Friday, May 29, 2015

Swinburne dries out - the most horrible and loathsome book ever to be got into type and other edifying subjects

Let’s check in with Algernon Swinburne, the fourth of six volumes of his Letters (1960, ed. Cecil Lang), covering 1877 through 1882.  I have run into a selfish problem.  With two volumes of letters to go, I fear that the bulk of the best ones might be behind me.

Swinburne begins the book as an out of control alcoholic, constantly ill, on the verge of death either from internal complaints or a drunken accident.  His friends and mother conspire against him to move him into the house of his lawyer, agent, nurse, and number one fan Theodore Watts, in order to not just dry Swinburne out but to keep him away from bottles.  A seven month gap in the letters is the only indication of the difficulty of the task of keeping Swinburne alive.  His friends succeed, and Swinburne lives, and writes, for another thirty years.

Afterwards, though, Swinburne is not quite as interesting in his letters.  But he is a lot more interesting than if he were dead.

Some highlights:

Swinburne’s repeated attacks on “that brute beast” Zola’s L’assommoir, a “damnable dunghill of a book” (letter 866, June 8, 1877), “the most horrible and loathsome book ever to be got into type” (942, July 11, 1879).  He singles out not the novel’s alcoholism, which would be too ironic, but the child abuse and filth.  Later (1020, July 3, 1880), Swinburne declares Humphrey Clinker “all but utterly unreadable to me” because of its scatology, at which point I find myself baffled by Swinburne’s Victorian fastidiousness.  All of this from the great champion of Sade’s Justine! “[D]e Sade at his foulest was to Zola at his purest ‘as moonlight unto sunlight and as water unto wine’ in the faculty of horrifying and nauseating the human stomach and the human soul” (942).  Some of this must be class, the aristocrat clubbing the bourgeois upstart with a Marquis.

Celebrity sightings, several before the fact, such as a letter from an 1882 letter by a young Oscar Wilde on behalf of an old Walt Whitman.  Wilde, at this point, had published a single book of poems and was touring America as a celebrity aesthete.  Writes Swinburne, “I thought he seemed a harmless young nobody, and had no notion he was the sort of man to play the mountebank as he seems to have been doing” (1132, Aug. 4, 1882).

And here is John Davidson, at this point a pale aesthete in training, a decade from writing good poetry, declaring Swinburne “the greatest poet since Shakespere” (912, March 28, 1878).  Impressive how Davidson was eventually able to purge all trace of this early worship from his poems.

Speaking of Shakespeare, Swinburne gets into a pointless feud with Robert Browning, the figurehead president of the New Shakespeare Society, over an insult from another member of that organization.  More snobbery: “no person who remains in any way or in any degree associated with the writer of that pamphlet is fit to hold any intercourse or keep up any acquaintance with me” (1065, Feb. 20, 1881).  Good riddance, Browning must have thought, sitting on his balcony in Florence.

Near the end of the book, Swinburne finally meets his hero Victor Hugo.  The episode is a triumph – a triumph of staying alive.  The breathless letter describing the encounter (1193, Nov. 26, 1882) is, charmingly, to his mother.

His white hair is as thick as his dark eyebrows, and his eyes are as bright and clear as a little child’s.  After dinner, he drank my health with a little speech, of which – tho’ I sat just opposite him – my accursed deafness prevented my hearing a single word.

During these years, Swinburne wrote numerous articles for the Encyclopedia Britannica, a verse play, and enough poetry for an astonishing four books – three published in 1880 alone.  There are two great poems in that mass, two I know of.  Tomorrow for those.


  1. i recollect reading, years ago, some generalized criticism directed at watts for "controlling swinburne". judging from your excerpted quotes he had a lot to put up with; thirty years of good to excellent poetry may be due in apart or wholly to him, it seems.

  2. My impression is that more recent Swinburne criticism and biographical word has looked more favorably on Watts. Swinburne's poetry went into a decline, but I suspect that would have happened anyways, assuming he could have stayed alive and active.

    And yes, Watts - everyone who new Swinburne well - had to put up with a lot. He was an agent of chaos.

  3. when i was in geology school we used to call ourselves that while rolling large rocks off of mountains

  4. Your Swinburne-purging comment strikes me as very amusing--and quite true, given the Davidson samples you shared.

  5. The Swinburne-purging - I hardly believed it was the same poet. In a sense, it wasn't.