Friday, September 13, 2013

Introducing Algernon Charles Swinburne

Introducing him to myself, I mean.  I believe that he was, until a couple of months ago, the only major Victorian poet I did not read in college, even in scraps, just a few famous poems, which was all I read of John Clare and Matthew Arnold and Christina Rossetti and many others, and is still all I have read of Gerard Manley Hopkins, who I think is now the last big name I have not worked on.  Unless Robert Bridges and Ernest Dowson count as major poets and big names.

Perhaps Swinburne is no longer a major poet.  Regardless, he does not offer easy entry.  Many of his best-known poems are long, allusive, a real challenge to concentration.  The editors of the 2004 Algernon Charles Swinburne: Major Poems and Selected Prose (Yale UP) say:

Negotiating a poem by Swinburne requires a state of attention that can scarcely be maintained and that is, in any case, never sufficient.  (xxiv)

Which is hilarious, and, at least as far as maintaining my attention goes, less true for me know than it was twenty-five years ago.  If I do not understand Swinburne, I can at least read him.

The funny thing is that  without reading him I picked up a lot of facts and fun about Swinburne, whether through literary history or magazine book reviews or W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn:

He was small of stature, and at every point in his development he had remained far behind a normal size; he was quite startlingly fine-limbed; yet even as a boy he had an extraordinarily large, indeed outsize, head on his shoulders, which sloped weakly away from his neck.  (162)

This is directly below the a tiny black and white reproduction of the portrait of Swinburne by his friend William Bell Scott.  Perhaps I thought I knew Swinburne just because of this amazing image.  His head really was that big; he really did love the seashore more than any poet I know aside from Whitman.

The portrait is easily that of the man Henry Adams describes meeting in The Education of Henry Adams, the effervescent, endlessly learned talker.  “The idea that one has actually met a real genius dawns slowly on a Boston mind, but it made entry at last.”

My trusty, worn Fifth Edition Norton Anthology of English Literature  gives Swinburne nineteen pages of poems.  Seventeen pages come from 1865 to 1868, age 28 to 31, mostly from the 1866 Poems and Ballads, the book that made Swinburne’s name for the usual mix of good and bad reasons – high-quality writing, charges of obscenity.

This is also the period in which Swinburne was developing his alcoholism, along with his poetry, to a point of perfection.  Friends eventually dried him out and tamed him.

I have been reading Swinburne’s letters along with the early poems, the first of the six volume edition Cecil Lang put together in the 1960s.  The publication of the letters inspired an outstanding “life and works” piece by Edmund Wilson for the New Yorker (also available in The Novels of A. C. Swinburne (1962), where I read it).  Swinburne, as compressed by Wilson:

Here is a life lived entirely for literature, in which nothing else is really important – and since literature is inexhaustible, a life that is immensely enjoyed.

Reason enough to read Swinburne to the extent my attention can handle him, and even to spend a few days writing about his poems.


  1. There is a great essay by Julian Barnes and a new translation of Guy de Maupassant's account of his meeting with Swinburne - really hilarious

    1. The Goncourt Brothers also had an...interesting...encounter with Swinburne.
      Swinburne does seem to be naturally hilarious. Beerbohm's memoir- - and his pictures of Swinburne have irredeemably rendered him absurd in my eyes, I'm afraid.

  2. Like you, I can't remember any real reading of Swinburne. The closest I've come to him is utilising a pithy quote of his about Wilkie Collins in my thesis. May be time for me to crack open the old Norton anthology myself when I get home.

  3. I had read a few of Swineburne's shorter poems at some point some yeas ago. I just looked over a few of them again.

    The challenging nature of his longer works make me want to read them.

    That portrait is phenomenal.

  4. Theres a nice essay on luncheon with Watts-Dunton and Swinburne at The Pines Putney by A.C. Benson.

  5. I wasn't taken with his long essay on William Blake.

  6. What is often ignored about Swinburne is how smart, erudite and flippant he was. In Swinburne, The Critical Heritage, there is an anecdote about a young writer who told Swinburne about how he liked Jacobean and Caroline drama, and Swinburne proceeded to show the young writer play after play from those periods from Swinburne's own private library and asked him: 'have you read this one? How about this one?' It was later revealed that all of those plays were the sole extant copy left!

    Anyway, when you're so smart, cultured and flippant, you often write parodies:

    Of Catullus;
    My brother, my Valerius, dearest head
    Of all whose crowning bay-leaves crown their mother
    Rome, in the notes first heard of thine I read
    My brother.

    Of Old English Ballads:
    WE WERE ten maidens in the green corn,
    Small red leaves in the mill-water:
    Fairer maidens never were born,
    Apples of gold for the king’s daughter.

    “Ye’ll make a grave for my fair body,”
    Running rain in the mill-water;
    “And ye’ll streek my brother at the side of me,”
    The pains of hell for the king’s daughter.

    Of Shakespeare:

    To sleep, to swim, and to dream, for ever --
    Such joy the vision of man saw never;
    A dream, a dream is it all -- the season,
    The sky, the water, the wind, the shore?
    A day-born dream of divine unreason,
    A marvel moulded of sleep -- no more?

    Of Swinburne himself:

    Surely no soul is it, sweet as the spasm of erotic emotional exquisite error,
    Bathed in the balms of beatified bliss, beatific itself by beatitude's breath.
    Only this oracle opens Olympian, in mystical moods and triangular tenses--
    "Life is the lust of a lamp for the light that is dark till the dawn of the day when we die."

  7. Wow, this is great. Cleanthess, please promise not to be too harsh when I say something stupid about Swinburne. That last line you supply, that is Swinburne squared.

    I have a copy of Swinburne: The Critical Heritage. It includes several "encounters with Swinburne," including the Adams I used, the Beerbohm piece and the Maupassant story mentioned above, but not the Benson or the Goncourt. It is practically a genre, isn't it? There are even at least two sub-genres, young Swinburne (as in Adams and Maupassant) and domestic Swinburne (as in the Benson and Sebald).

    CharmedLassie (Brian, too) - yes, read more, soon, please, help! I am not surprised that, even in the context of a Victorian PhD, you have not quite gotten to Swinburne. His stature has dimmed, but there are other reasons, too, which I will mention later if I am lucky.

    As for Swinburne's criticism, I have only read the excerpts in the Yale book (including parts of the Blake study, which is historically important as part of the rediscovery of Blake). My tentative thought is that Swinburne was not a first-rate critic. His criticism is more helpful for learning about the aesthetics of Swinburne than Blake or Hugo or whoever. Of course, the excerpts I have read were likely chosen for exactly that purpose, and are thus useless for making a judgment.

  8. And look at his hair! I can imagine him as a 1980s rocker wearing tight black leather and jamming on a screeching bass! He'd have been good with his drinking too, probably would have added all kinds of other things to it.

  9. Swinburne would have fit into A Flock of Seagulls rather nicely. I can imagine the improved lyrics:

    Reach out a hand to touch your face.
    With a hand that stings like fire,
    Weaving the web Desire
    To snare the bird Delight.

    You're slowly disappearing from my view
    Reach out a hand to try again
    You have the face that suits a woman
    For her soul's screen
    The sort of beauty that's called human
    In hell's scene.

    I'm floating in a beam of light with you
    A cloud appears above your head
    A beam of light comes shining down on you
    You could do all things but be good
    Or chaste, or true.

    So I ran
    I ran so far away
    I just ran
    I ran all night and day

  10. Suddenly there is a "crazy musician hair" theme in the comments. Wuthering Expectations is strongly pro-Flock of Seagulls.

    "All kinds of other things" - I am afraid so. I suppose I will have to mention the flogging thing at some point. No, if I write about his letters I will have to deal with it.