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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