Wednesday, September 18, 2013

What abject and vomitorious rot - a detour into Swinburne's letters - I am only afraid of his dying

A little break from Swinburne’s poems.  His letters are available in six volumes, in a heroic compilation made by the great Swinburne scholar Cecil Lang.  I have read just the first volume, published in 1959, that covers 1854-1869, age 17 to 32, the period of Atalanta in Calydon and Poems and Ballads.

Edmund Wilson, in the 1962 New Yorker piece I mentioned a few days ago, mentions that he read the six volumes “straight through,” “rather to [my] own surprise.”  They are a lot of fun.  The poet becomes both more and less approachable.

Less:  for example, the swishing.  At Eton, Swinburne, like all the boys, was regularly flogged, and he picked up a sexual taste for masochism.  If he is corresponding with one of his fellow enthusiasts, the subject invariably comes up.  On the positive side, an 1862 letter contains some of the most interesting literary criticism of the Marquis de Sade I have ever seen.  Swinburne and his sadomasochistic chums of course circulated copies of Sade’s books.

More distance:  Swinburne is from a noble family, a status he shared only with Lord Byron among poets, although Swinburne was never anywhere too close to actually inheriting a title.  An earl on his mother’s side, I think.  His father was an admiral.  An uncle had one of England’s foremost libraries.  Swinburne easily treated his artist Bohemian pals, the pre-Raphaelites, as his equals, but not everyone.  His publisher, J. C. Hotten, for example, was a servant.

But this is the kind of service, from Feb. 18, 1867:

You also send me duplicates of Trollope’s last numbers which I have received already in regular order.  This is a waste of time, money, and patience.  (227)

Swinburne is following The Last Chronicle of Barset!  There is an amusing letter – or I remember that there is, since I have lost the page – in which Swinburne laughs at a critic’s idea that he is a deep reader of philosophy and history.  No, it is the easy stuff, all literature, poems, novels, and plays.

Swinburne’s consumption of poetry is astounding.  He routinely attacks Browning and Tennyson, the idols he hopes to displace.  “What abject and vomitorious rot is this of Tennyson’s” (to William Rossetti, Jan. 1, 1868, p. 284); yet a month or two later he praises their latest poem.  He reads every scrap they publish, as well as every other bit of poetry he can get his hands on, as well as Trollope and Collins and Sheridan LeFanu (and, in French, Baudelaire and Flaubert and every effusion of Victor Hugo).  His appetite for literature is a pleasure to behold.

It is matched by his appetite for booze.   Lang includes a number of letters about Swinburne, the most poignant of which are a worried exchange between John Ruskin, Swinburne's father, and family friend Edward Coleridge, nephew of the poet.  Ruskin assures his correspondents that Algernon’s poetry is not obscene (this is 1866),

But his clay is porcelain – jasper – I am bitterly anxious about him, not for the tone of his life – but for its endurance.  I am afraid only of his dying.  (183)

And as time passes, Swinburne’s letters report more illnesses and accidents that are obviously related to his drinking – everyone but Swinburne understands this.  I know the ending to this story, but I will have to wait until volume four to see the climax, which with any luck I will do.


  1. What! Attacks Browning? My beloved Robert Browning? Hmmmmmm. I am fond of Swinburne but not nearly as fond as I am of the Barrett-Browning franchise. Does he have nasty things to say about Browning personally, or is it only his poetry he's upset about?

  2. The poetry. At this point, Swinburne and D G Rossetti and their pals are a bunch of young punks out to smash some idols. Swinburne and Browning eventually become fairly good friends.