Sunday, February 1, 2015

Completely knocked up and broken down - the third volume of Swinburne's letters - he says he was poisoned by the perfume of lilies

“You read Volume 3 of Swinburne’s letters but did not write about it.  What is wrong with you?”

That is a good question!  As with the first two volumes that I have read, the third volume of six, published in 1960, edited by Cecil Lang, covering just 1875 through 1877, is full of startling and original things along with the usual tedious nonsense found in most collections of letters.  I will gather up some of the former and ignore the latter.

Swinburne is almost forty, past the peak of his creativity, I think, but still full of ideas and poetry, and also full of alcohol.  This volume includes 1/6th of Swinburne’s extant letters but covers only 1/25th of his life as a letter-writer – why?  Randomness in the survival of letters, perhaps, but no. I think not.

First, nearly half of his surviving letters at this point are to his great friend Theodore Watts, who is acting as what we would now call a literary agent and will soon rescue Swinburne from certain death by becoming his roommate, butler, nurse, and who knows what else.  Once Swinburne moves in with Watts, their letters will dry up.

Second, in June 1875, Swinburne injures his leg in what I assume is a drunken escapade and is laid up for months at the home of his parents.  The letters pour out.  It is part of the novel-like quality of Swinburne’s letters that he is an unreliable narrator about his alcoholism.  Later, he is ill again, this time poisoned by flowers:

I don’t know whether you heard from any quarter of my being accidentally poisoned some months since by the perfume of Indian lilies in a close bedroom – which sounds romantic, but was horrible in experience, and I have not yet recovered the results or regained my strength.  (Oct. 17, 1876 to Edmund Gosse)

This must be the result of some drunken excess, yes?  However Decadently perfect, Swinburne cannot possibly have been poisoned by the scent of flowers to the extent that “I have been but a rag of unmanned manhood, barely able to read or write or think consecutively” (Oct. 28, 1876, to John Nichol)?  Regardless, it means more letters.

Swinburne is constantly pestered by an American committee erecting a monument to Poe – “the singularly horrible monument” (April 21, 1876, to J. H. Ingram).  In the same letter Swinburne looks forward to a Poe biography, even though “[m]emoirs are generally as hateful to me as monuments, and both among the darkest terrors of death.”

He is a pleasure to read on poets, on writers, on “Emile Zola’s Assommoir (or Vomitoire as I called it when it was coming out in weekly emetics)” (Feb, 3, 1877) or François Villon, “as indisputably greater than Chaucer as lesser than Dante in natural gift of poetic genius” (April 2, 1876), or the poems of Matthew Arnold and Dante Gabriel Rossetti:

…  those two admirable poets, to my lifelong perplexity and disgust, can see almost nothing in each other’s work to admire or enjoy.  ‘It is really singular’ as Mme. de Sévigné’s candid and charming old friend said to her ‘that I should be the one only person I know in the world whose judgment is invariably right’ – is it not?  (Dec. 5, 1876)

I can’t include every good joke or idea.  On April 4, 1877 Swinburne wonders why he is unaffected by the death of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop, even though “[Walter Savage] Landor wept like a lion-headed fountain,” and Swinburne himself finds that Villette can “completely knock me up and break me down (almost) even to think of.”  Now I am rambling.  I suppose I will move on to volume 4 at some point.


  1. These sound like great fun, and the quotes given bring the author to life.

  2. I wish someone would publish a one volume selection of Swinburne's letters. It would be easy to recommend.