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Poem of the Month: “The Christmas Child” by Isa Craig
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Isa Craig’s “The Christmas Child” appears in the January 1862 issue of Good Words. The seasonal topic of the poem is suggestive of the diurnal readings practices promoted by Good Words. The explicitly devotional poetry found in the periodical evolved (in part) from John Keble’s extremely popular poetry volume The Christian Year (1827). Keble based his cycle of poems on the Church’s liturgical calendar and the Book of Common Prayer, “[causing] a quiet revolution in prayer and poetry” (Tennyson 75). The sequence of poems matches the order of worship and provides a poem for every day of the year. The Christian Year creates a diurnal space for devotional reading, one that is both ephemeral (a different poem each day) and cyclical (the cycle of the liturgical year repeats). The space created for devotional reading is particularly important. It connects the form and ideology behind The Christian Year to a periodical like Good Words.

Good Words is structured around the concept of diurnal or cyclical reading practices. For example, each issue of Good Words features of biblical verse and reflection variously titled “Good Words for Everyday of the Year” (1860), “Our Sunday Evenings” (1861), and “At Home with the Scriptures” (1862).  Such features demonstrate how the periodical aimed to become a part of its readers’ spiritual lives. Readers are encouraged to return to the periodical day after day, week after week, and this constant return to the periodical positions Good Words as a fixture of its readers’ ongoing devotional practices. The periodical replicates the cyclical pattern explicitly identified through its biblical features with its poetry. Each of the first three volumes, for instance, publish poems on autumnal subjects in the months of September through October. The poetry of Good Words, then, becomes a part of its overall structure, implicitly reinforcing the reading practices explicitly promoted by the periodical’s editor and publisher.

Returning to Craig’s poem (click on the images to read the poem), “The Christmas Child” manages to capture all of the basic Christian tenets promoted by Good Words: faith, charity, and action. These three key elements of Christian behaviour are a part of the poetic language found in Good Words. Several months ago, I wrote a brief post on the first poem published in Good Words, “Little Things.” I discussed how this poem re-articulated the periodical’s editorial agenda. emphasizing that each word and deed has power and the potential to prompt Christian though and/or action. Again and again, the poetry of Good Words returns to the Christian potential present in words and deeds. In “The Christmas Child,” the actions of a (presumably) fallen women fills a very specific void within an otherwise happy, Christian household.

In brief, the three-part poem opens with an archetypal Christmas scene as “a common man” (3: 55) treads homeward, glimpsing merry domestic scenes through lighted windows until “[t]hey closed the curtains and eclipse / Fell on the sharer of [their] joy” (3: 55). The man’s sorrow comes from the death of his child, an absence that haunts an otherwise ideal hearth. In the second part of the poem, we meet the common man’s wife. She too feels the lose of her child, but the loss prompts feelings of charity and she silently leaves her neighbours a Christmas gift. While she is performing this act of charity, “a wild face [peers] from out the dark” (3: 55) and leaves her child in the family’s home. While the poem addresses issues of Christian charity and, I would suggest, invites a comparison to the Biblical narrative of Christ’s birth (please feel free to discuss these issues in the comments), what I find most interesting about the poem is the relationship between poem and illustration–a relationship dictated by the layout of the periodical.

The illustration, drawn by Thomas Morten (the second of seven illustrations he contributed to Good Words), appears on the verso side of the page.  In her essay “Inventing Poetry and Pictorialism in Once a Week: A Magazine of Visual Effects,” Linda Hughes describes how that act of turning the page to find an illustration or other editorial addition emphasizes the medium of publication, “[attesting] to an editorial hand–momentarily visible alongside those linked to pen, pencil, and engraving tool–that placed them so tellingly within the issue” (47). In this case, the break of the text at the bottom of the page shrewdly mimics  the reveal of the illustration as the last line read before the turn of the page describes how the couple, “with eager hands, / Aside the snowy curtains draw” (3: 55). A narrative then pauses as the page turns. Interestingly, the opening stanza on the following page begins “And there it lay” (356), the conjunction continuing the narrative and answering the question posed on the previous page: what lies behind the curtain? The layout thus amplifies any sense narrative tension woven into Craig’s poem.

The break at this moment of the text also positions the reader as a participant in the poem. They become a spectator or voyeur, who, like the poem’s common man, glimpses a scene of Christmas joy through a set of opened curtains. The illustration carefully captures the entire narrative of the poem even as it replicates the single moment when the couple hears “an infant’s wail [awake’ / Within the unaccustomed walls” (3: 55). The figure of a working man, the domestic woman standing in bright light of the family’s hearth fire (emphasized by the shadow draped across her dress), the outcast mother all but hidden in the dark of night, and the innocent babe bathed in a light that reflects onto the housewife’s face all speak to the poem’s broader themes of charity, home, the family, and the social problems facing women. Significantly, it is also the only periodical illustration (that I am aware of) that so explicitly positions the fallen woman (for lack of a better term) as outside of the central image (the frame of the door separates her from the family). The family not the fallen woman is the focus of this illustration, yet, I would contend that the visual marginalization of the fallen woman draws attention to her plight (and the broader social issues associated with such women). Just as the eye is drawn to the white space occupied by the child, the antithesis of that purity, the shadows of the mother, balances the illustration, forcing a recognition of her appearance.

I am curious to hear what others think of this Christmas poem and illustration, and I hope everyone has a wonderful holiday season.




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