(An illustration for Isa Craig’s poem titled “Snow,” which was released in her first book of verse in 1856.)
Isa craig advanced women’s employment, established a telegraph school, and won a prestigious award for her “Ode” on Scottish Poet Robert Burns. During the award ceremony held at the Centeneray Festival, her “Ode” made such an impression that the audience interrupted the presenter with a repeated round of applause. Today, Burns is a widely known poet, but very little is known about Scottish poet Isa Craig. Who is this talented, yet forgotten poetess?
Isa Craig, a poet, journalist, editor, and novelist, was born October 17, 1831 in Edinburgh Scotland, to father John Craig, a glover and hosier, and mother Ann Braick. Craig, the only child of the household, grew up in Scotland, and was influenced by the Scottish culture. Both parents died when Craig was still young, leaving Craig with her grandmother. At the age of ten, poverty forced Craig to leave school for what she calls “a life of toil,” submitting herself to household chores and odd end jobs (Cited in Craig: Poems by Isa). It is during this period of time that she discovered her love for literature. Every spare moment, she “diligently devoted” herself to books and not the easiest of reads—Gibbon, Addison and his contemporaries, Shakespeare, Milton, Cowper and Burns all being her major influences (Wilson 477).
At the age of 16, she began to write poetry, and by the age of 23, she began to contribute poems, reviews, and essays, many of them concerned with social matters, to the well-established newspaper, The Scotsman. “Pledged to impartiality, firmness, and independence” (Wiki: The Scotsman), this liberal paper is where Craig accumulated a large fan base. Her writings attracted considerable attention, so much that the exalted amount of praise led to the release of her first book of verse in 1856, Poems, a collection of her contributions to the Scotsman. Dedicated to her long time friend and owner of The Scotsman, John Ritchie, the volume circulated throughout all of Scotland.
During the Victorian period, societal conventions confined women to the household, or forced them into domestic low paying jobs, such as working as a governess or dressmaker. However, Craig proved to be unconventional. In the 1850s, she worked for the International and Electric Telegraph Company as matron supervising women telegraph operators. Then in 1860, she and Maria Rye, an English social reformer, established The Telegraph School, with hopes of promoting women’s employment. This stint with feminism was not Craig’s first attempt to challenge societal conventions. In 1856, Craig met one of the most prominent English feminists, Bessie Raynor Parkes. Both were writing for the Waverly Journal, an “obscure fortnightly ladies’ magazine” based in Edinburgh (Orlando). Parkes took a liking to Craig, and she soon became a major figure in Craig’s life. Historians often refer to Craig as Parkes’ little “protégée” or “recruit” (Orlando).
After Parkes inspired Craig to join the mid-Victorian feminist movement, Craig moved to London in 1857 to surround herself with likeminded feminists. Parkes took over editorship of the Waverly Journal, and with the help of Craig and Matilda Hays, a novelist and outspoken partisan of the feminist movement, Parkes moved the journal to London. The English Woman’s Journal succeeded the collapse of the Waverly Journal in 1858, making it the first feminist British periodical. Major themes of the journal included the advocation for women’s education and employment through articles such as “The Profession of the Teacher,” “Female Education in the middle of classes,” and “Colleges for Girls.” Craig became one of the first staff members of the periodical, and one of the first women to contribute to the journal with “The Stranger’s Lair,” a poem about the hardships that members of the working-class endure (Orlando). Another related entry that captures injustices inflicted upon the working class comes in the form of a journalistic article entitled “Infant Seamstresses.” Using a documentary feel, Craig exposes the poor conditions of textile factories and brutishness employers inflict upon child needle workers, a common industry in the nineteenth century. Marian Lewes, better known as George Elliot, wrote how deeply affected the piece had left her. The content was not the only cause for this deep affection; Elliot felt that Craig’s passion shined through her work: “I am one of the grateful readers of that moving description-moving because the writer’s own soul was moved by love and pity in the writing
The Langham Place Circle, a woman’s club and a feminist forum, emerged from the English Woman’s Journal. The meetings, held at the journal’s offices, provided an exchange of ideas and a quiet place to informally discuss their lives, as well as women’s roles in society. One of the rooms in the building eventually became a reading room, and from there sprouted The Society for Promoting the Employment of Women. The members of the Langham Place Circle wanted to expand and collaborate ideas with a well-established organization. They began to correspond with the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science.
At this point, Craig already worked for this “prestigious” organization (Parkes). In 1857, while visiting a friend in London, she was introduced to Mr. G.W. Hastings, a lawyer and social reformer, who was in the process of organizing the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science. Needing an assistant secretary for the developing organization, he appointed Craig despite the public criticism that followed his appointment of a woman. She became an important member, editing the organization’s transactions and participating in board meetings. With Craig at the forefront, the Langham Place Circle began to collaborate with the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science. The women viewed the organization as a platform through which the group could address the nation with their ideas, ensuring the expansion of women employment and education (Jordan 157). They attended conferences, as the organization gave opportunities to women and members of the lower class to share their social reformist ideas (Parkes). The women published the organization’s transactions in the English Woman’s Journal.
Throughout this time, Craig pursued her passion for poetry. In 1863, she released a compilation of poems entitled Poems: An offering to Lancashire. Craig, along with other poets, donated the volume towards the cotton famine with hopes of raising money for the cause. In 1864, just a year later, she published, Duchess Agnes, an eighty-page dramatic poem with a collection of shorter verses (Orlando). Several of the poems within the volume previously appeared in the English Woman’s Journal. In the title poem, Duchess Agnes, the evil duke of Bavaria, and the Abbess of St. Mary’s conspire to marry the Duke’s son to an orphan living in the Abbey, but he has already married a common girl. The villain and villainess have his wife accused and burned at the stake for witch craft. George Massey, a critic of Craig, found the volume a failure. He felt that it did not capture the emotions the readers’ desired (Orlando). Some of the other poems in the collection demonstrate an apparent sympathy for the poor and working-class. This theme reappears in most of Craig’s work.
In May 1866, Craig married her cousin John Knox, a London ironmonger. She retained her birth name and hyphenated it as Craig-Knox. When she married, she resigned from the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science; however she remained an honorary member and continued to volunteer (Orlando). After her resignation, and in 1869, baby Margaret was born. Before she withdrew from her feminist activities in 1870, she supported the women’s suffrage movement and a women’s higher education campaign. After 1870, she stopped writing poetry and focused on novels and educational books for children. She died 1903 at Brockley in Suffolk, thirty years after her retirement from public life (Orlando).
Isa Craig lived at 88 Breakspears Road (shown above) in Brockley, Suffolk, with her daughter, husband and extended family from 1891 until her death in 1903.
Awards and honours
Craig’s largest literary achievement is her “Ode” on burns. Chosen from amongst 621 applicants, she was awarded first prize of fifty guineas at the Burns Centeneray Festival on January 25, 1859. During the ceremony, when the officials announced the name of the winner, the audience did not know whether Craig was male or female: the official pronounced her name “Essau Craig.” During the Victorian period, women were often not recognized for their literary achievements, which is why Craig’s gender caused the audience confusion. Craig did not attend the ceremony, and could not confirm her identity for the audience. Instead they cheered for an anonymous figure, as she strolled the city of London, having not thought of her poem since she sent it in (Parkes). Craig was unaware that she won until later that afternoon, when an acquaintance congratulated her.
Not everyone took a liking to Craig’s poem. George Massey, Craig’s critic and fellow contestant of the Burns’ ode, found her poem “considerably strained and flamboyant, and really unnatural to both subject and writer” (Massey). It appears, however, that he may be one of the selected few. When the official read the poem, the audience interrupted him with “repeated applause which increased at the termination to deafening shouts and repeated calls for the author,” and finally ending with a standing ovation. Craig then known to an ample group of friends became an object of universal interest (Parkes).
Craig’s poetry is simplistic, as she generally writes for members of the lower and upper-middle classes. Her poems are also written in the English language, opposed to Scots, and convey a didactic tone. Craig always presents her readers with a powerful message meant to encourage moral reform, and call attention to the positives in their lives. For example, in her poem “The Christmas Child,” a woman longs for a child after the death of her son. She never gives, or accepts gifts, but decides to bake a cake for her poor and hungry neighbours. As she delivers the cake a “wild face appears” in the window. She returns home to hear a baby’s wail. The “wild face” peering into the window turned out to be a woman needing to rid of her baby. Different messages arise from this poem, one being that good fortune comes to those who hold a generous heart.
Good Words Periodical
Craig’s verse appeared in several periodicals, including Good Words, a Scottish periodical dating from 1860 to 1906 that catered to members of the lower and upper-middle classes (Waterloo Directory). The periodical encouraged its readers to remain positive through the trying times, with its inspirational verses and religious passages:
“we ask our readers to unite with us in expressing the honest prayer before God, that ‘good words,’ and good words only, may be published from week to week in these pages words of truth and soberness, of wisdom and love, such as will help to make this year a good one to us all, and each succeeding year of our existence still better” (Good Words’ Preface).
Craig, a large contributor, published 11 poems. The first poem she published was “A Christmas Child” in 1862, and the last poem she published was “The School Mistress” in 1878 (Victorian Periodical Network). Though, her contribution appears small, she was the only female Scottish poet to publish work within the periodical.
Bayne, T. W. “Knox , Isabella (1831–1903).” Rev. Katharine Chubbuck. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP, 2004. Online ed. Ed. Lawrence Goldman. Oct. 2007. 11 Feb. 2013.
Brown, Susan, Patricia Clements, and Isobel Grundy, eds. Isa Craig entry: Overview screen within Orlando: Women’s Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press Online, 2006.
Christian, Guest, The. The Waterloo Directory of English Newspapers and Periodicals:1800-1900. Database. January 30, 2013.
Craig, Isa. “Poems.”
“Craig, Isa”. The Victorian Poetry Network. January 30, 2013.
Jordan, Ellen, 1938. The Women’s Movement and Women’s Employment in Nineteenth Century Britain. London: Routledge, 1999. eBook.
Massey, Gerald. “The Athenaeum.”
Parkes, Bessie Raynor. “Isa Craig and the Prize Poem on Burns.” The English Woman’s Journal. V2. London: English Woman’s Journal Company Limited. 1859. ebook. 417-419.
“The Scotsman.” Wikipedia. January 30, 2013.
Wilson, James Grant, 1832-1914. The Poets and Poetry of Scotland: from the earliest to the present time, comprising characteristic selections from the works of the more noteworthy Scottish poets. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1876.