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.
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...
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