“Anactoria” went all right. I will escalate the difficulty.
In 1865 Swinburne published a kind of imitation Greek play, Atalanta in Calydon. It is dense, in syntax and in classical and Biblical allusions. “The classical echoes that so enrich the poem also impede appreciation for a generation not nurtured on the classics” write Cecil Lang in the notes to his 1975 The Pre-Raphaelites and Their Circle (p. 520). But of course that is why I bought his book, so he can help me out. Here is his help: “no one reared on Yeats, Joyce, Pound, and Eliot will be intimidated by the labor of looking up Swinburne’s allusions.” Face it, literary critics are jerks.
So forget all of that. Swinburne’s play shows the tragic end of the obscure hero Meleager, a member, with the more famous heroine Atalanta, of Jason’s Argonauts. Meleager, Atalanta, and many others hunt and kill a monstrous boar. Squabbling over the spoils leads to some pointless deaths, which drive Meleager’s mother mad and cause the downfall of the hero. Somewhere in the middle of the play all of this really begins to cook, given that, per Greek dramatic standards, all of the action is offstage.
I will skip to the chorus. The speech is mostly in blank verse, but the chorus sings:
When the hounds of spring are on winter's traces,
The mother of months in meadow or plain
Fills the shadows and windy places
With lisp of leaves and ripple of rain;
And the brown bright nightingale amorous
Is half assuaged for Itylus,
For the Thracian ships and the foreign faces,
The tongueless vigil, and all the pain. (65-72)
Robert Browning once described Swinburne’s verse as “’florid impotence’, to my taste, the minimum of thought and idea in the maximum of words and phraseology” (in Swinburne: The Critical Heritage, p. 115). But who really wants song lyrics to be efficient?
There is a long, strange section (1038-1204) where no action at all has occurred but the chorus, sensing disaster, sings about the capriciousness and even evil of the gods, who “up in heaven… stir with soft imperishable breath \ The bubbling bitterness of life and death” (1105-6), or even a single God (“The supreme evil, God,” 1151), in other words the same theme that returns in “Anactoria” and many other poems in Poems and Ballads, published a year after Atalanta in Calydon. The chorus, unlike Sappho, retreats from the implications of its own song:
For words divide and rend;
But silence is most noble till the end. (1203-4)
Of course the silence is instantly destroyed – “I heard within the house a cry of news” (1205). The boar is slain, the play gets moving, the inevitable disaster falls.
Atalanta in Calydon did not quite make Swinburne famous but it made his reputation. Other poets were now paying attention. By 1869, the piece was so well known that Lewis Carroll could title a poem that is as far as I can tell not even a parody “Atalanta in Camden-Town.”