Algernon Charles Swinburne World Literature Analysis - Essay

Algernon Charles Swinburne World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Swinburne’s lyrical virtuosity knew very few limits. Writing largely in English but occasionally in French, he could mimic the styles of a wide range of other poets. His own very personal style developed early, however, and would mark his major poems as distinctively his own. From the first publication, Atalanta in Calydon, that launched his literary reputation, his readers were struck by his heavy alliteration and use of rhythms quite different from traditional iambic pentameter. One of the best-known lyrics from Atalanta in Calydon is typical:

When the hounds of spring are on winter’s traces,The mother of months in meadow or plainFills the shadows and windy placesWith lisp of leaves and ripple of rain.

The alternation of anapestic and iambic feet gives these lines an uneven, discordant feel, while the alliteration (“mother of months,” “lisp of leaves,” “ripple of rain”) adds musical echoes that suggest a contrasting harmony. The verse is united as much by the choice of sounds as by the rhythms.

Apart from his unusual meter, Swinburne deliberately set out to shock his readers through his choices of subject matter. His background had exposed him to the traditions of both Catholicism and the Church of England, but Swinburne early evolved a distinctly antireligious view. His was not a calm opposition. Just as the Black Mass finds its structure in the inversion of normal ritual, Swinburne draws on religious sources to deliver a contrary message. “Dolores,” one of the poems that Swinburne’s friends had warned him not to publish in the first series of Poems and Ballads, posits a heroine clearly the opposite of the Virgin Mary. Swinburne’s subtitle to the poem, Notre dame des sept Douleurs, reinforces the analogy. Yet while Mary represented virtue, Dolores becomes the emblem of vice: “Seven sorrows the priests give their Virgin;/ But thy sins, which are seventy times seven,/ Seven ages would fail thee to purge in.” As Mary represented chastity, Dolores is the power of female seductiveness. Of her lips, Swinburne writes, “Men touch them, and change in a trice/ The lilies and languors of virtue/ For the raptures and roses of vice.” She not only sins but also tempts others to sin.

Swinburne’s pervasive musicality underlines the seductiveness of “lilies and languors” and “raptures and roses” amid a continuing use of largely anapestic rhythm. Meanwhile, the flower imagery traditionally linked to Mary becomes inverted to described Dolores: “O mystical rose of the mire.” For Swinburne, sin becomes an analogy to prayer: “I have passed from the outermost portal/ To the shrine where a sin is a prayer.”

Despite his extensive use of Christian allusion in “Dolores,” Swinburne also links his heroine to pre-Christian goddesses: “Thou wert fair in the fearless old fashion.” That was the worship that Christianity destroyed: “What ailed us, O gods, to desert you/ For creeds that refuse and restrain?” Yet Swinburne predicts that Christianity will in turn “pass and their places be taken” because “the worm shall revive thee with kisses.” The fusion of sexuality and death implicit as the worms give Dolores not a kiss of death but one of life reflects Swinburne’s overt preference for language that would shock. Not only is Dolores repeatedly invoked as “Our Lady of Pain,” a description that might be applied to Mary, but the pain is explicit and graphic: “O lips full of lust and laughter,/ Curled snakes that are fed from my breast,/ Bite hard.”

Such descriptions, together with Swinburne’s distinctive rhythms, struck the Victorian public as too outrageous to be taken seriously. Those amused by them, however, attempted parodies of Swinburne’s verse. None of these parodies could improve on the poet’s own self-parody in “Nephilidia”: “From the depth of the dreamy decline of the dawn through a notable nimbus of nebulous noonshine.” The extended line makes room for multiple adjectives and alliterations extended to sets of four words each so that music and description all but submerge meaning.

While Swinburne’s self-mockery shows a momentary willingness to allow his music to dominate, his thought should never be submerged. Swinburne was not only widely read in both classical and modern literatures, he also drew on vast sources to...

(The entire section is 1858 words.)