Scottish Women Poets in Good Words

In 1858, Alexander Strahan, a prominent figure in the periodical publishing industry, founded Strahan & Co along with William Isbiter. Two years later, this firm began to publish a new periodical, Good Words (Srebrnik). Strahan wanted to create a periodical that was accessible to the average person yet still had moral content, and that was wholesome enough to be read any day of the week, especially Sunday (Ehnes 467). To accomplish this, he hired Norman Macleod, a prominent Church of Scotland minister and journalist, as the periodical’s editor. Together, Strahan and Macleod were able to create a periodical that lived up to its motto: “Good Words are Worth Much and Cost Little.” Over its fifty year publication run, Good Words reached at least 130,000 homes per issue (Waterloo) and became one of Scotland’s most popular periodicals (Ehnes 466). In this post, I will begin by exploring Good Words’ history, including its intended audience and major themes. Then, I will discuss the use of poetry and the impact and use of Scottish culture within the periodical, and conclude with a discussion of the role that Scottish women poets played in the periodical. Finally, I will question whether a periodical that began publication in Edinburgh and had a Scottish editor actually had any real influence on Scottish culture and Scottish women’s poetry.

Volume One title page – the motto is visible at the very top of the image (Wikimedia Commons)

As mentioned above, Good Words  began publication in 1860. The first issue began with an address by Macleod to the reader that celebrated the beginning of a new year and offered tips for living a holy life. For the first two years, the periodical was published in Edinburgh, but in 1862 publication shifted to London as Strahan & Co. began to expand into the larger English publication market (Srebrnik). Although Strahan was responsible for founding the periodical, Norman Macleod arguably had just as much influence as Strahan over its content as he wrote devotional articles, poetry, and other items for most  issues of the periodical. Norman Macleod remained the editor until his death in 1872, after which his brother, Duncan Macleod, took over. Both men were ministers in the Church of Scotland and viewed Good Words as a way to preach to their readers (Ehnes 467), although Norman seemed to take this mission more seriously than his brother as religious-themed articles decreased with Duncan’s editorship.

The Macleods and Strahan hoped that Good Words would reach a large number of people, and indeed it did with a circulation anywhere from 80,000-130,000 (Waterloo). This number was higher than Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal, one of the other best-known Scottish periodicals, and it was comparable to circulation of the Cornhill Magazine, a popular English illustrated monthly (Waterloo). It is likely that Good Words was read by both English and Scottish people, especially after publication shifted to London in 1862. A rather low cost of sixpence per issue made it accessible to low as well as upper-middle class readers, and the periodical outwardly maintained a non-denominational (although Protestant) stance in most of their articles. This ensured that the periodical would be read by Anglicans, Presbyterians, Evangelicals, and many other denominations. However, some people criticized this “non-denominational” stance, stating that it was impossible for a periodical to have an editor with such close ties to the Church of Scotland and still remain unbiased (Ehnes 465).

Good Words had a great deal of variety in their articles, ensuring that the publication was interesting as well as morally sound. In addition to daily devotional material and longer meditations on passages of scripture (sometimes written by Norman Macleod himself, and sometimes by others), the periodical featured travel literature, scientific articles, poetry, serialized novels, and short stories. Devotional content varied greatly: especially in the early years it was common for each issue to feature a short (quarter page) devotion and scripture passage for each day of the month. However, longer articles focusing on specific passages of scripture or on evangelization in other countries (such as a series of articles entitled “Protestantism in France”) were also common (Good Words 1860). Travel literature generally focused on the travels of Christian men and women to other exotic locations such as India or Africa and their successes and failures in spreading the Christian mission there (for example, the article “Missionary Enterprise in Equatorial Africa” in the 1861 volume). The inclusion of scientific articles is surprising, as science and religion were usually seen as opposing forces in the Victorian period. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was also published just months before the periodical began. However, Good Words chose to include many articles that explained scientific concepts in popular, rather than scientific, terms, and many even featured illustrations, such as the article “A Journey Through Space” in the 1861 volume (Leitch 516). This article is interesting in that it uses scientific discovery to explain how vast and great the universe created by God is, therefore using science to increase religious fervor. Poetry generally appeared at least once per issue and was often of a devotional nature. Novels and short stories were subject to intense scrutiny to ensure they were moral enough to fit with the periodical’s mission: in fact, Norman vetoed the publication of Trollope’s Rachel Ray due to its immoral content (Ehnes 468). The inclusion of so many different subjects ensured that Good Words provided moral but also educational reading for its audience.

As Linda K. Hughes suggests in her article “What the Wellesley Index Left Out,” poetry featured prominently in many Victorian periodicals, and Good Words was no exception (Hughes 115). Poetry was an important component of almost every issue. Many of the poems in Good Words focused on religious subjects, especially those by poets such as Dora Greenwell and Francis Ridley Havergal (both English women poets). In fact, many Christian denominations suggested that poetry was an ideal medium for expressing religious thought (Ehnes 469), so it makes sense that Strahan and Macleod would try to encourage religious thought through poetry as well as targeted devotional writings. Especially in the first few years of publication, many poems were published either with only the author’s initials or anonymously. For example, Dora Greenwell often signed her poems as D. G., and Francis Ridley Havergal signed her poems as F. R. H. Although Good Words initially presented itself as a Scottish publication, poems by Scottish women and poems in Scots were few and far between. In my own primary research in the periodical I was only able to find two poems in Scots. One of these is the poem “Oh, It’s Hard to die Frae Hame” by Norman Macleod (Macleod 160). This poem is in very accessible Scots, and it talks about dying when one is away from one’s country. It is interesting to see another side of Macleod’s writing in this poem, where he writes about his culture rather than his religion.

Oh, It's Hard to Die Frae Hame

“Oh, It’s Hard to Die Frae Hame” Good Words, 1861

Isabella Fyvie Mayo was the only female poet to publish in Good Words in Scots that I was able to find. Her poem, “Blessed are they that Mourn” is quite interesting in that the speaker of the poem is a man. This poem does not speak to women’s issues at all; rather, it talks about a man who has lost his wife and finds comfort in God. However, Mayo notably signs her full name to the work, asserting her role as a Scottish woman poet. Other Scottish women, such as Isa Craig, did publish in Good Words, but for the most part their poems were in English – perhaps to appeal to the large numbers of readers that were not Scottish.

“Blessed are they that Mourn” Good Words, 1878

“Blessed are they that Mourn” Good Words, 1878

Given the relatively small amount of poetry published in Scots, and the apparent lack of other articles in Scots (I was unable to find any articles in Scots during my research), it must be asked whether Good Words was actually a Scottish periodical, or merely a religious periodical with a Scottish editor that was published in Scotland for the first two years. I would argue that the periodical was intensely Scottish at its beginning, and that over its fifty years of publication the periodical’s ties to Scotland gradually lessened. This is shown through several editorial choices. First, especially in the 1860 volume, great care was taken to connect many articles to Scotland. For example, the article “Doctor Chalmers at Elberfeld” uses Scotland as a reference point when describing the scenery of other places (“Doctor” 5), and the poem “Sonnet: Written at Sanquhar”  describes Scotland as “holy ground,” connecting it to the Christian mission of the periodical (B. 92). Articles that reference Scotland in this manner are much harder to find in later issues, especially after the turn of the twentieth century. Second, Norman and Duncan Macleod both describe themselves as “one of Her Majesty’s chaplains for Scotland” on the front page of every volume until 1890. However, after 1890 the words “for Scotland” are dropped, and Duncan Macleod describes himself simply as “one of Her Majesty’s chaplains.” It may be possible that Strahan wanted to make Good Words more accessible to the larger English population, as the place of publication shifted from Edinburgh to London in 1862. It may also be possible that Duncan Macleod cared less about protecting Scottish identity than Norman. Whatever the case, I would suggest that Good Words was still very important to Scottish identity, even if this connection decreased over time.

Although Scottish women poets were few and far between in Good Words, and even though its position as a Scottish periodical might be debatable, its widespread popularity suggests that it was important to the development of periodical culture in Scotland. Early issues of Good Words presented a portrait of Scotland that was accessible to Scottish, English, and other European readers, and it gave many women a venue to publish their poetry. Dora Greenwell, Frances Ridley Havergal and other poets who were English or published in English may have achieved more fame through publication in Good Words, but even less well known poets like Isabella Fyvie Mayo and Isa Craig were able to publish and assert their roles as Scottish women writers. As a religious publication, Good Words also provided a socially acceptable and moral way for women to earn a living from their writing. Just as many other periodicals allowed popular Victorian writers to gain popularity and share their work with a larger audience, Good Words allowed Scottish women poets to share their work with a much larger audience than they would have by simply publishing poems in volume form, and for that reason it influenced the development of Scottish women’s poetry.

Angela W.

Works Cited

B. “Sonnet.” Good Words 1 (1860): 92. ProQuest British Periodicals. Web. 24 March 2013.

The Christian Guest: a family magazine for leisure hours and Sundays.” The Waterloo Directory of English Newspapers and Periodicals: 1800-1900. Web. 2 February 2013.

Cooke, Simon. “Good Words.” The Victorian Web.12 December 2012. Web. 27 January 2012.

Ehnes, Caley. “Religion, Readership, and the Periodical Press: The Place of Poetry in Good WordsVictorian Periodicals Review 45.4 (2012): 466-487. Project Muse. Web. 2 February 2013.

“Doctor Chalmers at Elberfeld.” Good Words 1 (1860): 5-8. ProQuest British Periodicals. Web. 24 March 2013.

Good Words. London: Alexander Strahan and Co., 1860-99.

Hamilton, Thomas and H. C. G. Matthew. “Norman Macleod (1812-1872).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 2004. Oxford UP. 9 February 2013.

Hughes, Linda K. “What the Wellesley Index Left Out: Why Poetry Matters to Periodical Studies.” Victorian Periodicals Review 40.2 (2007): 91-125. Project Muse. Web. 28 January 2013.

Leitch, William. “A Journey through Space.” Good Words 2 (1861): 516-21. ProQuest British Periodicals. Web. 24 March 2013.

Macleod, Norman. “Oh, it’s Hard to Die Frae Hame.” Good Words 2 (1861): 160-1. ProQuest British Periodicals. Web. 24 March 2013.

Mayo, Isabella Fyvie. “Blessed are they that Mourn.” Good Words 19 (1878): 181. ProQuest British Periodicals. Web. 24 March 2013.

Srebrnik, Patricia. “Alexander Stuart Strahan (1833-1918).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 2004. Oxford UP. 9 February 2013.

Further Resources

Proquest’s British Periodicals Database has all volumes of Good Words digitized. It is available through many university libraries

Victorian Poetry Network has a search function that allows users to search for poems within Good Words

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s