Algernon Charles Swinburne was born in London on April 5, 1837. His family on both sides was aristocratic, the Swinburnes being clearly traceable to the time of Charles I and the Ashburnhams dating back before the Norman Conquest. As the eldest of six children, Swinburne had an active childhood, spent mainly at the family seat on the Isle of Wight with regular visits to another family house in Northumberland. The contrasting beauty of these diverse parts of England left a lasting impression on Swinburne, who as a child displayed an almost Wordsworthian responsiveness to nature. He early developed a passion for the sea, which is reflected in much of his poetry.
From the beginning, Swinburne was surrounded by books and fine paintings. His mother, Lady Jane, introduced him to a wide range of literature, including the Bible, William Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, Dante, and Molière. She also taught her son French and Italian, laying the foundation for his cosmopolitanism. In April of 1849, Swinburne entered Eton College. In the four years he spent there, he received a thorough grounding in Greek and Latin poetry and some acquaintance with the French and Italian classics. He independently acquired a remarkable knowledge of English literature. He was especially attracted to the Elizabethan dramatists, an interest that would remain constant for the remainder of his life. The Unhappy Revenge, a bloodcurdling fragment in the manner of Cyril Tourneur and John Webster, dates from about 1849. His earliest poem to survive, “The Triumph of Gloriana,” was a school exercise to commemorate a visit by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert to Eton on June 4, 1851. Its stiff heroic couplets give no clue of the direction Swinburne’s genius was to take.
Although his academic record at Eton was good, it was decided in August of 1853 for reasons that are not entirely clear that he would not return, much to the surprise of his classmates. Instead, he would receive private tutoring for his entrance into Oxford, where his family expected him to pursue a degree leading to a legal or ecclesiastical career. Swinburne’s patriotism was fired when he learned of Balaklava in the fall of 1854, and he wished to enter the army, but his father, Admiral Charles Henry Swinburne, would not permit it, perhaps because of his son’s frailty. After a summer trip to Germany in the company of an uncle, Swinburne entered Balliol College, Oxford, on January 23, 1856.
At Oxford, Swinburne fell under the influence of John Nichol, the guiding spirit of Old Mortality, a small group of student intellectuals to which Swinburne belonged. Nichol, who was to remain a lifelong friend, undermined Swinburne’s religious faith and confirmed him in political republicanism. It was under Nichol’s influence that Swinburne wrote the “Ode to Mazzini” and became a devotee of the Italian patriot. Later, Swinburne was to be an outspoken advocate of Italian Unity. Most of Swinburne’s future political poems were either to espouse Liberty and Freedom or castigate Tyranny in equally fervent language. Percy Bysshe Shelley may have become the main spiritual presence in Swinburne’s political poetry, but it was Nichol who first directed Swinburne’s thought along republican lines.
Another major influence on Swinburne at Oxford was the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. In 1857, he met Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Morris, and Edward Burne-Jones and immediately fell under their spell. Morris’s poems, particularly “The Defence of Guenevere,” influenced Swinburne profoundly. Shortly after meeting Morris, he began Queen Yseult, and until 1860, his poems are, in the words of Georges Lafourcade, “a long self-imposed grind, a series of prosodic exercises” (Swinburne: A Literary Biography). One such exercise was Laugh and Lie Down, an Elizabethan pastiche written in 1858-1859, the sado masochistic elements of which anticipate Swinburne’s discovery of the writings of the Marquis de Sade in 1861. In 1860, because of his preoccupation with poetry and his irregular habits, which were cause for increasing concern, Swinburne encountered serious academic difficulties at Oxford, and he left without taking a degree.
In the spring of 1861, after a visit to France and Italy, Swinburne...
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