Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

From Blake to Beardsley: "On Some of the Characteristics of Modern Poetry"

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

From Blake to Beardsley: "On Some of the Characteristics of Modern Poetry"

Article excerpt

"'I sing,' says the modern Bard, 'speaking to the eye alone, by the help of type-founders, papermakers, compositors, ink balls, folding, and stitching.'" Published in a review of Eliza Cook's poetry in the Anglo-American in 1847, the statement testifies to the nineteenth century's growing recognition of the expressiveness of the poetic book, whether in elite folio, high-end quarto, everyday octavo, or, as in this case, common reader's duodecimo. (1) Observing that the days of the oral tradition, when "the song and the singer were one," had been supplanted by print culture, the reviewer went on to note the compensations offered by the visual and material: "For the charm thus lost, we must make up, as we can, in other ways. The painter's and graver's art does something; the reader's mind must do the rest" (p. 343).

When William Blake, in his "Introduction" to Songs of Innocence, had his piper substitute pipe for pen and stain "the water clear" in order to write "a book that all may read," (2) he too commented on poetry's metamorphosis in print culture. He enacted this insight materially, in the bibliographic, linguistic, iconic, and graphic features he conceived and fashioned himself. Except that all may not read the book he made: few of us have been fortunate enough to view, let alone handle, one of the physical copies of the Songs of Innocence from 1789, 1795, 1802, 1804, or 1811. (3) As we know, none of these copies is identical in coloring, sequence, or contents. Each necessarily stages its own argument about poetry, pictures, print, and the possibilities of pastoral innocence.

Until relatively recently, most of us read Songs of Innocence in printed collections and anthologies, assisted by facsimile reproductions of plates from one of the extant copies. In the digital age, thanks to the work of Morris Eaves, Robert N. Essick, and Joseph Viscomi on the William Blake Archive, we have recourse to virtual representations of multiple copies and a better understanding of the uniqueness of each of Blake's individual productions. (4) But we still, for the most part, read and teach Blake's poetry apart from the material forms he designed for its expression. And perhaps this says as much about our own limitations as it does about access. How do we "read" Blake's graphic ornaments in the midst of poetic lines? Do semantics always trump iconic and graphic elements? How much close attention do nonreferential squiggles require? Does color signify? What is the meaning of paper, layout, calligraphy and sequence? In this most material of poetic productions, how much does matter actually matter?

Blake's creative control over the processes of production was unique, but his interest in the expressiveness of the printed page was not. As we are beginning to recognize, an extraordinary number of nineteenth-century poets, artists, book designers, and publishers experimented with the interplay between bibliographic form and linguistic and iconic content. Yet our study of Victorian poems as embodied, graphic forms is in its infancy. As Johanna Drucker remarks in one of the essays collected here, we lack a basic "critical vocabulary for talking about the organization and composition of pages, the way these create development over a sequence of openings, the use of patterns, decoration, typographic formats and styles, and the specific ways the methods of print production are thought about in the conception of a work. Bindings, typographic treatment, and other matters are usually left for bibliophiles to ponder in their own peculiar backwater of a terrain once known as bibliographical studies" (VP 48, no. 1: 139). Contending that bibliographic forms are as significant as linguistic, this special issue of Victorian Poetry and the Book Arts explores some methodological and conceptual premises and vocabulary for talking about Victorian poetry as physical text. Analyzing the material features of a wide range of poetic texts made in nineteenth-century Europe and North America, its essays historicize and theorize "Some of the Characteristics of Modern Poetry. …

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