A Radically Conservative “Owl”

“We find in common a love of honest work well done, and a distaste for short cuts to popular success.” (Graves, 5).

For my assignment, I selected a modernist journal titled The Owl: a Miscellany. Its bright and various illustrations attracted me, as did its whimsical cover, and further reading proved it to be filled with well-known authors and figures, T. E. Lawrence, Walter J. Turner, and Thomas Hardy to name a few. For a journal, it faced a remarkably short life—only three issues were ever created. Yet each one is filled with a remarkable array of drawings, prints, poems, stories, and even samples of flash-fiction. Perhaps the most remarkable feature, however, is its content. In an era devoted to modernism, where literary publications tended towards the radical and political, The Owl opted to remain completely independent of any agenda. 

“It must be understood that ‘The Owl’ has no politics, leads no new movement and is not even the organ of any particular generation—for that matter sixty-seven years separate the oldest and youngest contributors,” states the foreword of Vol. 1, published in 1919. The journal’s three issues spanned the next several years, with the last volume published in 1923. Using “traditional poetic technique” (The Modernist Journals Project) and childlike illustrations, the wide range of authors showcased the Georgian Poetic Movement, innovative in its day but viewed as obsolete by the time of The Owl’s debut. Its poems and images relate to romanticized ideas of nature, characteristic of the Georgians. By 1919, World War I aided modernism in altering the poetry landscape, and Robert Graves, editor of The Owl, was criticized for his meager inclusion of war poetry. 

A closer look within the magazine reveals an ordinary white page with centered type, and a narrative that reads like a story, rhymes like a poem, and yet has indications off to the lefthand side as if to denote characters in a play. Titled “A Frosty Night,” by Robert Graves, one poem opens to a ditty-like exchange between a Mother and daughter. The characters are expertly portrayed; readers can feel the young lady squirm with annoyance and embarrassment as her worried parent seeks to discover her reason for looking so ghostlike and at the same time ready to dance—is it a lover? The page carries no designs, but the type is elegant and gives the title delightful curls. All the letters are italicized, but this is standard throughout the work. 

Graves, only twenty-three, both edited and contributed to The Owl, a dream of his father-in-law’s, who granted him the position and supported the publications monetarily. Since he had always associated with the Georgians, Graves remained loyal to their impressive group of authors, maintaining a more conservative approach to his magazine. It was also an excellent opportunity to showcase his work alongside some of the greatest writers of his day. Published with the renowned men are the illustrations of Pamela Bianco, a girl only twelve years old! Additionally, in Vol. 1 each contributor signs their name, some pasted over from ink mishaps. The jagged list adds an air of personalization and teamwork to the volume, and helps to showcase the remainder as a unified effort of authors with a common joy: writing for writing’s sake. 

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