Algernon Charles Swinburne comes closest of all the Victorians to being a Renaissance man. John Ruskin said that he could write as well in Greek, Latin, Italian, and French as he could in English. He wrote two burlesques entirely in French, a novel titled La Fille du Policeman and a play, La Soeur de la Reine, of which only two acts are known to have survived. Swinburne was intimately familiar with five great literatures. Only John Milton among the English poets exceeded him in knowledge. Swinburne was a great parodist and translator, a prolific and fascinating letter writer, a novelist, and a voluminous dramatist and critic. His The Heptalogia, in addition to the well-known parody of Alfred, Lord Tennyson—“The Higher Pantheism in a Nut Shel”—contains a devastating parody of himself, the “Nephilidia,” and fiendishly clever parodies of the Brownings, Coventry Patmore, “Owen Meredith,” and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Cecil Lang in his introduction to his edition of Swinburne’s letters comments that Swinburne’s ability to absorb the manner and reproduce the mannerisms of his targets constitutes “a miracle of ’negative capability.’” The same could be said of his border ballads, which seem more authentic than imitative or derivative. “Lord Scales,” “Burd Margaret,” and “The Worm of Spindlestonheugh” capture the form and essence of the early ballad as well as any modern poems.
According to Cecil Lang, Swinburne as a translator “could have ranked with the great masters.” Passages from Greek and Latin poets appear in his works as well as selections from nineteenth century Italian and French writers. His only sustained translations are of François Villon, and some of them are masterpieces. His “Ballad of the Lords of Old Time” and “Ballad of the Women of Paris” capture the spirit of Villon’s original poems as closely as it is possible for translations to do, and as English translations they are equaled only by Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Ballad of Dead Ladies.” Swinburne’s failure to translate Villon’s The Great Testament (1461), must be counted as a great loss to literature.
As a novelist Swinburne was the only certified aristocrat of the period to write fiction about the aristocracy. Love’s Cross-Currents and Lesbia Brandon, in the words of Edmund Wilson, introduce us to “a world in which the eager enjoyment of a glorious out-of-door life of riding and swimming and boating is combined with adultery, incest, enthusiastic flagellations and quiet homosexuality” (The Novels of A. C. Swinburne). Wilson regards Love’s Cross-Currents as almost a neglected masterpiece. Lesbia Brandon contains passages of superb description, strong characterization, and convincing dialogue. Both works suggest that Swinburne had at least the potential of being a significant novelist. Unfortunately, these novels are the most neglected of his major writings.
Although Swinburne’s reputation is based primarily on his poetry, it was as the author of Atalanta in Calydon that he first gained fame. This little-read play is best remembered today for its choruses, which are often included in...