Saturday, April 22, 2017

Swinburne's last twenty years in letters

Have you glanced at what few, I should think, would read through – the mighty mass of Coleridge’s collected letters?  It is of course a profoundly depressing book…  (p. 82, Swinburne to William Rossetti, June 16, 1895)

Overcoming some logistical difficulties (the library hid the book from me for a while) I have finished the sixth volume, and therefore all six volumes, about 1,800 pages, of Algernon Swinburne’s letters (ed. Cecil Lang, Yale UP, 1962), this time taking Swinburne from 1890 to his death in 1909.

Swinburne came close to drinking himself to death in 1879, but his friends and family dried him out and kept him dry.  Kept him away from bottles.  This is Edmund Gosse writing about Swinburne:

… he would gradually fix his stare upon the bottle as if he wished to fascinate it, and then, in a moment, flash or pounce upon it, like a mongoose on a snake, drawing it towards him as though it resisted and had to be struggled with.  Then, if no one had the presence of mind to interfere, a tumbler was filled in a moment, and Swinburne had drained it to the last drop, sucking in the liquid with a sort of fiery gluttony, tilting the glass into his shaking lips, and violently opening and shutting his eyelids.  It was an extraordinary sight, and one which never failed to fill me with alarm, for after that the Bacchic transition might come at any moment.  (p. 241)

But that, although described so vividly in an appendix to this final volume, is in the distant past.  Every year after Swinburne’s illness was treated was, as we say, gravy.

I probably at some point described Swinburne’s letters as “like a novel,” meaning that, as Gosse’s memoir suggests, they had vivid characters and a strong narrative interest.  The last two volumes of letters are not much like a novel.  They are the happy ending, in fiction compressed into a two-page denouement, but here filling five hundred pages.  Swinburne is, for the twenty years of these letters, a professional writer.  He mostly writes articles, literary essays, for magazines and encyclopedias.  He engages in controversies in the letters pages of newspapers.  People ask him if they can put a poem in an anthology.  He ages; his friends and family die; his deafness keeps him at home.  He for some reason almost wins the Nobel.  He lives through writing, and lives, and lives some more.

Just as Swinburne’s letters to Dante Gabriel Rossetti were the highlights of earlier volumes, many of the best this time are to William Rossetti.  They are often about Gabriel, or about his wife Lizzie Siddal.  He describes reading her a John Fletcher play (“of course with occasional skips” – these Victorians) – “I can hear the music of her laugher to this day” (93, Dec. 4, 1895).

Thomas Hardy begins sending his books to Swinburne, who is appreciative.  “… for Balzac is dead, and there has been no such tragedy in fiction – on anything like the same lines – since he died” (91, Nov. 5, 1895).  Always interesting.

I strongly recommend that you read Swinburne’s letters – let’s see – in a 500-page edition of selections that also includes illustrations, a smattering of poems, relevant essays about Swinburne, and biographical sections covering the gaps.  This book exists only in my imagination, but it is quite good, and it might exist in reality someday.

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