Monday, February 2, 2015

What though the beauty I love and serve be cheap - Swinburne reins it in a little.

Aside from hundreds of pages of letters, Swinburne was always writing.  As usual, I have my Yale University Press Major Poems and Selected Prose handy, with all of the heavy editing that involves.  Swinburne’s 1876 book Songs of Two Nations, all political poems, is reduced to a single sonnet, “Locusta”:

This haggard harlot grey of face and green
With the old hand’s cunning mixes her new priest
The cup she mixed her Nero, stirred and spiced.

“Spiced” rhymes with “Christ.”  A note tells me Swinburne is celebrating the death of Napoleon III.  If the rest of the political poems are this colorful, I am mistaken not to seek them out, even if I will have no idea about the subjects of the poems.  “The loose lewd limbs, the reeling hingeless hips” and so on.

My collection does better with the 1878 Poems and Ballads, Second Series which contains a number of masterpieces, including Swinburne’s 1868 elegy on the death of Charles Baudelaire, “Ave atque Vale.”  No special pleading needed for that one, nor for “A Forsaken Garden,” the ultra-Romantic blend of two of Swinburne’s favorite themes, flowers and the sea.  The abandoned garden is atop a sea-cliff:

Heart handfast in heart as they stood, “Look thither,”
  Did he whisper? “look forth from the flowers to the sea;
For the foam-flowers endure when the rose-blossom wither,
  And men that love lightly may die – but we?”
And the same wind sang and the same waves whitened,
  And or ever the garden’s last petals were shed,
In the lips that had whispered, the eyes had lightened,
  Love was dead.  (ll. 41-8)

Other stanzas are even better, but this one has the foam-flowers.  Swinburne often fills his poems with lovingly chosen multi-syllable Latinate words, achieving sublime and ridiculous effects, but there is little of that in “A Forsaken Garden”:

Here now in his triumph where all things falter,
  Stretched out on the spoils that his own hand spread,
As a god self-slain on his own strange altar,
  Death lies dead.  (ll. 77-80)

The poem is practically a Lovecraft story.

I’ll skip “The Complaint of Lisa,” a double sestina with an additional internal rhyme structure, insane that Swinburne actually pulls it off, and jump to his translations of François Villon, the two I have in this collection.  The rest I need to track down.  “In the early 1860s ACS and Rossetti planned to collaborate on translating all of Villon, a project  that never came to fruition” (p. 484) – a volume I will seek out when I am admitted to the Library of Lost Books.

“The Ballad of Villon and Fat Madge” was excluded from Poems and Ballads and “The Complaint of the Fair Armouress” trimmed because of offenses to Victorian sensibilities – “but two lines too literal in their photography of the female human form divine for reproduction by a modern English camera” (Letters, Feb. 8, 1877) – as the maid examines her aged body and cries for the loss of her old love:

“And he died thirty year agone,
  I am old now, no sweet thing to see;
By God, though, when I think thereon,
  And of that good glad time, woe’s me,
  And stare upon my changed body
Stark naked, that has been so sweet,
  Lean, wizen, like a small dry tree,
I am nigh mad with the pain of it.”  (ll. 3-40)

But as Fat Madge asks in her poem:

What though the beauty I love and serve be cheap,
  Ought you to take me for a beast or fool?  (ll. 1-2)

So Villon, too; so asks Swinburne.


  1. Now you're talking. Swinburne, man, Swinburne. With Swinburne it's almost always the case that it's better to show than to tell. Songs of Two Nations is a very minor book, a venting of anger against the powerful, and yet it contains things like these:

    I saw the double-featured statue stand
    Of Memnon or of Janus, half with night
    Veiled, and fast bound with iron; half with light
    Crowned, holding all men's future in his hand.
    And all the old westward face of time grown grey
    Was writ with cursing and inscribed for death;
    But on the face that met the mornings breath
    Fear died of hope as darkness dies of day.

    O Death, a little more, and then the worm;
    A little longer, O Death, a little yet,
    Before the grave gape and the grave-worm fret;
    A little while, O Death, ere he forget,
    A small space more of life, a little term;
    A little longer ere he and thou be met,
    A little respite of disastrous breath,
    Till the soul lift up her lost eyes, and find
    Nor God nor help nor hope, but thee, O Death.

    Before thine incarnation, the tale goes,
    Thy virgin mother, pure of sensual stings,
    Communed by night with angels of chaste things,
    And, full of grace, untimely felt the throes
    Of motherhood upon her, and believed
    The obscure annunciation made when late
    A raven-feathered raven-throated dove
    Croaked salutation to the mother of love
    Whose misconception was immaculate,
    And when her time was come she misconceived.

    The wrongdoing is not ours, but ours the wrong,
    Who hear too loud on earth and see too long
    The grief that dies not with the groan that dies,
    Till the strong bitterness of pity cries
    Within us, that our anger should be strong.
    For chill is known by heat and heat by chill,
    And the desire that hope makes love to still
    By the fear flying beside it or above,
    A falcon fledged to follow a fledgeling dove,
    And by the fume and flame of hate of ill
    The exuberant light and burning bloom of love.

  2. Look at the way he shifts the rhyme scheme from stanza to stanza. Look at him boldly make a dove / love rhyme and them immediately do it again.

    This poem has so many good lines. "Before the grave gape and the grave-worm fret." Swinburne teeters right on the edge of good taste, doesn't he? "And by the fume and flame of hate of ill." His poems make me feel like Swinburne felt about a rough sea. I just want to plunge in and splash around.

  3. And the second stanza has an unrhymed line. Tasty!