Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1071

Atalanta in Calydon was Algernon Charles Swinburne’s first successful work. It was followed in 1866 by the first volume of his Poems and Ballads, which contains the shorter poems reckoned to be among his best. Atalanta in Calydon is a curiously anomalous work, whose form and manner seem to fly in the face of the aesthetic theories that had possessed Swinburne for five years previously: the theories of the Pre-Raphaelites, as explained to him by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Morris. Although it does not represent a frank refusal of the central doctrine of art for art’s sake that the Pre-Raphaelites imported from France, Atalanta in Calydon departs markedly from their ideas. As an exercise in classical pastiche, it seems to qualify as a deliberate step backward: a temporary but determined retreat toward artistic conservatism.

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Swinburne adopted the story of Meleager from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (before 8 c.e.). There is an older version briefly recounted in Homer’s Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.), in which a war between the Calydonians and the Curetes is nearly lost because Meleager refuses to fight after being cursed by his mother, who was angered by the loss in battle of her brother. In the version in the Iliad, there is no mention of Atalanta; Meleager is married to a woman named Cleopatra. He also is married in Ovid’s version, in which his presentation of the boar’s hide to Atalanta—after insisting that she be allowed to join the hunt, against his uncles’ wishes—seems to be motivated by simple courtesy. Ovid also added the legend of the symbolic brand, of which Swinburne makes so much—Swinburne’s version is shot through with images of life as a consuming fire that ultimately makes ashes of the flesh.

Swinburne did the bulk of the work on Atalanta in Calydon at Northcourt, the home of Mary Gordon, with whom he went riding in his spare time. When he returned to London following this interlude, he composed his finest poetry in a hectic rush but also suffered a precipitous decline into alcoholism. Some of his biographers have speculated that he fell in love with Gordon and perhaps proposed to her as a last desperate attempt at heterosexuality. After she decided to marry another man, he rebounded to the dissolute lifestyle that scandalized London society.

However tempting it may be to assume that Swinburne’s Atalanta is in some sense an image of Gordon—that its powerful sense of tragedy is simply her rejection of his love—the text does not sustain such an interpretation. Although Swinburne’s Meleager is unmarried and strongly attracted to Atalanta, he is determined to suppress his attraction in order to concentrate his mind on the hunt. There seems to be no real need for his father to warn him that the gods have designed Atalanta for celibacy and that she will not make a suitable wife, still less for his mother to complain that his pursuit of strange loves will be the death of her unless he gives it up. In fact, these passages raise the suspicion that in Swinburne’s mind, if not in the literal wording of the poem, Atalanta might not be female.

Such a suspicion is intensified by the passage in which Plexippus and Toxeus attempt to bar Atalanta from the hunt. They seem to be ready enough to accept her masculinity; what they attack is the implied femininity of Meleager’s fondness for her. Plexippus sneers at Meleager, calling him a “man grown girl” and “woman-tongued,” although Meleager already distinguished himself as one of the Argonauts. Atalanta closes the argument by insisting on her “iron maidenhood,” winning the right to accompany Meleager on the hunt by insisting on her absolute celibacy. When the messenger tells how Meleager presented the spoils of the hunt to her, however, he describes her response in terms of an explicitly sexual metaphor.

If Atalanta were male in the private arena of Swinburne’s imagination, then the anger of the uncles against her and Althæa’s wrath against Meleager are cast in a different light. In this way, so is the dying Meleager’s final speech, in which he demands that Atalanta “let no man/ Defile me or Despise me, saying, This man/ Died woman-wise, a woman’s offering, slain/ Through female fingers in his woof of life,/ Dishonourable.” He then begs her to kiss him once and twice.

The prime mover in this particular tragedy, as the Chorus loses no opportunity to remind the reader, is the sadistically insistent fate that has made both Atalanta and Meleager what they are. In an imitation Greek drama, Swinburne certainly would have the option of referring to this fate as Nemesis, or as the manifold gods of the classical pantheon, but he does not. In the remarkable passage that begins, “Who hath given man speech?” the Chorus concludes, after five full pages, with the final question, “Who makes desire, and slays desire with shame?” and the answer, “the supreme evil, God.” It then proceeds to rage against that hateful God for three more pages. The Greek setting may have served to veil this calculated blasphemy from the eye of his critics, but Swinburne certainly seems to be addressing the God of the Victorians rather than the obsolete Zeus.

It is hard to see all this as the disappointment of a young man whose proposal to a female lover has been rejected; it makes more sense to construe it as the angry lamentation of a young man cursing nature that forced upon him a pattern of desire that his society, and by extension his God, will not sanction. If this is so, the use of Greek myth and a form approximating that of Greek drama may be explicable in other terms than a temporary reconciliation of the poet with the aesthetic ideals of classicism that the Pre-Raphaelites so disliked. The Greeks were, after all, famed for their tolerance of homosexuality and for encoding homosexual ideals within their myths.

Whatever the reason, Atalanta in Calydon was the first work in which Swinburne found an authentic depth of feeling to energize his poetic fluency; it is a pity that the imaginative fuel it provided lasted only a few short years before Theodore Watts-Dunton took Swinburne in hand, putting the brake on his melodramatic self-assassination, and securing for him a long life of physical and creative impotence.

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