Poems and Ballads Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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 deviations are used by Swinburne for their ability to shock the prudish reader. In the 1866 volume, sexual deviations include homosexuality, in the group of poems called “Hermaphroditus” and in “Sappho”; incest, in “Phaedra”; and sexual flagellation, in such poems as “A Match.” The reasons for this focus, however, may be far greater than merely the desire to shock. Swinburne is celebrating the human body itself, the sexual pleasure that alone remains after the soul is eliminated. In this sense, his use of the shocking is both a way to jar the apathetic public and to point toward a new religion.

This paganism is especially evident in “Laus Veneris,” Swinburne’s rehandling of the Tannhäuser legend. In this poem, the tragedy is that the knight who has renounced Christ believes in him and the lover who has embraced Venus does not believe in her. Another poem that glorifies this pagan outlook is “Hymn to Proserpine,” in which the speaker, a pagan of 313 c.e., when Christianity was proclaimed to be the state religion, bitterly laments the passing of pagan sensuality and predicts an eventual collapse of Christianity.

The glorification of sensuality, however, leads Swinburne into another characteristic theme: If sexual ecstasy is truly to be the height of human existence, humans must be free from all restraints. In the bitter “St. Dorothy,” the chaste virgin and her lover die horrible deaths because they are trapped by the restraints of Christianity; in “The Masque of Queen Barsabe” (a miracle play about David, Bathsheba, and Nathan), the prophet is forced to admit that the adulterous queen is right.

Related to this desire for sexual freedom is Swinburne’s adoration of the prostitute. In “Dolores,” the peak of Swinburne’s masochistic eroticism, the prostitute is “Our Lady of Pain,” a semigoddess who gives the worshiper an excessive pleasure of suffering. “Faustine,” addressed to another prostitute, revels in the pleasure of damnation, a pleasure that only a masochist could enjoy. Sadistic love is the theme of “Satia Te Sanguine” (“Satiate thyself with blood”), and “The Leper,” in which the lover has the sadistic pleasure of coldly watching his beloved while she is slowly consumed by a fatal disease.

Sensuality, however, would lack much of its charm to Swinburne if it were a permanent state; thus, he places it within a world that is characterized above all by the...

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Poems and Ballads Bibliography (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Hyder, Clyde K., ed. Algernon Swinburne: The Critical Heritage. New York: Routledge, 1995. A compilation of contemporary reviews and later criticism, tracing the critical reception of Swinburne’s work. Includes an introductory essay providing an overview of his life and writings.

Louis, Margot K. Swinburne and His Gods: The Roots and Growth of an Agnostic Poetry. Buffalo, N.Y.: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1990. Divided into two sections, “Sacred Elements” and “The New Gods,” this ambitious work explores the mythological overtones of demons and angels, violence and harmony, and the individual and God in Swinburne’s poems.

McGann, Jerome J. Swinburne: An Experiment in Criticism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972. Emphasizes New Criticism, which looks beyond a given text to the author’s life and environment for interpretation. Provocative and comprehensive discussions of Swinburne’s use of language, the social context of Poems and Ballads, and autobiographical ambiguity.

Maxwell, Catherine. “Beneath the Woman’s and the Water’s Kiss: Swinburne’s Metamorphoses.” In The Female Sublime from Milton to Swinburne: Bearing Blindness. New York: Manchester University Press, 2001. Traces John Milton’s influence on Swinburne and other Victorian poets. Argues that these poets attain vision at the cost of “symbolic blindness and feminization.”

_______. Swinburne. Tavistock, England: Northcote House/British Council, 2004. An introduction to Swinburne’s best-known works, including Poems and Ballads, providing close readings of selected poems. Describes how Swinburne’s work challenges readers to explore new perspectives and ideas.

Rooksby, Rikky, and Nicholas Shrimpton, eds. The Whole Music of Passion: New Essays on Swinburne. Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate, 1993. Interprets Swinburne’s poetry through studies of Swinburne and Romantic authority, dramatic monologue, and the 1890’s, and through comparisons of his work with that of George Eliot and Percy Bysshe Shelley. One essay uses John Ruskin’s social criticism to explore Swinburne’s poetry as an expression of a fallen age, devoid of family values, discipline, and order.