Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Poems and Ballads, published in three series, contains the major part of Algernon Charles Swinburne’s great lyric poetry. Whether the first series of these remarkable poems brought him fame or notoriety is a debatable question. One critic called him the most immoral of all English poets and has pointed to Poems and Ballads: First Series as the most obscene book of poetry in the English language. Other critics, like George Meredith and John Ruskin, were fascinated by Swinburne’s rich melodies and technical virtuosity. These two opinions of Swinburne reflect the most striking qualities of Poems and Ballads: The poems are an open revolt against Victorian prudery, and they are among the most technically perfect poems in English. To the reader of 1866, they were unlike anything published in England; while the critics loudly and indignantly denounced the volume, the public avidly bought it.
Swinburne’s major themes in the 1866 volume are sex, freedom, sadism, masochism, and the beauty of evil and of things corrupt or decaying. Influenced by the growing interest in the Marquis de Sade and Charles Baudelaire, Swinburne presents his themes without equivocation. Few poems before 1866 celebrated the pleasures of physical love with the straightforwardness of “Les Noyades,” in which sex is public and intensified by impending death, or “Fragoletta,” in which sex is given overtones of psychological maladjustment. Such sexual...
(The entire section is 1615 words.)
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