Sunday, January 31, 2016

Swinburne via Beerbohm and Sebald - he cooingly and flutingly sang

Max Beerbohm wrote a pleasing account of his visits to Algernon Swinburne.  “No. 2, the Pines,” is the essay, and Swinburne’s suburban address; it can be found in the 1920 And Even Now collection, or the recent The Prince of Minor Writers (2015, NYRB Classics).

Beerbohm was at this point the hot, or I guess cool, new thing in essay writing.  In the amusing “Diminuendo” (1895), Beerbohm discusses his declining influence and eclipse by the next cohort of writers.  He wonders if he should gracefully pack it in.  He is twenty-three years old.

So young Beerbohm frequently dines with the famous poet at the invitation of Swinburne’s friend, roommate, and caretaker Theodore Watts-Dunton.  Swinburne is quite deaf and his nervous complaint had worsened.  “His hands were tiny, even for his size, and they fluttered helplessly, touchingly, unceasingly” (35, page numbers from the NYRB book).  He did not speak – Watts-Dunton did not invite him to speak – until he had eaten a sufficient quantity of his “huge… joint of roast mutton,” and then:

So soon as the mutton had been replaced by the apple pie, Watts-Dunton leaned forward and “Well, Algernon,” he roared, “how was it on the Heath to-day?”  Swinburne, who had meekly inclined his ear to the question, now threw back his head, uttering a sound that was like the cooing of a dove, and forthwith, rapidly, ever so musically, he spoke to us of his walk; spoke not in the strain of a man who had been taking his daily exercise on Putney Heath, but rather in that of a Peri who had at long last been suffered to pass through Paradise,  And rather than that he spoke would I say that he cooingly and flutingly sang of his experience.  (36-7)

There we have a good dose of Swinburne and Beerbohm both.

In one strange passage, Swinburne tells a story of his aunt telling him a story about coming across the burial of a suicide at the crossroads, “a Hogarthian night scene,” but more vivid to Beerbohm is the scene of the story-telling:

a great panelled room, a grim old woman in a high-backed chair, and, restless on a stool at her feet an extraordinary little nephew with masses of auburn hair and with tiny hands clasped in supplication – “Tell me more, Aunt Ashburnham, tell me more!”  (40)

Part of the strangeness of the passage is that I had read it before, but where?  At the end of Chapter VI of W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn (1995), when the description of the sunken city of Dunwich turns to the last years of its greatest fan, Swinburne, and a great story of Swinburne’s vision of Coleridge’s Xanadu – “every last detail of the fabled palace.”  Someday I should track down which biography Sebald pilfered for this story, or perhaps convince myself that he made it up.

The chapter ends with a visit to Watts-Dunton and Swinburne, Beerbohm’s account mixed with someone else’s, or an invention – the visitor who thinks of Swinburne as an “ashy grey silkworm” (165, tr. Michael Hulse) is not Beerbohm.  Also, Sebald substitutes beef for Beerbohm’s mutton for some reason.  But he ends the chapter with this:

After the ball they drove many miles homeward on a crisp, cold, snow-bright winter night, when suddenly the carriage stopped by a group of dark figures who, it transpired, were burying a suicide at a crossroads.  In writing down this memory that goes back a century and a half into the past, noted the visitor, himself long since deceased [Max!], he beheld perfectly clearly the dreadful Hogarthian nocturne as Swinburne painted it, and the little boy too, with his big head and fiery hair standing on end, wringing his hands and beseeching: Tell me more, Aunt Ashburnham, please tell me more.  (165-6)

So, one more source for the “Demystifying Sebald” file.


  1. It was a tag thing, visiting The Pines, Putney. Henry James and A.C. Benson went there too. James detested Swinburne. Athlete aesthete Vs Afternoon Tea aesthete.

    Ford Madox Ford writes about his visits which were chiefly to Watts-Dunton his mother’s financial manager, administrator of a trust or some such. He knew Algernon of old as he used to turn up regularly at his grandfather’s house (Ford Madox Brown) dead drunk. There was tape sewn to the revers of his overcoat instructing cabmen to deliver and save him from the clutches of Old Bill. All this is in the book of Essays, Mightier than the Sword. (internet archive) Good sport, season to taste.

  2. It's a service to the artistic economy. Everyone can write their "I knew Swinburne back when" piece.

    The Ford book is a great recommendation for me - thanks greatly.