Ink Black Heart: Intro to Epigraphs 101

It’s been a week or two since Ink Black Heart was published and the grunt work is beginning to appear. Louise Freeman had sent me her first notes about names in Strike6 a day or two post publication and I wrote her tonight, if a true cryptonym guide was weeks away, to ask just for a character list that included their various identities on the moderator channels and the various social media platforms. I checked my twitter feed an hour later and discovered that had already posted one. Cheers for that!

We’re probably still a month or two away from Beatrice Groves’ analysis of the Part and Chapter epigraphs Rowling-Galbraith used in Ink Black Heart, but, while we wait for that, let me share some numbers, percentages, and Wikipedia links to introduce the subject of the epigraph artistry and meaning beyond the asides in various posts that discuss them already (see here and here for that).

Having just read through the epigraphs and taken notes on a table-sized chart of the book’s structure, I think it fair to say that, as disappointed as I was that Strike6 was not a one-epigraph-source novel as were Lethal White and Troubled Blood, the author’s choices made in Ink Black Heart for epigraphs are at least as rich in meaning and as reflective of the story being told as Rosmersholm and Fairie Queene were to those mysteries.

To get at that, though, means learning the basics about Gray’s Anatomy, identifying the poets whose poems are used for 108 epigraphs, especially the poets cited repeatedly and the poem that is quoted most often, and last but not least, noting the predominant elements in the epigraphs, namely, the heart and vision. Join me after the jump for this ‘Introduction to Ink Black Heart Epigraphs, Strike Studies 107.’

The Gray’s Anatomy Epigraphs:

Rowling quotes exclusively from the circulatory system chapters of Gray’s Anatomy, all of which epigraphs touch specifically on the physiological heart. She references only ‘Henry Gray FHSGray’s Anatomy‘ in each citation so the reader is unable to discern if she is quoting from the original 1858 edition, the only one written by Gray who died when just 34, or one of the forty-one subsequent versions.

There are seven Gray’s epigraphs, before the Prologue, each of the five Parts, and the Coda, chapter 107. All are relevant to the section which follows, but the first and last especially so. The Prologue epigraph, ‘Wounds of the heart are often fatal, but not necessarily so’ describes Strike’s emotional injury at the Ritz and subsequent capture by Valentine-Cupid on New Year’s Eve, an agony that stretches throughout the book. The Coda passage, much longer, reads:

The heart continues increasing in weight,

and also in length, breadth, and thickness;

up to an advanced period of life: 

the increase is more marked in men than in women. (1001)

I think this is reference to Strike’s epiphany as Robin leaves his hospital ward, his second kairos moment with a woman in such surroundings, and the growth in his cardiac vision, a recovery from the spiritual blindness and injury to the heart mentioned in the book’s first M. E. Coleridge poem, ‘Doubt,’ and the Gray’s Anatomy epigraph used for the Prologue. It works as a latch joining Prologue and Coda.

Note that all the Gray’s Anatomy texts are formatted, in a book very precisely laid out, as poems, though the prose in itself is exceptionally prosaic, even clinical. I suggest for your consideration that Rowling is writing the alternation of the anatomy text pieces about the heart to complement the poetry selections in imitation of the action of the heart’s diastolic and systolic pressures, the lub-dub of valves opening and closing. The formatting of the clinical voice of Henry Gray as poetry signals that each passage is to be read metaphorically, which is to say, about the spiritual heart, just as the plot points and action of Strike6 are to be read allegorically and as human archetypes.

The Number of Poets Quoted in Ink Black Heart Epigraphs:

Each of the 107 chapters in Ink Black Heart begins with an epigraph from a Victorian era woman poet, English and American. The book itself, as noted above, begins with an epigraph from Mary Elizabeth Coleridge, which makes a total of 108 epigraphs. Twenty five different poets are cited, with one epigraph having two authors, neither of which is cited elsewhere (Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper before chapter 78; they published under the pseudonym, ‘Michael Field’). Six poets are only referenced once and seven more are quoted just two times. [See the comment boxes below for the data — and corrections to these numbers!]

I am not and have never been a student of poetry, excepting the obligatory Homer, Virgil, Ovid, and Propertius I had to scan and translate from Greek and Latin as a Classics major decades ago. This Atlantic-sized lacuna in my education is embarrassing and something I will always regret. Outside of Dante, Shakespeare, and Coleridge, ‘modern authors’ only in the sense of not being ‘Ancient,’ I am relatively clueless on the subject of 19th Century Anglo-American women poets beyond the gentleman’s familiarity with the ‘Greats.’

That ‘blindness’ being noted, I will say that I was still struck by the obscurity of the poets whose work was the source of the Ink Black Heart epigraphs. I love Samuel Taylor Coleridge but I had never heard of Mary Elizabeth Coleridge, a distant relation, generations removed. In addition to Rossetti, Browning, and Dickinson, I had heard of only Charlotte Bronte and Mary Tighe. I expect this is true of most of our readers; I suspect, too, that familiarizing us with these women poets, obscure and neglected even if ‘well-known,’ and with their perspective and concerns was no small part of their selection. 

[If you are looking for a one-volume collection to learn more about the poets Rowling chose, of the books on my shelf I recommend Virginia Blain’s Victorian Women Poets: An Anthology; twelve of the thirteen poets Blain provides poems and annotations as introductions are on the Ink Black Heart list. Jennifer Breen’s Victorian Women Poets 1830-1900: An Anthology, has thirty poets, eleven of which are in Strike6, but few of the poems Rowling uses are in Breen’s collection. I have ordered but not yet received Angela Leighton’s ‘Blackwell’s’ anthology, which is much larger than ether of the above, and her Victorian Women Poets: Writing Against the Heart, which I have to think will be an important reference for Rowling’s coronary theme.]

The Seven Poets Quoted Most Often:

Of these twenty five poets, the poems of seven are excerpted seventy (70) times. 65% of the poems used, then, are from 35% of the poets. They also cluster at the critical points of the novel; poems from these writers for example, are used for seven of the ten chapters in Part One (chapters 5-14), nine of the thirteen chapters at the story-turn in Part Three (chapters 45-57), and seventeen of the eighteen last chapters in Part Five and the Coda (90-107). {again, see the comment boxes below for the data compiled for these calculations.]

The seven are, in order of frequency of reference, Christina Rossetti (18), Elizabeth Barrett Browning (16), Mary Elizabeth Coleridge (11), Emily Dickinson (8), Charlotte Mew (7), Felicia Hemans (5), and Amy Levy (5). This is an introductory post, so, beyond the links to these writers’ Wikipedia pages, I will only make notes about three. [Jean Ingelow also has (5); see comment boxes.]

Christina Rossetti is a familiar friend to Serious Strikers because she was the poet Rowling selected to lead off the first book of the Strike series, Cuckoo’s Calling, the title of which is taken from ‘Dirge,’ the poem quoted as the novel’s epigraph. See Beatrice Groves’ Literary Allusion in “The Cuckoo’s Calling” – Part 1: Christina Rossetti’s “A Dirge” for an introduction to Rossetti and why ‘Dirge’ is so important to that book and the series as a whole. Though not quoted until the eighth chapter in Strike6, her work appears as epigraph in chapter 50, a Gus cameo, and chapter 54, the central chapter of the 107 chapter book, in which Strike realizes who Dregs is.

Mary Elizabeth Coleridge may be third in the number of times she is cited but her poems precede the book, acting as its introduction, and are in first and penultimate chapters, acting as the poetic bookends or story-frame for Ink Black Heart, and her work appears before chapter 49, one chapter after the center of the central part, Part Three, a chapter in which Gus Upcott appears (460). More on MEC in a moment.

And Charlotte Mew’s ‘Madeline in Church’ is quoted just after a Strike-Madeline conversation-confrontation (914), which, as Robyn explained here, is very suggestive of a baby in utero and hence a support to the ‘Daddy Strike’ idea (‘Have Strike and Madeline Conceived a Child?’). Madeline’s name, especially in conjunction with the ‘Charlotte’ poet, may have been chosen to highlight this epigraph link.

Which is to say again, this post is nothing but an introduction to the artistry and meaning of the Ink Black Heart epigraphs, which may be yielding “sweets at the bottom of the bag” akin to Robyn’s find for years.

The Poem Quoted in Fourteen Epigraphs:

For all the diversity of poets whose work is used for the epigraphs of Strike6, there is one poem, the epic of Victorian women’s poetry, that stands apart. Very few individual poems are used more than once; see Webster’s ‘Medea in Athens’ (chs 44 and 51), Coleridge’s ‘Other Side of the Moon’ (chs 49 and 91), and Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’ (chs 56 and 98) for examples of that. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ‘Aurora Leigh,’ however, is used fourteen (14) times, 13% of the poetic epigraphs in Ink Black Heart. If there is a Rosmersholm or Faerie Queene text inside Strike6, it is ‘Aurora Leigh.’

From the ‘Aurora Leigh’ wikipedia page:

Aurora Leigh (1856) is an epic poem/novel by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The poem is written in blank verse and encompasses nine books (the woman’s number, the number of the Sibylline Books). It is a first-person narration, from the point of view of Aurora; its other heroine, Marian Erle, is an abused self-taught child of itinerant parents. The poem is set in Florence, Malvern, London and Paris. The work references Biblical and classical history and mythology, as well as modern novels, such as Corinne ou l’Italie by Anne Louise Germaine de Staël and the novels of George Sand. In Books 1-5, Aurora narrates her past, from her childhood to the age of about 27; in Books 6–9, the narrative has caught up with her, and she reports events in diary form. The author styled the poem “a novel in verse”, and referred to it as “the most mature of my works, and the one into which my highest convictions upon Life and Art have entered”. The scholar Deirdre David asserts that Barrett Browning’s work in Aurora Leigh renders her “a major figure in any consideration of the nineteenth-century woman writer and of Victorian poetry in general”.[1] John Ruskin called it the greatest long poem of the nineteenth century.[2]

Again, this is not the place to write at any length about the relevance of ‘Aurora Leigh’ as a mirroring text within Ink Black Heart. Like you, I look forward to Beatrice Groves’ exegesis to complement her Cuckoo’s Calling work with Rossetti’s ‘Dirge’ and Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses.’ The two important things to note here are only that ‘Aurora Leigh’ is the poem most deployed in Strike6 epigraphs and that it is a melange of “Biblical and classical history and mythology, as well as modern novels.” That it would work as something of a template or touchstone for Ink Black Heart, a novel with mythological and hermetic backdrops and archetypal symbols used to reinvent the depth and range of the most modern of genres, the murder mystery, as psychomachian allegory, seems almost a no-brainer. If you can only read one book or poem to buttress your understanding of Strike6, it has to be Durkheim’s Suicide, Evola’s Ride the Tiger, or Browning’s ‘Aurora Leigh,’ and I think the epic poem is your best bet.

The Eye of the Heart and Spiritual Blindness:

I wrote last week in anticipation of Rowling’s staged Q&A “interactive” (ho!) interview that she would have to discuss the epigraphs because they are all about the spiritual heart and vision, which is her in-your-face theme, from the title and first Coleridge epigraph all the way through to Strike’s stone-cold sober reflections on the last page. I wrote then:

The thematic ‘through-line’ connecting the novel’s first epigraphs and the Coda conclusions [is] wounded hearts and self-blindness.

The author has put a lot of work into her choice of epigraphs for Ink Black Heart, at least as much and I think probably more than her previous Strike novels. She creates something like a heart’s lub-dub beat in the contrast between a just-the-facts note about the physical heart in her selections from Gray’s Anatomy and a poem fragment about the heart and its vision from women poets of the 19th Century. …

[R]ead the first three epigraphs and then chapter 107, the Coda, immediately after. As I’ll detail in my latch post and first attempt to crack the Coleridge-Gray-Rosetti epigraphs, it’s hard not to see the heart-stricken Strike’s book-closing complaints about people, to include himself alas, as needing “to open their fucking eyes” as his coming to understand what was meant by the spiritual “Blindness” of M. E. Coleridge’s ‘Doubt,’ the opening epigraph, the “Wounds of the heart” which are often but “not necessarily” “fatal” in the Gray’s Anatomy line that prefaces the Prologue chapters, and M. E. Coleridge’s ‘Moment’ and its question to God about His eyes and breath.

Not since the Deathly Hallows epigraphs has Rowling tipped her hand in such a pronounced way about the spiritual content of her work as she does in these Ink Black Heart epigraphs, in a book whose primary embedded text has a hero named ‘Harty’ who struggles with his dark side (get it? Harty? [Hearty?] Harry?). 

That “wounded heart” and “self-blindness” are there beginning and end, then, but how often do they appear in the other epigraphs, the well over 100 poetry excepts in between? Survey says… a lot.

Counting only explicit references to the “heart” using that word or undeniable references (e.g., “pulses red”), there are 23 epigraphs in Ink Black Heart that are about the spiritual heart explicitly. If you include those talking about love, mind, and spirit, words reflecting the noetic faculty and activity, the percentage of epigraphs jumps from just over 20% to well over 50%. There are seventeen epigraphs that refer to eyes, vision, or sight (to include the “blindness” of Coleridge’s opening ‘Doubt’), with very little eyes/heart overlap (see Charlotte Mews’ ‘Madeline in Church’ quoted above for the one instance I found). Combine the two explicit references to ‘heart’ and ‘sight’ and more than a third of the epigraphs are about ‘the eye of the heart,’ one’s spiritual vision.

I predicted before the publication of Strike6 that it would be all about the heart, not an especially daring speculation given the title and a Coleridge epigraph being revealed beforehand:

I will be astonished if Ink Black Heart does not in large part depend, then, at least with respect to its symbolism, on the Estecean and hesychast understanding of ‘heart’ as the spiritual organ and vessel within the human person. Harry Potter the character in that series was the ‘heart’ of the soul-triptych there and the literary alchemy was about the enlightenment or illumination of his leaden heart, the sacrificial love of his mother being key to the boy’s victory over the Dark Lord, the shadow who worked to achieve immortality by a psychopathic disregard of others.

This is the heart and soul of English High Fantasy and much of the other literature post Coleridge, a teaching that Lewis has from Barfield as well as the Bard of Ottery St Mary, that Tolkien had through Newman and the fathers at the Birmingham Oratory, and that Nabokov has from Dodgson-Carroll, the Cambridge Platonists, and his training in iconography. Nabokov like Rowling was no churchman but, as with her other influences, his work and hers delivers a powerful spiritual message that is simultaneously and more importantly an imaginative experience of transformation all but essential to overcoming the obstacles to spiritual life today.

The epigraphs reflect and inform the story’s meaning, Strike’s nigredo of being broken down to his inner essence or logos, the soul’s desire for perfection and completion in the Spirit, represented in story by Robin. The epigraphs pound on the message that he is blind, the eye of his heart is “ink black,” and like the Harty of the animated text-within-the-text, Strike can be forgiven this because he is doing his clumsy best, blind and lame as he is psychologically to spiritual reality, to rise from the grave and live a truly human life.

The epigraphs do not deliver this story, but the selections from Gray’s Anatomy and Victorian women poets in their complementary, antagonist pumping sure do highlight and buttress the allegorical meaning and experience of the drama. As such I think they are key to Rowling’s artistry once again; I hope this introduction opens the gates to much more detailed exploration of the subject. Please share your thoughts on the epigraphs in the comment boxes below!


  1. I post the data of my epigraph number crunching in these comment boxes for those who want to follow-up or just check on my findings.

    In typing this out I discovered two errors myself; Helen Hunt Jackson was counted as two poets in my original listing (she is listed as ‘Helen Jackson’ in epigraph ch 4, and as ‘Helen Hunt Jackson’ for 87, and 89), and Jean Ingelow, too, which brings her total epigraph contribution to 5, equal to two others in our Top Seven.

    Poet: epigraph numbers, (total)

    Christina Rossetti: 8, 14, 22, 24, 25, 35, 38, 50, 52, 54, 56, 84, 86, 90, 98, 103, 105, 107 (18)

    Elizabeth Barrett Browning: 12, 21, 33, 39, 42, 45, 47, 58, 67, 71, 72, 82, 96, 101, 102, 104 (16; all but 21 and 58 from ‘Aurora Leigh’)

    Mary Elizabeth Coleridge: Book, 1, 18, 20, 49, 79, 81, 91, 93, 94, 106 (11)

    Emily Dickinson: 11, 31, 53, 58, 59, 65, 70, 76, 99 (8)

    Charlotte Mew: 16, 17, 40, 55, 66, 92, 95 (7)

    Felicia Hemans: 6, 10, 15, 63, 100 (5)

    Amy Levy: 7, 23, 32, 80, 85 (5)

    Jean Ingelow: 9, 27, 29, 37, 64 (5)

    LEL!: 62, 68, 69, 83 (4); see also Rossetti 52 ‘LEL’)

    Mary Tighe: 36 (Psyche), 43, 60, 88 (4)

    Helen Hunt Jackson: 4, 87, 89 (3)

    Joanna Baillie: 13, 21, 34 (3)

    Augusta Webster: 44, 48, 51 (3)

    Emily Pfeiffer: 3, 75 (2)

    Charlotte Bronte: 19, 74 (2)

    Adah Isaacs Menken: 30, 57 (2)

    Constance Naden: 41, 46 (2)

    Mathilda Blind: 61, 97 (2)

    Mary Kendall: 73, 77 (2)

    Martha Jane Jewsbury: 2 (‘To My Own Heart’)

    Anne Evans: 28

    ‘Michael Field’ (Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper): 78

  2. The Heart and Vision epigraphs by chapter number:

    Heart: 20, 106 (MEC); 21, 67; 52, 107; 68, 85; 2; 63, 80, 85; 17, 40, 55, 95 (Mew); 19, 74; 27; 30; 36, 60; 87 (23)

    Vision: Book, 1, 49, 81 (MEC); 22, 25, 38, 90, 98 (CR); 59; 3; 34; 95; 57; 88; 48; 46 (17)

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