Algernon Charles Swinburne Poetry: British Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2265

The body of Algernon Charles Swinburne’s poetry is so vast and varied that it is difficult to generalize about it. Swinburne wrote poetry for more than sixty years, and in that time he treated an enormous variety of subjects and employed many poetic forms and meters. He wrote English and Italian sonnets, elegies, odes, lyrics, dramatic monologues, ballads, and romances; and he experimented with the rondeau, the ballade, and the sestina. Much of this poetry is marked by a strong lyricism and a self-conscious, formal use of such rhetorical devices as alliteration, assonance, repetition, personification, and synecdoche. Swinburne’s brilliant self-parody, “Nephilidia,” hardly exaggerates the excessive rhetoric of some of his earlier poems. The early A Song of Italy would have more effectively conveyed its extreme republican sentiments had it been more restrained. As it is, content is too often lost in verbiage, leading a reviewer for The Athenaeum to remark that “hardly any literary bantling has been shrouded in a thicker veil of indefinite phrases.” A favorite technique of Swinburne is to reiterate a poem’s theme in a profusion of changing images until a clear line of development is lost. “The Triumph of Time” is an example. Here the stanzas can be rearranged without loss of effect. This poem does not so much develop as accrete. Clearly a large part of its greatness rests in its music. As much as any other poet, Swinburne needs to be read aloud. The diffuse lyricism of Swinburne is the opposite of the closely knit structures of John Donne and is akin to the poetry of Walt Whitman.

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Poems and Ballads

Nowhere is this diffuseness more clearly visible than in those poems of the first series of Poems and Ballads, which proved so shocking to Victorian sensibilities: “Anactoria,” “Laus Veneris,” “Dolores,” “Faustine,” and “Felise.” Although they all exhibit technical virtuosity, these poems are too long, and their compulsive repetition of sadomasochistic eroticism grows tiresome. Poems that celebrate the pleasures and pains of sexual love are most successful when the language is sufficiently sensuous to convey the immediacy of the experience—Ovid’s Amores (c. 20 b.c.e.; English translation, c. 1597) comes to mind—and it is ironic that Swinburne’s sensual poems in this early volume fall somewhat flat because they are not sensuous enough. Faustine and Dolores fail to come to life, just as the unnamed speakers, reveling in the pains of love, remain only voices. One feels that the dramatic form is ill-chosen. Swinburne tells us in his Notes on Poems and Reviews that in “Dolores” he strove “to express that transient state of spirit through which a man may be supposed to pass, foiled in love and weary of loving, but not yet in sight of rest; seeking refuge in those ’violent delights’ which ’have violent ends,’ in fierce and frank sensualities which at least profess to be no more than they are.” This is a legitimate purpose for a poem, but it is not realized in these early works.

Still, this volume cannot be dismissed too lightly. Swinburne wrote it partly to shock and partly to accomplish what he attributed to Charles Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil: the transformation of ugliness into beauty, immorality into morality by the sheer power of the imagination. He certainly succeeded in shocking, and at times he was able to invest desperate and dark thoughts with a languorous beauty of sound, as in these lines from “The Garden of Proserpine”:

I am tired of tears and laughter,And men that laugh and weep;Of what may come hereafterFor men that sow to reap:I am weary of days and hours,Blown buds of barren flowers,Desires and dreams and powersAnd everything but sleep.

This is quintessential early Swinburne. Nothing had been heard in English poetry quite like it. For all their defects, the longer dramatic poems in the first series of Poems and Ballads expanded the boundaries of the subject matter of English poetry in much the way that Whitman did for American poetry. In the shorter lyrics, such as “A Leave-taking,” “Rococo,” and “A Match,” Swinburne created a note of elusive melancholy that had not been heard before. “Madonna Mia,” one of the most exquisitely beautiful lyrics in the language, by itself compensates for the flawed longer poems and ends on a more hopeful note than the other poems of the volume.

Songs Before Sunrise

In Swinburne’s next volume of poems, Songs Before Sunrise, the Femme Fatale is replaced by the goddess Freedom; the earlier obsession with flagellation is sublimated into a more acceptable form of violence—namely, the overthrow of tyranny; and the desperate hedonism of the “Hymn to Proserpine” gives way to the militant humanism of the “Hymn of Man.” “A little while and we die; shall life not thrive as it may?” is changed to “Men perish, but man shall endure; lives die, but the life is not dead.” The doctrine of art for art’s sake evaporates in these poems of social concern as the influence of Victor Hugo and Giuseppe Mazzini replaces that of Charles Baudelaire and the Marquis de Sade. With the exception of “Before a Crucifix,” a powerful attack on the Roman Catholic Church for self-aggrandizement in a suffering world, the poems of Songs Before Sunrise are aggressive, forward-looking accounts of the defeat of oppression and the triumph of liberty. “Hertha” affirms the immortality of humankind—“In the buds of your lives is the sap of my leaves; ye shall live and not die”—and asserts that “the morning of manhood is risen, and the shadowless soul is in sight.” This philosophical poem ends, in words that echo Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound: A Lyrical Drama in Four Acts (1820), with a revelation of the death of God and the birth of “love, the beloved Republic, that feeds upon freedom and lives.” The other philosophical poems of Songs Before Sunrise, the “Hymn of Man,” similarly asserts the immortality of the race and proclaims the demise of God, who in the figure of Christ is imaged as a tyrant: “By the spirit he ruled as his slave is he slain who was mighty to slay/ And the stone that is sealed on his grave he shall rise not and roll not away.” The poem concludes with a striking perversion of Scripture, a characteristic technique of Swinburne:

Thou art smitten, thou God, thou art smitten; thy death is upon thee, O Lord.And the love-song of earth as thou diest resounds through the wind of her wings—Glory to Man in the highest! for Man is the master of things.

The other poems of this volume are more closely related to the events of the day. “Super Flumina Babylonis” celebrates the release of Italy from bondage in imagery that recalls the resurrection of Christ. The open tomb, the folded graveclothes, the “deathless face” all figure in this interesting poem that sings out, “Death only dies.” In “Quia Multum Amavit,” France, shackled by tyranny, is personified as a harlot who has been false to liberty. She has become “A ruin where satyrs dance/ A garden wasted for beasts to crawl and brawl in.” The poem ends with France prostrate before the spirit of Freedom, who speaks to her as Christ spoke to the sinful woman in the Pharisee’s house, in a tone of forgiveness.

A Channel Passage, and Other Poems

Although Swinburne’s later political poems continued to attack tyranny abroad, especially in Russia, the emphasis in them shifted to England. In A Channel Passage, and Other Poems, Swinburne’s last volume of poetry published in his lifetime, the poems having to do with political subjects tend to reflect Swinburne’s insularity. Poems such as “The Centenary of the Battle of the Nile,” “Trafalgar Day,” and “Cromwell’s Statue” celebrate glorious moments of England’s past in language of chauvinistic hyperbole, while others such as “The Commonweal: A Song for Unionists,” “The Question,” and “The Transvaal” counsel the severest measures against England’s enemies, who, be they Irish or Boers, are invariably depicted as the “cowardliest hounds that ever lapped/ blood” or “dogs, agape with jaws afoam.” These poems lack the rhetorical richness of Songs Before Sunrise, suggesting that, in the twilight of his career, Swinburne’s strength lay not in contention but in the peaceful lyricism that informs “The Lake of Gaube” and “In a Rosary,” the finest of the poems in this volume.

Poems and Ballads: Second Series

With the publication in 1878 of Poems and Ballads: Second Series, Swinburne reached the height of his powers as a poet. The unhealthy eroticism and hysterical denunciations of Christianity have disappeared. The language is altogether more restrained, and there is a greater harmony of form and substance. The major themes are the impermanence of love and the inevitability of death. The predominant mood is elegiac, but the despair of “Hymn to Proserpine” has been replaced by the resignation of “At Parting,” and a few of the poems hold out some hope of personal immortality, although on this subject Swinburne’s private beliefs are never made clear.

In “A Forsaken Garden,” one of the loveliest of Swinburne’s poems, the landscape as dry as “the heart of a dead man” serves as an emblem for “lovers none ever will know/ Whose eyes went seaward a hundred sleeping/ Years ago.” “Love deep as the sea as a rose must wither” and lovers now living must follow those who have gone before. The poem concludes that the forsaken garden is now beyond further change until the world itself ends, and there with the ghosts of bygone lovers “As a god self-slain on his own strange altar/ Death lies dead.” This mood-piece manages to convey through the effective use of detail and tight control of rhetoric a landscape more vividly realized than is to be found in Swinburne’s earlier poems.“A Vision of Spring in Winter” displays an equally rich texture of natural description brought into focus by a restrained imagination. In this lovely poem, Swinburne bids farewell to youth. The poet tells the spirit of Spring, “I would not bid thee, though I might, give back/ One good thing youth has given and borne away.” The loves and hopes of youth “Lie deeper than the sea” and Spring could not restore them even if the poet wished for their return. The poem ends on a wistful note: “But flowers thou may’st and winds, and hours of ease/ And all its April to the world thou may’st/ Give back, and half my April back to me.”

Virtually all the elegies in this remarkable volume merit special mention. In “Inferiae,” a poem of simple and quiet beauty, Swinburne pays tribute to his father, who has just died; and in words whose marmoreal quality recalls Landor, the poet who earlier had proclaimed the death of God expresses hope of immortality. “In Memory of Barry Cornwall” opens with a marvelous picture of a kind of Socratic paradise “where the singers whose names are deathless/ One with another make music unheard of men.” “To the beautiful veiled bright world where the glad ghosts meet” has gone “Barry Cornwall.” Although Time has taken him and other poets from us, the poem affirms that he shall not take away “the flower of their souls,” nor will “the lips lack song for ever that now lack breath.” The elegy on Baudelaire, “Ave Atque Vale,” was written soon after the publication of the first series of Poems and Ballads, but it is closer in language and tone to this volume, where it properly appears. Swinburne’s deep affection for the dead French poet is felt throughout, and the resonant poignance created by the sibilance and dark vowels of the majestic stanzas and accentuated by the speaker’s apostrophe of Baudelaire as “brother” helps make this one of the great elegies of English poetry. It conveys more sincerity than either “Lycidas” or “Adonais” and it is more tender than “Thyrsis.” After paying tribute to Baudelaire’s genius—“Thou sawest, in thine old singing season, brother/ Secrets and sorrows unbeheld of us”—the poem affirms that even though he is “far too far for wings of words to follow,” his poetry lives on. Remembering that everyone will one day meet death as the poet has, the poem concludes with a profound serenity.

There is no such serenity in “Fragment on Death,” one of Swinburne’s masterful translations of François Villon. Here death is depicted in all its medieval horror. This and the other translations, particularly the “Ballad of the Women of Paris,” provide a contrast to the poems already discussed, but not so shocking a one as the four sonnets attacking Russia, which appear completely out of place in this volume.

Later works

After the second series of Poems and Ballads, Swinburne continued to publish poems for twenty-six years in a continuing variety of subject matter and form. The Arthurian romances Tristram of Lyonesse, and Other Poems and The Tale of Balen, while containing passages of undisputed power and beauty, suggest that Swinburne’s forte as a poet was not in extended narration. The many poems about babies in A Century of Roundels reveal a mature tenderness that one would not have expected from the author of Songs Before Sunrise. There are beautiful passages in Songs of the Springtides. The second series of Poems and Ballads, however, remains the pinnacle of Swinburne’s achievement as a poet, and if he had written no more poetry after 1878, his reputation would have been essentially unchanged.

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