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  • Inaugural Poems:Branding the Mid-Victorian Literary Periodical
  • Caley Ehnes (bio)

The inaugural issue of Bradbury and Evan's Once a Week opens with an eponymous poem written by Shirley Brooks. The speaker clearly stands in for the periodical's editorial staff as Brooks's use of the pronouns "our" and "we" in the opening lines indicates. The speaker takes on the role of the periodical's editors, speaking for them as the poem's "lightest lines of rhyme" (1) come to define the brand of the periodical, outlining the editorial team's goal to produce a publication suitable for the middle-class home into which the editors have invited themselves. Notably, this use of poetry to establish and, in some cases, reinforce a periodical's brand occurs frequently in mid-Victorian literary periodicals. In her 2007 essay on periodical poetry, Linda K. Hughes suggests that two of the "more pressing questions" facing scholars of periodical poetry are "why original poetry mattered to Victorian editors and readers and what poetry can tell us about Victorian periodicals [End Page 184] as a whole" (91). The study of inaugural poetry offers one answer. Poetry mattered to Victorian editors because it allowed them to establish their editorial aims in a language other than prose. In particular, the presence of poetry signalled the cultural and literary value of their publication more clearly than any editorial ever could.1 Significantly, while several scholars of the periodical press have examined the role that an inaugural poem plays in a periodical title, few, if any, have considered the role of inaugural poems across periodical titles and genres. Alison Chapman first drew attention to this gap in a post on the Victorian Poetry Network in which she asked a series of important questions: "What features do different inaugural poems share? Are inaugural poems a poetic category all of their own? . . . Do inaugural poems always have to be on the first page?" This essay begins to address such questions, arguing that inaugural poetry constitutes a specific, if complex and fluid, subgenre of Victorian poetry, defined primarily through the periodical contexts in which such poems appear.

As a subgenre of periodical poetry, inaugural poems resist any attempt to confine them within a single definition because their form, poetics, and even content vary depending on the periodical in which a poem appears.2 Some inaugural poems advertise their purpose in their title. Francis Sylvester Mahony's "Father Prout's Inaugurative Ode to the Author of Vanity Fair," for instance, announces its inaugural status and draws on the imagery of the periodical's cover and the reputation of the periodical's editor, William Thackeray, to further link the poem to the periodical's inaugural project to brand the magazine. Other poems become inaugural poems only when read as part of a periodical's broader inaugural project. Examples of such inaugural poems appear in numerous periodicals from the mid-Victorian era, including Household Words, All the Year Round, and Good Words. I am going to compound the difficulty of defining inaugural poems further by suggesting that inaugural poems, whether their titles identify them as such or not, can appear anywhere in a periodical's first issue. In such cases, the first poem published in a periodical's debut issue functions (at least in part) as that periodical's inaugural poem. For example, the first poem published in Macmillan's Magazine, Venables and Lushington's "Cobbett; or, A Rural Ride" (40–46), establishes the periodical as interested in politics, building on themes introduced in the periodical's lede article, "Politics of the Present: Foreign and Domestic." In addition, the poem's editorial apparatus presents Macmillan's as a publisher of original (or, in this case, rare) verse—an identity that subsequent poems reinforce. Finally, inaugural poems can also appear at moments of transition. When Alexander Strahan published the first monthly issue of Good Words in January 1861, he marked the debut of his restructured periodical with the poem "Good Words" by L.C.C. (1–2). This particular poem welcomes both the New Year and the newly redesigned periodical with a prayer that reiterates the periodical's investment in good words. Ultimately, what...


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pp. 184-187
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