Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1165
Algernon Charles Swinburne was born into two of England’s proudest old aristocratic families, the Swinburnes and the Ashburnhams. His father was Captain (later Admiral) Charles Henry Swinburne; his mother, the former Lady Jane Henrietta Hamilton, the daughter of the third earl of Ashburnham. He enjoyed a privileged childhood, dividing his time between the estate of his parents, East Dene on the Isle of Wight, and Capheaton Hall, the Swinburne family seat in Northumberland near the Scottish border. For the rest of his life, he would be fascinated by Scottish history and myth, using it as subject matter for works of such diverse merit as the early poem “The Queen’s Tragedy” (1854) and his dramatic trilogy centering on Mary Stuart. He was never close to his father—a conventional man who was away much of the time—but he was pampered by his mother, to whom he remained close until her death in 1896. His paternal grandfather, Sir John Swinburne, was a surrogate father to the boy, treating him with an affection and respect that the poet never forgot.
Although he was the eldest of six children, young “Hadji” Swinburne was a lonely child, made, from early childhood, to feel like an outcast. He was at best unusual in appearance, with bright red hair, a too-slight build, and a perpetual nervous twitch. In the midst of a notably red-blooded extended family, Swinburne appeared effeminate, reared as he was in the company of his mother and four sisters. As a hedge against solitude, he turned to books. Taught to read by his mother, Swinburne at a young age mastered the Bible, Sir Walter Scott’s novels, and the plays of William Shakespeare.
In 1849, Swinburne was enrolled at Eton, a move that ultimately proved disastrous. The sensitive boy did not fare well in the restrictive and patriarchal public-school atmosphere, where conformity and team spirit reigned. Always a rebel, young Swinburne was at once terrified and enraged by the oppressive discipline that characterized the place. Though a brilliant student—he was able to profit at least from Eton’s heavily classical curriculum, which emphasized Latin and Greek—he was a social failure and a constant source of embarrassment to the school’s administration. In the summer of 1853, Swinburne left Eton for good, at least two years earlier than expected.
Swinburne had begun writing even while at Eton, turning out heavily Elizabethan tragedies and even a mock eighteenth century poetic tribute to Queen Victoria entitled “The Triumph of Gloriana.” On entering Oxford in 1856, he continued his literary career, falling naturally and almost instantly into membership in Old Mortality, a literary group that later published the short-lived literary magazine Undergraduate Papers. A more important and farther-reaching influence came in 1857, when Swinburne met Dante Gabriel Rossetti , who, along with his disciples Sir Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris, was down from London decorating the Oxford Union Society building with murals. Swinburne, already seriously questioning religious and political orthodoxy and the hypocrisies of official Victorian morality, was immediately drawn to Rossetti’s Svengali-like personality and to the doctrine of art for art’s sake. In Swinburne, Rossetti had found his newest disciple.
Rossetti’s influence on Swinburne cannot be overstated, and it is generally considered an unhealthy one. Rossetti seems to have cultivated an apostlelike devotion from the young men who constantly surrounded him, often then publicly ridiculing them or dropping them altogether. In addition, Swinburne found Rossetti’s bohemian lifestyle much too enticing. Rossetti practiced to a remarkable degree the decadent doctrine that he preached. His life was riddled with alcoholic bouts and heterosexual affairs, and under this master’s influence, Swinburne learned to give free rein to the sadomasochistic sexual urges that had been festering in him since his Eton days. Swinburne’s love of bondage and flagellation figures prominently in some of his best poetry; indeed, such poems as “Dolores” and “Laus Veneris” are anomalies of English literature: They are poetic works of the highest order that until recently could not be candidly or openly discussed by the literary establishment.
Whatever else Rossetti’s aesthetic doctrines accomplished, they at least succeeded in prompting Swinburne to take up writing more seriously than ever before. While at Oxford, Swinburne produced a number of poems, plays, and essays, among them the “Ode to Mazzini,” a tribute to the leader of the fight for Italian democracy (later to become a friend and admirer of Swinburne); the long poem “Queen Iseult,” a treatment of the Tristram and Isolde legend; and the two tragedies mentioned earlier, The Queen-Mother and Rosamond. As a result of Swinburne’s intense literary activity, his academic standing suffered. In 1860, he left Oxford as he had left Eton—for reasons never made public.
The story of Swinburne’s subsequent life in London is one of personal dissipation, literary acclaim (and notoriety), and sexual liberation to the point of excess and beyond. Through the offices of Rossetti and his friends—the politician and biographer Richard Monckton Milnes, the explorer Richard Burton, the painter Simeon Solomon—Swinburne led a life of unrestrained bohemianism, as if to make up for years of repression and conformity at Eton and Oxford. He discovered the poetry of Charles Baudelaire and the sexually explicit writing of the Marquis de Sade. Both of these writers he championed through editorials and reviews in the British popular press in a deliberate attempt to shock the staid literary establishment. The publication of Atalanta in Calydon in 1865 met with official approval, but in the same year Chastelard, the first of the Mary Stuart plays, brought condemnation, scandalizing, among countless others, the poet laureate Tennyson. Poems and Ballads (1866), which includes such “abnormal” poems as “Anactoria” and “Sapphics,” gave Swinburne the reputation that he had long craved. He would forever be known as the British Baudelaire, the deviant rebel of English letters.
Swinburne’s physical frailty was never quite able to withstand his excesses, and from time to time, his father would quietly come to London and fetch Swinburne home to recuperate. One such rescue occurred in 1871 during a long and bitter public battle in which the minor poet Robert Buchanan attacked Rossetti and Swinburne as members of the amoral “Fleshly School of Poetry.” Naturally, Swinburne mounted a counterattack. The peevish and juvenile mudslinging continued for five years, culminating in a libel suit in 1876—a suit that Buchanan won. In 1877, Swinburne’s father died, and the poet returned to London, hell-bent on spending his inheritance on liquor and sexual pleasure. In June, 1879, his friend Walter Theodore Watts (later Watts-Dunton) did what Admiral Swinburne had so often done: He rescued the poet from a collision course with death and installed him at The Pines, Watts’s home in suburban Putney.
Swinburne never left The Pines, and little is known of the last thirty years of his life. He continued to write and to publish, with Watts-Dunton acting as a shrewd literary agent. The poet who everyone thought would die young died at the age of seventy-two on April 10, 1909.