- “Making Poetry” in Good Words:Why Illustration Matters to Periodical Poetry Studies
In April 1867, a fifteen-stanza poem by Frances R. Havergal entitled “Making Poetry” appeared in Good Words, accompanied by a full-page illustration by Arthur Boyd Houghton (fig. 1).1 Houghton’s picture gave readers access to an intimate domestic scene inside a comfortable middle-class home. Resting her head against the back of an upholstered armchair, a young woman gazes into space, her hands resting on the book open on her lap. The room is lit by a large window overlooking a treed expanse, but all the views in this carefully staged scene are directed inward. Positioned behind the foregrounded woman with the book, a young boy kneels on the window seat, absorbed in writing on a sheet of paper. Bringing the domestic activities of reading, writing, and contemplation into a single frame, Houghton’s picture not only visualizes Havergal’s accompanying verses, but also highlights some overarching themes about “making poetry” in Good Words.
Turning to the poem that shares the picture’s title is instructive, not least because the continuous reading experience is disrupted by the facing full-page image and subsequent page turn. Printed in double columns, the first three stanzas of Havergal’s poem appear at the bottom of the printed page, below an essay “On Some New Forms of Industrial Co-operation.”2 Directly facing Houghton’s illustration, these stanzas initiate an exchange between mother and child:
Little one, what are you doing, Sitting on the window-seat?Laughing to yourself, and writing,Some right merry thought inditing, Balancing with swinging feet.
In response the child confesses, “’Tis some poetry I’m making,” and formulates a life goal:
“I should like to be a poet, [End Page 111] Writing verses every day;Then to you I’d always bring them,You should make a tune and sing them; ’Twould be pleasanter than play.”
The twelve remaining stanzas are printed in double columns on the next page, immediately above an essay on “one of the most strange and unexpected phenomena that science has yet disclosed to the human mind,” the discovery of a star on fire.3 Spoken entirely in the voice of the mother, the verses teach son and reader together that poetic expression is as much a part of modern life as knowledge of economic cooperatives and stellar conflagrations. “Poetry is not a trifle, / Lightly thought and lightly made,” she explains, but rather “the essence of existence,” wrought from the common human experiences of “Joy or Sorrow.” Both deeply personal and intensely social, poetry is also, the verses insist, something manufactured and reproduced: its material form constitutes a “copy” or “transcript” of what is “Carved in letters deep and burning / On a heart that long endures.” Taken together, poem, picture, and layout make an argument about the nature and purpose of poetry in Victorian periodicals. First, poetry is a made thing. Expressed in the physical relationships of letterpress, white space, and wood-engraved scene, its material form belongs to the age of mechanical reproduction, when human experience of all kinds is shared through the dissemination of inscribed letters and images impressed into multiple copies. Second, poetry is an essential part of everyday life. Neither a frivolous “trifle” in the capitalist world of getting and spending nor an elite form of high art remote from domestic experience, poetic expression is integral to what it means to be human in the modern world.
The verses published in illustrated periodicals have much to tell us about Victorian poetry’s intimate relationship with visual culture and the image, and its place in both domestic space and the public sphere. Popular rather than canonical, with many authors appearing anonymously or pseudonymously, these poems require us to shift our scholarly attention from authors to readers, and from aesthetic/poetic intentions to material effects. Taking Alexander Strahan’s Good Words (1860–1911) as its case study, and arguing that the age of the image is inevitably the age of the reader, this paper examines a selection of pictured poems from the 1860s to show why illustration matters to periodical poetry studies. As one...