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.