Algernon Charles Swinburne Swinburne, Algernon Charles - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Algernon Charles Swinburne 1837–1909

(Also wrote under the pseudonym Mrs. Horace Manners) English poet, dramatist, critic, essayist, and novelist.

Swinburne is renowned as one of the most accomplished lyric poets of the Victorian era and as a preeminent symbol of rebellion against the conservative values of his time. The explicit and often pathological sexual themes of his most important collection of poetry, Poems and Ballads, delighted some, shocked many, and became the dominant feature of Swinburne's image as both an artist and an individual. Nevertheless, critics have found that to focus exclusively on the sensational aspects of Swinburne's work is to miss the assertion, implicit in his poetry and explicit in his critical writings, that his primary preoccupation was the nature and creation of poetic beauty.

Biographical Information

Born into a wealthy family, Swinburne was educated at Eton and at Balliol College, Oxford, but did not complete a degree. While at Oxford, he met the brothers William Michael and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, as well as other members of the Pre-Raphaelite circle, a group of artists and writers whose work emphasized medieval subjects, elaborate religious symbolism, and a sensual pictorialism, and who cultivated an aura of mystery and melancholy in their lives as well as in their works. He achieved his first literary success in 1865 with Atalanta in Calydon, which was written in the form of classical Greek tragedy. The following year the appearance of Poems and Ballads brought Swinburne instant notoriety. He became identified with the "indecent" themes and the precept of art for art's sake that characterized many of the poems of the volume. He subsequently wrote poetry of many different kinds, in cluding the militantly republican Song of Italy and Songs before Sunrise in support of the Risorgimento, the movement for Italian political unity, as well as nature poetry. Although individual volumes of Swinburne's poetry were occasionally well received, in general his popularity and critical reception declined following the initial sensation of Poems and Ballads.

Throughout the 1860s and 1870s Swinburne drank excessively and was prone to accidents that often left him bruised, bloody, or unconscious. Until his forties he suffered intermittent physical collapses. In 1879, Swinburne's friend and literary agent, Theodore Watts-Dunton, intervened during a time when Swinburne was dangerously ill. Watts-Dunton isolated Swinburne at a suburban home in Putney and gradually weaned him from alcohol—and from

many former companions and habits as well. Swinburne lived another thirty years with Watts-Dunton, whose role remains controversial. He denied Swinburne's friends access to him, controlled the poet's money, and restricted his activities. However, commentators agree that Swinburne's erratic conduct could have resulted in his death, and Watts-Dunton is generally credited with saving his life and encouraging him to continue writing into his old age. Swinburne died in 1909 at the age of seventy-two.

Major Works

The most important and conspicuous quality of Swinburne's work is an intense lyricism. Even early critics, who often took exception to his subject matter, commended his intricately extended and evocative imagery, metrical virtuosity, rich use of assonance and alliteration, and bold, complex rhythms. At the same time, the strong rhythms of his poems and his characteristic use of alliteration were sometimes carried to extremes and rendered his work highly susceptible to parody. Critics note that his usually effective imagery is at times vague and imprecise, and his rhymes are sometimes facile and uninspired. After establishing residence in Putney, Swinburne largely abandoned the themes of pathological sexuality that had characterized much of his earlier poetry. Nature and landscape poetry began to predominate, as well as poems about children. Many commentators maintain that the poetry written during the years at Putney is inferior to Swinburne's earlier work, but others have identified individual poems of exceptional merit among his later works, citing in particular "By the North Sea," "Evening on the Broads," "A Nympholept," "The Lake of Gaube," and "Neap-Tide."

Critical Reception

During Swinburne's lifetime, critics considered Poems and Ballads his finest as well as his most characteristic poetic achievement; subsequent poetry and work in other genres was often disregarded. Since the mid-twentieth century, however, commentators have been offering new assessments of Swinburne's entire career. Forgoing earlier dis missals of his voluminous later writings and reexamining individual poems strictly on their own merit, critics have identified works of great power and beauty from all periods of his career.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)


Poems and Ballads 1866

A Song of Italy 1867

Songs before Sunrise 1871

Songs of Two Nations 1875

Poems and Ballads: Second Series 1878

Tristram of Lyonesse, and Other Poems 1882

Poems and Ballads: Third Series 1889

The TaleofBalen 1896

A Channel Passage, and Other Poems 1904

Other Major Works

The Queen-Mother and Rosamond (dramas) 1860

Atalanta in Calydon (drama) 1865

Chasteland (drama) 1865

Notes on Poems and Reviews (criticism) 1866

William Blake (criticism) 1868

Under the Microscope (criticism) 1872

Bothwell (drama) 1874

Essays and Studies (criticism) 1875

George Chapman (criticism) 1875

Erechtheus (drama) 1876

A Study of Shakespeare (criticism) 1880

Mary Stuart (drama) 1881

A Study of Victor Hugo (criticism) 1886

Locrine (drama) 1887

A Study of Ben Jonson (criticism) 1889

Studies in Prose and Poetry (criticism) 1894

Rosamund, Queen of the Lombards (drama) 1899

Love's Cross-Currents (novel) 1901

Shakespeare (criticism) 1909

Contemporaries of Shakespeare (criticism) 1919

The Complete Works of Algernon Charles Swinburne. 20 vols. (poetry, dramas, novel, essays, criticism, and letters) 1925-27

Lesbia Brandon (unfinished novel) 1952

The Swinburne Letters. 6 vols, (letters) 1959-62

Antony H. Harrison (essay date 1978)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Aesthetics of Androgyny in Swinburne's Early Poetry," in Tennessee Studies in Literature, Vol. 23, 1978, pp. 87-99.

[In the following essay, Harrison explores Swinburne's treatment of androgynous aspects of human sexuality.]

Death and the achievement of organic continuity with the universe represent the end and culmination of sexual passion for the major figures in most of Swinburne's early poems. Yet it is the enduring condition of passion that provides the poet himself with his richest materials,

During his most productive years Swinburne undertook to characterize all conditions of passion and its concomitant suffering in men and women of all conceivable states of sexuality—from the noble masculinity of Tristram and Mary Stuart's courtier Chastelard, to Sappho's lesbian strivings for domination and penetration, to the perverse and "feminine" gentleness of the persona in "The Leper." Love is Swinburne's constant subject from his undergraduate lyrics of 1857 to his epic tour de force, Tristram of Lyonesse, published twenty-five years later. The diversity of his poems of passion and the complexity of the philosophical precepts which support and dominate them must be recognized in any evaluation of Swinburne's achievement. However, critics have not treated Swinburne's metaphysic of love with the seriousness it demands, and they have only begun to investigate the relationship between the philosophical and aesthetic principles central to his most important poems. Crucial to that relationship is Swinburne's recurrent exploration of androgynous aspects of human sexuality.

Frequently Swinburne's males possess what are normally considered feminine traits, and his women have male characteristics. But sexual ambiguities in his works, though apparent most often in sadistic females with masochistic male counterparts, extend beyond the mere reversal of roles. Mario Praz observes Swinburne's preoccupation with equivocal sexuality in noting the kinship between Moreau's painting Necessity of Riches and Swinburne's unfinished novel, Lesbia Brandon:

Moreau's figures are ambiguous; it is hardly possible to distinguish at the first glance which of two lovers is the man, which the woman; all his characters are linked by subtle bonds of relationship, as in Swinburne's Lesbia Brandon; lovers look as though they were related, brothers as though they were lovers, men have the faces of virgins, virgins the faces of youths; the symbols of Good and Evil are entwined and equivocally confused. There is no contrast between ages, sexes, or types: the underlying meaning of this painting is incest, its most exalted figure the Androgyne, its final word is sterility.

Similarly, Richard Mathews [in Victorian Poetry, 1971] notes Swinburne's fascination with the hermaphroditic iconography of his friend Simion Solomon's paintings, which were "greatly occupied with this ideal of male-female conjunction…. Swinburne was intrigued by this aspect of Solomon's art: 'In almost all of these [paintings] there is the same profound suggestion of … the identity of contraries.' The union of male and female is paralleled by the possibility of the marriage of all opposites—fire and water, good and evil, Heaven and Hell, high and low."

One should add to this list the marriage of body and spirit. Indeed, the key to understanding Swinburne's apparent equivocation between the mystical spiritualism of what he considered his most important philosophical lyric, "Hertha," and his continual emphasis on the need for purely physical gratifications of passion, resides in his acceptance of a crucial Blakean doctrine. In his essay on Blake Swinburne explains,

Those who argue against the reality of the meaner forms of "spiritualism" in disembodied life, on the ground apparently that whatever is not of the patent tangible flesh must be of high imperishable importance, are merely acting on the old ascetic assumption that the body is of its nature base and the soul of its nature noble, and that between the two there is a great gulf fixed, neither to be bridged over nor filled up. Blake, as a mystic of the higher and subtler kind, would have denied this superior separate vitality of the spirit; but far from inferring thence that the soul must expire with the body, would have maintained that the essence of the body must survive with the essence of the soul.

Swinburne more clearly defines the nature of man's sublime "essence" in "Hertha," which characterizes the unitary, informing principle of all creation: "before God was, I am," Hertha asserts (II, 72). In this poem Swinburne attempts a reconciliation of all dualities, including sexual duality, which is the fundamental concern underlying his poems about passion: "Out of me man and woman," Hertha declares (II, 72).

These poems suggest that Swinburne imagined a primordial sexlessness in man which precluded the strife of passions men now suffer. This ideal of the "perfect spiritual hermaphrodite" can be seen, like Yeats's Byzantine spirits, as a mystical vision of the prelapsarian harmony of soul which characterized man before incarnation, or as the asexual organicism to which he returns after death. The androgynous ideal for Swinburne reflects the pure, eternal, "Herthian" potential of the soul beyond its temporary embodiment in the mired complexities of blood. As Swinburne remarks of Blake's conception of the eternal androgyne, that being is "male and female, who from of old was neither female nor male, but perfect man without division of flesh, until the setting of sex against sex by the malignity of animal creation." Ironically, the sexual yearning for total physical integration with the beloved object, characteristic of Swinburne's personae, can be seen as an attempt both to escape the torture of insatiable passion and to regain this sexless ideal.

Swinburne was hardly alone in his hermaphroditic quest. As A. J. L. Busst has demonstrated [in Romantic Mythologies, edited by Ian Fletcher, 1967], the figure of the androgyne permeates nineteenth-century literature. In addition, Busst notes that C. G. Jung has powerfully reinforced a major intuition of those writers of the period now considered decadent: "that the androgyne is an archetype of the collective unconscious, that the human psyche is itself androgynous." When dealing with androgynous figures, Swinburne was aware that he was working in a tradition, one that retained unlimited potential for artistic development. Indeed, he seems to have perceived both the optimistic and pessimistic extremes intrinsic to the concept of androgyny that Busst has outlined. On the one hand, androgynous propensities in such figures as the speaker of "The Triumph of Time," Chastelard, Sappho in "Anactoria," and Meleager in Atalanta in Calydon reflect an ultimately positive yearning for completion and the sort of continuity with the world which necessitates dissolution of consciousness and quintessential union with the sexless and mystical source of all generation. Although the character of their suffering is largely the subject of the poems they appear in, these figures demonstrate a strength in the resignation to their destiny which borders on optimism and certainly mitigates the pathos we feel for them. This is especially true of Chastelard, for instance, who feels "a kindling beyond death / Of some new joys," and of Sappho at the end of her monologue when she at last perceives how her kinship with nature will immortalize her. On the other hand, androgyny, when conceived of in purely physical terms, results in the unbearable intensification of insatiable sexual passions that "shall not be assuaged till death be dead." This pessimistic view of androgyny is developed in "Hermaphroditus," although it also complicates the depiction of figures like Phaedra, Sappho, and Mary Stuart, the heroine of Swinburne's remarkable trilogy of closet dramas. All three are sadistic women whose masculine attributes thrust them into a limbo of vain desires. Most often the optimistic and pessimistic possibilities of androgyny merge for Swinburne when a figure—like Rosamond, Sappho, or Tannhàuser in "Laus Veneris"—does not immediately perceive death as the destined and only complete gratification of his or her passions, as Meleager and Chastelard, for instance, unequivocably do.

The relationship of Swinburne's cast of usually sadomasochistic figures to the symbol of the androgyne is often further complicated by the issue of morality. Questions of good and evil dominate poems like "Laus Veneris," "Dolores," and Atalanta in Calydon, while they are important motifs in Rosamond, Chastelard, Lesbia Brandon, Love's Cross-Currents, and Tristram of Lyonesse. The questions of morality that result from insatiable desires and perverse indulgences arise primarily because passion is dramatized by Swinburne in a rigid pagan or Christian, rather than visionary Blakean, context. Both the constricting hostility of religious or social forces and the physical limitations of sexual indulgence are responsible for the intense frustration that Swinburne's characters suffer. At the same time, the relationship of sadism and masochism to a concept of androgyny is a logical one. As Busst observes, in nineteenth-century literature the figure of the hermaphrodite commonly symbolized sadism...

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David G. Riede (essay date 1978)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Putney Period: Solipsism without Fear," in Swinburne: A Study of Romantic Mythmaking, University Press of Virginia, 1978, pp. 187-214.

[In the following essay, Riede urges a reassessment of Swinburne's later verse.]

The enormous bulk of the poetry written in the last thirty years of Swinburne's life has been greeted with almost unmitigated disdain by the few readers who have gone to the trouble of looking at it. Swinburne, it is routinely said, devoted more than half of his creative life to the production of fatuous effusions of baby worship, political poems savoring of the rankest kind of imperialism, and nature poetry of the travel-book variety. The...

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Rikky Rooksby (essay date 1985)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Swinburne in Miniature: A Century of Roundels," in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 23, No. 3, Autumn, 1985, pp. 249-65.

[In the following essay, Rooksby offers a close reading of Swinburne's roundel poems, and discusses the major themes of these works.]

Swinburne, said T. S. Eliot in 1920, was among that group of poets whose work ought to be read in selection, not whole. That judgment seems to remain a sound one, despite the recent work of critics like David G. Riede [in Swinburne: A Study of Romantic Mythmaking, 1978] who has referred to the "embarrassment of riches" to be found in the thirty years of Swinburne's writing in Putney; one cannot accept, though,...

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Melissa Zeiger (essay date 1986)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "'A Muse Funeral': The Critique of Elegy in Swinburne's 'Ave atque Vale'," in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 24, No. 2, Summer, 1986, pp. 173-88.

[In the following essay, Zeiger explores Swinburne's innovative treatment of the elegaic form.]

Elegy has traditionally been a search: until the last century, a search with a foregone conclusion. The elegist directed the elegy toward an ending in consolation, and the poem took its shape from that direction. But what does elegy seek when there can be no consolation? Where does it move, if not toward the self-ordained closure of a "Lycidas" or an "Adonais"? Different possibilities have emerged, and A. C. Swinburne offered one...

(The entire section is 5987 words.)

James Richardson (essay date 1988)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Purity and Pain," in Vanishing Lives: Style and Self in Tennyson, D. G. Rossetti, Swinburne, and Yeats, University Press of Virginia, 1988, pp. 116-36.

[In the following essay, Richardson provides a thematic and stylistic analysis of Swinburne's verse.]

Less a personality than, as he might have put it, a shoreline, Swinburne is visible only as the hypnotically shifting border of land and sea, solidity and fluidity, cold strength and smothering passion. Because he lacks the patience and—though it may seem strange to say this of a man so eccentric and explosive—the self-indulgence of his mentor Rossetti, Swinburne can dwell only briefly in the Rossettian...

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L. M. Findlay (essay date 1990)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Art of Apostasy: Swinburne and the Emperor Julian," in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 28, No. 1, Spring, 1990, pp. 69-78.

[In the following essay, Findlay explores Swinburne's attitude toward Christianity by examining his poems "The Hymn to Prosperpine" and "The Garden of Proserpine."]

Apostasy in England in the nineteenth century gained special prominence in the wake of Keble's famous Assize sermon of 1833 on "National Apostasy," with its scathing analysis of those "omens and tokens" which mark the "fashionable liberality of this generation," the spread of indifferentism, and the loss of respect for the solemnity of oaths and the Apostolic status of Bishops....

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Joseph E. Riehl (essay date 1990)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Swinburne's Doublings: Tristram of Lyonesse, The Sisters, and The Tale of Balen, " in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 28, Nos. 3-4, Autumn-Winter, 1990, pp. 1-17.

[In the following essay, Riehl addresses the artistic function of the doubling of characters and character names in three of Swinburne's poems.]

Long regarded as deploring work, Swinburne's later verse has gradually won serious regard as great art from twentieth-century readers. [In SAQ, 1958] Paull F. Baum's study of "A Nympholept" (1958) paved the way for major revaluation of this body of Swinburne's poetry. [In Victorian Poetry, 1971] Kerry McSweeney echoed Baum's admiration for...

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James P. Carley (essay date 1990)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to Algernon Charles Swinburne, The Boydell Press, 1990, pp. 1-9.

[In the following essay, Carley discusses the defining characteristics of Swinburne's Arthurian poems.]

Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909) was one of the large group of poets and artists who fell under the spell of the Arthurian legend in the mid nineteenth century. As he would later explain in Under the Microscope (1872)

The story as it stood of old had in it something almost of Hellenic dignity and significance; in it as in the great Greek legends we could trace from a seemingly small root of evil the birth and growth of a...

(The entire section is 3071 words.)

Allison Pease (essay date 1997)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Questionable Figures: Swinburne's Poems and Ballads" in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 35, No. 1, Spring, 1997, pp. 43-56.

[In the following essay, Pease examines the controversy surrounding the publication of Swinburne's Poems and Ballads, maintaining that the debate was not only about pornography, but also about "middle- and upper-class male privilege in a society whose rigid class boundaries were threatening to give way to a feminized underclass."]

How does a society decide to call one naked body art and another pornography? Clearly context and the set of expectations brought to viewing the body are determining features. But such a notion raises the...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Beetz, Kirk H. Algernon Charles Swinburne: A Bibliography of Secondary Works, 1861-1980. Metuchen, N. J.: Scarecrow Press, 1982, 227 p.

Chronologically arranged annotated bibliography of criticism.


Henderson, Philip. Swinburne: Portrait of a Poet. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1974, 305 p.

Critical biography.

Lafourcade, Georges. Swinburne: A Literary Biography. London: G. Bell and Sons, 1932, 314 p.

Concentrates on the circumstances...

(The entire section is 730 words.)