The body of Algernon Charles Swinburne’s poetry is so vast and varied that it is difficult to generalize about it. Swinburne wrote poetry for more than sixty years, and in that time he treated an enormous variety of subjects and employed many poetic forms and meters. He wrote English and Italian sonnets, elegies, odes, lyrics, dramatic monologues, ballads, and romances; and he experimented with the rondeau, the ballade, and the sestina. Much of this poetry is marked by a strong lyricism and a self-conscious, formal use of such rhetorical devices as alliteration, assonance, repetition, personification, and synecdoche. Swinburne’s brilliant self-parody, “Nephilidia,” hardly exaggerates the excessive rhetoric of some of his earlier poems. The early A Song of Italy would have more effectively conveyed its extreme republican sentiments had it been more restrained. As it is, content is too often lost in verbiage, leading a reviewer for The Athenaeum to remark that “hardly any literary bantling has been shrouded in a thicker veil of indefinite phrases.” A favorite technique of Swinburne is to reiterate a poem’s theme in a profusion of changing images until a clear line of development is lost. “The Triumph of Time” is an example. Here the stanzas can be rearranged without loss of effect. This poem does not so much develop as accrete. Clearly a large part of its greatness rests in its music. As much as any other poet, Swinburne needs to be read aloud. The diffuse lyricism of Swinburne is the opposite of the closely knit structures of John Donne and is akin to the poetry of Walt Whitman.
Poems and Ballads
Nowhere is this diffuseness more clearly visible than in those poems of the first series of Poems and Ballads, which proved so shocking to Victorian sensibilities: “Anactoria,” “Laus Veneris,” “Dolores,” “Faustine,” and “Felise.” Although they all exhibit technical virtuosity, these poems are too long, and their compulsive repetition of sadomasochistic eroticism grows tiresome. Poems that celebrate the pleasures and pains of sexual love are most successful when the language is sufficiently sensuous to convey the immediacy of the experience—Ovid’s Amores (c. 20 b.c.e.; English translation, c. 1597) comes to mind—and it is ironic that Swinburne’s sensual poems in this early volume fall somewhat flat because they are not sensuous enough. Faustine and Dolores fail to come to life, just as the unnamed speakers, reveling in the pains of love, remain only voices. One feels that the dramatic form is ill-chosen. Swinburne tells us in his Notes on Poems and Reviews that in “Dolores” he strove “to express that transient state of spirit through which a man may be supposed to pass, foiled in love and weary of loving, but not yet in sight of rest; seeking refuge in those ’violent delights’ which ’have violent ends,’ in fierce and frank sensualities which at least profess to be no more than they are.” This is a legitimate purpose for a poem, but it is not realized in these early works.
Still, this volume cannot be dismissed too lightly. Swinburne wrote it partly to shock and partly to accomplish what he attributed to Charles Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil: the transformation of ugliness into beauty, immorality into morality by the sheer power of the imagination. He certainly succeeded in shocking, and at times he was able to invest desperate and dark thoughts with a languorous beauty of sound, as in these lines from “The Garden of Proserpine”:
I am tired of tears and laughter,And men that laugh and weep;Of what may come hereafterFor men that sow to reap:I am weary of days and hours,Blown buds of barren flowers,Desires and dreams and powersAnd everything but sleep.
This is quintessential early Swinburne. Nothing had been heard in English poetry quite like it. For all their defects, the longer dramatic poems in the first series of Poems and Ballads expanded the boundaries of the subject matter of English poetry in much the way that Whitman did for American poetry. In the shorter lyrics, such as “A Leave-taking,” “Rococo,” and “A Match,” Swinburne created a note of elusive melancholy that had not been heard before. “Madonna Mia,” one of the most exquisitely beautiful lyrics in the language, by itself compensates for the flawed longer poems and ends on a more hopeful note than the other poems of the volume.
Songs Before Sunrise
In Swinburne’s next volume of poems, Songs Before Sunrise, the Femme Fatale is replaced by the goddess Freedom; the earlier obsession with flagellation is sublimated into a more acceptable form of violence—namely, the overthrow of tyranny; and the desperate hedonism of the “Hymn to Proserpine” gives way to the militant humanism of the “Hymn of Man.” “A little while and we die; shall life not thrive as it may?” is changed to “Men perish, but man shall endure; lives die, but the life is not dead.” The doctrine of art for art’s sake evaporates in these poems of social concern as the influence of Victor Hugo and Giuseppe Mazzini replaces that of Charles Baudelaire and the Marquis de Sade....
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5th April is Swinburne day – if you think you may have read some once and liked it, today’s the day to go and look him up again.
New to Swinburne or wondering what he might offer? Today you can get a quick blast through 140 character or less snippets from the 6 volume Poems. If you like the musical highlights, check out the rest, all available thanks to the marvellous Swinburne project, Indianna, courtesy of John A Walsh. (Not sure if they often have the server crash through Swinburne-fever, but you never know.) If I get chance I’ll add some links to favourites.
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More on A.C.Swinburne
Joyce was happy for characters to recommend old Algie and to reference the “great sweet mother”, yet Swinburne wasn’t to Eliot’s taste; what Eliot said was gospel in 1922 and so the twentieth century largely passed him by. Going from the rebel yells of the 1860s to the quietly introspective verse of the 1880s and 90s, Swinburne lived into the twentieth century, at which point, dying in 1909, he was pilloried by Eliot and others largely as a figurehead of the old world and old literary values. Those who don’t like him will usually put forward some variation on the “more sound than significance” theme, once hinted at by Tennyson, “a reed through which all things blow into music”.
Nevertheless, in a career that spanned the last half of the nineteenth century, Swinburne came up with plenty of cracking lines, often bringing a mournful elegiac quality in alongside a dollop of frumpy bitterness and long, long sentences.
Time turns the old days to derision,
Our loves into corpses or wives;
And marriage and death and division
Make barren our lives… [The Triumph of Time, 1866]
He never married and the speculations around his love life give a picture of awkward unrequited and idealistic thoughts. From a comfortably aristocratic position he was able to cock a snook at many aspects of the Victorian status quo including its religion, sexual mores and politics. If you’re up for verse that’s lengthy and voluptous, Love, Time, The Sea, Maternity, Liberty, Loss and Spirituality all abound for in the works of Algie.
The most commonly anthologised and therefore most commonly read poems tend to be from the 1866 Poems and Ballads, a volume with plenty of variety and very much part of the rebel cry period. If you read nothing else there’s The Triumph of Time, Dolores, Anactoria, Hymn to Proserpine and this will probably keep you in with most people who’ve heard of him at all and even get you through an odd Victorian lit seminar. From the same volume, a favourite of mine is A Leave Taking. Other goodies from the volume include Hermaphroditus and Felise.
A daring leap will take you into the mid and later works. Some of Swinburne’s deep spirituality comes through in Hertha, some of his personal commitment to a quest in Prelude, both from 1871 and Songs Before Sunrise. On the Downs points forward to later works and the spiritual landscape poetry. If you can stomach the political poetry there’s Eve of Revolution and A New Year’s Message from the same volume, but as has been pointed out several times, it’s hard to see real political thinking in the poet and these works point to other stronger interests.
For some the later works offer more depth and a solemn contemplative atmosphere full of description and lyricism. His next Poems and Ballads included A Forsaken Garden, Ave Atque Vale, At a Month’s End and a rather complicated Sestina.
Most critics ignore the baby poems but there’s something very affecting about Swinburne’s view of children. Don’t miss In a Rosary, and there are others A Clasp of Hands, Not a Child, A Baby’s Death and First Footsteps
There’s a bunch of good elegies around the late period: The Death of Richard Wagner, On the Death of Richard Burton, Threnody. And two longer poems that are firmly in the late great works, A Nympholept and The Lake of Gaube. There’s a number of longer works that play on the relationship of man to landscapes internal and external into the frame, among them By the North Sea.
Tim Burnett’s brilliant analysis of the Anactoria MS proved (hopefully once and for all) that Swinburne didn’t just waffle on meaninglessly but in fact was a craftsman. It takes a bit of time and patience – this is largely the opposite of the lightening-drive, get it in three words, cool hot yours world we inhabit. If you’re prepared to go with it, though, there’s a subtle but focussed meaning in these works often delivered through interplay of opposites and a careful treading of boundaries.
He was well known for bashing Christianity of course “Glory to Man in the Highest…” etc, but one of his prime motivations and best uses of his technique with opposites and boundaries was an exploration of the spiritual. Ahead of an article I’m (finally) about to hawk round the Victorian journals, here are a few thoughts on this most spiritual of poets.
`Mr Swinburne apparently believes in a God, for he makes use of his name with unnecessary frequency…He seems to have some idea of a heaven; but he tells us in plain language, and in several places, that it is a poor place compared with a courtesan’s caresses.’ Anonymous review of Poems and Ballads (First Series). London Review 4 August 1866, pp.130-1.
The common critical opinion of the poet as an over-zealous, unsubtle and irreligious rebel is well summed up by Robert Buchanan in his parody `The Session of the Poets’ where the caricatured Swinburne squeals:
All Virtue is bosh!
Hallelujah for Landor!
I disbelieve wholly in everything! – There!’
Despite this opinion, the issue of morality remained far from clear. Henry Morley on 22 September questioned the nature of criticism that `a book thus dealing with the desire of the flesh should have been denounced as profligate because it does not paint the outside of the Sodom’s Apple of like colour with the ashes that it shows within.’ This prompted a footnote in William Michael Rossetti’s Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads: A Criticism (1866) recognising the change in public opinion, and it is from Rossetti, with whom Swinburne maintained a long lasting correspondence and friendship, that we obtain the first clearest guidance as to Swinburne’s positive `spiritual’ ideology:
Mr. Swinburne, as we have said, is, in intellectual sympathy and culture, a pagan. This gives a positive direction to his thought on religious subjects, which otherwise seems to account to little beyond negation, – materialism, and the absence of faith in a beneficent Providence.
Expressing his developing thought through the categories of Man, Nature and Love, Swinburne’s poetry is a constant attempt to find a metaphysical harmony in life. The poems collected in Poems and Ballads, First Series (1866), provided impetus for this spiritual development, recognising the need for an alternative to the Christian interpretation of moral and spiritual values. In that volume were the seeds of the spiritual world he was later to create more fully. In the religious ideas of Poems and Ballads, First Series, Swinburne turned with violence against Victorian notions of religious benevolence. This provided the initial separation from accepted codes of spiritual expression, and indicated the direction which the poet was to take.
The key to these is the individual’s receptivity to the passionate encounter, and Swinburne’s ideas of the spiritual are not the Theistic praise of an exterior creative force, but rather the mutual communion between the individual and the other elements of the Universal whole. To this end Swinburne’s poetry moves between a sense of the individual and a projection of the Universal. Songs Before Sunrise (1871), a volume which McGann finds `on fire with religious passion’, began to organise the specific alternatives which Swinburne was trying to define. Here the sinister Romantic elements of Swinburne’s poetry are formed into a more philosophical account of the relation of Man to a spiritual entity. The nature of liberty is transposed into the system of sacraments, and the idea emerges of a unified concept of Man which has the resonance a religious emblem. `Glory to Man in the highest!’, Swinburne proclaims, yet we must be wary of believing the poet to exalt humanity as the single dominant force in existence. Humanity, instead, becomes an element in the metaphysical whole of the Universe. It is through Man, he suggests, through the understanding of a collective human identity, that we pass on our route towards a perception of the deeper mysteries of creation.
Natural forces become emblems of the supernatural, and humanity is never the dominant force. Swinburne’s praise of Man was always placed side by side with a recognition of the greater forces of Nature. Throughout his poetry, the eternity represented by the sea threatens to engulf the temporal existence of Man. In Tristram of Lyonesse (1882) the lovers’ tomb and the land around it are engulfed by the sea, and, with this, man’s consciousness is immersed in the spiritual unity represented by the natural symbol,
… at last
On these things too was doom as darkness cast:
For the strong sea hath swallowed wall and tower,
And where their limbs were laid in woeful hour
For many a fathom gleams and moves and moans
The tide that sweeps above their coffined bones
In the wrecked chancel by the shivered shrine:
Nor where they sleep shall moon or sunlight shine
Nor man look down for ever: none shall say,
Here once, or here, Tristram and Iseult lay:
But peace they have that none may gain who live,
And rest about them that no love can give,
And over them, while death and life shall be,
The light and sound and darkness of the sea.
There is a strange metaphysic at work here, for the sea is first a natural dominator over earthly things. Secondly, however, terms are used which suggest that the sea is a symbol for a spiritual engulfment. The bodies are beyond the perception of man and nature for no man may mark the grave, and neither sun nor moonlight may shine upon them. As such they are removed from the natural scheme and become part of a unified spirit of existence.
Looking to a slightly earlier poem of marine engulfment, `A Forsaken Garden’ (1878), there is again a noticeable progression towards metaphysical harmony and unity. The lovers in the poem have already achieved the unity which love affords them but the state of death unites them at a further level, for `all are one now, roses and lovers’. The speaker also suggests the sea as a symbol of Universal encapsulation, a unity with being which is projected beyond death:
Here death may deal not again for ever;
Here change may come not till all change end.
From the graves they have made they shall rise up never,
Who have left nought living to ravage and rend.
Earth, stones, and thorns of the wild ground growing,
While the sun and the rain live, these shall be;
Till a last wind’s breath upon all these blowing
Roll the sea.
The verse suggests a teleology beyond that appreciable by man. The terms of man’s finite existence are nullified in the grander scheme of things, where `death may deal not again for ever.’ The sea takes over from the sun and the rain, the symbols of life for the garden, and Swinburne proposes the sea as a symbol of the domination of known life by an incomprehensible force of Eternity.
We are aware for example in `The Lake of Gaube’ (1904) of the contrast between the individual swimmer, alone in the depths of the water, and the union of that swimmer with some `other’ which he becomes aware of and part of through the activity:
As a sea-mew’s love of the sea-wind breasted and
Ridden for rapture’s sake
Is the love of his body and soul for the darkling
delight of the soundless lake:
As the silent speed of a dream too living to live for a
thought’s space more
Is the flight of his limbs through the still strong chill
of the darkness from shore to shore.
Might life be as this is and death be as life that casts
off time as a robe,
The likeness of infinite heaven were a symbol revealed
of the lake of Gaube.
Likewise in `A Nympholept’ (1894) the poet speaks of `the soul in my sense that receives the soul’, a mingling of terms which suggests the individual spirit accepting the collective, and the final lines of the poem emphasise again the constant flux between the sense of individuality and the acceptance of place in a conjoined sphere of being:
For if there be any that hath sight of them, sense, or
Made strong by the might of a vision, the strength
of a dream,
His lips shall straiten and close as a dead man’s
His heart shall be sealed as the voice of a
For the deep mid mystery of light and of heat that
To clasp and pierce dark earth, and enkindle dust,
Shall a man’s faith say what it is? or a man’s
Heaven is as earth, and as heaven to me
Earth: for the shadows that sundered them here take flight;
And nought is all, as am I, but a dream of thee.
`A Nympholept’ ends in the understanding of a unified whole that accepts within its bounds both heaven and earth, the natural becoming part of a greater spiritual unity. In these lines, Swinburne captures an elusive moment of spiritual harmony, which vanishes even as he speaks. As with Alice and the Red King, the speaker is a part of the perceptive conscious of the figure he himself perceives, yet the important aspect of this is the moment prior to the woken dream. Heaven and earth are unified and the dividing elements which Swinburne described in William Blake are shadows which consequently take flight.
In `The Triumph of Time’ (Poems and Ballads, First Series, 1866) Swinburne had suggested a physical unity with the sea as a release from grief, `I will go back to the great, sweet mother…Close with her, kiss her and mix her with me.’ This unity he felt in both his contact with nature and in the reflection of it in his art. This fusion was the basis of Swinburne’s understanding of an infinite spirit. As he observes in the concluding words of `By the North Sea’ (Studies in Song, 1880), the creative spirit of song, the natural world, and the receptive human soul thrive together in the eternal image of the enveloping sea:
I, last least voice of her voices,
Give thanks that were mute in me long
To the soul in my soul that rejoices
For the song that is over my song.
Time gives what he gains for the giving
Or takes for his tribute of me;
My dreams to the wind everliving,
My song to the sea.
For Fillipinger, “Swinburne accepts mortality and a cruel natural world and rejoices. Swinburne’s song is mingled, despite being last and least, with the natural song of the sea and the wind” (681). Song is the only human possibility for the poet, and through it he is subsumed within the natural world that fuels itself on mortality. Yet the voice here is not just the sea, but the “cultural song of all poetry,” for immortality implicit in song is voice. What Reide calls the “Bergsonian, pure memory of the poetry of all ages” (161), is useful to our sense of what Swinburne is calling on, a deeper sense of being to which poetry provides a key access.
In my article Poetry and Voice I do suggest that this is an example that can be fitted to the poetic motivation as a whole. The notion of voice in and of poetry has given us a sense that the poet finds himself singing alongside the greater song that might be found in nature, humanity, eternity and poetry itself, not of a culturally limited kind but of something more primal.
. R. Buchanan, `The Session of The Poets’, Spectator, 15 September 1866, p.1028.
. Henry Morley Examiner, 22 September 1866, p.599.
. W. M. Rossetti, Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads: A Criticism (London, 1866), p.23.
 Spoken by the W.G. Blaikie Murdoch character, McGann, p. 37.
. `Hymn of Man’ (Songs Before Sunrise, 1871), Poems, 2. 104.
. Tristram of Lyonesse (Tristram of Lyonesse and Other Poems, 1882). Poems, 4. 150-51.
. `A Forsaken Garden’, (Poems and Ballads, Second Series, 1878). Poems, 3. 24.
. `A Forsaken Garden’. Poems, 3. 24.
. `The Lake of Gaube’ (A Channel Passage and Other Poems, 1904). Poems, 6. 286.
. `A Nympholept’ (Astrophel and Other Poems, 1904). Poems, 6. 138.
. `A Nympholept’ (Astrophel and Other Poems, 1904). Poems, 6. 138.
. See William Blake: A Critical Study (1868). Works, 16. 320-21.
. `The Triumph of Time’, Poems and Ballads, First Series (1866). Poems, 1. 42.
. `By the North Sea’, Studies in Song (1880). Poems, 5. 110.
. M J Wilson ‘“Last least voice of her voices”: The Voice of Poetry’ in ‘Poetry and Voice: A Book of Essays’ Eds: Stephanie Norgate Editor and Ellie Piddington, Assistant Editor: Nov 2012 Isbn13: 978-1-4438-4109-2