Henry Vizetelly - Christmas with the Poets

Henry Vizetelly - Christmas with the Poets

Sp Coll Euing BD20-b.24

Christmas with the Poets is a handsome anthology of songs, carols and descriptive verses 'relating to the festival of Christmas' from the Anglo-Norman period onwards. Embellished with 53 tinted illustrations by Birket Foster, it was edited by Henry Vizetelly.

This is a typical example of a Victorian 'gift' book. As well as its delicately executed plates, the text is adorned by gilt borders, and decorative ornaments and initials. Its elaborate red cloth binding is blocked in gold with a holly border. Originally published in 1851, it had reached its seventh edition by 1872. Our book is a copy of the second edition, published by David Bogue in 1852.

According to Vizetelley, it was honoured by the Trustees of the British Museum in being chosen for display in the Great Exhibition of 1851 as an example of contemporary book illustration and printing.

The poems are presented chronologically. The six divisions of the book deal with carols from the Anglo-Norman period to the time of the Reformation; poems of the Elizabethan era; poems by Herrick relating to the Christmas festival; Christmas songs and carols of the time of the Civil wars, the Commonwealth and the Restoration; Christmas verses of the Eighteenth Century; and, finally, Christmas verses of the Nineteenth Century - contemporary literature to the book's original readers. As well as bringing together over 100 poems, carols and songs, an interesting commentary supplies background details on the historical context and textual sources of the works. In discussing subjects such as Boar's Head Carols, Christmas superstitions, the decking of houses with holly and ivy, the Lord of Misrule, and wassailing fruit trees, the book therefore also provides information about changing Christmas customs in Britain over the centuries.

The first section charts the medieval practice of feasting 'meat and drink in great plenty' over the twelve days of Christmas, aided by revelry such as masques and mummings. Vizetelly observes that in these days, it seems that music and feasting were more important than devotion, quoting from an inventory of festivities in 1510 in which it is recorded that the minstrel was paid 12 shillings, the cook 15 shillings, but the preacher only 6s 2d. Certainly, many of the poems selected revolve around food and drink, as one excerpt from a work by Thomas Tusser demonstrates:

Good bread and good drink, a good fire in the hall,
Brawn pudding and souse, and good mustard withal;
Beef, mutton, and pork, shred pies of the best,
Pig, veal, goose, and capon, and turkey well dressed;
Cheese, apples, and nuts, jolly carols to hear,
As then in the country is counted good cheer.

Several poems dating from the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries were taken from Poor Robin's Almanack. The editors of The New Oxford Book of Carols later dismissed the works to be found in this annual publication as 'hardly to be distinguished from any other convivial song', many degenerating into 'gluttonous inventories of food and drink, lightly disguised as celebrations of charity and the Christmastide tradition of the open house.' But a great part of the charm of this anthology today is in discovering these lesser known items, even if they cannot be regarded as great works of literature. For example, one poem predicts the outlook of the coming year based upon when Christmas falls:

If Christmas day on Saturday fall,
That winter's to be dreaded by all;
It shall be so full of great tempest,
that is shall slay both man and beast ...

Henry Vizetelly (1820-1894) was responsible for both editing Christmas with the Poets and for engraving its illustrations. He was a well known engraver, printer and publisher; between 1850 and 1854 most of his time was devoted to the production of illustrated books, of which this is generally regarded to be the finest. He was also involved in the creation of several successful illustrated periodicals - most notably, The Illustrated London News, launched in 1842. After stints as its correspondent in Paris and Berlin, he established a publishing house in London, specialising in translations of French and Russian authors.

Vizetelly's engravings were based on drawings by Myles Birket Foster (1825-1899). Born in Tynemouth, Foster was sent to a Quaker boarding school in London as a young boy. Arts and crafts were emphasised in the curriculum and Foster's artistic talent was nurtured from an early age. At sixteen he was apprenticed to Ebenezar Landells, a leading wood engraver, who trained Foster as a draughtsman after spotting his facility for drawing. Vizetelly passed on engraving work for The Illustrated London News to Landells and his apprentices, including Foster. When Foster set up on his own in 1846, Vizetelly continued to employ him, ensuring his success. Contributions to publications such as the Boys' Country Year Book were the start of many collaborations; the enormous sales of an illustrated edition of Longfellow's Evangeline, published by David Bogue in 1850, truly established him as one of the leading book illustrators of the time. It was following this great success that Vizetelly commissioned Foster to produce the drawings for his Christmas anthology. His work in this was well received in the Atheneaum at the time, his illustrations being described as 'of great elegance and variety', and modern critics have also praised the subtle quality of their neutral tones. Foster's career as a book illustrator continued, but in time he gained a far higher reputation as a watercolourist. He began to exhibit in this medium in 1859 and it is for his work in this field that he is now chiefly remembered.

Christmas with the Poets anthologises poems from a span of several hundred years, but it is inevitably a product of Victorian taste and fashion. Encouraged by the example of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert who advocated a homely, festive family celebration, the aspiring middle classes fuelled a new market for Christmas publications. The book trade was able to meet the demand thanks to technological advances in publishing, resulting in cheaper print production. Christmas supplements and specials subsequently became the publishing phenomenon of the 1840s. The production of successive editions of this book is indicative of the popularity such works had with the general public. Several other collections of traditional carols and songs were published, while a new genre of 'fireside' stories appeared, with authors such as Charles Dickens supplying the seasonal reading material. Famously, in A Christmas Carol, Dickens describes a Victorian family 'assembled round a glowing fire', with the old man 'singing them a Christmas song - it had been a very old song when he was a boy - and from time to time they all joined in the chorus'.

It has been suggested that Christmas with the Poets, in particular, contributed to the popular revival of an interest in 'Old Christmas' while its illustrations encouraged the burgeoning Christmas card industry. It was not Vizetelly's intention to idealize Christmas days of yore, however. In the introductory section to the last chapter - dealing with contemporary writing and customs - he declares that 'the picturesque ceremonies and rude festivities that distinguished the Christmas of bygone times have passed away, and, for ourselves, we can regard the loss of them without regret. We are too thankful to have lighted upon a more civilized age ... We conceive that Queen Victoria can celebrate her Christmas with her accustomed gracious hospitality, without its being necessary for the Lord Chamberlain to assume the character, and perform all the absurdities, of a Lord of Misrule ...'

Even Vizetelly's tastes were too robust for some, however. Reviewing a later edition of the work in 1857, the Art Journal declared it to be 'par excellence, THE book for Christmas' going on to qualify this enthusiasm, with 'albeit we live in more sober times than those to which it specially refers ... there are two or three songs or poems it would have been judicious to omit, at least for general reading'.

According to Vizetelly, there can be no more appropriate way to end than with an extract from Tennyson's In memoriam. On that note, we wish you a Merry Christmas and best wishes for the new year.

Julie Gardham, Special Collections

Also of interest:

Other Victorian Christmas books featured in previous years: A Christmas CarolA Booke of Christmas Carols and Recollections of Old Christmas.

Other books of carols: Christmas carols, ancient and modern; including the most popular in the West of England, and the airs to which they are sung. Also specimens of French provincial carols. With an introduction and notes London: 1833 Sp Coll BD20-f.16Christmas carols new and old. The words edited by Henry Ramsden Bramley. The music edited by Sir John Stainer London: [1871?]. Sp Coll 1305; Joshua Sylvester A garland of Christmas carols, ancient and modern. Including some never before given in any collection London: 1816 Sp Coll BG60-m.1