian terms, because Michael Field are unwilling to let go of the companion in the verses, instead articulating "inconsolable loss, along with pleas for Chow's return, throughout the collection's thirty poems." It is in part due to this failure as elegy that I suggest Whym Chow, Flame of Love might revise both elegiac tropes and poetics of the amatory sonnet tradition. Drawing on both traditions, the volume is invested in troubling an understanding of dyadic bonding in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century; Whym Chow shatters the understanding of lover and beloved as a bond between two---and only two---interlocutors. Primarily, I turn to metonymy as the rhetorical device central to Michael Field's revision of the two-person bond associated with amatory poetics of the Victorian era. Metonymy in Whym Chow, and its work of contiguity, allows the volume to disrupt and reconfigure a tradition of amatory poetics as well as an understanding of intimacy at the turn of the century.


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