This past week I’ve once again tried out a new online exercise. It’s always good to exploit the visual potential of online content, and access to visual images that the web makes available, so this week the class have been thinking about Victorian poetry and visual responses. The two poems they’ve been using for this are Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shalott’ and Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’. The exercise set was for each student to find an image — either Victorian or later — that is in some kind of dialogue with one of these poems. I asked them to get to know their chosen image well — really look at it and pay attention to its detail — and then consider what lines in the poem it seems to be responding to. In the case of some images — for example, illustrations to editions of ‘Goblin Market’ — this may be relatively clear. With others — and more than fifty visual responses to ‘The Lady of Shalott’ appeared within the Victorian period alone — the image, particularly if it is a painting, may well not come with a tag line making clear which exact lines it is responding to.
I’m a big fan of work on reading words and images together, or in dialogue. Some of my own work on William Morris has been significantly influenced by the work of Jerome McGann in The Textual Condition (1991), and his subsequent work which has argued strongly for the necessity of reading poetry as ‘literature by design’, set alongside all the bibliographic coding that is part of any given publication’s making, publishing and production.
I gave the students some links to good sites featuring images of both the texts, and pointed them to various articles and chapters worth checking out. In particular the terrific work of Lorraine Janzen Kooistra featured several times, whose 1994 article ‘Modern Markets for “Goblin Market”‘ (Victorian Poetry 32 (3-4), pp. 249-77), and subsequent book Christina Rossetti and Book Illustration: A Publishing History (Ohio UP, 2002), are fascinating accounts of the multiple ways Rossetti’s iconic poem has been illustrated.
Perhaps because ‘Goblin Market’ had been focussed on in the classroom session this was perhaps overall the more popular choice for students to find images for. Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s 1862 illustrations to the first edition, Laurence Housman’s 1893 edition for Macmillan — one of the Fin de Siècle’s most distinctive illustrated books, and Arthur Rackham’s 1933 illustrations all appeared. This latter contains one particular image, responding to the lines White and golden Lizzie stood, that has been subsequently much copied – sometimes with telling variations (see below). One student made my week by finding the entire adult comic version of Goblin Market, illustrated by John Bolton in 1989, which I had heard of via Kooistra’s 1994 article, but certainly never seen (a) in full or (b) in colour.
It’s a whole other essay of a post for me to start discussing visual responses to ‘The Lady of Shalott’. They are legion.
Check out Christine Poulson’s essay on visual responses to the poem in Re-Framing the Pre-Raphaelites (Scolar Press, 1996) and her The Quest for the Grail: Arthurian Legend in British Art, 1840-1920 (MUP, 1999), Elizabeth Nelson’s Ladies of Shalott: A Victorian Masterpiece and its Contexts (Brown University, 1985) and any of numerous books on the Pre-Raphaelites. Suffice to say that the students seem to be engaging with the exercise well, and it is an interesting exercise in getting them as English Studies students to think about interpretation of texts from a slightly different angle. After all, every illustration in relation to a text is some kind of interpretation — that’s partly what I’m trying to flag up. As the exercise kicked off last Friday I was having to restrain myself from wanting to respond to every post that was going up! Once again I was pleased to see quite a number of students eager to engage with the online task within hours of the classroom session finishing…and the posts have kept coming over the whole week of this session.