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.