Algernon Charles Swinburne Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

0111201590-Swinburne.jpg Algernon Charles Swinburne (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Algernon Charles Swinburne is best known as a poet, though he also wrote literary criticism and fiction. His drama must be considered a part of his poetic output as it is written exclusively in verse, the bulk of it in blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter). His poetic drama is among his least distinguished work and shares many of the shortcomings of his nondramatic poetry: overdecoration, excessive use of alliteration, and an uneasy tension between vulgarity and pomposity. Conversely, the best passages in his plays reveal the brilliancies that ensure him a place among the best of the late Victorian poets: a remarkable verbal facility and an equally remarkable capacity for metric innovation.

Swinburne is generally classified among the Pre-Raphaelite poets and painters of the latter third of the nineteenth century. Along with his friends and associates Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Morris, and Sir Edward Burne-Jones, Swinburne was committed to a theory of art that rebelled against the smugness and prudishness of Victorian England by insisting that art must be considered on its own terms, quite apart from any moral value it might possess. Swinburne was a latecomer to the so-called Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood , a group of writers and painters whose founding members included the painters Holman Hunt and Sir John Everett Millais. The Pre-Raphaelites took their name from an aesthetic theory propounded by the essayist John Ruskin . Simply stated, the idea...

(The entire section is 487 words.)


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Any discussion of Algernon Charles Swinburne must take into account that his career was divided into two pronounced stages: that up to 1879 and that after 1879. From 1879 until his death in 1909, Swinburne lived a reclusive life under the guardianship of his agent and friend, Walter Theodore Watts-Dunton, removed from the literary mainstream, and although he continued to write prolifically, there was a certain falling off in quality and imagination in the works he produced during this later period. The works of the 1860’s and 1870’s are the portions of Swinburne’s canon that remain of interest today, and similarly it is the drama of the early period that is most noteworthy.

The bulk of Swinburne’s plays deal with history or myth, a choice of subject matter that was both a blessing and a curse to his career as a playwright. Although he was widely read in British and continental history, his scholarliness often gets the best of his artistry in his plays: Artistic license is far too seldom exercised. In the Mary, Queen of Scots trilogy, for example—Chastelard, Bothwell, and Mary Stuart—Swinburne is far too steeped in the history of the era to exploit fully the dramatic possibilities of Mary Stuart, the woman and the myth.

This tension between history and art does not exist in his myth plays—to this group belong Atalanta in Calydon and Erechtheus—and in these works, the modern reader...

(The entire section is 476 words.)

Other literary forms

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

The most learned and versatile of all the Victorian poets, Algernon Charles Swinburne (SWIHN-burn) tried his hand with varying degrees of success at virtually every literary form available to him. He sought to make his mark as a dramatist and novelist as well as a poet, and in the course of his career, he published twelve complete plays excluding juvenilia and fragments. They are all tragedies written predominantly in blank verse. Atalanta in Calydon (pb. 1865) and Erechtheus (pb. 1876) are based on the Greek model. Chastelard (pb. 1865), Bothwell (pb. 1874), and Mary Stuart (pb. 1881) constitute a trilogy that harks back in spirit and style to Swinburne’s beloved Elizabethan period. The Sisters (pb. 1892) is his only play with a nineteenth century English setting.

He wrote two semiautobiographical novels, Love’s Cross-Currents (1901; serialized as A Year’s Letters in 1877) and the fragmentary Lesbia Brandon (1952), not published until many years after his death. The first makes use of the eighteenth century epistolary form, while the second adopts the omniscient point of view. Swinburne projected a collection of short prose tales on the model of Giovanni Boccaccio to which he gave the title Triameron. He left a list of nineteen titles, but only four tales have survived: “Dead Love,” “The Portrait,” “Queen Fredegond,” and “The Marriage of Mona Lisa.” In addition to numerous critical articles written for newspapers and periodicals, Swinburne left behind sixteen volumes of literary criticism, dating from 1866, when Byron was published, to the posthumous Contemporaries of Shakespeare, which appeared in 1919. William Blake: A Critical Essay (1868), Essays and Studies (1875), A Study of Shakespeare (1880), and Miscellanies (1886) are the most significant of this body of material. He was also a voluminous letter writer. Cecil Lang has collected more than two thousand of Swinburne’s letters in his six-volume edition.


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Algernon Charles Swinburne comes closest of all the Victorians to being a Renaissance man. John Ruskin said that he could write as well in Greek, Latin, Italian, and French as he could in English. He wrote two burlesques entirely in French, a novel titled La Fille du Policeman and a play, La Soeur de la Reine, of which only two acts are known to have survived. Swinburne was intimately familiar with five great literatures. Only John Milton among the English poets exceeded him in knowledge. Swinburne was a great parodist and translator, a prolific and fascinating letter writer, a novelist, and a voluminous dramatist and critic. His The Heptalogia, in addition to the well-known parody of Alfred, Lord Tennyson—“The Higher Pantheism in a Nut Shel”—contains a devastating parody of himself, the “Nephilidia,” and fiendishly clever parodies of the Brownings, Coventry Patmore, “Owen Meredith,” and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Cecil Lang in his introduction to his edition of Swinburne’s letters comments that Swinburne’s ability to absorb the manner and reproduce the mannerisms of his targets constitutes “a miracle of ’negative capability.’” The same could be said of his border ballads, which seem more authentic than imitative or derivative. “Lord Scales,” “Burd Margaret,” and “The Worm of Spindlestonheugh” capture the form and essence of the early ballad as well as any modern poems.

According to Cecil Lang, Swinburne as a translator “could have ranked with the great masters.” Passages from Greek and Latin poets appear in his works as well as selections from nineteenth century Italian and French writers. His only sustained translations are of François Villon, and some of them are masterpieces. His “Ballad of the Lords of Old Time” and “Ballad of the Women of Paris” capture the spirit of Villon’s original poems as closely as it is possible for translations to do, and as English translations they are equaled only by Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Ballad of Dead Ladies.” Swinburne’s failure to translate Villon’s The Great Testament (1461), must be counted as a great loss to literature.

As a novelist Swinburne was the only certified aristocrat of the period to write fiction about the aristocracy. Love’s Cross-Currents and Lesbia Brandon, in the words of Edmund Wilson, introduce us to “a world in which the eager enjoyment of a glorious out-of-door life of riding and swimming and boating is combined with adultery, incest, enthusiastic flagellations and quiet homosexuality” (The Novels of A. C. Swinburne). Wilson regards Love’s Cross-Currents as almost a neglected masterpiece. Lesbia Brandon contains passages of superb description, strong characterization, and convincing dialogue. Both works suggest that Swinburne had at least the potential of being a significant novelist. Unfortunately, these novels are the most neglected of his major writings.

Although Swinburne’s reputation is based primarily on his poetry, it was as the author of Atalanta in Calydon that he first gained fame. This little-read play is best remembered today for its choruses, which are often included in...

(The entire section is 1325 words.)

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Algernon Charles Swinburne argued that poetry has nothing to do with morality. Is there any moral content in his poetry?

What qualities that might be called Greek are found in Swinburne’s Atalanta in Calydon?

Examine the metrical variety of Swinburne’s poems.

Poems written for occasions often do not outlive the occasions. Why have some of Swinburne’s occasional poems outlived their occasions?

Does a reading of “Hymn to Proserpine” reveal the basis of Swinburne’s opposition to conventional Christianity?

Did Swinburne pursue outlandishness in his life? In his poetry?


(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Harrison, Antony H. Swinburne’s Medievalism: A Study in Victorian Love Poetry. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988. Although most of this book deals with Swinburne’s poetic dramas, the chapter on Poems and Ballads, “Historicity and Erotic Aestheticism,” provides an illuminating discussion of the influence of “historicist, erotic, and formal concerns” on several of Swinburne’s most famous medieval lyrics.

Hyder, Clyde K., ed. Swinburne: The Critical Heritage. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1970. This volume in the Critical Heritage series charts the reception and evolving evaluation of Swinburne’s work to 1920. Authors from Henry Brooks Adams to Sir Max Beerbohm state their opinions, ranging from amusement to damnation. Notable omissions are T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. The controversy over Poems and Ballads is well represented. The introduction provides an excellent overview.

Louis, Margot Kathleen. Swinburne and His Gods: The Roots and Growth of an Agnostic Poetry. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1990. An intelligent investigation of the importance of Swinburne’s “religious polemics.” The use of “demonic parody” and whore goddesses in the early works is compared to the biblical sources. The alternative mythologies of later works are also discussed and related, in an appendix, to the mythmaking of William Blake. Includes an extensive bibliography.

Pease, Allison. Modernism, Mass Culture, and the Aesthetics of Obscenity. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Pease’s scholarly study of erotic literature and views of obscenity looks at the works of Swinburne and others. Includes bibliography and index.

Reide, David G. Swinburne: A Study of Romantic Mythmaking. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1978. Reide argues that Swinburne is the link between the first English Romantics and the modern Romantics.

Rooksby, Rikky. A. C. Swinburne: A Poet’s Life. Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate, 1997. This biography of Swinburne looks at his life and works, focusing on his poetry and his critical writings. Includes bibliography and index.

Rooksby, Rikky, and Nicholas Shrimpton, eds. The Whole Music of Passion: New Essays on Swinburne. Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate, 1993. A collection of essays providing literary criticism of Swinburne’s works. Includes bibliography and index.

Thomas, Donald Serrell. Swinburne: The Poet in His World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979. This volume depicts Swinburne in relation to the society in which he lived. An insightful biography of what the author deems to be one of the most eccentric and original writers of the Victorian period. Contains illustrations and a select bibliography.