Love, Nature and Conquest in Macmillan’s Magazine

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.

Works Cited

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

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5 Comments Add yours

  1. Kaari Newman says:

    I love that you’re drawing out both the masculine and feminine sides of the content found in MacMillan’s magazine, since, as a family magazine, it was precisely designed to appeal to a wide audience. I do wonder, however, how much the placement of the articles matters as much as their authorship in this argument. You seem to be suggesting that Rossetti’s poems, by virtue of their being written by a woman and about such topics as love and nature, that they were naturally more interesting or directed toward women readers. By contrast, the more scientific articles which follow, with their Gradgrindian penchant for detailing facts and figures, would appeal more to the male audience of MacMillan’s. In positioning the argument this way, though, we might fall into an essentialist trap of gender stereotyping.

    This actually opens up an interesting related line of inquiry, in which we might examine whether such stereotyping of “feminine” and “masculine” interests was deliberate on the part of MacMillan’s authors (which you seem to suggest by their juxtaposition of the poems with scientific treatises). Linda Hughes argues that poetry was usually a “value-added” feature of the Victorian periodical press that “could mediate the miscelllaneousness and ephemerality of the periodical itself” (“What the Wellesley Index Left Out,” 99) and it may be that these poems do not simply illustrate the connection of love and nature, but actually extend or connect with the celebration of scientific progress by virtue of their position to their surrounding scientific articles. In this we might see a bridging of sorts between “masculine” and “feminine” interests, as opposed to an opposition.

    Alternatively, we might explore what, if anything, changes if these interactions between poetic beauty and scientific rhetoric were more ambiguously targeted in terms of gender. For example, what if Christina Rossetti’s authorship wasn’t so prominently displayed or known? Would that change our perception of supposed feminine interest her poems evoke? Or what if “The Sun’s Distance” was written by an anonymous woman copywriter instead of Norman Lockyer? Would it change the idea that conquest of nature and participation in the realm of science are truly “masculine” endeavors? Obviously, such questions can’t be answered in one blog comment, but they might be interesting extensions to this argument about how MacMillan’s – and family magazines in general – functioned as arbiters of gender identity in the mid-century.

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  2. Chelcy Walker says:

    I think you’ve laid out a really compelling close reading of these texts in Macmillan’s as demonstrating the unique relationship that poetry had within a wider discourse on industrialism and science during the Victorian era. I wonder if we could look at the texts you’ve mentioned here and see them as part of a clash in Victorian values. On one hand, the Victorians clung to Romantic ideals, featuring poetry, epics, and sentiment on the pages of periodicals like Macmillan’s. But on the other hand, there was a growing interest in scientific innovation, which I think you’ve shown is also competing for space on these pages as well.

    This clash in ideals bears out in Wikie Collins’s The Moonstone as well, in the disagreement between Mr. Candy and Franklin Blake. Franklin Blake was dismissive of Mr. Candy’s recommendation to use medicine to solve his trouble with sleeping. But Mr. Franklin replied “that a course of medicine, and a course of groping in the dark, meant, in his estimation, one and the same thing” (Collins 81). In this situation, Mr. Candy represents a more modern, scientific approach to Franklin’s dilemma, and Franklin, a passionate, love-struck, and somewhat Romantic figure, rejects his notions and belittles Mr. Candy in the process. Their dispute gets heated, but “the talk spurted up again here and there, for a minute or two at a time; but there was a miserable lack of life and sparkle in it” (Collins 81). Mr. Candy eventually retaliates by proving laudanum’s effectiveness and slipping it into Franklin’s drink, and so the back-and-forth continues.

    Even the very nature of the detective figure, who enters to apply science and rationalism to a pursuit of the facts, in a sensational novel like The Moonstone shows the fascination that Victorians were having with these kinds of conversations about nature/love/Romantic ideals versus science/medicine/industrialism. I think considering Rossetti’s poems in light of an expansive dialogue between competing values could be helpful in understanding how these same disputes played themselves out on the pages of Macmillan’s, All the Year Round, and others.

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  3. M. Sheldon says:

    In re-considering “Autumn Violets” language and its placement near “The Sun’s Distance,” I find myself disagreeing with your close reading of the poem and the conquest represented by the scientific article. While there is clearly evidence of a conflict between culturally masculine and feminine topics, there is also a strong corollary. The poem reminds those who fall in love later in life that autumn violets “lie hid in double shade of leaves, / their own, and others dropped down withering” (ll. 4–5). Rather than celebrating late-blooming love, the poet’s narrator states that “if a later sadder love be born, / let this not look for grace beyond its scope” (ll. 11–12) and instead be “a grateful Ruth” (ll. 14). The allusion to the biblical Ruth, who follows after the harvesters “gleaning scanty corn” (ll. 14), calls to mind the destitution of widows and older single women, who must rely on the charity of others for survival. Rossetti thus brings to mind those ‘redundant’ women at the heart of cultural debates in the mid to late-nineteenth century. Just as the seasons are out of our control, a woman’s access to love is tied to age and social circumstances beyond her control. Rather than viewing the scientific/masculine as conquering the poetic/feminine, I instead see a symmetry between the two. Just as we have no control over our distance from the sun, and just as its startling distance dictates the cycles of growth on earth, so too did the ‘surplus’ women of the mid-century lack control over the shockingly low number of eligible men to provide them with opportunities for love, and by extension, the security of marriage. If such women did find love later in life, society expected it to be dull and muted in comparison to that found in the “violets of spring” (ll. 1).

    Rossetti’s celebrity status and the reprinting practices of the era gave her ideas a greater reach within popular culture than the scientific article had. First, Macmillan’s like many of its peers, advertised its contents in the pages of other periodicals prior to its monthly publication. The October 30, 1868 issue of the Pall Mall Gazette ran advertisements for the Fortnightly Review, the Cornhill, London Society and Macmillan’s. These advertisements mainly included a list of the items to be published in the forthcoming periodical issue of each title. The Macmillan’s ad clearly includes both the Rossetti poem and the scientific article on the sun. In other words, the periodical’s marketing materials place equal value on these items. Furthermore, the wide-ranging practice of reprinting poetry extended the dissemination of her ideas on love and nature to the regional press. When a new volume of her poetry—often printed by Macmillan and Co.—came out, her poems found another iteration in the practice of excerpting verses in the reviews of the volume. Such a half-life did not exist for the masculine content that appeared in the pages of the periodical. While there is a strong case, as your paper lays out, for the conquest of poetic/feminine content by scientific/masculine content, such feminine poetry has a much longer half-life in the pages of newspapers throughout England.

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  4. I do not think your analysis of the poems is a stretch in terms of the correlation of its placement within Macmillan’s Magazine. I think the juxtaposition of the poems about love and nature next to the more masculine, scientific-driven articles is an intentional editorial decision. The poem in the context of these heavier articles appears to be a precursory breather before the reader dives into more dense topics. Of course, I come to this more from an editor’s point of view than one of a literary analyst. In analyzing Rosetti’s poem without the sideways reading, I think we might get a different reading that is closer to Rosetti’s authorial intent. However, these poems become reinterpreted in their periodical context that is more tied to the editor’s intent than the author’s.

    It appears you have identified a legitimate and strong editorial pattern in the placement of poems and scientific articles. This makes me wonder further how poetry was used from an editor’s point of view. It was not the “meat” of Macmillan’s publication or lead story by any means, yet Christina Rosetti still rose to literary fame, which insinuates a great demand and interest in poetry. The poetry seems to me to serve the purpose of a photo or art as we see in today’s periodicals and magazines. It is a lighter, more subjective placeholder. Perhaps readers who were anxious to read poems by Rosetti would flip directly to read the poetry, so editors hoped they would get drawn into the article right after. The poetry is visually distinct and easy to find with white space setting it off, another distinction the editor would have a hand in designing. As we continue our studies, I wonder exactly how readers would engage and read periodicals. For example In journalism today, sometimes it’s said people would get the paper and turn directly to the sports page. Was this how poetry worked? Was it used for leisure? Or was it a way to examine deeper universal themes of love and nature? Was it a religious or social commentary in the form of art? Clearly it could invoke a number of readings, reactions and interpretations, which makes it a rich thing for editors to include in their publications. We continue to make our own meaning using our knowledge of the era, which is once more removed from the editor’s original intent.

    I appreciate your discussion of the masculine and feminine ideals during the time. As is a question in media today, does the media dictate and construct modern notions masculinity and femininity? I would be curious to examine if editors were trying to play a hand in reinforcing or re-establishing these ideals during the Victorian time. That too adds another rich layer to your examination and my questions of the editorial intent.

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  5. Rachel Busse says:

    Hey Jordan, this is a really interesting post. I love the way you situate your reading of the poem in context of the magazine it was published in. The idea of a family magazine is something I’m still trying to wrap my mind around, because it doesn’t seem like we have too many modern equivalencies. I suppose that we have family movies and television, but even those seem typically skewed for the young or the old, meaning that one party or another is typically sacrificing. This is to say: many movies appropriate for families that are aimed at adults seem boring to children, while many movies that appeal to children are not very exciting to their parents or older siblings. I can attest to this problem—when I go home to see my family we will fight forever over what to watch. Outside the world of TV and film, I can’t think of a publication that satisfies all ages—most modern magazines are either for kids, teens, or adults, with very little crossover. That seems like a lost opportunity, because by its very nature, magazines allow for diversity in content—you can theoretically put poetry next to articles about science and the sun. There is a lot of flexibility to be had there, which might result in what I’ve heard called serendipitous reading. Serendipitous reading is what happens when you open up a newspaper or magazine and let your eyes shift around the page. It often results in reading things you wouldn’t ordinarily pick up, and as such you often learn something you never intended to. That’s the sort of thing that’s easy to lose by reading the news online—we are able to curate (whether consciously or not) our reading list that often excludes articles we might serendipitously uncover if reading in print.

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