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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 is this: Art must seek to reproduce nature to the smallest detail, using only nature as a model. For Ruskin, his contemporaries erred in studying Raphael, for in doing so they imitated and reproduced Raphael’s mistakes. Artists should instead do what Raphael did: study nature only—hence the term “Pre-Raphaelite.”
This original doctrine was eventually abandoned by Rossetti and his disciples—among them Swinburne—who replaced it with a philosophy closely resembling the French critic Théophile Gautier ’s l’art pour l’art (art for art’s sake). It is perhaps to this later school, subsequently known as the Aesthetes, that Swinburne properly belongs. Though some of his poems, notably those contained in A Song of Italy (1867), do have some sort of moral or political purpose behind them, his best work is truly concerned with art for its own sake and with the role of the artist. He was perhaps one of the last of the Romantic poets, his best work showing many more affinities with George Gordon, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats than with his contemporaries, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, and Matthew Arnold.
Swinburne’s novels Lesbia Brandon (1952) and Love’s Cross-Currents (1901) deserve more attention than they have yet received. The latter, a satire on Victorian morality, is one of Swinburne’s most consistently interesting works. His literary criticism, much of it published in periodicals, is unhappily short on objectivity. It is too personal, too full of unrestrained praise and harsh invective to be of much value except as Victoriana.
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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 finds an overly heavy dependence on Greek tragedy. Although it could be argued that Atalanta in Calydon (Swinburne’s only acclaimed play) substantially subverts Greek conventions, adapting the methods of Sophocles to serve Swinburne’s nineteenth century intentions, still one finds the speeches too long, the meter too forced, the chorus too vocal. Erechtheus is even more derivative than Atalanta in Calydon, more often than not a virtuosic imitation of Sophoclean tragedy. Similarly, Swinburne’s plays in the Elizabethan mode are much too obviously derivative of Thomas Kyd, Francis Beaumont, John Fletcher, and their contemporaries. Replete with bloodshed, vendettas, and murders, such early pieces as Rosamond and The Queen-Mother are heavily influenced by the revenge tragedies of the minor Renaissance dramatists, but they, too, often lack the dramaturgical mastery of their precursors.
Swinburne must therefore be considered an imitative rather than an original playwright. His most interesting plays—Atalanta in Calydon, Chastelard, and (for very different reasons) The Sisters—succeed not because of their dramatic merit but because of the poetic ingenuity of many of their parts. Like his early nineteenth century precursors, Swinburne was an innovative poet who felt compelled to try his hand at the drama. Too often the results are such that one wishes he had devoted his time to the lyric poetry of which he was an undisputed master. Nevertheless, like the closet dramas of his great Romantic predecessors, Swinburne’s plays retain historical interest.
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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.
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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 anthology collections of Swinburne, but it is a genuine tour de force: a treatment in English, on the model of Greek tragedy, of a famous myth that had not been used before as the subject of a play. It is widely regarded by critics as the finest Greek tragedy in English, although the concentration of Milton’s Samson Agonistes (1671) is closer to the Greek tragedians than the diffuse blank verse of Swinburne’s work. About Erechtheus, Swinburne’s other experiment with Greek drama, David G. Riede writes in his Swinburne: A Study of Romantic Mythmaking that it “is a masterpiece in all respects—it is unrivaled as a re-creation of the Greek spirit and drama, nearly untouchable as a sustained lyric effusion, astounding in its metrical variety, dazzling in its metaphoric representation, and even remarkable in its philosophical import. . . .” Unfortunately, this play today is even less read than Atalanta in Calydon. Swinburne’s trilogy on Mary Stuart was deeply researched and created over a period of many years, but it is entirely unsuited for the theater. Bothwell alone has well over fifty characters, and the epic length of its five acts illustrates Swinburne’s disregard for the contemporary stage. Chastelard is the easiest of the trilogy to read, but the extent of its preoccupation with sexual passion has prevented it from being as widely appreciated as its artistry warrants. Mary Stuart is given high marks by T. Earl Welby in his A Study of Swinburne for transforming prose matter into poetry, but Welby concludes that it “inspire[s] respect rather than enthusiasm.” Of Swinburne’s other plays it should perhaps be said that Marino Faliero (pb. 1885) compares favorably with Byron’s treatment of the same subject; The Duke of Gandia (pb. 1908) displays the powerful concentration of style of which Swinburne was capable, and The Sisters provides a fascinating insight into Swinburne’s strange sexual proclivities.
As a critic, Swinburne’s contributions are more substantial. At his best, he is capable of judicious insights expressed in fine prose, while at his worst, his strong feelings lead to idiosyncratic pronouncements and his prose style is baroque to the point of opacity. Swinburne left behind no innovations of critical approach and no permanent principles of judgment. Critical theory did not particularly interest him. Although he is the most cosmopolitan of the Victorian critics, his attentions are directed almost exclusively to literature or in some few cases to painting. Unlike Matthew Arnold, he does not travel in the broader ranges of society and religion. Swinburne’s strength as a critic rests in his abiding love of literature and his genuine respect for those who made permanent contributions. This most aristocratic of English writers created in his mind an aristocracy of genius that included not only William Shakespeare and Victor Hugo, whom he revered to the point of idolatry, but also such writers as François Villon, William Blake, Robert Burns, and Charles Baudelaire. He had a special affinity for those writers who cut across the grain of convention. His William Blake: A Critical Essay is immensely original, charting new paths through the wilderness of the Prophetic Books and repairing years of neglect of this poet. If the insights now appear dated, certain passages have retained the freshness of great poetry.
It was as a poet that Swinburne made his most memorable and lasting contributions to literature. The seventeen volumes of poetry he published in his lifetime, exclusive of volumes printed only for private circulation, constitute a remarkable feat of creative exuberance even in an age as prolific as the Victorian. His early poetry is sometimes characterized by such rhetorical excess that the figures of speech call attention to themselves rather than enforce wider meanings. Such uncontrolled use of rhetoric is especially pronounced in the lengthy A Song of Italy and in the sadomasochistic poems of the first series of Poems and Ballads. As he matured as a poet, Swinburne came to exercise greater imaginative control over his materials, and his finest poems display a masterful command of the resources of language to create visions of striking beauty. “A Forsaken Garden” and “Ave Atque Vale,” Swinburne’s magnificent elegy on Baudelaire, clearly illustrate that rhetorical richness held in check by imaginative restraint that is characteristic of Swinburne at his best. A similar progressive mellowing of subject matter is evident in Swinburne’s poetry. The violent denunciations of traditional Christianity and the preoccupation with various forms of sexual perversion that mark so much of Swinburne’s early work disappear from the middle and later poetry, just as the melancholy hedonism of the early poems gives place to optimistic declarations about the triumph of freedom in the political poems and to a kind of quiet stoicism in the more personal ones. That said, it should be remembered that variety of subject matter and form remains the hallmark of Swinburne’s huge body of poetry, and easy generalizations about it must be regarded with suspicion.
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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?
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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.