Swinburne, Algernon Charles
Algernon Charles Swinburne 1837–1909
(Also wrote under the pseudonym Mrs. Horace Manners) English poet, dramatist, critic, essayist, and novelist.
Swinburne is renowned as one of the most accomplished lyric poets of the Victorian era and as a preeminent symbol of rebellion against the conservative values of his time. The explicit and often pathological sexual themes of his most important collection of poetry, Poems and Ballads, delighted some, shocked many, and became the dominant feature of Swinburne's image as both an artist and an individual. Nevertheless, critics have found that to focus exclusively on the sensational aspects of Swinburne's work is to miss the assertion, implicit in his poetry and explicit in his critical writings, that his primary preoccupation was the nature and creation of poetic beauty.
Born into a wealthy family, Swinburne was educated at Eton and at Balliol College, Oxford, but did not complete a degree. While at Oxford, he met the brothers William Michael and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, as well as other members of the Pre-Raphaelite circle, a group of artists and writers whose work emphasized medieval subjects, elaborate religious symbolism, and a sensual pictorialism, and who cultivated an aura of mystery and melancholy in their lives as well as in their works. He achieved his first literary success in 1865 with Atalanta in Calydon, which was written in the form of classical Greek tragedy. The following year the appearance of Poems and Ballads brought Swinburne instant notoriety. He became identified with the "indecent" themes and the precept of art for art's sake that characterized many of the poems of the volume. He subsequently wrote poetry of many different kinds, in cluding the militantly republican Song of Italy and Songs before Sunrise in support of the Risorgimento, the movement for Italian political unity, as well as nature poetry. Although individual volumes of Swinburne's poetry were occasionally well received, in general his popularity and critical reception declined following the initial sensation of Poems and Ballads.
Throughout the 1860s and 1870s Swinburne drank excessively and was prone to accidents that often left him bruised, bloody, or unconscious. Until his forties he suffered intermittent physical collapses. In 1879, Swinburne's friend and literary agent, Theodore Watts-Dunton, intervened during a time when Swinburne was dangerously ill. Watts-Dunton isolated Swinburne at a suburban home in Putney and gradually weaned him from alcohol—and from
many former companions and habits as well. Swinburne lived another thirty years with Watts-Dunton, whose role remains controversial. He denied Swinburne's friends access to him, controlled the poet's money, and restricted his activities. However, commentators agree that Swinburne's erratic conduct could have resulted in his death, and Watts-Dunton is generally credited with saving his life and encouraging him to continue writing into his old age. Swinburne died in 1909 at the age of seventy-two.
The most important and conspicuous quality of Swinburne's work is an intense lyricism. Even early critics, who often took exception to his subject matter, commended his intricately extended and evocative imagery, metrical virtuosity, rich use of assonance and alliteration, and bold, complex rhythms. At the same time, the strong rhythms of his poems and his characteristic use of alliteration were sometimes carried to extremes and rendered his work highly susceptible to parody. Critics note that his usually effective imagery is at times vague and imprecise, and his rhymes are sometimes facile and uninspired. After establishing residence in Putney, Swinburne largely abandoned the themes of pathological sexuality that had characterized much of his earlier poetry. Nature and landscape poetry began to predominate, as well as poems about children. Many commentators maintain that the poetry written during the years at Putney is inferior to Swinburne's earlier work, but others have identified individual poems of exceptional merit among his later works, citing in particular "By the North Sea," "Evening on the Broads," "A Nympholept," "The Lake of Gaube," and "Neap-Tide."
During Swinburne's lifetime, critics considered Poems and Ballads his finest as well as his most characteristic poetic achievement; subsequent poetry and work in other genres was often disregarded. Since the mid-twentieth century, however, commentators have been offering new assessments of Swinburne's entire career. Forgoing earlier dis missals of his voluminous later writings and reexamining individual poems strictly on their own merit, critics have identified works of great power and beauty from all periods of his career.
Poems and Ballads 1866
A Song of Italy 1867
Songs before Sunrise 1871
Songs of Two Nations 1875
Poems and Ballads: Second Series 1878
Tristram of Lyonesse, and Other Poems 1882
Poems and Ballads: Third Series 1889
The TaleofBalen 1896
A Channel Passage, and Other Poems 1904
Other Major Works
The Queen-Mother and Rosamond (dramas) 1860
Atalanta in Calydon (drama) 1865
Chasteland (drama) 1865
Notes on Poems and Reviews (criticism) 1866
William Blake (criticism) 1868
Under the Microscope (criticism) 1872
Bothwell (drama) 1874
Essays and Studies (criticism) 1875
George Chapman (criticism) 1875
Erechtheus (drama) 1876
A Study of Shakespeare (criticism) 1880
Mary Stuart (drama) 1881
A Study of Victor Hugo (criticism) 1886
Locrine (drama) 1887
A Study of Ben Jonson (criticism) 1889
Studies in Prose and Poetry...
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SOURCE: "The Aesthetics of Androgyny in Swinburne's Early Poetry," in Tennessee Studies in Literature, Vol. 23, 1978, pp. 87-99.
[In the following essay, Harrison explores Swinburne's treatment of androgynous aspects of human sexuality.]
Death and the achievement of organic continuity with the universe represent the end and culmination of sexual passion for the major figures in most of Swinburne's early poems. Yet it is the enduring condition of passion that provides the poet himself with his richest materials,
During his most productive years Swinburne undertook to characterize all conditions of passion and its concomitant suffering in men and women of all conceivable states of sexuality—from the noble masculinity of Tristram and Mary Stuart's courtier Chastelard, to Sappho's lesbian strivings for domination and penetration, to the perverse and "feminine" gentleness of the persona in "The Leper." Love is Swinburne's constant subject from his undergraduate lyrics of 1857 to his epic tour de force, Tristram of Lyonesse, published twenty-five years later. The diversity of his poems of passion and the complexity of the philosophical precepts which support and dominate them must be recognized in any evaluation of Swinburne's achievement. However, critics have not treated Swinburne's metaphysic of love with the seriousness it demands, and they have only begun to...
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SOURCE: "The Putney Period: Solipsism without Fear," in Swinburne: A Study of Romantic Mythmaking, University Press of Virginia, 1978, pp. 187-214.
[In the following essay, Riede urges a reassessment of Swinburne's later verse.]
The enormous bulk of the poetry written in the last thirty years of Swinburne's life has been greeted with almost unmitigated disdain by the few readers who have gone to the trouble of looking at it. Swinburne, it is routinely said, devoted more than half of his creative life to the production of fatuous effusions of baby worship, political poems savoring of the rankest kind of imperialism, and nature poetry of the travel-book variety. The charges have been made so persistently that they must be met head-on, and, indeed, there is a certain amount of truth in them. The nature poetry, which makes up the bulk of the late verse and is of a far higher order than has been acknowledged, will be discussed separately and at some length, but the poems of baby worship and imperialism may be dismissed without extended comment—and without disdain. They are far fewer than Swinburne's detractors would have us believe, and those in praise of babies are inoffensive at worst and even, for the most part, lovely. The baby poems may, in a very limited way, be attributable to Swinburne's general tendency to celebrate regeneration in all things—sunrises, spring, flowering, and so on—but must be...
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SOURCE: "Swinburne in Miniature: A Century of Roundels," in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 23, No. 3, Autumn, 1985, pp. 249-65.
[In the following essay, Rooksby offers a close reading of Swinburne's roundel poems, and discusses the major themes of these works.]
Swinburne, said T. S. Eliot in 1920, was among that group of poets whose work ought to be read in selection, not whole. That judgment seems to remain a sound one, despite the recent work of critics like David G. Riede [in Swinburne: A Study of Romantic Mythmaking, 1978] who has referred to the "embarrassment of riches" to be found in the thirty years of Swinburne's writing in Putney; one cannot accept, though, Eliot's view that a selection would be based pretty much on Atalanta in Calydon and Poems and Ballads (1866). There are poems written after 1878, the great watershed year of Swinburne's publishing, which it would be an error to omit. Criticism has hardly begun as yet to sift, analyze and evaluate the huge quantity of verse produced by Swinburne between 1879 and his death in 1909, a quantity which represents about half of his total output. The problem that faces student and teacher alike is the question of where to enter this dark continent of largely unexplored writing. The choice is an important one, because there are certain areas of land (to pursue the metaphor)—areas such as some of the very lengthy eulogistic odes,...
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SOURCE: "'A Muse Funeral': The Critique of Elegy in Swinburne's 'Ave atque Vale'," in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 24, No. 2, Summer, 1986, pp. 173-88.
[In the following essay, Zeiger explores Swinburne's innovative treatment of the elegaic form.]
Elegy has traditionally been a search: until the last century, a search with a foregone conclusion. The elegist directed the elegy toward an ending in consolation, and the poem took its shape from that direction. But what does elegy seek when there can be no consolation? Where does it move, if not toward the self-ordained closure of a "Lycidas" or an "Adonais"? Different possibilities have emerged, and A. C. Swinburne offered one that would set the tone for modern elegies:
The pursuit becomes primary, the not finding. "Ave atque Vale" evokes openness, mystery, enigma; it luxuriates in the baffling relation between its hypnotic surfaces and the unanswered question it poses. For modern poets, "Lycidas," with its consolation and strong closure, is the type of the old elegy, and "Ave atque Vale" confronts in direct dialogue both "Lycidas" itself and the burden of tradition which it represents.
The traditional elegy arrives at its resolution by a particularly linear and highly shaped narrative. The speaker begins by lamenting a death; he goes on to consider the ramifications of the individual death and of death in general, often...
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SOURCE: "Purity and Pain," in Vanishing Lives: Style and Self in Tennyson, D. G. Rossetti, Swinburne, and Yeats, University Press of Virginia, 1988, pp. 116-36.
[In the following essay, Richardson provides a thematic and stylistic analysis of Swinburne's verse.]
Less a personality than, as he might have put it, a shoreline, Swinburne is visible only as the hypnotically shifting border of land and sea, solidity and fluidity, cold strength and smothering passion. Because he lacks the patience and—though it may seem strange to say this of a man so eccentric and explosive—the self-indulgence of his mentor Rossetti, Swinburne can dwell only briefly in the Rossettian closeness
Though such swarming passions continuously inform his poetry, they are qualified, sometimes by enthusiastic wit, sometimes by poisonous guilt, and most often by that most remarkable aspect of Swinburne—his drive toward cold clarity, impossible innocence, superhuman strength, inhuman purity.
"The Leper" is an instructive example. The story of an apparent rapist and necrophiliac who imagines that intercourse with an at first unwilling and later dead leper is love "well seen of me and her" should be nearly unreadable. But "The Leper" is hardly even shocking. It is almost a critical venture in that it so consciously, almost self-consciously, exploits the voyeurism of Victorian poetry—its fondness...
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SOURCE: "The Art of Apostasy: Swinburne and the Emperor Julian," in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 28, No. 1, Spring, 1990, pp. 69-78.
[In the following essay, Findlay explores Swinburne's attitude toward Christianity by examining his poems "The Hymn to Prosperpine" and "The Garden of Proserpine."]
Apostasy in England in the nineteenth century gained special prominence in the wake of Keble's famous Assize sermon of 1833 on "National Apostasy," with its scathing analysis of those "omens and tokens" which mark the "fashionable liberality of this generation," the spread of indifferentism, and the loss of respect for the solemnity of oaths and the Apostolic status of Bishops. Earlier in the century, we find a more briskly sectarian understanding of the term as a means of berating paganism in, for example, Richard Shell's The Apostate: A Tragedy in Five Acts (1818), Sir Aubrey de Vere's Julian, The Apostate (1822), or H. H. Milman's The Fall of Jerusalem (1822). When Milman comes to deal explicitly with Julian two decades later, in the third volume of his History of Christianity, he is able to treat the Emperor fairly generously because he begins by insisting that "Julian has, perhaps, been somewhat unfairly branded with the ill-sounding name of Apostate." That name was sounding more and more ill all the time to English ears, as the conditions in contemporary England threatened to emulate...
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SOURCE: "Swinburne's Doublings: Tristram of Lyonesse, The Sisters, and The Tale of Balen, " in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 28, Nos. 3-4, Autumn-Winter, 1990, pp. 1-17.
[In the following essay, Riehl addresses the artistic function of the doubling of characters and character names in three of Swinburne's poems.]
Long regarded as deploring work, Swinburne's later verse has gradually won serious regard as great art from twentieth-century readers. [In SAQ, 1958] Paull F. Baum's study of "A Nympholept" (1958) paved the way for major revaluation of this body of Swinburne's poetry. [In Victorian Poetry, 1971] Kerry McSweeney echoed Baum's admiration for "A Nympholept," and added "The Lake of Gaube" as its equal. [In TSLL, 1972] Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV demonstrated how the worksheets for Tristram of Lyonesse reveal an alert creative imagination maintaining amazing control over the composition of that long poem. Others have tended to swell the chorus of such acclaim. In his later poems, Swinburne's own misgivings about reconciling his image as public figure at the Pines with the private artist of rebellion are symbolized by a dramatic device, a Shakespearean "doubling" of characters. In The Tale of Balen, such doubling leads to the creation of one of his best, most mature poems.
[In Swinburne: An Experiment in Criticism, 1972] Jerome McGann...
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SOURCE: An introduction to Algernon Charles Swinburne, The Boydell Press, 1990, pp. 1-9.
[In the following essay, Carley discusses the defining characteristics of Swinburne's Arthurian poems.]
Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909) was one of the large group of poets and artists who fell under the spell of the Arthurian legend in the mid nineteenth century. As he would later explain in Under the Microscope (1872)
The story as it stood of old had in it something almost of Hellenic dignity and significance; in it as in the great Greek legends we could trace from a seemingly small root of evil the birth and growth of a calamitous fate, not sent by mere malevolence of heaven, yet in its awful weight and mystery of darkness apparently out of all due retributive proportion to the careless sin or folly of presumptuous weakness which first incurred its infliction; so that by mere hasty resistance and return of violence for violence a noble man may unwittingly bring on himself and all his house the curse denounced on parricide, by mere casual indulgence in light love and passing wantonness a hero king may unknowingly bring on himself and all his kingdom the doom imposed on incest.
For Swinburne, as for so many others, Sir Thomas Malory's great collection, the Morte Darthur (which had become widely available through two...
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SOURCE: "Questionable Figures: Swinburne's Poems and Ballads" in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 35, No. 1, Spring, 1997, pp. 43-56.
[In the following essay, Pease examines the controversy surrounding the publication of Swinburne's Poems and Ballads, maintaining that the debate was not only about pornography, but also about "middle- and upper-class male privilege in a society whose rigid class boundaries were threatening to give way to a feminized underclass."]
How does a society decide to call one naked body art and another pornography? Clearly context and the set of expectations brought to viewing the body are determining features. But such a notion raises the question of what a society wants and comes to expect from its art. This question becomes particularly interesting when posed against the Victorian backdrop of Swinburne's release of Poems and Ballads. For on August 4, 1866, the literary establishment of London was roused to great excitement over Algernon Charles Swinburne's latest poetic flourish. Reviewers from across the political spectrum declared the poetry, "a carnival of ugly shapes," "unclean for the mere sake of uncleanness," exhibiting "a mind all aflame with the feverish carnality of a schoolboy." On the surface it seems that what shocked these critics most of all was the open representation of physical sexuality in the poetry. But while the reviews focus on obscenity, they...
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Beetz, Kirk H. Algernon Charles Swinburne: A Bibliography of Secondary Works, 1861-1980. Metuchen, N. J.: Scarecrow Press, 1982, 227 p.
Chronologically arranged annotated bibliography of criticism.
Henderson, Philip. Swinburne: Portrait of a Poet. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1974, 305 p.
Lafourcade, Georges. Swinburne: A Literary Biography. London: G. Bell and Sons, 1932, 314 p.
Concentrates on the circumstances surrounding the writing and publication of Swinburne's principal works.
Thomas, Donald. Swinburne: The Poet in His World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979, 256 p.
Anecdotal biography detailing Swinburne's relationship with those people who most affected his life and work.
Beach, Joseph Warren. "Swinburne." In his The Concept of Nature in Nineteenth-Century English Poetry, pp. 455-69. New York: Pageant Book Co., 1956.
Examines political, spiritual, and humanistic convictions underlying Swinburne's nature poetry.
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