Saturday, September 14, 2013

Singing along with Swinburne - Wild leaves that winds have taken, \ Red strays of ruined springs.

Swinburne’s poems are hard to excerpt within giving up on sense, and they are all interesting, so I have had trouble settling on one for today.  Let’s try “The Garden of Proserpine,” from the 1866 Poems and Ballads.  See if I can ease into it.

I remind better readers of Swinburne that I only know his early poems, and only those that the editors of the Yale volume selected.

They picked eighteen poems from Poems and Ballads, by page count about a third of the original volume; thus it is pure foolishness to generalize even about “early Swinburne” since I have no idea what was omitted.  Yet here I am.

“The Garden of Proserpine,” queen of the underworld, yet also a fertility goddess.  Perhaps the garden will be in Hades, perhaps on earth, or perhaps the title means something else entirely.  Earlier in the book there is a long “Hymn to Proserpine” which is likely related, but I will ignore that for now.  The poem begins:

Here, where the world is quiet;
   Here, where all trouble seems
 Dead winds' and spent waves' riot
   In doubtful dreams of dreams;
 I watch the green field growing
 For reaping folk and sowing,
 For harvest-time and mowing,
   A sleepy world of streams.

I hope the songfulness of this stanza is immediately obvious.  I mean little more than that these lines would be easy to adapt to a folk tune.  And also obvious that Swinburne is an absolute master of pure poetic effect, by which I mean the interplay of sounds independent of sense.  Three “w” sounds in the first line, counting “qwiet,” then another in the next line, then two more in the next; drEEms – drEEms – grEEn – fEEld - rEEping in the middle (and more EEs earlier and later), blended with dr-dr-gr-gr and more “w”s.  The formal challenge of the rhyme is difficult, too, demanding three triplet rhymes.  Swinburne keeps it going for twelve stanzas.  Based on the little I have read, he does this all the time.

Later in the poem, Proserpine appears separately, so the narrator can safely be identified with the poet.  I will skip a stanza.

Here life has death for neighbour,
   And far from eye or ear
 Wan waves and wet winds labour,
   Weak ships and spirits steer;
 They drive adrift, and whither
 They wot not who make thither;
 But no such winds blow hither,
   And no such things grow here.

Swinburne does not want to abandon his “w”s, even repeating words from the earlier stanzas.  He repeats every chance he gets.  I did not point it out, but this is also one of Christina Rossetti’s favorite tricks (there are several example in this post).

Now I am skipping to stanza 9:

There go the loves that wither,
   The old loves with wearier wings;
 And all dead years draw thither,
   And all disastrous things;
 Dead dreams of days forsaken,
 Blind buds that snows have shaken,
 Wild leaves that winds have taken,
   Red strays of ruined springs.

Wuh wuh wuh.  Swinburne is not only shuffling earlier words from his own poem, but borrowing them from Percy Shelley’s 1820 “Ode to the West Wind” (of course, what else?), all blown around and scrambled like the leaves in both poems.

As a high-falutin’ substitute for “autumn leaves,” I’ve got to say, “Red strays of ruined springs” is amazing.

Every Swinburne poem I look at will have been written with this kind of attention to sound, sound above imagery, sound above meaning, sound above all.

The editors of the Yale volume tell me that the poem’s Garden “certainly, and exquisitely” is “poetry itself.”  If you were wondering.


  1. The great philosopher Richard Rorty wrote, on his final essay, about a conversation he had with his son a few months after being diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer. Rorty said that he found neither religion nor philosophy provided any solace to him as neither 'seemed in point' to his situation.

    "Hasn't anything you've read been of any use?" my son persisted. "Yes," I found myself blurting out, "poetry." "Which poems?" he asked. I quoted two old chestnuts that I had recently dredged up from memory and been oddly cheered by, the most quoted lines of Swinburne's "Garden of  Proserpine":

    We thank with brief thanksgiving
    Whatever gods may be
    That no life lives for ever;
    That dead men rise up never;
    That even the weariest river
    Winds somewhere safe to sea.

    and Landor's "On His Seventy-Fifth Birthday":

    Nature I loved, and next to Nature, Art;
    I warmed both hands before the fire of life,
    It sinks, and I am ready to depart.

  2. Thanks, this is a remarkable story.

    The pairing of Swinburne and Landor is interesting. Swinburne is perhaps the only major descendant of Landor. I should try to write about Landor some time.