Power in Silence
Though I sing high, and chaunt above her,
Praising my girl,
It were not right
To reckon her the poorer lover;
She does not love me less
For her royal, jewelled speechlessness,
She is the sapphire, she the light,
The music in the pearl.
Not from pert birds we learn the spring-tide
From open sky.
What speaks to us
Closer than far distances that hide
In woods, what is more dear
Than a cherry-bough, bees feeding near
In the soft, proffered blooms? Lo, I
Am fed and honoured thus.
She has the star’s own pulse; its throbbing
Is a quick light.
She is a dove
My soul draws to its breast; her sobbing
Is for the warm dark there!
In the heat of her wings I would not care
My close-housed bird should take her flight
To magnify our love.
The joint written poetry by lovers Catherine Harris Bradley and Edith Emma Cooper under the pseudonym Michael Field is very powerful. Their works borrow from traditional love poetry, but add a twist because the love illustrated was (and is sometimes still) considered taboo. This particular poem is not only beautiful, but very revealing. In many ways it captures the essence of a secret relationship between two women.
The poem clearly illustrates a relationship between two individuals. Readers not knowing that the poem is written by lesbian lovers might think that the poem speaks of a normal relationship between a man and woman. If reading it in this way, one might come to the conclusion that the woman whom the poem is about seems to be about is not fully committed to the relationship, and that a full commitment would allow the relationship to bloom more fully. But while there is textual evidence to this sort reading, understanding the biography of the authors allows readers of the poem to interpret it differently. In the third stanza of this poem, the authors refer to the woman as a “close-housed bird.” This symbolizes a woman who has yet to embrace her lesbianism. The final lines of the poem, “My close-housed bird should take her flight/To magnify our love,” shows the speakers want of her lover to fully commit to her lesbianism.
We can tie these closing lines to lines from the opening stanza. The lines, “It were not right/To reckon her the poorer lover;/She does not love me less,” lead me to assume there is an inner-dialogue by the speaker: she feels as though her lover is the lesser lover, not because she loves less intensely, but because she masks her love from outsiders, afraid of the public scrutiny it might cause. Unpacking these lines and reading them together leads me to understand the relationship between these women as very complex. Not only are the lovers going through the struggles of a monogamous relationship, they are having to do so while also battling against societal norms of heterosexuality.
In the second stanza, the speaker of the poem likens herself to a freed bird who is provides for her baby birds. She is able to soar the skies, beautiful and wild. But while she enjoys the vastness of open skies, what she truly loves is still grounded back in the woods—in the nest. The speaker’s lover, who has yet to come to full grasp of her lesbian nature, is still grounded. This does not lessen the intimacy of the relationship. Together in the woods, the two birds are still close: “My soul draws to its breast; her sobbing/Is for the warm dark there!/In the heat of her wings I would not care.” The mentioning of “breast” and the warmth under her wing implies that the two are still very intimate.
But the final stanza illustrates the speaker’s real want: she desires her lover to take flight and fully embrace her lesbian nature so the two can soar the skies together. The image of the two birds flying together is not only beautiful, but also gives the lovers shared experience. Through their flight, the two lovers will grow closer together and their relationship can blossom.