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A Legend of Provence

By Samantha Magguilli


For my creative project, I chose to reproduce a portion of Adelaide Procter’s poem “A Legend of Provence.” I first read Procter’s lengthy poem from the mid-1860s four years ago and, though I found the majority of the poem to be quite beautiful, the last stanza (comprised of twenty-one lines) spoke to me in an immediate and powerful way. Since first reading this last stanza, which could easily be a poem in itself, I have come to closely identify with the sentiment of the passage; it hangs on a wall in my bedroom, and I find its message timeless. Procter writes that, though we might often lose our great dreams and wishes in “this daily jar and fret,” we are always able to accomplish the things we strive for, as “No star is ever lost we once have seen, / We always may be what we might have been.” The poem concludes with the inspiring thought that “The hopes that lost in some far distance seem, / May be the truer life, and this the dream.” Procter’s ability to transcend centuries with these lines motivated me to republish her work creatively here.

Procter was often thought of as the ideal representation of the mid-nineteenth-century Victorian woman; Charles Dickens even famously referred to her as the perfect “angel in the house,” and her poetry was often read by women of similar class and status. Knowing how Procter and her readership have traditionally been represented, I wanted to present her work in a way that would also have been familiar to upper-class women in 1860s England; thus, I attempted a project that was similar in nature to Victorian photocollage. A hobby of many mid-century aristocratic Victorian women, photocollage combined cut-up photographs of people and objects with various papers and paints to produce innovative mixed-media creations. For my project, I chose colour coordinated papers of varying thickness to give a sense of texture and weight to the work. I imagine that, just as women might have framed their photocollages as works of art, this poem could similarly be framed and displayed as wall art.

The floral print throughout my work is reminiscent of Victorian-style wallpaper, in a muted palette of pinks and browns; the pallet, then, not only represents colours that could easily have appeared on 1860s wallpaper, but also appears to be slightly aged, perhaps the way we would see a century-old wallpaper today. In addition to their wallpaper-like pattern, the natural imagery of the flowers calls to mind the pastoral beauty of Provence and the blooming fields of the south of France. The flowers also represent the idea of rebirth and the possibility of new beginnings evident in this stanza of “A Legend of Provence.” The more solid-toned pink and brown papers have (indecipherable) handwriting on them, and the layering of Procter’s text over the handwriting suggests a palimpsest-like literature that can be written and re-written over time but remains relevant.

As a juxtaposition to the organic lines of the flowers and the handwriting, I placed the text and the main image within rigid borders, inspired by the borders printed before and after “A Legend of Provence” in the first published collection of Procter’s poems. While the flowers represent the natural world, the text is still contained within the borders, confining the poem and the photocollage to the domestic, indoor realm. Using the “Century” typeface, which originated in the nineteenth century and reminds me strongly of the typeface used in the original edition of Procter’s poem, I separated and sized the text based on what I feel is the importance of each line. For example, “No star is ever lost we once have seen, / We always may be what we might have been” is largest because to me, it most strongly represents the meaning of the passage.

Finally, I incorporated an image of a cluster of stars into my photocollage. Because of the overlapping nature of the text and image, the stars literally become a part of the text, both representing and literally “backgrounding” the poem. The stars are relevant to my reading of this stanza because it is Procter’s belief in the ability to metaphorically and endlessly “reach for the stars” which makes this poem so inspiring to me. I have taken the digital image of the nebula from the Hubble telescope and muted the tone to a more antique, sepia colour; this juxtaposition of digital image with antique colouring, of a photo made possible by twenty-first century technology used in a Victorian photocollage, speaks to the ability of Procter’s poem to be as relevant in today as it was in the 1860s.