Poem of the Month: William Michael Rossetti’s “Shelley’s Heart”
Posted by Alison Chapman
The poem for this month comes from The Dark Blue, a title we’re indexing at the Database of Victorian Periodical Poetry that was a short-lived wonder (5 volumes from 1871 to 1873) but, nevertheless, significant. The Dark Blue drew its name from an earlier periodical, the even briefer Dark Blue: An Oxford University Magazine, which failed after one issue. The editor John Christian Freund saw a gap in the literary serial market for a high-class title with Oxbridge connections but which nevertheless would appeal to a wide, literate, middle-class audience. He dropped the sub-title, borrowed money from John Ruskin, and a new illustrated shilling monthly was born. The serial published many well-known names, especially those associated with aestheticism and the Rossetti circle, such as the Rossetti brothers William Michael and Dante Gabriel, along with William Morris, Simeon Solomon (as an illustrator), and Algernon Charles Swinburne.
The ultimate failure of The Dark Blue was due ostensibly to mismanagement, for Freund gambled heavily on his initial investments with well-known names, and these names tapered off after an initial flurry. While the periodical was certainly ambitious to bring celebrated authors to a general readership, with the dark blue tint of prestigious Oxford, its attempt to appeal to a wide variety of consumers meant that it became too much of a miscellany to hold onto the avante-garde associations and a progressive politics (such as its support of women’s education).
This is the story of The Dark Blue in the Wellesley Index summary (which accompanies the indexing of the prose contributions), as well as in the only essay I’ve come across on the journal (see Diedrick, below). The upshot is that the periodical betrayed its debt to aestheticism because of the amateurishness of the editor, and because of his ambitions to offer material for a wide range of readers. In other words, the assumption is that the poetry of aestheticism can only be successfully aimed at a niche market, both in terms of protecting the purity of (or simply not diluting) its ideological values, and also aestheticism’s failure to attract a mass readership. But I wonder if this is generally true? As our Database of Periodical Poetry includes more titles, it will become clearer the extent to which the poets associated with aestheticism relied on the periodical market, and in turn to what extent the periodicals published these poets for cultural capital. Particularly interesting will be a comparison of titles with an agenda clearly influenced by aestheticism, such as The Yellow Book and Woman’s World (as well as many short-run titles from the end of the century that we’re lucky to have at UVic’s library), with those that have a more catholic, miscellaneous approach, such as the Argosy.
The poem by William Michael Rossetti was the first published by The Dark Blue. Rossetti was a strategic choice, a prolific periodical contributor and editor in his own right and, of course, one of the central forces in aestheticism as a reviewer, Pre-Raphaelite chronicler and close adviser of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. This sonnet advertises the periodical’s links with a literary circle that stretches back to Shelley (William Michael’s obsession with collecting Shelley relics and manuscripts has been much documented). In fact, the poem also plays with the notion of literary associations, as it deploys the trope of the hand — Trelawny’s and implicitly the writing hand of Rossetti — to transmit the spirit of Shelley. The succession of hands that transmit the heat of Shelley’s burning heart, and his immortality, also implicitly includes the reading community of The Dark Blue, holding the title in their hands as they consume the sonnet.
The question remains, what are the links between poetry of aestheticism and the periodical market, and might there be another way to conceive of the relationship rather than one of tension and failure? What is the role of aestheticist illustrations in periodicals like The Dark Blue? Certainly, the choice of William Michael Rossetti’s sonnet for the debut issue of The Dark Blue was a canny move, and suggested the ways that periodicals attempted to use poetry in order to secure, promote and market literary networks of writers and readers.
James Diedrick, “A Pioneering Female Aesthete: Mathilde Blind in The Dark Blue“, Victorian Periodicals Review 36: 3 (Fall 2003), pp. 210-228
The Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals, 1824-1900
The Poem of the Month: William Michael Rossetti’s “Shelley’s Heart” by Alison Chapman, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.