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.