In A Place in the Country (1998), the new (in the U.S., and more importantly in my hands) W. G. Sebald book, Sebald calls what appear to the naked eye to be long, detailed literary essays “extended marginal notes and glosses” (p. 5), and if that’s what those are, then I hate to think what these are here at Wuthering Expectations.
So today, some genuine marginal glossing, on Volume 2 of The Swinburne Letters, Yale University Press, 1959, covering 1869-1875. When we last saw Swinburne, he had just achieved early fame and notoriety with Atalanta and Calydon (1865) and Poems and Ballads (1866). Now he is in his thirties and is settling into a career as a poet and essayist, if he does not drink himself to death first.
He also goes hiking in the French Massif with Richard Burton, corresponds with Victor Hugo, and hangs out with Robert Browning and James McNeill Whistler. None of this is why I enjoy Swinburne’s letters. Rather I am on the lookout for this sort of thing:
A foul mouth is so ill matched with a white beard that I would gladly believe the newspaper scribes alone responsible for the bestial utterances which they declare to have dropped from a teacher whom such disciples as these exhibit to our disgust and compassion as performing on their obscene platform the last tricks of tongue now possible to a gap-toothed and hoary-headed ape, carried at first into notice on the shoulder of Carlyle, and who now in his dotage spits and chatters from a dirtier perch of his own finding and fouling; Coryphaeus or choragus of his Bulgarian tribe of autocoprophagous baboons who make the filth they feed on. (Jan. 30, 1874, p. 274)
Take a breath, Algernon! Two guesses who the “teacher” is.
Here Swinburne needs to title a book of poems, but his favorite is too close to someone else’s.
Damn the minor poets, what right have they to call their titles (or their souls) their own, if we condescend to find any use for them? (Jan. 20, 1875, 374-5)
Swinburne is some kind of comic demon. An old woman possesses artifacts of Percy Shelley: “I need not say that I suggested strychnine, duly reduplicated, with earnestness worthy of Carlyle, but seemingly in vain” (Feb. 23, 1869, 6). He wants to review Flaubert’s Sentimental Education “foreseeing that as before in his case the British press will generally exude mere virtue and rancid matter” (Nov. 25, 1869, 56). After delivering a scatological burst borrowed from Rabelais (“turdilousifartishittical etc.”), Swinburne suggests that
the translation is no doubt – and very properly – softened down to the standard of English delicacy. The original probably verges on coarseness. (Feb. 12, 1870, 89)
Lest it seems that Swinburne is all rancid matter, I suggest a glance at any of Swinburne’s letters to Dante Gabriel Rossetti (sorry, not Mar. 1, 1870 which is full of obscene parodies of Elizabeth Barrett Browning poems) in which Swinburne works his way through Rossetti’s upcoming collection of poems, including the sonnet sequence “The House of Life.” It is a high level poetry workshop in which Swinburne the craftsman weighs the sound, sense, and beauty of every detail. It is a treat to see how much this gleeful weirdo loves poetry, to see him wallow in it.
A couple of years later, D. G. Rossetti cut off his friendship with Swinburne (“and no one knows why,” including Swinburne, says the editor, p. 178). Swinburne talks poetry with others – it is the only thing he really cares about – but no one else, in this book, who is really his peer. It is sad, really. Damn the minor poets.