Algernon Charles Swinburne (April 5, 1837 – April 10, 1909) was a Victorian era English poet. He was one of the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a movement among painters and poets to return the arts to idealized medieval standards, before the (as they perceived it) detrimental influence of intellectualism and the Renaissance. In this vein, Swinburne and his associates were quite similar, in their sentiments, to the Romantic movement of a generation prior, which had also denounced the rise of the new and longed for the ways of a bygone era.
Although, as a Pre-Raphaelite, he professed to be interested solely in the medieval and ancient classics, Swinburne was primarily influenced by the Elizabethan poets and playwrights such as William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. He wrote a number of plays in imitation of the Elizabethan style, and demonstrated his masterful knowledge of the period on more than one occasion. Like Shakespeare, Swinburne is a master of music. In his own time and in contemporary times, Swinburne is acknowledged as one of the most gifted masters of poetic form. His genius for rhyme, meter, and sound was unparalleled even by Alfred Lord Tennyson. Unfortunately, Swinburne's poetry suffers much too much from a tendency to relish in the music of words without paying sufficient attention to their meaning, and his reputation suffered greatly due to this flaw. Perhaps, despite his natural talents, he lacked the depth of character or a commitment to its cultivation, which in turn hampered his ability to communicate content that is genuinely profound.
Nonetheless, Swinburne was one of the most gifted poets of his generation and one of its most iconic. In an age notorious for its moral decadence, Swinburne's antics, at least in terms of reputation, are unparalleled. Swinburne relished in shocking his audience, and many of his more blasphemous and explicit poems were most likely written specifically for that purpose. One thinks of the contemporary celebrities with God-given talent, yet personally self-indulgent, and childish in their efforts to shock. Swinburne (or "Swineborn" as some of his more ferocious critics would call him) attracted a reputation for controversy.
In his later years, Swinburne would tone down his attacks on organized religion and sexual morality, ultimately becoming, like William Wordsworth, something of a rebel-turned-conservative, turning against the very decadent poetry that had propelled him into notoriety. His opinions, like his poems, are representative of the Victorian era in which he lived, a time of rapid social change, when moral standards were shifting wildly. For all his faults, Swinburne is one of the finest poets his era produced, so far as some of the technical and superficial elements of poetic construction are concerned.
Life and Work
Swinburne was born in Grosvenor Palace, London, but spent most of his childhood on the Isle of Wight. His family was a member of the aristocracy for generations. His father was an admiral of the Royal Navy and his maternal grandfather was an earl. Swinburne was raised in an environment of extreme wealth and luxury. He was particularly close to his paternal grandfather, who had been a nobleman of the French aristocracy before the French Revolution, who taught the boy to speak French and Italian. Swinburne's intimate knowledge of these lyrical languages, it is often suggested, contributed greatly to his lyrical voice.
As soon as he was of age, young Swinburne was sent to Oxford, where he would make many friends who would become the most influential members of the Pre-Raphaelite circle, among them Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris, and Professor Benjamin Jowett. Swinburne made a particularly strong impression on Rossetti who, when he met Swinburne, was in the midst of painting a series of murals celebrating King Arthur, a figure who would later factor prominently in Pre-Raphaelite poetry and art.
Swinburne made a strong impression on his colleagues at Oxford. Although he was a small man, he barely more than five feet tall, Swinburne was known for his imposing presence and powerful voice, and rapidly gained a reputation as a rather unpredictable and wild character on campus. He was known to gallivant about Oxford at night, decanting poems at the top of his lungs and shouting out blasphemies at God. Swinburne's rowdy behavior and outspoken, heretical views swiftly landed him in trouble with the managing authorities of the university and despite Jowett's insistence that he tone down his antics, within two years Swinburne found himself out of college without a degree.
His father had given him an allowance substantial enough to live on, and Swinburne commenced taking up the literary life in earnest, moving in with his friend and fellow-poet, Rossetti. During these youthful years Swinburne continued his uproarious behavior. He succeeded in gaining a reputation as a formidable drunkard, and in time he would find himself accused of virtually every sin and heresy under the sun.
Swinburne relished in his own infamy, responding to accusations of sexual deviance and indecency by propagating even more outrageous rumors about himself, going so far as to suggest that he might have participated in bestiality and cannibalism. Most of the tales of Swinburne's transgressions are regarded as being nothing but gossip and fantasies. Oscar Wilde, a close contemporary, grumbled that Swinburne was nothing but a poseur, and the idea that Swinburne may have led a relatively tame and ordinary life (aside from his constant drinking) has continued to gain wider acceptance. Like that surrounding Lord Byron, the controversy Swinburne generated in his own time has caused a distraction for generations of subsequent readers, who have spent endless hours middling over the details of his personal life rather than assessing his poetry.
While Swinburne was causing a scene in public life he was also busy developing his latent talents as a writer of verse. In 1865, a few years after leaving Oxford, he published his first major work, Atalanta in Calydon, a long dramatic poem meant to reproduce the tone and lyricism of ancient Greek drama in the English language. The poem rocketed Swinburne to instant stardom in the London literary community, and it is still considered by many of Swinburne's critics to be his finest work.
The story, modeled after Greek mythology, centers on Meleager, prince of Calydon, and Atalanta, a beautiful woman who will ultimately and unwittingly doom them both. Meleager's father, King Oeneus, earned the wrath of Artemis, goddess of the hunt, after he sacrificed to every god but her on the eve of a major battle. Oeneus succeeded in winning the battle nonetheless, and in revenge Artemis summoned a monstrous boar to attack the kingdom and kill everyone in it. Then, as Swinburne himself explains in the argument to the poem:
- ...all the chief men of Greece gathered together, and
- among them Atalanta daughter of Iasius the Arcadian, a virgin, for
- whose sake Artemis let slay the boar, seeing she favoured the maiden
- greatly; and Meleager having despatched it gave the spoil thereof to
- Atalanta, as one beyond measure enamoured of her; but the brethren of
- Althaea his mother, Toxeus and Plexippus, with such others as misliked
- that she only should bear off the praise whereas many had borne the
- labour, laid wait for her to take away her spoil; but Meleager fought
- against them and slew them: whom when Althaea their sister beheld and
- knew to be slain of her son, she waxed for wrath and sorrow like as one
- mad, and taking the brand whereby the measure of her son's life was
- meted to him, she cast it upon a fire; and with the wasting thereof his
- life likewise wasted away, that being brought back to his father's
- house he died in a brief space, and his mother also endured not long
- after for very sorrow; and this was his end, and the end of that
The melodramatic nature of the poem, with its themes of love lost and self-sacrifice, resonated powerfully with the largely sentimental audience of Victorians who had grown up reading Romantic literature. The poem's adoption of Greek mythology and its imitation of Greek poetic style also won favor with a reading public that had become fascinated with the ancient world. Swinburne responded to this favorable reception of his work by immediately publishing another volume entitled Poems and Ballads in 1866. The book, filled with heretical sentiments and obscene passages on erotic love immediately made Swinburne notorious; for most of the rest of his life he would be shunned as a decadent, immoral poet, even though in subsequent years he would tone down his language and focus on much deeper, spiritual issues. Among the pieces included in the scandalous Poems and Ballads, defenders of Swinburne will point out that there are a number of works that are not only free of obscenities but are genuinely touching and beautiful. Such poems are indicative of what a poet of his considerable gifts could have done had he been of more even temperament. Of these early works, most critics point to the Hymn of Proserpine as perhaps one of the finest poems of the Victorian age. The poem, written in hexameter and with two rhymes per line in imitation of Latin poetry, is an excellent example of Swinburne's supreme mastery of form. Here follows an excerpt:
- I have lived long enough, having seen one thing, that love hath an end;
- Goddess and maiden and queen, be near me now and befriend.
- Thou art more than the day or the morrow, the seasons that laugh or that weep;
- For these give joy and sorrow; but thou, Proserpina, sleep.
- Sweet is the treading of wine, and sweet the feet of the dove;
- But a goodlier gift is thine than foam of the grapes or love.
- Yea, is not even Apollo, with hair and harpstring of gold,
- A bitter God to follow, a beautiful God to behold?
- I am sick of singing: the bays burn deep and chafe: I am fain
- To rest a little from praise and grievous pleasure and pain.
- For the Gods we know not of, who give us our daily breath,
- We know they are cruel as love or life, and lovely as death.
- O Gods dethroned and deceased, cast forth, wiped out in a day
- From your wrath is the world released, redeemed from your chains, men say.
- New Gods are crowned in the city; their flowers have broken your rods;
- They are merciful, clothed with pity, the young compassionate Gods.
- But for me their new device is barren, the days are bare;
- Things long past over suffice, and men forgotten that were.
- Time and the Gods are at strife; ye dwell in the midst thereof,
- Draining a little life from the barren breasts of love.
He was dismayed at the reaction to Poems and Ballads. Swinburne continued to write, in much greater obscurity, publishing a volume of politically charged poems Songs before Sunrise in 1867 that were inspired by his meeting the Italian Republican patriot and philosopher politician, Giuseppe Mazzini. Mazinni had been Swinburne's hero since early childhood. His rapid rise to fame and even quicker fall into opprobrium hurt him deeply. Swinburne continued to write and publish, but he also turned even more obsessively to heavy drinking.
By 1879, destitute, homeless, and nearly dead from alcoholism, Swinburne was taken in by his legal adviser, Theodore Watts-Dunton, who housed the poet in his home in The Pines, Putney. Swinburne would spend the remaining 30 years of his life in The Pines, under his friend's care. Watts-Dunton encouraged Swinburne to continue to write, and also exacted him to strict discipline. With Watts-Dunton's help, Swinburne eventually underwent a complete transformation, eventually becoming one of the more respectable poets in English society. He published more than 23 volumes of poetry in the final third of his life. Sadly, Swinburne's years of obscurity and drunkenness seemed to have taken their toll on his powers, and critics agree that although his later poems are more focused and mature than his other works, they lack much of the verbal ingenuity that have made his youthful poems so enduringly popular. Occasionally, glimmers of Swinburne's earlier genius shine through, as in “The Lake of Gaube,” one of the last poems he ever wrote and one of his most widely acclaimed:
- ”The Lake of Gaube”
- The sun is lord and god, sublime, serene,
- And sovereign on the mountains: earth and air
- Lie prone in passion, blind with bliss unseen
- By force of sight and might of rapture, fair
- As dreams that die and know not what they were.
- The lawns, the gorges, and the peaks are one
- Glad glory, thrilled with sense of unison
- In strong compulsive silence of the sun.
- Flowers dense and keen as midnight stars aflame
- And living things of light like flames in flower
- That glance and flash as though no hand might tame
- Lightnings whose life outshone their stormlit hour
- And played and laughed on earth, with all their power
- Gone, and with all their joy of life made long
- And harmless as the lightning life of song,
- Shine sweet like stars when darkness feels them strong.
- The deep mild purple flaked with moonbright gold
- That makes the scales seem flowers of hardened light,
- The flamelike tongue, the feet that noon leaves cold,
- The kindly trust in man, when once the sight
- Grew less than strange, and faith bade fear take flight,
- Outlive the little harmless life that shone
- And gladdened eyes that loved it, and was gone
- Ere love might fear that fear had looked thereon.
- Fear held the bright thing hateful, even as fear,
- Whose name is one with hate and horror, saith
- That heaven, the dark deep heaven of water near,
- Is deadly deep as hell and dark as death.
- The rapturous plunge that quickens blood and breath
- With pause more sweet than passion, ere they strive
- To raise again the limbs that yet would dive
- Deeper, should there have slain the soul alive.
- As the bright salamander in fire of the noonshine exults and is glad of his day,
- The spirit that quickens my body rejoices to pass from the sunlight away,
- To pass from the glow of the mountainous flowerage, the high multitudinous bloom,
- Far down through the fathomless night of the water, the gladness of silence and gloom.
- Death-dark and delicious as death in the dream of a lover and dreamer may be,
- It clasps and encompasses body and soul with delight to be living and free:
- Free utterly now, though the freedom endure but the space of a perilous breath,
- And living, though girdled about with the darkness and coldness and strangeness of death:
- Each limb and each pulse of the body rejoicing, each nerve of the spirit at rest,
- All sense of the soul's life rapture, a passionate peace in its blindness blessed.
- So plunges the downward swimmer, embraced of the water unfathomed of man,
- The darkness unplummeted, icier than seas in midwinter, for blessing or ban;
- And swiftly and sweetly, when strength and breath fall short, and the dive is done,
- Shoots up as a shaft from the dark depth shot, sped straight into sight of the sun;
- And sheer through the snow-soft water, more dark than the roof of the pines above,
- Strikes forth, and is glad as a bird whose flight is impelled and sustained of love.
- 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.
- Whose thought has fathomed and measured
- The darkness of life and of death,
- The secret within them treasured,
- The spirit that is not breath?
- Whose vision has yet beholden
- The splendor of death and of life?
- Though sunset as dawn be golden,
- Is the word of them peace, not strife?
- Deep silence answers: the glory
- We dream of may be but a dream,
- And the sun of the soul wax hoary
- As ashes that show not a gleam.
- But well shall it be with us ever
- Who drive through the darkness here,
- If the soul that we live by never,
- For aught that a lie saith, fear.
As Swinburne grew older he found himself shunned by his old friends of the Pre-Raphaelite era. They viewed him as a turncoat who had abandoned the sentiments of his youth. Fairer critics see Swinburne as a revolutionary who gradually took his ideals down to earth, having tempered them with the hard experiences of his own brief fame and long sorrow. Alone with Watts-Dunton in The Pines, Swinburne turned into something of a recluse, though his fame was slowly and gradually restored. Deaf by the end of his life and almost friendless, Swinburne died in 1909 from a bout of influenza at the age of 72.
Swinburne is remembered as one of the quintessential poets of the Victorian era, embodying the radical outrageousness of early Victorian poetry in his youth as well as the sober morality of the Victorians like Alfred Lord Tennyson in his old age. He was also, like many Victorians, endlessly inventive within the confines of lyrical form. Along with Tennyson, Swinburne is often considered to be one of the supreme masters of English poesy. Although he is largely unread now he was a great influence on the Modernist poets who would emerge in the twentieth century immediately after his death. The young Ezra Pound thought Swinburne and the Pre-Raphaelites to be of the highest order, and although he would later recant his views and go so far as to reject all of the poetry of the Victorians, he and many other Modernist poets were nevertheless influenced strongly by Swinburne's style. After Swinburne, formal poetry, that is to say, poetry written according to the rules of meter and rhyme would largely fall out of fashion. By the middle of the twentieth century, it had become almost entirely anachronistic. In this respect, Swinburne is often thought of as the "high water-mark" for poetry emerging out of the formal tradition. He was one of the last poets to use the old forms exclusively. Although he remains relatively unappreciated today, he continues to gain recognition from scholars and poets alike who recognize his unique contribution to poetic history.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Louis, Margot Kathleen. 1990. Swinburne and His Gods: the Roots and Growth of an Agnostic Poetry. Montréal: McGill-Queen's University Press. ISBN 0773507159
All links retrieved May 16, 2021.
- The Algernon Charles Swinburne Archive: A digital archive of the life and works of Algernon Charles Swinburne
- Works by Algernon Swinburne. Project Gutenberg
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