While attending Oxford, Swinburne met and fell under the influence of the charismatic poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Rossetti lived a bohemian existence and believed in the principle of “art for art’s sake.” As a disciple of Rossetti, Swinburne expressed his disdain for conventional Victorian mores. While Swinburne had tried his hand at writing before meeting Rossetti, the association sparked Swinburne to take his writing far more seriously. He left Oxford without taking a degree and set off for a life away from the repression he had known during his school years. After settling in London, he made a complete break with Victorian conformity and lived the life of a bohemian. He was influenced by the poetry of French author Charles Baudelaire and the sexually explicit works of the Marquis de Sade.
Although some of Swinburne’s earlier works touched upon sexual matters, it was the publication of his first collection of poetry, Poems and Ballads, in 1866, that thoroughly scandalized Victorian England. The collection was vehemently condemned by reviewers for being heretical and immoral. With such poems as “Anactoria,” “Dolores,” and “Laus Veneris,” Swinburne used his vast technical skill to speak about finding pleasure in the inflicting of pain during sexual love. The collection was published in the United States in a pirated edition under the title Laus Veneris and Other Poems and Ballads. American reviewers condemned the volume as vigorously as those in England, yet the publisher G. W. Carlton had trouble keeping up with public demand. In England rumors circulated that the publisher, Moxon, was about to be prosecuted for obscenity. On the basis of the rumors alone, Moxon had Poems and Ballads removed from circulation. Swinburne was outraged at what his publisher had done. Another publisher, John Camden Hotten, approached Swinburne with an offer to republish the collection. Swinburne agreed to Hotten’s terms, and Poems and Ballads was once again available in September, 1866. Because of the controversy surrounding his collection, Swinburne became a household name. In pushing the limits of public tolerance, he became known as the English Charles Baudelaire.
Biography (Critical Survey of Drama, Second Revised Edition)
Algernon Charles Swinburne was born into two of England’s proudest old aristocratic families, the Swinburnes and the Ashburnhams. His father was Captain (later Admiral) Charles Henry Swinburne; his mother, the former Lady Jane Henrietta Hamilton, the daughter of the third earl of Ashburnham. He enjoyed a privileged childhood, dividing his time between the estate of his parents, East Dene on the Isle of Wight, and Capheaton Hall, the Swinburne family seat in Northumberland near the Scottish border. For the rest of his life, he would be fascinated by Scottish history and myth, using it as subject matter for works of such diverse merit as the early poem “The Queen’s Tragedy” (1854) and his dramatic trilogy centering on Mary Stuart. He was never close to his father—a conventional man who was away much of the time—but he was pampered by his mother, to whom he remained close until her death in 1896. His paternal grandfather, Sir John Swinburne, was a surrogate father to the boy, treating him with an affection and respect that the poet never forgot.
Although he was the eldest of six children, young “Hadji” Swinburne was a lonely child, made, from early childhood, to feel like an outcast. He was at best unusual in appearance, with bright red hair, a too-slight build, and a perpetual nervous twitch. In the midst of a notably red-blooded extended family, Swinburne appeared effeminate, reared as he was in the company of his mother and four sisters. As a hedge against solitude, he turned to books. Taught to read by his mother, Swinburne at a young age mastered the Bible, Sir Walter Scott’s novels, and the plays of William Shakespeare.
In 1849, Swinburne was enrolled at Eton, a move that ultimately proved disastrous. The sensitive boy did not fare well in the restrictive and patriarchal public-school atmosphere, where conformity and team spirit reigned. Always a rebel, young Swinburne was at once terrified and enraged by the oppressive discipline that characterized the place. Though a brilliant student—he was able to profit at least from Eton’s heavily classical curriculum, which emphasized Latin and Greek—he was a social failure and a constant source of embarrassment to the school’s administration. In the summer of 1853, Swinburne left Eton for good, at least two years earlier than expected.
Swinburne had begun writing even while at Eton, turning out heavily Elizabethan tragedies and even a mock eighteenth century poetic tribute to Queen Victoria entitled “The Triumph of Gloriana.” On entering Oxford in 1856, he continued his literary career, falling naturally and almost instantly into membership in Old Mortality, a literary group that later published the short-lived literary magazine Undergraduate Papers. A more important and farther-reaching influence came in 1857, when Swinburne met Dante...
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Biography (Critical Survey of Poetry: British, Irish, & Commonwealth Poets)
Algernon Charles Swinburne was born in London on April 5, 1837. His family on both sides was aristocratic, the Swinburnes being clearly traceable to the time of Charles I and the Ashburnhams dating back before the Norman Conquest. As the eldest of six children, Swinburne had an active childhood, spent mainly at the family seat on the Isle of Wight with regular visits to another family house in Northumberland. The contrasting beauty of these diverse parts of England left a lasting impression on Swinburne, who as a child displayed an almost Wordsworthian responsiveness to nature. He early developed a passion for the sea, which is reflected in much of his poetry.
From the beginning, Swinburne was surrounded by books and fine paintings. His mother, Lady Jane, introduced him to a wide range of literature, including the Bible, William Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, Dante, and Molière. She also taught her son French and Italian, laying the foundation for his cosmopolitanism. In April of 1849, Swinburne entered Eton College. In the four years he spent there, he received a thorough grounding in Greek and Latin poetry and some acquaintance with the French and Italian classics. He independently acquired a remarkable knowledge of English literature. He was especially attracted to the Elizabethan dramatists, an interest that would remain constant for the remainder of his life. The Unhappy Revenge, a bloodcurdling fragment in the manner of Cyril Tourneur and John Webster, dates from about 1849. His earliest poem to survive, “The Triumph of Gloriana,” was a school exercise to commemorate a visit by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert to Eton on June 4, 1851. Its stiff heroic couplets give no clue of the direction Swinburne’s genius was to take.
Although his academic record at Eton was good, it was decided in August of 1853 for reasons that are not entirely clear that he would not return, much to the surprise of his classmates. Instead, he would receive private tutoring for his entrance into Oxford, where his family expected him to pursue a degree leading to a legal or ecclesiastical career. Swinburne’s patriotism was fired when he learned of Balaklava in the fall of 1854, and he wished to enter the army, but his father, Admiral Charles Henry Swinburne, would not permit it, perhaps because of his son’s frailty. After a summer trip to Germany in the company of an uncle, Swinburne entered Balliol College, Oxford, on January 23, 1856.
At Oxford, Swinburne fell under the influence of John Nichol, the guiding spirit of Old Mortality, a small group of student intellectuals to which Swinburne belonged. Nichol, who was to remain a lifelong friend, undermined Swinburne’s religious faith and confirmed him in political republicanism. It was under Nichol’s influence that Swinburne wrote the “Ode to Mazzini” and became a devotee of the Italian patriot. Later, Swinburne was to be an outspoken advocate of Italian Unity. Most of Swinburne’s future political poems were either to espouse Liberty and Freedom or castigate Tyranny in equally fervent language. Percy Bysshe Shelley may have become the main spiritual presence in Swinburne’s political poetry, but it was Nichol who first directed Swinburne’s thought along republican lines.
Another major influence on Swinburne at Oxford was the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. In 1857, he met Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Morris, and Edward Burne-Jones and immediately fell under their spell. Morris’s poems, particularly “The Defence of Guenevere,” influenced Swinburne profoundly. Shortly after meeting Morris, he began Queen Yseult, and until 1860, his poems are, in the words of Georges Lafourcade, “a long self-imposed grind, a series of prosodic exercises” (Swinburne: A Literary Biography). One such exercise was Laugh and Lie Down, an Elizabethan pastiche written in 1858-1859, the sado masochistic elements of which anticipate Swinburne’s discovery of the writings of the Marquis de Sade in 1861. In 1860, because of his preoccupation with poetry and his irregular habits, which were cause for increasing concern, Swinburne encountered serious academic difficulties at Oxford, and he left without taking a degree.
In the spring of 1861, after a visit to France and Italy, Swinburne...
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Biography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Algernon Charles Swinburne was born on April 5, 1837, in London, England, to Captain (later Admiral) Charles Henry Swinburne and Lady Jane Swinburne. Much of Algernon Swinburne’s early life was spent in the wild, idyllic setting of his family’s estate on the Isle of Wight, where, with his brother and four sisters, he could enjoy the freedom of nature. This freedom contrasted sharply with the discipline of tutors who were to prepare the young Algernon to enter Eton at the age of twelve.
All of his life, Swinburne was to suffer the effects of his unusual physique. His slight and delicate body, punctuated...
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Biography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
At odds with the dominant culture of his day, Algernon Charles Swinburne turned to the beliefs of pagan antiquity and to kindred poets such as Baudelaire to forge a personal philosophy compatible with his desires. He expressed his views in an equally personal style dominated by alliteration and eccentric rhythms and heavy with description that emphasized female beauty and the desire for pain. While Swinburne may have deliberately exaggerated the unusual elements of his expression, it reflected a sensitive poet ill at ease in his world.
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Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Algernon Charles Swinburne’s fame as a poet rests on several claims: his dexterity in manipulation of verse; his subject matter, which often glorified the life of the senses or argued for the necessity of social change; and certain oddities in his actual career. In all of these claims, the man can be seen at odds with his age and yet drawing strength from it.
Swinburne was descended from English nobility. His mother was the daughter of the earl of Ashburnham, and his father was Admiral Charles Henry Swinburne. Algernon Charles Swinburne enjoyed fully the advantages of his background. From his mother he...
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