One of the joint projects of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a literary journal, intended to circulate the ideas and aesthetics of the group. The first issue of The Germ appeared on January 1, 1850. The title was an expression of the Brotherhood’s commitment to honor nature down to the smallest detail—the germ, the seed—but also of their creative aspiration: it was “the germ of an idea.”
The inaugural issue contained essays; reviews; poems by Thomas Woolner, Ford Madox Brown, Dante, William, and Christina Rossetti; and an etching by Holman Hunt to illustrate Woolner’s poem, “My Beautiful Lady.” It is not surprising that the Rossetti siblings dominated the contents of the journal. They belonged to a multigenerational literary family of mixed Italian and English stock. Their father, Gabriele Pasquale Rossetti, was an exiled Sicilian Dante scholar. Their maternal uncle was John Polidori, the physician and confidante of Lord Byron. Dr Polidori had created the modern vampire genre with his short story, “The Vampyre,” written on a challenge from Lord Byron to compose a ghost story. That same challenge, issued to Byron’s guests one evening at the Villa Diodati in Switzerland, inspired Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein.
The Rossetti household revolved around the study of Dante, Petrarch, and other early Italian writers and was often full of émigré scholars. Dante Gabriel was immersed in the life of his namesake and like his father would contribute to the corpus of literature on Medieval Italian poetry. A fourth sibling, Maria, later wrote her own volume on Dante.
The children enjoyed a happy childhood. They were baptized in the Church of England and educated at home by their parents, learning from the Bible, St Augustine, Pilgrim’s Progress, the English classics, pedagogical novels, and fairy tales. The bohemian family, though highly cultured, was never financially secure. When health problems forced Gabriele Rossetti to step down from his professorship at King’s College in 1843, much of the burden of supporting the household fell on the children. Christina was often left alone during this time and suffered bouts of depression and weak health, though she found catharsis in Christianity and in poetry. Like her mother and sister, Christina became involved in the Oxford Movement of the Church of England. Her faith permeated her writing. Biographer Lona Mosk Packer cites “the Bible, hagiographies, folk and fairy tales” as her first influences. Christina’s best known poem, “In Bleak Midwinter,” is sung as a Christmas carol in Anglican churches to this day.
The two poems that Christina Rossetti contributed to The Germ stand out in their maturity. At this point she was already an accomplished poet, having published work in the Athenaeum. “Dream Land” contains a nimble, subtle interweaving of her influences, at once evoking the enchanted slumber of a sleeping princess from fable, and the soul of the dead awaiting the resurrection of the body. In this, her verse achieves a melancholy beauty:
Rest, rest, a perfect rest,
Shed over brow and breast;
Her face is toward the west,
The purple land.
She cannot see the grain
Ripening on hill and plain;
She cannot feel the rain
Upon her hand.
The sadness that permeates her early poems no doubt reflects the emotional turmoil that Christina was then undergoing, though it was also perfectly characteristic of Victorian late-romantic verse. Her second contribution to the inaugural issue of The Germ, titled, “An End,” is no less mournful. Appropriately the last entry in the issue, it begins,
Love, strong as death, is dead.
Come, let us make his bed
Among the dying flowers:
A green turf at his head;
And a stone at his feet,
Whereon we may sit
In the quiet evening hours.
In reading through the four numbers of The Germ one is struck by the consistency of approach and subject matter in the poetry. The verse represents an extension of the Brotherhood’s artistic preference for Biblical and Medieval themes. James Collinson wrote a long poem, “The Child Jesus,” published in the second number. It was influenced by Millais’ picture, Christ in the House of His Parents.
Three cottages that overlooked the sea
Stood side by side eastward of Nazareth…
Within the humblest of these three abodes
Dwelt Joseph, his wife Mary, and their child.
A honeysuckle and a moss-rose grew,
With many blossoms, on their cottage front;
And o’er the gable warmed by the South
A sunny grape vine broadened shady leaves
Which gave its tendrils shelter, as they hung
Trembling upon the bloom of purple fruit.
In the same issue, the poem “Morning Sleep,” by William Bell Scott, an art teacher and friend of Rossetti, combines images of nature with Arthurian legend. When the contribution was submitted, William Michael Rossetti described it as “gloriously fine.” Scott writes,
Of Merlin old that ministered to fate,
The tales of visiting ghosts, or fairy elves,
Or witchcraft, are no fables. But his task
Is ended with the night;—the thin white moon
Evades the eye, the sun breaks through the trees,
And the charmed wizard comes forth a mere man
From out his circle.
Although Scott was not formally a member of the Brotherhood he was certainly a fellow traveller in the initiative to memorialize in pictures the glories of Medieval Britain. At Penkill Castle in Scotland he painted a series of murals on a staircase illustrating the fifteenth-century poem, The Kingis Quair, attributed to a Medieval Scottish king.
The Germ was not a success in its own time. Only 70 copies from an initial print run of 700 were sold. There were fewer readers of the second issue published on January 30, and still fewer for the third and fourth, published in March and April, respectively. The expenses of this venture were too onerous for the ambitious, though virtually penniless, artists to bear, and the support of their better-heeled friends was soon exhausted. After four issues the enterprise folded. Although The Germ was not a breakthrough for the Brotherhood it remains a vital record of its ideas in their earliest phase, and was reprinted several times beginning in the late nineteenth century, when the Pre-Raphaelites had achieved greater fame.
All four issues of The Germ can be read online here.
See also: The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
Packer, Lona Mosk. (1963) Christina Rossetti. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Rossetti, William Michael (ed). (1901) The Germ: Thoughts towards Nature in Poetry, Literature and Art, Being a Facsimile Reprint of the Literary Organ of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Published in 1850. London: Eliot Stock.
Rossetti, William Michael; Fredeman, William (ed). (1975) The P.R.B. Journal: William Michael Rossetti’s Diary of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, 1849-1853, Together with Other Pre-Raphaelite Documents. Oxford: Clarendon Press.