By Jordan Osterman
Love and nature are two of the most timeless and ancient forces humans have maintained a relationship with, so it is no surprise to find both topics a common theme of poetry in the Victorian era, including in the works of noted poet Christina Rossetti. As Linda Hughes points out, love especially was a point of poetic periodical content because it was throughout the Victorian age “a strategic topic. … Love lyrics reinforced the focus on love plots in serial novels and, as Nancy Armstorng argues of the novel, deflected attention away from dissident politics to romance” (Hughes, 100-101). Especially in the poems this paper will examine (“Apple-Gathering,” “A Birthday,” and “Autumn Violets”), Rossetti leveraged these aspects, supporting them with the universality of nature as a vehicle for representations of love. However, the examples of Rossetti’s works in Macmillan’s show that even the deflection of attention toward nature and love does not create a lasting safe haven for female writers or readers from the conquest of man. Within the full context of the magazine we see how the editor follows each poem of Rossetti’s involving nature and love with a scientific- or politically-driven article detailing more masculine topics and pursuits. As an article by E.J. Newell that appeared years later in Macmillan’s shows, there is a direct connection for man between how he views nature and – by the parallel of Rossetti’s poems, love – by the level of knowledge he brings to bear on it. With this in mind, it is possible to view these subsequent articles to Rossetti’s poems as direct “conquests” of nature and love.
Perhaps no poem of Rossetti’s so strongly correlates love to nature as does “A Birthday,” which appeared in Macmillan’s April, 1861 issue. “My heart is like a singing bird/ Whose nest in a watered shoot;/ My heart is like an apple tree/ Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit” (Rossetti, 52). The overflowing emotions of the author as “my love is come to me” is beautifully expressed in their relation to nature, which any reader – even those in an urban setting like London who would commonly be reading Macmillan’s – could appreciate thanks to the universal familiarity with singing birds, fruit trees and other elements of the outdoors, regardless if they have experienced them firsthand. Not only does this reinforce the parallel positions of nature and love, but points out that love is the means to happiness: “My heart is gladder than all these/ Because my loves is come to me (Rossetti, 52). Love and nature, then, are both clearly positioned to correlate to the joy the author feels.
Rossetti leverages the flow of the earth’s seasons, as well, to showcase views on the place of love within human’s natural cycles of life in “Autumn Violets,” which appeared in the November, 1868 issue of Macmillan’s. Through the poem’s 14 lines she equates the violets of spring to the blossoming love of youth, while love born later in the “fall” of someone’s life will not be as strong. “Keep violets for the spring, and love for youth,/ Love that should dwell with beauty, mirth, and hope;/ Or if a later sadder love be born,/ Let this not look for grace beyond its scope,/ But give itself, nor plead for answering truth – / A grateful Ruth tho’ gleaning scanty corn” (Rossetti, 132). Again taking advantage of readers’ universal understanding of the rhythm of England’s seasons, Rossetti can express and have understood both appreciation and tempered expectations for love starting at different points in human life: The love of youth and of spring can be counted on to blossom more strongly than its elder counterpart, but even that latter love – and its natural counterpart in the season of autumn – is worth celebrating.
With the relationship of love and nature established, it is possible to see in another poem by Rossetti that – similar to love’s variable strength and weakness depending on the “seasons” of life that it is found in – not everyone has the same ability to access the spoils of nature and love. The author of “An Apple-Gathering” in the August 1861 issue of Macmillan’s finds this painful lesson as she returns to her apple tree “in due season” to find “no apples there” (Rossetti, 52). Beyond even the harsh reality of finding her own tree bare (requiring not much of a stretch to equate to a barren womb), she is forced to see what she’s missing out on as “Lilian and Lilias smiled in trudging by/ Their heaped-up basket teased me like a jeer” and “Plump Gertrude passed me with her basket full/ A stronger hand than hers helped it along” (Rossetti, 52). The contrasting portrayals of these women who can experience all nature and love have to offer, smiling and enjoying the company of their partner, respectively, contrast sharply with the isolated experience of the poem’s author: “I let my neighbors pass me, ones and twos/ And groups; the latest said the night grew chill,/ And hastened: but I loitered, while the dews/ Fell fast I loitered still” (Rossetti, 53). Despite the increasingly hostile temperature the fruitless woman remains still while those in love move forward, a paralyzing feeling for herself and for those reading the poem whose lives may not be moving forward without love, either. In this we see a more negative portrayal of both love and nature, but we understand just as pointedly that they are both things to be enjoyed and, if you cannot access them, envied.
With the strength of Rossetti’s connection for love and nature established within her poems, it is necessary to venture outside her poems to better understand how they fit within the greater context of Macmillan’s and English society’s views on both forces. In an era where scientific discovery and the general advancement of knowledge had incredible bearing on all aspects of life dating across the years that span Rossetti’s poems and forward to E. J. Newell’s article, “Man’s Love of Nature,” in the August, 1899 issue of Macmillan’s, it is telling to view how he depicts the evolution of man’s relationship with nature. Pointing out the perils and dangers of nature to early mankind and ancient civilizations, he posits “there was a stage in human development when the love of Nature was wholly unknown” (300). This gave way, however, to the love of nature that English society enjoyed throughout the Victorian era, leaving Newell to wonder, “Why do we love Nature? I answer, because we have conquered her” (300). That view, of men conquering nature – with emphasis on its feminine form – positions a strong parallel to how we would see a conquest of love by men that is visible even dating back to Rossetti’s poems in Macmillan’s.
This process is further drawn out by Newell as he examines how a relationship with nature goes from its original form to one manipulated by man: “Nature to be loved at all must be wholly changed from its original condition by the hand of man; unconquered Nature was abhorred” (302-303). Again, after Nature has been equated directly to the feminine, this is visible as a strong stance on the necessary control for men within the parallel realm of love. Newell gets even more specific in the means of this manipulation when he points out that “progress in the love of Nature was simultaneous with progress in the conquest of her by scientific discoveries” (305). This path of conquest is readily accessible for men of many different means throughout the Victorian age as society made leaps and bounds in its pursuit and attainment of knowledge in many arenas; in the positioning of articles in Macmillan’s subsequent to Rossetti’s poems that highlight love and nature, there are examples of the external pressure put on the attention-deflecting poetry by more masculine topics dating even back to the 1860s. In this, we see direct instances of how the progress of conquest was attainable within the same pages of a family-friendly periodical.
Venturing back chronologically to “A Birthday,” we see the first example of where readers turned after finishing Rossetti’s nature- and love-centered poem, which was to “The Law of Rifle Volunteer Corps,” a highly-detailed article about the legislative processes and laws used to formed militias in England. Such a scientifically-driven analysis of this male-dominated topic would have done much to signal that masculine pursuits were meant to again draw the reader’s focus after Rossetti’s deflection into nature and love. This pattern is repeated in the August 1861 issue following “An Apple-Gathering,” where readers could roll directly into “To Mr. Cobden and Other Public Men in Search of Work.” Even more explicitly directed at men, this article laments the lull in interesting political action at the current time within Parliament, again examining a male-dominated field guided by the respected principles of the practical application of scientific knowledge. Finally, November 1868’s issue of Macmillan’s positions “Autumn Violets” directly ahead of “The Sun’s Distance.” Perhaps the most directly scientific example in articles subsequent to Rossetti’s poems, this entry examines the fallout of the recent measurement of the sun as 91 million miles away and not the 95 million miles previously believed. With its scientific topic and writing style, this article discusses a great distance, yes, as well as represents the great distance traveled from the topics of Rossetti’s rhymes to this knowledge-driven prose mere inches later.
Despite much of the deeply religious Rossetti’s other poetry focusing on more metaphysical matters, the three examples this paper has examined show what can be done by drawing on the universal experience of nature to relate the often mysterious forces of love. By taking our gaze outside of Rossetti’s poems, though, we see how they fit into a process within Macmillan’s of directing attention back toward the pursuits that have made nature – and would continue to for decades to come — less mysterious and riper for conquest by man. Scientific progress and the practical application of knowledge are what, as Newell argues, allowed man to conquer nature throughout history; as the parallels of nature to love that Rossetti helps reinforce, there is no reason to think the same can’t be said of conquering love in the 1860s. So it is that male readers may have had their attention deflected temporarily toward both nature and love by several of Rossetti’s poems, but they are quickly armed afterward with what they need to take a more active role of conquest in both those realms.
Anstie, Francis Ed. “On Physical Pain.” Macmillan’s, October, 1863, 457-463.
Hughes, Linda K. “What the Wellesley Index: Left Out: Why Potetry Matters to Periodical Studies.” Victorian Periodicals Review. Vol. 40, No. 2 (Summer, 2007), 91-125.
Newell, E.J. “Man’s Love of Nature.” Macmillan’s. August, 1899, 300-306.
Rossetti, Christina. Selected Poems. Dinah Roe, editor. Penguin Classics, 2008, Louisiana State University Press.M