Poets in the News: John Milton and William Golder in Early Wellington
Bachelder’s Diorama of ‘Paradise Lost’ was exhibited last night at the Odd Fellows’ Hall, for the first time in Wellington. It consists of about 50 paintings illustrating the most striking scenes in Milton’s poems, divided into five sections—Heaven, the rebellion of the Angels, the Creation, Pandemonium, and our first parents in the Garden of Eden. The pictures are admirable specimens of scenic art, and the illustrative lecture by Mr G. W. Carey, the celebrated tragedian, is equally attractive. In fact his declamation of passages from Milton is alone worth paying the admission fee to hear. Appropriate music is provided; and, as a still further attraction, a free distribution of gifts of various kinds is made amongst the audience every evening (p. 2).2
Presenting Milton’s Paradise Lost by means of the panorama, a new medium which had become a popular form of entertainment, excited considerable interest throughout New Zealand. The advertising for the ‘screening’ of the poem, and the reviews, together offer a detailed account of what the audience saw and heard, and include critical assessments of the ability of the panorama to provide a visual representation of the poem. Paradise Lost also became a key factor in a review of a poetry reading by William Golder (1810-1876), a working-class Scottish page 12 settler. He advertised in the Evening Post on 8 June 1869, the day before he began a public reading of a long poem, 'The Philosophy of Love', which took place over two nights at the Wellington Athenaeum, and his performance was subsequently treated to an acerbic review which included the criticism that Golder had ‘caricatured’ Milton’s poem. With the subsequent publication of his fourth (and last) volume of poetry, The Philosophy of Love in 1871, Golder included a preface which sought to rebut the accusation and, in so doing, demonstrated both that Milton’s poem was a living literary work of continuing cultural significance and that, as Renzo Dubbini argues, cultural imperatives shaping developments in nineteenth-century visual media (in this instance, the panorama) were also being manifested in poetry.3
Considering these events together, and keeping in view the role of the Evening Post and other newspapers in providing publicity for and commentary on them, makes it possible to gain further understanding of the energies and interests being manifested in media development in early Wellington, in addition to theatre, music and opera. An important link between them is John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, and the knowledge of that poem shared by Golder and the Evening Post’s reporters. The reporters’ judgments about the quality of the panorama and Golder’s poem reveal how they evaluated the specific performance in each case according to standards explicitly derived from other media forms—from history and landscape painting and epic poetry in the case of the panorama, and from a tradition of literary production in educated English speech and poetic register in the case of Golder’s reading of his poem. The two events between them bring together pictorial, verbal and audio media forms which share a complex history of interactions and technological developments: painting, speech, music, theatrical performance, lectures, and print in newspapers, poetry and pamphlets. But each event is constituted by the specifics of the selection and combination of elements from this page 13 inherited array of expressive forms. In each case, the event is more rather than less than the sum of its parts, and the challenge to interpretation is how to conceive the integrity of the performance event, especially when it is constituted by a new media form (the panorama), or a new conception of poetic production (the democratic poem).
The crucial move is to reconceptualise materiality as the interplay between a text’s physical characteristics and its signifying strategies. This definition opens the possibility of considering texts as embodied entities while still maintaining a central focus on interpretation. In this view of materiality, it is not merely an inert collection of physical properties but a dynamic quality that emerges from the interplay between the text as a physical artefact, its conceptual content, and the interpretive activities of readers and writers. Materiality thus cannot be specified in advance; rather it occupies a borderland—or better, performs a connective tissue—joining the physical and mental, the artefact and the user.4
Although developed in relation to electronic literature, Hayles’s emphasis on ‘texts as embodied entities’ is applicable to any media object. One way in which this emphasis will be carried through this discussion is by the use of illustrations of some of the relevant texts, so that the difference introduced by the ‘physical characteristics’ of the medium—for example, the historically specific material form given to ‘the news’ and ‘the page 14 advertisement’ on the pages of the Evening Post, or of Golder’s performance-in-print of ‘The Philosophy of Love’—can remain a present factor in consideration of the issues raised by placing the two events in conjunction. The principal purpose of this essay is to make a case for reading Golder’s poetry, but also the panorama, in a manner responsive to the values and purposes which each embodies, that is, their signifying strategies.
1 Although the advertisement describes the presentation as a diorama, and dioramic effects were an important part of spectators’ experience, the term ‘moving panorama’ is more exact. For discussion of the various techniques and structures developed for panoramic representation, see Mimi Colligan, Canvas Documentaries: Panoramic Entertainments in Nineteenth-Century Australia and New Zealand (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2002), pp. ix-xiv, and Bernard Comment, The Panorama (London: Reaktion, 1999), ch. 4.
2 Unless otherwise indicated, all references to primary newspaper sources are to ‘Papers Past’, http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/paperspast [accessed 22 Feb 2013].
3 The Philosophy of Love. [A Plea in Defence of Virtue and Truth!] A Poem in Six Cantos, with Other Poems (Wellington: W. Golder, 1871), http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-GolPhi.html My electronic edition of Golder’s poetry can be found at http: //nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-corpus-golder.html [accessed 26 Feb 2013]; Renzo Dubbini, Geography of the Gaze in Early Modern Europe, trans. by Lydia D. Cochrane (London and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), p.130.
4 N. Katherine Hayles, ‘Print Is Flat, Code Is Deep: The Importance of Media-Specific Analysis’, Poetics Today, 25.1 (2004), 67-90 (p. 72). Emphasis in the original.