One more great Swinburne poem before I give up on him for now, “Ave Atque Vale,” his 1868 elegy for one of his favorite poets, Charles Baudelaire, who had died in 1867. How will Cecil Lang help me with this one? “It will be read with pleasure by any reasonably well-informed person, but the choicest appreciation is reserved for those who can take the elegiac tradition for granted and whose pulses beat, like Swinburne’s own, with the poetry of Aeschylus, Dante, and Baudelaire” (The Pre-Raphaelites and Their Circle, 517). And people say academic writing has no personality.
The title, from poem 101 of Catullus, is something like “Hail and Farewell.” Horace Gregory’s translation of Catullus ends:
I shall perform an ancient ritual over your remains, weeping,
(this plate of lentils for dead men to feast upon, wet with my tears)
O brother, here’s my greeting: here’s my hand forever welcoming you
and I forever saying: good-bye, good-bye.
Loose, but accurate. I mean it describes Swinburne’s poem well, although not, obviously, his language. The Roman lentils are replaced with flowers – of evil!
Hast thou found any likeness for thy vision?
O gardener of strange flowers, what bud, what bloom,
Hast thou found sown, what gathered in the gloom?
What of despair, of rapture, of derision,
What of life is there, what of ill or good?
Are the fruits grey like dust or bright like blood?
Does the dim ground grow any seed of ours,
The faint fields quicken any terrene root,
In low lands where the sun and moon are mute
And all the stars keep silence? Are there flowers
At all, or any fruit? (Stanza VII)
The conceit that fills most of the poem’s eighteen stanzas is simple enough. Swinburne is directly addressing the dead Baudelaire, assuming that he is in the Greek underworld. What do you see there, Charles, the first line above asks? Any poetry? “Are there flowers \ At all” – that is a sad line.
The usual Swinburne stuff recurs: Proserpine, the sea, Tannhauser (I did not write about Swinburne’s bizarre Tannhauser poem), an entire stanza about Sappho (“the supreme head of song”). The flowers and fruits are something different, imported from Baudelaire’s poetry:
Sleep; and if life was bitter to thee, pardon,
If sweet, give thanks; thou hast no more to live;
And to give thanks is good, and to forgive.
Out of the mystic and the mournful garden
Where all day through thine hands in barren braid
Wove the sick flowers of secrecy and shade,
Green buds of sorrow and sin, and remnants grey,
Sweet-smelling, pale with poison, sanguine-hearted,
Passions that sprang from sleep and thoughts that started,
Shall death not bring us all as thee one day
Among the days departed? (Stanza XVII)
The description of Baudelaire’s poems – his flowers – could well be about Swinburne’s own verse. A wonderful poem.