Sing-Song: a Nursery Rhyme Book was published by Christina Rossetti in 1872, with illustrations by Arthur Hughes. Rossetti, well known for her religious poetry (her writing after 1866 was chiefly devotional), also wrote several works for children.
Dialogue of text and image
Sing-Song exists within the tradition of the Victorian picture book for children, but was conceived as a composite work in which the relationship between text and illustration is integral, the illustrations extending and completing the resonance of the lyrics. The volume has a complex publishing history: Rossetti moved to a new publisher, F S Ellis, and went through a number of potential illustrators before eventually collaborating with Arthur Hughes, an associate of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which had been founded by a group of painters including her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Resisting the established Victorian publishing practice of producing illustrated books created by many hands, Rossetti preferred a single artist to ensure a shared, integrated vision for the book. Both Rossetti’s poems and Hughes’s illustrations are ‘pre-Raphaelite’ in their concentration on the symbol as a vehicle of social commentary and spiritual power. Rossetti had for a time studied art with Ford Madox Brown, but had never intended to publish the sketches she created for her poems, instead intending them as a guide for a professional illustrator. She wrote to her prospective publisher, F S Ellis: ‘I fear you may have misconceived what the illustrations amount to, as they are the merest sketches, and I cannot draw.’ Hughes had Rossetti’s manuscript by his side when he worked on his designs for the book. She was delighted by Hughes’s work when she saw it and remarked that ‘the [wood]cuts deserve to sell the volume’.
The poems within Sing-Song treat themes including the relationship between mother and child, infant death, and the spiritual guardianship of the domestic and natural worlds. At times rooted in social commentary (several lyrics highlight the disparities of Victorian class and gender relations), the primary focus in many of the poems is the contemporary world as a prefiguration of the after-life. Many lyrics voice a call to social action by her readers, advocating a life of service to the needs of others. The lyrics also evince the poet’s humour and playfulness, evident for example in the poem 'If a pig wore a wig', in which a gentle comic irony is directed at social climbers and the reader is warned against the danger of judging a person’s worth by his or her outward appearance. The volume has been compared to William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience (1794).
What does the manuscript reveal?
The manuscript is a fair copy, with revisions, each rhyme illustrated in pencil and red crayon by Rossetti. The majority of the poems are written on reader’s slips for the New English Dictionary, of which William Michael Rossetti, Christina’s brother, was an editor. 13 of the rhymes have been added later. Above each lyric, the poet has drawn an illustration representing the character, scene, or thematic symbol of the text. The manuscript was later used by Arthur Hughes when he worked on his illustrations for the published text.