Michael Nott, Developing Photopoetry

Michael Nott received his PhD from the University of St Andrews. He provides commentaries for the Developing Photopoetry project, and is currently working on his first monograph, a critical history of photopoetry. He tweets, occasionally, @michaeljnott


Among the treasures of the Photographically Illustrated Poetry Collection at the University of St Andrews is Eleanora (1860), an anonymous poem about the courtship of the titular heroine by a knight called Raymond during the Hundred Years’ War. The St Andrews copy is the only copy recorded as illustrated with contemporary photographs: three unattributed albumen prints of Netley Abbey, a ruined Cistercian monastery in Hampshire, southern England, provide a distinct visual locale for the poem. It would seem that poem and photographs were conceived in unison: ‘Go, reader,’ the poet exclaims, ‘and but view / That church upon that long-forsaken hill’, and through the inclusion of the photographs, the reader is immediately able to familiarise theirself with the Abbey. With two images operating as photographic ‘bookends’ to the poem, the arrangement of Eleanora foreshadows much subsequent Victorian photographically illustrated poetry, while offering a warning, of sorts, in the introductory poem: ‘ ‘Tis by the force of Contrast’, remarks the poet, ‘that we learn / Our varied blessings fully to discern.’ Photopoetry is as much about conflict as it is cooperation.


Eleanora: A Poem in Four Cantos (London, 1860)
Eleanora: A Poem in Four Cantos (London, 1860)

Thanks to a new digital humanities project, this landmark of photopoetic history is being brought to a new audience, along with an important selection of photographically illustrated poetry books published before 1921. The Developing Photopoetry project derives, in large part, from my doctoral research into collaborations between poets and photographers. The original idea for the website came from Professor Robert Crawford, and together with St Andrews’ digital humanities librarian Dr Alice Crawford and rare books librarian Daryl Green, the project grew into an interactive online website that contains more than fifty photographically illustrated poetry books. By means of linked data, Callum Kenny created a platform that allows users to engage with the material in a more interactive manner than would be possible through a series of static webpages. The resulting database allows users both to browse the collection and to make connections between poets, photographers, poetic forms, photographic processes, and the landscapes and locales represented across all the digitised books.

Most collaborations between poets and photographers in the Victorian and Edwardian periods tended to be retrospective – that is, commercial photographers such as Thomas Ogle (1813-1882) and George Washington Wilson (1823-1893) illustrated retrospectively the works of already deceased poets, in the case of several of Walter Scott’s narrative poems, and the Wordsworth anthology Our English Lakes, Mountains, and Waterfalls (1864). Developing Photopoetry showcases a large variety of approaches to the pairing of poem and photograph within this overarching retrospective structure, demonstrating how early photopoetry became more diverse even within its relatively narrow, typically illustrative strictures.

William Wordsworth and Thomas Ogle, Our English Lakes, Mountains, and Waterfalls (London, 1864)
William Wordsworth and Thomas Ogle, Our English Lakes, Mountains, and Waterfalls (London, 1864)

Perhaps the most fascinating example of photopoetry in the collection is Edward FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (1859). In a sense, the Rubáiyát was the first transatlantic photopoem in that it was published in unrelated photographic editions in both the US and UK, in 1905 and 1912 respectively. In the UK, photographs taken by Mabel Eardley-Wilmot (1866-1958) situated the poem in the forests of Oudh in northern India, and engaged the reader/viewer in possessing the imaginative spaces of Empire.


Edward FitzGerald and Mabel Eardley-Wilmot, The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (London, 1912)
Edward FitzGerald and Mabel Eardley-Wilmot, The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (London, 1912)

The contrasting approach of Adelaide Hanscom Leeson (1875-1931) in the US took FitzGerald’s networks of imagery and twisted them into overtly symbolic and figure-heavy pictorial photographs, replete with manipulations to the negatives and models drawn from the San Francisco literati, including poets Joaquin Phoenix and George Sterling. While both interpretations interpret rather than illustrate the poem, Hanscom Leeson’s photographs represent a greater imposition in that they are a more aesthetic response to the poem than those of Eardley-Wilmot, and the gender fluidity implied by her shifting photographic depictions of the speaker (she uses both male and female models) offers a reading of the poem that challenges the fact that no women are mentioned in FitzGerald’s English version. Through Developing Photopoetry, these strangely divergent yet connected photographic interpretations of the Rubáiyát have been digitised and can be compared side by side for the first time.

Edward FitzGerald and Adelaide Hanscom Leeson, The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (New York, 1905)
Edward FitzGerald and Adelaide Hanscom Leeson, The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (New York, 1905)

These examples provide a broader context for the works discussed by Helen Groth in her book Victorian Photography and Literary Nostalgia (2003). Groth discusses poets such as Barrett Browning and Tennyson in addition to figures not yet as canonically recognised, including Augusta Webster, and explores their photographically illustrated editions in terms of cultural tourism, the commercial aspects of Victorian literary culture, and a growing engagement among Victorian poets with early photographic discourse. Groth’s work serves as a good introduction to the intersection of poetry and photography in Victorian culture.

Developing Photopoetry continues to evolve, incorporating new discoveries and acquisitions. Its next addition will be The Nature Poems of George Meredith (1898), which contains twenty impressionistic photogravures by William Hyde. The digital collection will continue to grow, and all of the physical books can be found in the University of St Andrews collections. While photopoetry itself remains a fledgling field of study, it is hoped that projects such as Developing Photopoetry will enable scholars to engage with previously difficult to find material, and to bring to light a body of work that reveals much about how poems and photographs have clashed, intersected, and overlapped since the invention of photography in 1839.


Anonymous. Eleanora: A Poem in Four Cantos. London: John Henry and James Parker, 1860.

FitzGerald, Edward, and Mabel Eardley-Wilmot. The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1912.

FitzGerald, Edward, and Adelaide Hanscom Leeson. The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. New York: Dodge Publishing Co., 1905.

Groth, Helen. Victorian Photography and Literary Nostalgia. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Meredith, George. The Nature Poems of George Meredith, with 20 full-page pictures in photogravure by William Hyde. London: Archibald Constable and Co., 1898.

Wordsworth, William, and Thomas Ogle. Our English Lakes, Mountains, and Waterfalls. As Seen by William Wordsworth. London: A. W. Bennett, 1864.


Hyperlink: http://arts.st-andrews.ac.uk/photopoetry/static/about.html


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