Monday, September 16, 2013

Love was born of burns and foams like wine - obscene Swinburne, dramatic Swinburne, conventional Swinburne

A harder Swinburne sample from Poems and Ballads today.  I’ll make an attempt at sense, not just sound.  “Anactoria,” immediately notorious for its supposed obscenity.

It begins – well, it actually begins with a quotation, in Greek, from Sappho.  Skipping that:

My life is bitter with thy love; thine eyes
Blind me, thy tresses burn me, thy sharp sighs
Divide my flesh and spirit with soft sound,
And my blood strengthens, and my veins abound.
I pray thee sigh not, speak not, draw not breath;
Let life burn down, and dream it is not death.
I would the sea had hidden us, the fire
(Wilt thou fear that, and fear not my desire?)
Severed the bones that bleach, the flesh that cleaves,
And let our sifted ashes drop like leaves. (1-10)

A bit of sound, first – the poem has 304 lines, all in rhyming couplets, and I am amazed how little Swinburne sounds like Alexander Pope or the Byron of Don Juan.  I had not realized rhyming couplets could sound like this.  I suspect the secret is Swinburne’s natural enjambment, but I have not pursued the idea.

Next, sense.  “Anactoria” is a dramatic monologue spoken, or sung, or howled, by Sappho, who has recently been abandoned or deceived by the woman in the title.  At the beginning, Sappho wishes they both were dead, but soon she only wishes to kill Anactoria:

I would find grievous ways to have thee slain,
Intense device, and superflux of pain;
Vex thee with amorous agonies, and shake
Life at thy lips, and leave it there to ache;
Strain out thy soul with pangs too soft to kill,
Intolerable interludes, and infinite ill;
Relapse and reluctation of the breath,
Dumb tunes and shuddering semitones of death.  (27-34)

At this point Swinburne has introduced most of the key concepts he will rattle around for the rest of the poem: blood, sea, fire, flesh, death, lips, plus different variations on the idea of music as in that fine, overwrought last couplet.  The poem almost writes itself.  Combine the words in various ways to suggest Lesbian sex:

Yea, all sweet words of thine and all thy ways,
And all the fruit of nights and flower of days,
And stinging lips wherein the hot sweet brine
That Love was born of burns and foams like wine  (47-50)

Admittedly a mild example, but one of many.  The section from 104-114 where Sappho fantasizes about eating Anactoria is something else (“that from face to feet \ Thy body were abolished and consumed, \ And in my flesh they very flesh entombed!” etc.).

The final concept Swinburne needs is God.  He introduces it late.  Self-aware, Sappho indicts both her own anger and her lover’s crime:  “God knows I might be crueller than God”  (152). She can thus generalize her passionate suffering as part of “The mystery of the cruelty of things” (154).  This section, Sappho’s challenge to God, did not make Victorian reviewers look more kindly on the sex:

Him would I reach, him desecrate,
Pierce the cold lips of God with human breath,
And mix his immortality with death.  (182-4)

Finally, a reference I recognize, an inversion of Genesis 2:7, where God animates Adam with his breath.  “Anactoria” is crammed with references from Sappho, and apparently also Catullus and perhaps Ovid’s “Sappho to Phaon,” and more, but since Swinburne knows Greek and Latin and I have only read the poets in translation, I gave up the pursuit as hopeless.

Sappho’s passion cools in the last third of the poem as she comes to a new apotheosis, arguing that she, unlike her no good girlfriend, will achieve divinity through her poetry.

These, woven as raiment for his word and thought,
These hath God made, and me as these, and wrought
Song, and hath it at my lips; and me
Earth shall not gather though she feed on thee.  (243-6)

She will always be with the birds, there will be “no song more like mine” (284).  It is almost a relief that this wild, violent poem concludes with such a conventional idea.  The way that Swinburne whips the idea into a briny, bloody foam, that is worth seeing regardless.


  1. You almost make me want to read this poem -- but perhaps excerpts are enough. Too much Swinburne is like too much mulled wine: sensory delights abound until you get a headache and notice the bitter aftertaste.

  2. I worry that even my excerpts are too long, that eight or ten lines of Swinburne at once is too much. Sometimes it is.

  3. With Anactoria Swinburne finally began to write out in the open about subjects everyone was hinting at. Those naughty French had been reading Baudelaire's depraved poems for years. Even 'Invictus' treacly ole Henley was writing things like this (think Jabba the hutt and slave Leia):

    [When] I was the King of Babylon
    And you were a Christian Slave.

    I saw, I took, I cast you by,
    I bent and broke your pride.
    Surely I knew that by and by
    You cursed your gods and died.

    The pride I trampled is now my scathe,
    For it tramples me again.
    The old resentment lasts like death,
    For you love, yet you refrain.

    Yet not for hour do I wish undone
    The deed beyond the grave,
    When I was a King in Babylon
    And you were a Virgin Slave.

  4. The funny result is that reviewers could fume and spit about Swinburne's immorality but were unable to say in print exactly what they were complaining about. Swinburne clearly found this hilarious, as do I.

    Swinburne had the advantage over Baudelaire in that he did not have to worry about a court proceeding. Just vitriol and shaming, which he enjoyed.

  5. Swinburne also included in Anactoria his translation of Sappho's Hymn to Aphrodite, at the time the only surviving complete poem by Sappho.

    [I] Saw Love, as burning flame from crown to feet,
    Imperishable, upon her storied seat;
    Clear eyelids lifted toward the north and south,
    A mind of many colors, and a mouth
    Of many tunes and kisses; and she bowed,
    With all her subtle face laughing aloud,
    Bowed down upon me, saying, ‘Who doth thee wrong,
    Sappho?’ who but you— you are the song...

    Yet the queen laughed from her sweet heart and said:
    ‘Even she that flies shall follow for thy sake,
    And she shall give thee gifts that would not take,
    Shall kiss that would not kiss thee’ (yea, kiss me)

    A more literal translation by Elizabeth Vandiver from Diotima's website.

    Many color minded Aphrodite, deathless ...
    Deathless face alight with your smile, you asked me
    What I suffered, who was my cause of anguish,
    What would ease the pain of my frantic mind, and
    Why had I called you

    To my side: "And whom should Persuasion summon
    Here, to soothe the sting of your passion this time?
    Who is now abusing you, Sappho? Who is
    Treating you cruelly?

    Now she runs away, but she'll soon pursue you;
    Gifts she now rejects--soon enough she'll give them;
    Now she doesn't love you, but soon her heart will
    Burn, though unwilling."

  6. I compared Swinburne's version, which I am pleased and amazed I was able to discover, with Guy Davenport's, but they were so different I threw up my hands. Davenport's is not so far from the second one you supply.