Aside from hundreds of pages of letters, Swinburne was always writing. As usual, I have my Yale University Press Major Poems and Selected Prose handy, with all of the heavy editing that involves. Swinburne’s 1876 book Songs of Two Nations, all political poems, is reduced to a single sonnet, “Locusta”:
This haggard harlot grey of face and green
With the old hand’s cunning mixes her new priest
The cup she mixed her Nero, stirred and spiced.
“Spiced” rhymes with “Christ.” A note tells me Swinburne is celebrating the death of Napoleon III. If the rest of the political poems are this colorful, I am mistaken not to seek them out, even if I will have no idea about the subjects of the poems. “The loose lewd limbs, the reeling hingeless hips” and so on.
My collection does better with the 1878 Poems and Ballads, Second Series which contains a number of masterpieces, including Swinburne’s 1868 elegy on the death of Charles Baudelaire, “Ave atque Vale.” No special pleading needed for that one, nor for “A Forsaken Garden,” the ultra-Romantic blend of two of Swinburne’s favorite themes, flowers and the sea. The abandoned garden is atop a sea-cliff:
Heart handfast in heart as they stood, “Look thither,”
Did he whisper? “look forth from the flowers to the sea;
For the foam-flowers endure when the rose-blossom wither,
And men that love lightly may die – but we?”
And the same wind sang and the same waves whitened,
And or ever the garden’s last petals were shed,
In the lips that had whispered, the eyes had lightened,
Love was dead. (ll. 41-8)
Other stanzas are even better, but this one has the foam-flowers. Swinburne often fills his poems with lovingly chosen multi-syllable Latinate words, achieving sublime and ridiculous effects, but there is little of that in “A Forsaken Garden”:
Here now in his triumph where all things falter,
Stretched out on the spoils that his own hand spread,
As a god self-slain on his own strange altar,
Death lies dead. (ll. 77-80)
The poem is practically a Lovecraft story.
I’ll skip “The Complaint of Lisa,” a double sestina with an additional internal rhyme structure, insane that Swinburne actually pulls it off, and jump to his translations of François Villon, the two I have in this collection. The rest I need to track down. “In the early 1860s ACS and Rossetti planned to collaborate on translating all of Villon, a project that never came to fruition” (p. 484) – a volume I will seek out when I am admitted to the Library of Lost Books.
“The Ballad of Villon and Fat Madge” was excluded from Poems and Ballads and “The Complaint of the Fair Armouress” trimmed because of offenses to Victorian sensibilities – “but two lines too literal in their photography of the female human form divine for reproduction by a modern English camera” (Letters, Feb. 8, 1877) – as the maid examines her aged body and cries for the loss of her old love:
“And he died thirty year agone,
I am old now, no sweet thing to see;
By God, though, when I think thereon,
And of that good glad time, woe’s me,
And stare upon my changed body
Stark naked, that has been so sweet,
Lean, wizen, like a small dry tree,
I am nigh mad with the pain of it.” (ll. 3-40)
But as Fat Madge asks in her poem:
What though the beauty I love and serve be cheap,
Ought you to take me for a beast or fool? (ll. 1-2)
So Villon, too; so asks Swinburne.