Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Lisp of leaves and ripples of rain - a glance at Atalanta in Calydon

“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.”


  1. Love the sound of the chorus clip! All the various sound repetition is really beautiful. Do you know if the play was performed with music and dancing in the Greek style?

  2. At first it was not performed at all, or just performed by Swinburne, reading it to his friends. A closet drama, like Shelley's Prometheus Unbound.

    But there have been later versions and performances. I do not know the history. Granville Bantock set parts of it to music, calling the result a "Choral Symphony," for example.

    I do not see why it could not be performed as you say, masks and chants and all.

  3. This sounds like something that I would love.

    My ability to recognize Classical allusions is moderate at best thus I need to look things up. Folks like myself now have such an advantage in this regard. The E- reader connected to the internet has made the task infinitely easier and more pleasant.

  4. The problem is not the allusions as much as the use of actual lines of Greek poetry. I have read many of these lines, but in modern translations, while Swinburne read them in Greek and translated them into Swinburnish, a language that often has little relation to late 20th century English.

    Even when the editor pointed out a connection and I looked it up, my response varied from "Oh yeah, look at that" to "Are you sure?"

    I forgot to mention that Matthew Arnold had written a fake Greek play several years earlier, Merope, which is also credibly "Greek" but compared to Swinburne's play is a huge snooze.

    1. "Swinburnish, a language that often has little relation to late 20th century English."...or nineteenth century English or any language ever known to man.

    2. It is like Finnish or Basque, off in its own linguistic category.

  5. What complicates matters with alleged allusions is that great artists chisel out their works from the same quarry's stones.


    The little eyes that never knew
    Light other than of dawning skies,
    What new life now lights up anew
    The little eyes?


    My little dragon-fly hunter, -
    How far I wonder,
    Has he gone today.


    A Holy Lie. The lie that was on Arria's lips when she died (Paete, non dolet) obscures all the truths that have ever been uttered by the dying. It is the only holy lie that has become famous, whereas elsewhere the odour of sanctity has clung only to errors.


    It does not hurt. She looked along the knife
    Smiling, and watched the thick drops mix and run
    Down the sheer blade; not that which had been done
    Could hurt the sweet sense of the Roman wife,
    But that which was to do yet ere the strife
    Could end for each for ever, and the sun:
    Nor was the palm yet nor was peace yet won
    While pain had power upon her husband's life.

  6. Since I know how to use the internet, I now know that last one is from a poem titled "Non Dolet," chosen for none of the books I have on hand. You have slowly convinced me that the recent Yale UP volume of Swinburne is not entirely adequate.

  7. The problem with anthologizing Swinburne is that he wrote a lot! And too many of his poems are not very good. So what is a poor anthologist to do? Is she supposed to read the whole farrago? Of course not! So, Swinburne's printed selected poetry collections are usually poorly chosen.

    Web 2.0 based selections (at sites like Poemhunter et al.) have an enormous advantage: they are built by the collective intelligence of thousands of poetry lovers who submit their favorite poems. The choices from Swinburne poetry at those places are consistently excellent despite being very extensive. The wisdom of the masses at work in the Internet is vastly superior to what any single human can achieve despite what haters like J. Franzen may think.

  8. That makes enormous sense with Swinburne. I will take a look at some of the internet sites.

    I can see how Swinburne's case would be especially severe - how the poems with the favorite lines, the kind memorized years ago, would be in a different category than the beautiful but dense and learned stuff that college professors want to teach, as in the Yale selection.