Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Mere virtue and rancid matter - Swinburne's letters - The original probably verges on coarseness.

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.


  1. Wow, Swinburne of the rockstar hair was quite the diva, meow! Also, he doesn't seem to like Carlyle very much.

  2. In fairness, Carlyle started it: Swinburne was "a man standing up to his neck in a cesspool, and adding to its contents." Or something like that. I am not sure where this quote is really from.

    It was earthy Carlyle who was the truly scatological party. Swinburne, in that first passage above, is actually parodying Carlyle. Swinburne was a fine mimic, another of his many imp-like qualities, in letters and it seems in life. He would entertain at parties by acting out comic parts from Dickens, for example.

    Diva is a good description. He was born into the aristocracy, and in some of the letters he is - what word do I want - imperious.

  3. A "comic demon." A "gleeful weirdo." You're speaking my language here, Tom, which is great because I'm not sure I've ever read Swinburne before.

  4. The editor doesn't even hazard a guess as to why Rossetti stopped being his friend? I'm so curious now.

    (More abuse of the Brownings! Settle down, Swinburne!)

  5. "turdilousifartishittical"? . . . now there is a word worth remembering . . . in fact, if a student submitting an essay to me were boldly plagiaristic enough to use the word, I would be so impressed that I would be tempted to give the scoundrel an "A" for the course. As for your riff on Swinburne, you nearly have me persuaded that my next trip to the library must include a trip to the Swinburne section. When I arrive on campus tomorrow, perhaps Swinburne will still be on my mind, and then I will be off to the library.

  6. For the finest possible scatology, go to Rabelais. Swinburne is really not all that scatological, but at some point in Volume 1 of the Letters he reads Gargantua and Pantagruel and for a time becomes infected by it.

    It would be nice if someone would put together a nice fat reader's edition of Swinburne's letters, omitting the invitations and most of the tedious stuff about publishing, especially the legal business, ay yay yay. But still, fat, a nice thick book of the juiciest letters.

    And if you're not reading the letters, most of Swinburne's essays have become period pieces. Somewhere Miguel of St. Orberose calls Swinburne's book about WIlliam Blake unreadable or incomprehensible or something like that. His informal writing has a lot more life.

    And of course the best poems are still pretty juicy, but an acquired taste, English pushed to one of its logical limits.

    The break with Rossetti - it is possible that more is now known than in 1959, but the editor, Cecil Lang, in 1959 does not know the cause of the break, and the amazing thing is that Swinburne did not know either. He frequently asks after Rossetti in a friendly way in letters to other people.

    Lang says the break came after what sounds like a manic episode of Rossetti's - "he may well have tortured himself into imagining Swinburne (as he imagined Browning and Dodgson[!]) to be part of a conspiracy against him." Or perhaps he got sick of Swinburne's alcoholism, or felt he needed to stay away from it.

    The EBB parodies are actually shocking. "I am not responsible for the lady's rhymes."

  7. St. Orberose's criticism of Swinburne's criticism of Blake is too critical, IMHO. While it's true that Swinburne's prose is muddled and uneven and his opinions often border on exaggeration, he also has a poet's sensibility and rescues rare pearls from the sea of Blake's work:

    exhibit a:
    "Of Hayley's birth this was the happy lot:
    His mother on his father him begot."

    With this couplet tied to his tail, the ghost of Hayley may perhaps run further than his own strength of wind or speed of foot would naturally have carried him: with this hook in his nose, he may be led by "his good Blake" some way towards the temple of memory.

    exhibit b:
    I walked abroad on a sunny day;
    I wooed the soft snow with me to play.
    She played and she melted in all her prime;
    And the winter called it a dreadful crime.

    exhibit c:
    O what land is the land of dreams?
    What are its mountains and what are its streams?
    --O father, I saw my mother there,
    Among the lilies by waters fair.

    --Dear child, I also by pleasant streams
    Have wandered all night in the land of dreams;
    But though calm and warm the waters wide
    I could not get to the other side.

  8. He has a poet's sensibility, but the surprising key to Swinburne's character is that he is more of a scholar than a critic. So he can make real contributions to editions of Blake, Shelley, or Chapman because he understands what they are doing so well.

    But when he writes it up, I don't know. Picking out the pearls, as you say, is itself valuable critical work. Otherwise I find his imprecision maddening. But I should note that I have hardly read any of it - not the whole Blake book, hardly anything. The difference between the prose of the letters and what I did read, though, has been pleasant.