Algernon Charles Swinburne World Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1858

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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 create new literary composites. Nowhere is that more evident than in “Laus Veneris,” another of his early Poems and Ballads, where he transports the classical Venus to a northern setting with the legend of Tannhäuser, the German lyric poet. The poem repeats the confrontation of Christian and pagan elements as the beauty of Venus serves to seduce a Christian knight away from his God.

The knight’s story transcends his own case to echo that of humankind’s seduction throughout history. Venus has already seduced “the knight Adonis” and “enticed/ All lips that now grow sad with kissing Christ.” As he remains enthralled to her, the knight remembers both the pleasures of his fall (“Brief bitter bliss, one hath for a great sin”) and his former status: “For I was of Christ’s choosing, I God’s knight,/ No blinkard heathen stumbling for scant light.” While he regrets his loss of heaven, he finds with Venus another immortality because “Soul may divide from body, but not we/ One from another.” Swinburne combines anew the elements of many legends to support his personal view of life just as he combined metrical devices in new ways to form his own poetic style.

“Ave Atque Vale”

First published: 1868 (collected in Victorian Prose and Poetry, vol. 5 in The Oxford Anthology of English Literature,1973)

Type of work: Poem

Swinburne’s elegy for Charles Baudelaire calls on the themes of Baudelaire’s own work.

Swinburne wrote a number of elegiac poems of varying quality, but with “Ave Atque Vale,” he produced one of the important elegies of English literature. Not only had Swinburne introduced Baudelaire’s poetry in England with his The Spectator review of 1862, he also recognized in the French poet a kindred spirit. The opening lines of his elegy, “Shall I strew on thee rose or rue or laurel,/ Brother, on this that was the veil of thee?” call to Charles Baudelaire as his brother in a deep, spiritual sense.

These lines already convey the basic technique of Swinburne’s poem by drawing upon the words evocative of Baudelaire himself. The allusions to flowers parallel the title of Les Fleurs du mal (1857, 1861, 1868; Flowers of Evil, 1931), and in calling Baudelaire “Brother,” Swinburne echoes “Au Lecteur,” Baudelaire’s opening poem, where the latter addresses his reader as “mon frère.” Swinburne echoes the regular rhythms of Baudelaire’s verse, abandoning in this elegy his frequent anapests for iambic rhythm, though he concludes each stanza with a three-foot line that has the effect of leaving something unfinished, a feeling that one has been deprived, as Swinburne was by Baudelaire’s death.

The fraternity between the two poets lay largely in their exploitation of the unconventional. Rather than fresh flowers, Swinburne suggests “Or wilt thou rather, as on earth before,/ Half-faded fiery blossoms, pale with heat/ And full of bitter summer?,” flowers like the “sickly flowers” Baudelaire had cited to describe his work. This kinship of negative preoccupations reinforces their poetic vocation. Swinburne echoes the Romantic concept of the poet as seer, seeing “Fierce loves, and lovely leafbuds poisonous,/ Bare to thy subtler eye,” just as Baudelaire had characterized the poet as visionary in his work.

Multiple allusions to Baudelaire’s poetry follow as Swinburne speculates on what sort of existence he has found in the afterlife: “Hast thou found place at the great knees and feet/ Of some pale Titan-woman?” The image from Baudelaire’s “La Géante” posits his form of paradise, while Swinburne adopts Baudelaire’s vision of receding light from “Le Flambeau vivant” as an emblem of his own state: “Our dreams pursue our dead and do not find./ Still, and more swift than they, the thin flame flies.” As communion with Baudelaire has now been made impossible by his death, Swinburne finds consolation in the proximity of his poems: “These I salute, these touch, these clasp and fold/ As though a hand were in my hand to hold.” Yet still he remains on the “chill and solemn earth” that contrasts to the sunny, tropical land that had portrayed Baudelaire’s vision of an earthly paradise.

“Hymn to Proserpine”

First published: 1866 (collected in Poems and Ballads, 1866)

Type of work: Poem

Swinburne’s invocation of the pagan goddess posits a victory over Christianity.

With “Hymn to Proserpine,” Swinburne gives positive expression to his rebellion against conventional Christianity. The dual subtitles, After the proclamation in Rome of the Christian faith and Vicisti, Galilaee, define the historical setting. The poem represents a monologue spoken by a pagan resisting the triumph of Christ. In his despair, he calls on the goddess of the underworld,“Goddess and maiden and queen, be near me now and befriend.”

The antique gods that Swinburne would resurrect have dual attributes: “Yea, is not even Apollo, with hair and harpstring of gold,/ A bitter god to follow, a beautiful god to behold?” The combination of beauty with suffering coincides with Swinburne’s recurring desire for punishment, but his protagonist desires neither pleasure nor pain but the sleep also associated with Proserpine. He is weary of the conflict that he sees around him because “Time and the gods are at strife.” This last statement can also summarize Swinburne’s feelings about his own century, a time when human progress, particularly in science, was questioning traditional religious views. Swinburne’s response, conveyed through his Roman protagonist, combines a rejection of Christianity with an energetic vindication of his personal faith.

Regarding Christianity, his tone is adversarial: “Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown gray from thy breath;/ We have drunken of things Lethean, and fed on the fullness of death.” While Christ may have won humankind’s heart for a time, the insistent theme of death undermines this triumph. Christianity depends on a belief in resurrection, but Swinburne insists that “no man under the sky lives twice, outliving his day.” If death must come to all, Christ’s promise will prove impossible: “Yet thy kingdom shall pass, Galilean, thy dead shall go down to thee dead.”

Thus, Swinburne posits a time when people will be freed from Christianity: “I kneel not, neither adore you, but standing, look to the end.” Yet in order to describe this future state, he must return to images of the past by resurrecting Proserpine as a corresponding figure to Mary: “Of the maiden thy mother men sing as a goddess with grace clad around;/ Thou art throned where another was king; where another was queen she is crowned.” Proserpine’s allure derives from extreme female sensuality, “Clothed round with the world’s desire as with raiment.” Paradoxically, given that he has just rejected eternal life, Swinburne posits the reward of those faithful to the old gods as an eternity with Proserpine “In the night where thine eyes are as moons are in heaven.” The paradox is resolved, however, when it is revealed that this night is death, the oblivion, or sleep, that will obliterate strife.


Algernon Charles Swinburne Poetry: British Analysis


Swinburne, Algernon Charles