Algernon Charles Swinburne Critical Essays

Algernon Charles Swinburne Drama Analysis

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Like such varied Romantic poets as Byron, Shelley, Keats, and William Wordsworth, Algernon Charles Swinburne wrote “ closet dramas,” plays never intended to be performed, but rather to be read as works of literature. His plays have seldom if ever been produced on the stage, and for good reason: Swinburne knew next to nothing about stagecraft, and his poetic dramas betray his ignorance of the practical demands of the theater. They are, almost without exception, too long; the dialogue is often unnaturally poetic, even for verse drama; and the character motivation is too often obscure, with too much background being assumed of the audience.

Atalanta in Calydon

Swinburne very likely got the idea for his most renowned drama, Atalanta in Calydon, from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (c. 8 c.e.; English translation, 1567). The myth concerns Meleager, son of King Oeneus and Queen Althaea of Calydon, at whose birth the three Fates decree a glorious life and an early death: Meleager will die, say the Fates, when the brand then in the fire is consumed. To circumvent their prophecy, Althaea takes the brand from the fire and conceals it. Years later, Artemis, goddess of chastity and of the hunt, demonstrates her anger at Oeneus, who has neglected to pay her sufficient homage, by sending a wild boar to Calydon to devastate the fields and vineyards. The world’s greatest hunters are convened to try to slay the boar, among them Meleager, recently returned from Jason’s voyage in quest of the Golden Fleece, and Atalanta, skilled huntress and priestess of Artemis, a native of Arcadia.

Meleager falls in love with Atalanta almost immediately, despite his parents’ misgivings. When he succeeds in killing the boar, he presents the head and skin to Atalanta. His mother’s brothers Plexippus and Toxeus, however, who are angry that a woman should be allowed to join the hunt in the first place, take exception to Meleager’s action and threaten to take the trophies for themselves. Meleager, provoked by their challenge to his manhood and by their treatment of Atalanta, kills both of his uncles in a fit of rage. When Althaea hears the news of her brothers’ murders, she resurrects and destroys the forgotten brand, in effect killing her son. Meleager dies, but not before forgiving his mother and restating his love for Atalanta.

Too much has been made of the play’s classicism. Although it is in many ways a skillful imitation of the plays of the Greek masters Sophocles and Euripides—a Greek chorus, for example, intermittently intones the tragic themes, and the Aristotelian unities of time, place, and action are for the most part observed—the most compelling aspects of Atalanta in Calydon are decidedly nineteenth century. The theme of the play is the unavoidable control of fate over human life. More specifically, the play questions the benevolence of gods (and, by implication, the Christian God) who allow human tragedies to occur. Some of the most beautiful passages are those in which the chorus takes the gods to task, and the modern reader cannot but detect in these passages a direct affront by Swinburne to Victorian religious piety.

The play is also fundamentally modern in its treatment of love. Althaea repeatedly warns her son against the snares of love, and the chorus frequently takes up Althaea’s sentiment, solemnly chanting about the dangers of romantic involvement and the attractions of celibacy. Oeneus is concerned...

(The entire section is 1440 words.)