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...
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