I have been working for a little while now on the poems of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Evelyn De Morgan (1855-1919) and am delighted that the book is now published. A few years ago I discovered that the De Morgan Foundation held manuscripts – notebooks, mostly – of the young Evelyn Pickering, which included poems, stories, plays, schoolroom exercises, and a diary. Obviously I couldn’t wait to visit them, and was lucky enough to be able to spend quite a lot of time with them, transcribing them and learning about De Morgan’s life, work and context. Some of my undergraduate students also joined me to work on the transcription process, which was fascinating – her writing was neat but not always legible, her poems often hilariously sombre, almost parodic.
The poems are juvenilia, strictly speaking, mostly written between the ages of 9 and 17, although almost everything is undated so it’s hard to be precise. However, it’s clear that the young Evelyn’s education was varied and thorough: she draws on a lot of Norse myth and classical literature, and her stories rely heavily on standard historical textbooks of the time. Her poems tend to be gloomy, with a relish for the Gothic, full of dark nights, ruined buildings, bats and glimmers of twilight. Her visual imagery is strong, though narrative often less so: she writes like the painter she would become. For example, there is this poem, which I suspect owes something to Gray’s ‘Elegy in a Country Churchyard’, though without the moral:
In the pale moon-light, wild & dim Stands the lone ruin, drear and grim Lichens creep o’er the crumbling wall The dark bat haunts the silent Halls Death is heralded by decay Thro’ darkening night and brightening day No mortal hand is raised to stay The slow advance of hoary decay The woe-born winds of ages chime Sadly within that ancient clime In winter when the sparkling snows Shroud the bank where the willow grows Weeping o’er the ice-bound river Powerless its cold chains to sever As it restless strives in vain To roll onwards to the main. Then the wild hail storm hoarsely sings Death is the doom of earthly things. When the summer with baking breeze Kisses the green-clad forest trees Called by the welcome voice of Spring!
Her poems demonstrate a good ear for poetry, imitating with a sly nod the serious poems of the adults around her. They also almost all refer to death, and often a blessed release into the afterlife, a theme carried into her paintings and explored further later in life with her interest in Spiritualism. Her taste for the macabre may well have been formed by nursery reading, often inclined towards the slightly grim, such as some of the poems of Jane and Ann Taylor, now almost forgotten but then staples of the nursery. ‘Little Gretlein’, in which the eponymous heroine sets out in search of her pet lamb Snowball, and eventually dies in the snow, certainly has echoes of this kind of childhood reading.
As far as we know, Evelyn ceased writing in her late teens, focusing her creative efforts entirely on painting, to which she singlemindedly applied herself. But some of her later paintings are also accompanied by poems which she wrote herself, and there is a striking consistency between these and her youthful poems.
The book is likely to appeal to those with an interest in De Morgan’s work, or the Pre-Raphaelites more broadly; De Morgan’s work is always fascinating, and being able to trace certain interests from her younger years throughout her oeuvre is remarkable. But there is also much to be learned about childhood, education, and the life of girls in a (rather erudite) schoolroom when reading her poems.
This edition includes an introduction, a biography and timeline of Evelyn De Morgan, a bibliography, and an annotated collection of her writings. You can find out more on the publisher’s website, and it’s for sale in the usual places (here’s a selection: Bookshop, Amazon, Waterstones .