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.
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....
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